Sunday, February 27, 2011

Vegetarianism Part 2- The Nutritional argument.

So, what are your options?
If you're considering vegetarianism at all, I would advise you to go into it knowingly, as being an omnivore is easy, meat provides us with complete proteins and many nutrients, easily, and without much thought (that may be the problem). Vegetarianism requires thought, planning and knowing what you're doing, and that may be why it is a healthy alternative, you necessarily restrict the junk you put into your mouth (think: fast food). It requires you pick your options and it requires you eat a variety of food (which many omnivorses don't), hence it is tricky (especially for someone like me who is almost a carnivore).  There are many different vegetarian options if you're considering that route, you can become a vegan, ovovegetarian, lactoovovegatrian, ovolactovegetarian, semivegetarian and a pescovegetarian, what does becoming one of these entail? Melvin H. Williams describes it perfectly:
"There a variety of ways to be vegetarian. A strict vegetarian known also as a vegan, eats no animal products at all. Most nutrients are obtained from fruits and vegetables, breads, cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds. Ovovegtarians include eggs in their diet, while lactoovovegatrians include the milk group such as cheese and other dairy products. An ovolactovegatrian eats both eggs and milk products. These latter classifications are not strict vegetarians, because eggs and milk products are derived from animals. 
Others may call themselves semivegetarians because they do not eat red meat such as beef and pork products, although they may eat fish and white poultry meat. Those who eat fish but not poultry, are known as pescovegtarians." (Williams2007)
So let's go ahead and look at some of the benefits and downsides.

It seems apparent that removing meat will remove a lot of junk, as much of the junk that we eat is prepared in and contains animal fats, which is seemingly the worst thing about meat (apart from how some of it is cooked). Wahlqvist notes why the vegetarian diet is beneficial:
"The vegetarian lifestyle has much to commend it. Studies of vegetarians have shown that they have a lower prevalence of a number od diseases that are now common in the affluent societies of Western countries. Such diseases include obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and diet related cancers. Vegetarians diets are usually adequate in protein because the proteins of dairy products and eggs are rich in indispensable amino acids and modest quantities are sufficient to improve the nutritional quality of plant proteins to a level that is adequate. Moreover it should be remembered that in an adequately varied vegetarian diet the complimentary effects obtained by mixing dietary protein sources ensure that the protein quality of the diet is reasonably good." (Wahlqvist 2002)
I particularly agreed with Wahlqvist regarding his discussion of the addition of dairy products and eggs (ovolactovegatrians, semivegetarians, pescovegtarians) to a vegetarian diet, to help maintain protein (and certain vitamin/mineral levels) high. This is the route I will be attempting to take, with the gradual reduction and eventual removal of red meat, then white poultry, then fish, and who knows if I keep going, of all animal products, but given my carnivorous nature I think that'll be a few years away, if ever. I think one of the underlying assumptions in the above text, and it is something Williams, Carlson-Phillips (below) et al discuss, is that any vegetarian who moves further away from animal products will need to be more strict with their protein intake. Williams also mentions that vegetarian diets reduce cholesterol, fat intake, have high fibre intakes and have a high vitamin/phytochemical content (good for overall health and cancer likelihood reduction), he of course goes into extreme detail about why and how these are beneficial, but I think for our purposes it is simply enough to state that to be the case (the reference will be at the bottom for you to check, or you can ask me to borrow the book if you require more than assertion, and a few references). The Vegetarian society (, while being a neat resource for quick vegetarian information had this to say about the benefits of a vegtarian diet:
"Diet influences most aspects of health and dietary factors clearly contribute to the major degenerative diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Obesity and high cholesterol are major contributory factors linked to these diseases and also to meat consumption and low intakes of fruit and vegetables. A high BMI (body mass index) is the result of a number of factors including food choices. Compared with omnivorous diets a varied vegetarian diet contains less saturated fatty acids, cholesterol and more folate, fibre, antioxidants, phytochemicals and carotenoids all of which are associated with specific health benefits.
Vegetarians have lower BMIs on average than the general population and scientists now have a detailed understanding of why dietary factors are important in maintaining a healthy heart, vascular system, bowel and so on.  Antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals have been demonstrated to enhance cell function and be protective against cancer. Fibre contributes to bowel health and to lower cholesterol levels whilst an absence of saturated fat from meat benefits the heart.
Current evidence for the effectiveness of vegetarian diets in preventing certain health conditions, including coronary heart disease (CHD), cancer, hypertension and high cholesterol has been provided by studies in UK, USA and Germany.  The most comprehensive and well known studies focusing on the health of vegetarians have been the large cohort studies: Oxford Vegetarian Study, the Oxford EPIC study of cancer and nutrition and the long term American study of vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists. 
There is now evidence that vegetarians have lower rates of mortality than the general population. Evidence from cohort studies suggests that vegetarians have lower overall standardised all cause mortality ratios than the general population (BNF 2005)." (Vegetarian Society)
As Amanda Carlson-Phillips states:
"A vegetarian diet can help you control your weight and lower your cholesterol, but you can't just drop meat and fish—a key source of protein—without a plan. Your body needs protein to build muscle and maintain a strong immune system. It's important to get about 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight a day. The good news: There are many vegetarian-friendly foods that are high in protein. Some healthy options include:
  • Grains (quinoa, rice, whole grain cereals)
  • Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, soybeans)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables
  • Dairy products (eggs, milk, cheese, Greek yogurt)" (Carlson-Phillips 2010)
The man issue is protein, particularly for those who exercise (and moreso for those who follow intense weight trainig programs, such as myself). Animal proteins are complete, non animal proteins aren't. What does this mean? Animal proteins are made up of the nine essential amino acids: Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine, which the body cant produce by itself. Whereas plants contain incomplete or low-quality proteins, which mean they lack one or more essential amino acids. Hence why a vegetarian diet completely void of animals proteins needs to be monitored closely (vegans). If we don't have adequate protein sources and protein intake, we lose muscle, we lose the ability to burn fat and as our body's are driven by protein processes we get sick. (Williams 2007)

