Fad or fiction? We explain what lies behind this latest diet to see if it really is a fad or has some benefits.
The subject of improving our diets and health by becoming vegetarian or vegan is raised frequently at Living Naturally, so Estelle started researching into the latest thinking on the subject.
Did you know...
Archaeological evidence shows that eating meat has been an essential part of human evolution for 2.3 million years.
Environmental damage caused by grazing livestock has been a factor in the listing of 171 species under the Endangered Species Act.
Two in three vegetarians are vitamin B12 deficient, compared to one in 20 meat eaters, according to a peer-reviewed July 2003 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
According to the American Dietetic Association a vegetarian diet can meet protein requirements and provide all the essential amino-acids (the building blocks of protein) a person needs for optimal health.
The average American gets 67% of his or her dietary protein from animal sources, compared with a world-wide average of 34%.
A 2016 Harris poll found that approximately 3.3% of American adults are vegetarian, while UK figures vary from 2% - 12%. The higher figure relates to an increase by 16-24 year olds
Facts and figures from vegsoc.org and vegetarian.procon.org
Further information: I found The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith an interesting read, along with the Weston A Price Foundation website and one of my particular favourites was Death by Food Pyramid by Denise Minger.
We have a number of clients who choose these diets for varying reasons. I began researching with an open mind, but the more I read the more I understood that to thrive as a human being, we require meat protein. There are many different forms of a meat-free diet, which allow a more complete balance of nutrients such as lacto-ovo (eating dairy and eggs) and pescatarian (including fish). Vegan diets remove all animal based products and I could not find any vegan variants that did so without compromising nutritional status in the longer term and not one single ancient culture has ever been exclusively vegetarian.
If you want to move across to being vegetarian, I would encourage you to consider carefully what you eat and build a diet based on a balanced intake of all nutrients. We could all do with eating more vegetables, nuts and fruits but our bodies need protein to operate properly.
Some of the discussions around vegetarian diets include:
Vegetarians tend to replace meat-based proteins with cereal grains. The production of cereal grains is less harmful to the environment than commercial confined food production. They are, however, full of powerful anti-nutrients that prevent the body up-taking the minerals, vitamins and enzymes they contain. Grains of all varieties should be prepared properly (sprouting or fermenting, long periods of soaking) before eating to ensure you don't damage your innards or compromise your longer-term health. Also consider buying older, heritage style grains and flours that have not been genetically modified.
Vegetarian diets can help avoid processed foods. Fewer processed foods and meats are a health bonus for our bodies. The modern diet is jam-packed with yummy convenience foods that have had all the goodness processed out or harmful extras added in (or both!). Following a vegetarian diet avoids these with the exception of soy based products. Soy is often produced in ways that is damaging to the environment, is commonly genetically modified and, in unfermented forms, is damaging to our thyroid gland. It is also one of those beasts that does more damage than good (anti-nutrients again). It is used as a filler in many products so again, less processed foods is a great way to eat!
Many vegetarians and vegans choose this way of eating as they don't want to harm or kill animals. An admirable quality. However, animals recycle nutrients into the soils, can survive on land unusable for other forms of farming and, if raised ethically, naturally process some of the nutrients we can't break down from plants to a form we need and can utilise. They also provide protein, iron and vitamin B12. If choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet, look for other ways to ensure you are getting these nutrients!
Some studies show that vegetarians live longer than meat eaters. They eat more fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, tend to follow healthier lifestyles in general and avoid processed meats, which are linked with increased rates of heart disease and cancer. Vegetarians need to ensure plentiful and adequate intake of good fatty acids and avoid processed and rancid fats, which are also linked to the above health problems.
Shopping for vegetarians and vegans: I advise shopping around the outside of the supermarket or market... avoid the aisles where things come in packets and tins. Always buy organic and free-range vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit that have been grown with fewer chemical additives. Give your money to the producers who are protecting the welfare of our resources.
Shopping for meat and fish eaters: The same principals apply here too. Meat eaters need to avoid the processed mass-raised products and focus on ethically raised meats which have a higher proportion of good fats and can contribute to improving chronic health issues. Hoofed animals also improve our environments including grasses and the quality of our soils.
If you wish to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, please seek the help and guidance of the many societies (for example, the vegetarian society in the U.K. www.vegsoc.org) to ensure you are eating a balanced diet. It is much harder to absorb some essential nutrients from a vegetable source so you need to make sure they are combined with the right foods and eaten in abundance.