As the New Year approaches and we look at dieting, many of us are questioning whether we should give up meat.
May 14th 2007, revised 12/20/2009 -by Karen Vaughan
Is A Vegetarian Diet Healthier than an Omnivorous Diet”
I have seen a number of young women looking for help with infertility who practice a vegetarian lifestyle. They often run cold, have scanty menstrual periods, pale tongues and are quite thin. In many cases, they have more luck conceiving after adding quality animal protein to their diets.
It is possible for many people to be nourished on a vegetarian diet, especially in warmer climates, less-stressed environments and with strong religious beliefs that are associated with vegetarianism.
Northern people (both origin and location) may benefit from a vegetarian diet for a period of years, but often must return to meat to maintain their health. Some constitutional types may be better adapted to a vegetarian lifestyle, while others may require meat. I generally suggest that people eat vegetables like a vegetarian, but include some pasture-raised organic meat or deep water fish in the diet.
- Most research on vegetarianism compares it to a Standard American Diet which combines low quality fats and protein with low variety, low vegetable consumption. That stacks the deck because vegetarians likely engage in a variety of healthy activities and the SAD group includes those with both healthy habits and junk food- eating couch potatoes.
- Eating excess meat or poor quality meat can displace the nutrients and secondary metabolites from high quality vegetables. You need a variety of good vegetables and nutrient-dense fruits. Quality meat is important since factory farmed meat has few Omega 3 fats or minerals compared to pasture-raised meat.
- Balancing proteins is still important. Francis Moore Lappe’s earlier editions of Diet for a Small Planet have better guidance towards eating well as a vegetarian than do her more recent editions.
- Sally Fallon and Mary Enig’s book Nourishing Traditions gives a good balanced view of an omnivorous diet with live fermented foods and bone soups. Annemarie Corbin’s book Food and Healing gives a good “nearly vegetarian” diet although it may be a bit high in grains for people with a tendency to obesity or diabetes.
- Not all Omega 3 fats are alike. Generally people living in the United States have trouble converting flaxseed oil to DHA and EPA which are naturally found in fish oils. It can take 30 times the flaxseed dosage to provide the same DHA and EPA levels as found in fish oil. Many people genetically cannot convert Omega 6 fats to DHA.
- The intestinal length of carnivores (meat-eating animals) is 3-4 times the body length to allow for quick removal of flesh wastes that don’t require fermentation. Herbivores, like cattle have intestines twenty times their body length plus extra stomachs or other specialized digestive organs. Humans are in the middle, with intestines on average 8 times their body length.
- Humans don’t regurgitate and chew their cud, lacking a double stomach, and they lack an enlarged cecum for fermentation of cellulose that rabbits have. But humans can adapt, from largely vegetarian traditional diets in India to largely carnivorous diets among the Inuit and the Bantu.
- Our nearest species, the anthropoid apes do eat meat, although their diet is largely vegetable. Chimpanzees and gorillas eat termites, monkeys and other small animals from time to time. Our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas form hunting parties, kill eat monkeys and other small animals. There is a Nature video illustrating this here. Their diet is around 5% animal protein, but gorillas in particular have digestive processes for cellulose which we lack, and all apes have significantly larger guts and digestive organs to break down cellulose.
- Big brains were made possible by the consumption of meat, organs, and other nutrient-rich animal products as well as cooked vegetable food. Instead of spending all their metabolic energy processing cellulose and plant matter, our ancestors turned to a high-meat diet, which utilized fat-soluble nutrients like DHA,
- Vitamin D and Vitamin A (already converted into the forms we can best use) which meant energy could be diverted away from the stomach and toward fueling their massive brains. Our brains eat up about 25% of our basal metabolic rate, compared to 8-10% for the apes who eat far less animal matter.
- There are no traditional vegan diets, where all animal protein is omitted from the diet, whatsoever in the world. A small amount of animal protein is necessary to balance out largely vegetarian diets. This should be taken regularly in order to make B12. Neither humans nor primates reproduce well on a strictly vegan diet.
- Iron may be deficient in a vegetarian diet. The best food source of iron is liver and red meats. These foods contain heme iron, which is better absorbed than non-heme iron. Non-heme iron can be found in dark green, leafy vegetables (spinach, chard and kale) and whole cereal grains (bran and whole wheat bread). However, oxalates and phytates found in dark green leafy vegetables and whole cereal grains decreases the absorption of iron because they bind with iron in the gastrointestinal tract.