It is important to note that Williams agrees with Wahlqvist that vegetarian diets do reduce cancers and cardiovascular disease, but a vegetarian can suffer from calorie deficiency, vitamin/mineral deficiency and as noted, protein deficiency. Again, what does this mean?  A vegetarian diet can fall short in the minerals iron, zinc and calcium, they can find iron in grains, legumes, beans, nuts, split peas, dates, prune juice, raisins, green leafy vegetables, and iron-enriched grain products (important note, especially for women- ingesting vitamins C will help aid in absorption of iron). Calcium can be found in green vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens and spinach). Zinc rich foods are: plant foods, whole weat bread, peas, corn and carrots (egg yolk and seafood also add substantial amounts of zinc to the diet). Finally, vitamin B12 is also a problem for strict vegans as it isn't found in plant foods, they will need a B12 supplement. (Williams 2007)

Tips for a recent convert
Here are two articles that have lay outs for vegan and vegetarian options, if you're considering making the switch, check them out.

If you're struggling with the moral issues, and don't want to give up meat, here's a quote from Graham Hill who puts it so eloquently:
"...I thought about it, and I came up with one, and I've been doing it for the last year, and it's great. It's called Weekday Veg.

The name says it all. Nothing with a face, Monday to Friday. On the weekend, your choice. Simple! (emphasis added)" (Midgley 2010)

I think in the public eye, even with all these arguments for and against, vegetarianism simply comes down to personal preference. People like meat, they enjoy it, and as has been pointed out to me, the suffering of animals argument, is weak. I'm not sure if I've even made much of an argument in this blog, perhaps simply informing you is enough for my purposes. There are good positive, healthy reasons to give up meat, even if you don't consider an animals plight, perhaps that was the point of this blog after all.  My closing thoughts? In a place, such as Australia, where we live with every comfort, every benefit, can we not sacrifice a little of our comfort, to provide, perhaps a little, momentary piece of comfort to someone, or something else? Particularly when the other options are better for us on several fronts. At the heart of it, that's all I'm advocating, if you choose to stay an omnivore, I don't disagree, it's your right to do so, if you choose to become some form of vegetarian, I hope the above demonstrates that it is healthier, in many cases, but it is also harder, in most cases.

Carlson-Phillips A., (2010). Q&A: What's the Best Source of Protein for a Vegetarian? Core Performance.  Retrieved 27/02/2011. 

Midgley D., (2010).Weekday vegetarians. Good Reason. Retrieved 24/02/2011.

Vegtarian Society. Vegetarian diet for health problems. Vegetarian Society. Retrieved 06/03/11.
Wahlqvist M.L., (2002). Food and Nutrition (2nd ed.).  Crows Nest, NSW. Allen & Unwin. Pp-223-224.

Williams M. H., (2007). Nutrition for health, fitness and sport (8th edition). New York, New York. McGraw Hill. Pp- 54-60, 195-196.


  1. I think its great you've decided to become a vegetarian. I skimmed through your blogs and the debates regarding the topic, and the issue i saw the way in which humans relate themselves to the environment.

    Questions like are we better than other species?, Because we are smarter does that gives us the right? etc, etc these are controversial questions which are popular in modern anthropology, philosophy.

    I think you already argued this point that it's subjective to culture. We all have ideological views about nature which determine our own right or wrong moral answer to this question. I personally do not think humans are above the rest of the natural world, however i still am a part of the human world so i still have to live and consume, kill, destroy much of the natural world. This contradiction is part of the human condition. This condition Darwin might have said was "group selection"

    We are a ultra social species who need each other for survival, therefore things like being a vegan is a lot more effort as our collective society (in Australia) has deemed eating other animals normative.

  2. Thanks Ippy!!

    They are tough issues, as issues of rights always are, and I'm not sure how well they can be tackled in 2 or 3 blogs... But more awareness of the discussions and faults in arguments (both mine and others), can surely lead to a more progressive stance.

    Thanks for the comments, as usual I think we're pretty much on the same (or similar) page...

  3. Interesting to be sure. I know its pedantic but I was distracted by a section in the quote from the Vegetarian Society website. It states "There is now evidence that vegetarians have lower rates of mortality than the general population." Which suggests vegetarians die less than the general population. I think they mean "lower mortality rates than the general population". However, if there is evidence that a vegetarian diet is linked to immortality it'd certainly be a persuasive argument for making the change...

  4. No it's not pedantic at all, they are suggesting that greens instead of meats give you immortality. We are told to keep it quiet though, so the VA (Vegetarian Alliance) will be visiting them soon... thankyou for poitning this out...

  5. The vegetarian diet has some nutritional good points to it but I do not think it is the optimal diet to choose for purely health reasons nor do I think it is a sufficient justification on its own to become a strict vegetarian.

    Here are a few points. While vegetarians tend on avereage to have lower total cholesterol, higher fibre and plant mass and less saturated fat in their diet than the general population, this translates to fairly small end-point reductions. The general findings from large studies and meta-anaylsis are that there is a reduction in ischemic heart disease but no significant difference in several other end points including heart disease and various cancers.

    They also tend to have higher levels of Advanced glycation end products, homocysteine and small,dense LDL fractions while also having lower levels of DHA and bone mineral density. All these measurements have been implicated in chronic diseases.

    Additionally, meat isnt simply a source of iron and protion (of which vegetarians are also commonly deficient in) but it is a rich source of a vast array of nutrients including CLA, taurine, CoQ10, carnitine, carnosine, EPA+DHA and creatine. All of which seem to play important roles in the body and are almost entirely absent in a vegetarian diet. Even the more common nutrients (vitamins/minerals) are on average, more absorbable from meat. Plants have numerous anti-nutrients including phytates or trypsin inhibitors that bind to nutrients are inhibit their absorption or digestion.

    Then there are the common concerns of anemia and protein dificiency. The standard range of 0.6-0.8g/kg was based on nitrogen studies in a small population and does not account for the wide range of metabolic variations as well as the additional benefits that a higher protein diet may provide (hypolipedmic, satiety, BMD etc).

    These are just some issues that I think warrent some caution when thinking about adapting a vegetarian diet. I do think that if you do some extensive reading and consistantly monitor your diet then I think you can live a happy life as a vegetarian but I do not think that it is an optimal diet by any means and on its own, I see no reason to adapt it. Including an array of nutrient dense vegetables, I think is advantagous and there are many health issues related to meat that one must consider (cooking methods, HCA etc) but meat is a hugely nutrient dense food source that you shouldnt give up completly, atleast not for your health.

  6. Sorry this only got posted now buddy, for some reason it's been sitting in my spam filter!

    And I can certainly agree with what's stated above, since I've added one or two meat meals a week, I've felt SO much better! Which, alone made a reasonable prima facie case for me to eat some meat!