copyright 2004 Pat O'Brien
First North American Serial Rights


Considering A Vegetarian Diet For Better Health? The Controversy and the Facts!


If the thought of practicing a vegetarian diet for better health, has crossed your mind, then you are not alone. Americans are more health conscious these days, and the market is flooded with soy shakes, soy burgers, tvp, tempeh, and the like. The availability of such vegetarian protein products has made it increasingly easier to be vegetarian. There are even many health benefits for practicing such a diet. Statistically, vegetarians, as a group, tend to have less cancer, hypertension, and obesity problems than meat eaters. Furthermore, many animal meats contain anti-biotics and harmful nitrates. Also, chemicals in the environment, tend to accumulate higher up the food chain, making them more concentrated in animal tissue. Last, vegetarians tend to eat more complex carbohydrates-whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Even beans are a great source of fiber, not just protein. Not bad for an athlete doing lots of endurance activities, or simply looking for "fuel" (glycogen) to empower his/her muscles before a weightlifting workout. However, despite the benefits for such a diet, there are other factors you might want to consider first.


For starters, some people genetically are not designed to be vegetarians, as they simply cannot digest beans without severe bloating and gas. Abdominal discomfort and distress does not equal health, despite the arguments for practicing such a diet. Furthermore, many people cannot digest fermented products either, without abdominal discomfort. Many "mock" soy meats contain these fermented substances, such as soy sauce, miso, various yeasts, and malts to create that "meaty" flavor. Many vegetarian protein products also tend to be spicy (such as packaged chili, burger, and bean powdered mixes), which can be bad news for someone with no genetic tolerance for spicy substances. If you suffer from bloating, gas, loose stools, diarrhea, or heartburn from eating such foods, then you are genetically sensitive to strong spices. If one is getting his/her protein from any of these vegetarian sources (mock meats, falafil, or beans), he/she could have a problem.


Other people who may have difficulty with a vegetarian diet, are those who have a natural tendency to be physically cold. Meat is very heating to the body (creates body warmth), so when it is removed from the diet, compensation needs to occur.  Extra salt, warming spices, seasonings, and emphasizing more cooked foods, stews, soups, are needed to help maintain one's balance. Salads, ice cream, and raw foods should be decreased during winter months to decrease cold in the body. This is especially important if one happens to live and exercise outdoors in a northern climate, such as New England or New York.


Also, as some people tend to be naturally thin and genetically prone to wasting disorders as they age (such as osteoarthritis, scanty mentrual periods, hair loss, Parkinson's disease), eating legumes can exacerbate this, due to their diuretic, light, catabolic chemical properties. Female athletes, in general, are even more prone to osteoathritis (destruction of cartilage), as stress from exercise to joints such as the knees, can exacerbate a pre-existing cartilage problem.  Furthermore, in cases of physical weakness and chronic fatigue, meat and dairy products are more helpful since they are heavier food products, higher in fat, calories, moisture, and protein. All of the disorders listed above require a diet that is extremely nutritive, heavy, tonifying, as well as moist.


However, the not enough protein argument for general health, doesn't hold validity. Beans, whole grains, dairy products, eggs, soy products, and peanut butter, do contain substantial amounts of protein. And if one is including eggs, egg whites, whole grains, and dairy products such as milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt, the protein amount is even higher in such a diet. The human requirement for protein for a sendentary female is only about 40 grams a day, which can easily be met on a vegetarian diet. While the protein requirements for the athlete are considerably higher, those requirements can be met with the inclusion of dairy products, eggs, and soy meats. Soy meats do contain more concentrated protein than a serving of legumes such as chickpeas, split peas, or lentils. 


In the area of nutritional deficiencies, pure vegetarians who consume no dairy, fish, poultry, beef, eggs, etc., "vegans", need to be concerned with only one main nutrient. That is vitamin B-12. Vitamin B-12 is the only nutrient that doesn't exist in the plant foods (grains, fruits, vegetables).  However, amounts of it exist in dairy products, eggs, and even some fortified cereals. Supplementing with a B-12 vitamin or a B-complex is easy to do, and the body only needs about 50 mcg. a week. Even calcium needs can easily be met without dairy products. Leafy greens such as kale, collards, and even certain lettuces, contain substantial amounts of calcium, including broccoli, Brussel sprouts, legumes, tofu, tahini, figs, and fortified orange juice. 


Last, there are also many vegetarian diet options to choose from, depending on what suits your personal preferences, such as ovo lacto (diets that include eggs and dairy, but exclude seafood and other meats), pesco vegetarians (include fish, dairy, and eggs), and vegan (diets excluding all meats, no beef, no poultey, no seafood, no dairy, or eggs). I have evn heard of an egg o'pancake vegetarian, where the person will pretty much eat a vegan diet allowing for the occasional egg in the pancake batter when dining out.  However, from personal experience, the type of people best suited for a vegetarian diet are those that naturally tend to carry more weight and water retention.