- Vegan or vegetarian diets do have a place for short term detoxification from a junk food, low vegetable diet, but over the long term some animal protein is necessary for DHA and B-12 as well as other essential nutrients.
- Vegetarians in India do worse when they move to England. Although colder climate may be a confounding factor, the study concluded that the higher British sanitation significantly reduced insect protein in flour sources. (A friend living in Nigeria was offered flour with weevils for a higher price than without because of its higher protein content.)
- Seventh Day Adventists who are lacto ovo vegetarians have lower rates of diabetes and heart disease than people who follow a Standard American Diet. They also engage in a variety of other healthy lifestyle choices as a matter of religious belief. Mormons have similar health outcomes but eat omnivorous diets.
- Veganism should not be practiced by young women at a time when their bone stores for later life are being increased as it reduces the hormones necessary for laying down bone and is often deficient in minerals. Cholesterol helps provide the building blocks of hormones.
- Vegetarians in India traditionally have higher rates of diabetes than people in China where vegetarianism is not normally found. Chinese medicine is less developed in diabetes treatment than is Ayurveda.
- Eating meat increased calcium excretion, in one short-term study, but only for two weeks. Long and other short term studies do not find this effect. In fact recent research shows that higher animal protein is correlated with better mineral uptake and better bones.
- Phytates in unfermented beans, sesame seeds, almonds and Brazil nuts bind up calcium and other bone minerals so that the body does not benefit. Although bean consumption once or twice a week provides good fiber, most bean protein ought to be fermented: use tempeh rather than tofu and rice milk rather than soymilk.
- Excess bean consumption, fermented or not, will depress the thyroid. Consume additional seaweeds, fish, or herbs like ashwaganda and lycopus to compensate. Avoid chlorine (tap water and swimming pools), fluorine (toothpaste) and bromine (white flour) which preferentially lock up iodine receptors.
- Most beans, not only soybeans, contain the plant estrogen genestien. They will be useful for menopause, but can add considerable estrogen for children and males.
- The Weston Price Association recommends avoiding soy formula for infants because it provides the equivalent of a contraceptive pill in phytoestrogens.
Among otherwise vegetarian indigenous people in New Guinea, there is a religious ceremony four times a year where a wild pig is killed and its meat consumed by all members of the tribe. This is believed to balance the diet over time. The required Passover lamb did something similar for ancient Jews who might otherwise have had plant-based diets, depending on income level and access to a shochet (kosher butcher).
- Our teeth are adapted to both cut meat and grind nuts and seeds, between herbivore and carnivore forms.
- Hunter-gatherers today consume about 35 percent meat to 65 percent vegetables, according to anthropologists Lee and Devore.
- Factory farmed meat is not good for people or the animals. Eat pasture-raised organic meat, unfarmed fish or wild game. Similarly don’t eat industrially raised fruits and vegetables which lack minerals and other important micronutrients and more importantly impoverish the living soil.
All eating except fruit, eggs and seeds involves the killing of sentient beings (and those may kill potential life). Plants have different ways of communicating that we generally recognize but they measurably exist. Humans are part of the food chain, not only as prey for larger carnivores, but also consumed daily by microorganisms, skin mites and internal organisms. We can avoid waste and consume with reverence. We can insist on humane conditions for livestock and humane slaughter. We should encourage pasture-raised meat which is less energy-intensive and produces less methane than factory farming. We can avoid factory-processed meat, dairy and vegetables. But generally we will do better on an omnivorous diet with a variety of meats and leafy vegetables.
Acupuncture and Herbs by Karen Vaughan, L.Ac.
253 Garfield Place 1R
Brooklyn, NY 11215 US
HL Abrams. Vegetarianism: An Anthropological/Nutritional Evaluation, J Appl Nutr, 1980, 32:2:53-87; (b) M Rose. Serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels in Australian adolescent vegetarians. Lancet, 1976, 2:87
The following two links which reprint “The Myths of Vegetarianism” by Stephen Byrnes, PhD, RNCP, cover this information with 137 detailed and annotated references: