Humans are designed with a capacity for a highly versatile diet. Amongst the many dietary alternatives is the common omnivorous diet in which animal and non-animal products are consumed equally, as well as a variety of vegetarian diets in which some or all animal products are excluded from the diet. Although many people still follow an omnivorous diet, an increasing amount of people are choosing to follow vegetarian styles of eating. There are many types of vegetarianism, in which different food types are included and omitted. There is much debate about whether vegetarian diets are healthier than omnivorous diets or if they increase cases of malnutrition. While many people and experts believe that vegetarian diets can provide proper nutrition, but there are other risks to such diets brought about by basic ignorance of how to properly fulfill standard nutrition requirements when consuming a vegetarian diet. To help reduce such health risks, nutrition education programs should be implemented to teach the public about how to obtain adequate nutrition from a meatless diet.
The implementation of such a program would not only be useful to those who choose to adopt vegetarianism as a way of life, it would also be useful for those who find that meat is difficult to obtain. While such a problem may seem inconceivable today, especially for those living in a developed, industrialized nations, Time Magazine has addressed just such a notion. Time put forth a report called Visions of the 21st Century, which answers several questions about the future of science, health, and the way humans will live. This report posed the question “Will we still eat meat?” to which Time answered, Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½no,’ we will not eat meat in the future, or at least not in the way that we do now.
One main reason that we cannot continue to eat large amounts of meat is the stress that the meat industries put on the environment. Fresh water is of particular concern. In the United States approximately seventy percent of all the grain grown is used to feed herds of livestock. “To produce 1 lb. of feedlot beef requires 7 lbs. of feed grain, which takes 7,000 lbs. of water to grow. Pass up one hamburger, and you’ll save as much water as you save by taking 40 showers with a low-flow nozzle.” Currently, India, China, North Africa, and the U.S. are running fresh water deficits, and more wells are going dry as the water is used to feed livestock and animals for consumption. Time predicts that, as populations in regions with scarce water expand, these governments will inevitably cut these shortages by shifting water usage to grow food for direct consumption instead of as feed. If these new policies are enacted, the price of meat will raise substantially making meat only available to the rich.
The mass production of meat is also a major source of pollution. Livestock waste has resulted in contaminating water and causing massive fish deaths and the outbreaks of diseases. One such disease is pfiesteria, which causes confusion, amnesia, and skin burning and irritation to people who come in contact with contaminated water. Time explains that the livestock in the United States creates 130 times as much waste as humans do. Areas where animals are raised in large industrious farms water sources may be compromised, tainting drinking water. Also, forested areas are being destroyed to make more room for livestock to roam. Action will eventually need to be taken to stop such pollution and destruction, and will reign in meat production.
Kevin Akers, the author of A Vegetarian Sourcebook, agrees with Time Magazine’s prediction that meat eating will dwindle in the future. He says that the availability and accessibility of meat is being decreased by important social and economic factors. We are running out of agricultural resources to provide feed and grazing lands for livestock. The western world is spending huge amounts of money on medical care for problems associated with a high-meat diet such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Currently, with the formation and strengthening of the vegetarian community through organizations, and the growing exposure of the general public to the vegetarian option, more and more people are choosing a vegetarian diet. The recent trend is for people to decide on a vegetarian diet because they believe that it is healthier, more efficient in its use of natural resources, and does not require the suffering and death of animals. Other people become vegetarians out of religious motivations, a general dislike for the taste of meat, a lack of other options, or to save the time and money it takes to buy and prepare meat. Consequently, the main consensus in the scientific community supports this choice by indicating that a vegetarian diet can be adequate and even healthier than a meat oriented diet thus disproving certain misconceptions regarding the exclusion of meat in one’s diet.
One such misconception about nutrition is that animal products are needed to obtain a proper amount of protein. Kevin Acres, the author of A Vegetarian Sourcebook, explains that it is almost impossible to develop a protein deficiency on a calorically adequate diet. He points out that most vegetables have more than enough protein for healthy nutrition, provided that they are consumed in proper amounts.
Getting adequate protein on a vegetarian diet may not, however, be simple. Fruit, for example, is sparser in protein. Most fruit proteins amount to only five percent of the fruit’s total calories. Therefore, fruitarians, or vegetarians who rely mostly on a diet of fruits may not include enough protein in their diets. In addition, the Health and Food Safety Department of The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, New Zealand, says that proteins from animal products have the advantage over proteins from plant sources in providing essential and non-essential amino acids. Combining different plant proteins, and eating vegetables in bulk can overcome both of these problems.
A more prevalent problem common in vegetarians is iron deficiency. Iron deficiency is also common amongst meat eaters, but is more widespread amongst vegetarians because plant iron is much more difficult for the body to absorb. There are two forms of dietary iron, haem, found only in animal products and nonhaem, found in products of both animal and plant origin. Nonhaem is not absorbed as well as haem iron. For instance only 1.4 percent of iron can be absorbed from spinach, a plant regarded as being very rich in iron. In contrast, twenty percent of iron from red meat can be absorbed. As vegetarians have significantly less haem iron, deficiencies are easy to develop and anemia is a frequent occurrence and concern amongst vegetarians, especially children and menstruating women. Vitamin C can assist in the absorption of nonhaem iron, thus Vitamin C is needed to help vegetarians obtain adequate iron, and low vitamin C levels may be another cause of iron deficiency.
Meat is also an important source of dietary zinc as well as protein and iron. Zinc can, however, also be found in bread, milk, cheese and breakfast. Yet, in a survey of vegetarian adults in Australia it was estimated that over a quarter of the men and forty percent of the women had zinc intakes that were 30 percent below the recommended daily allowance. This threshold of intake is generally accepted as conferring significant risk. Zinc deficiency can occurs more often in vegans because the phytic acid in whole grains binds zinc, and there is little zinc in fruits and vegetables.
Another common nutrient that vegetarians may lack is vitamin B-12. Vegans are at particular risk of B-12 deficiency because Vitamin B-12 is created by bacteria that live in the digestive tract of many animals. As B-12 is only present in animal based products and a few specially fortified foods, those who do not consume any animal products, nor supplement their diet with B-12 vitamins are at risk for many health complications. Vitamin B-12 is necessary to make the nervous system function properly. Without it the cerebral cortex, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves will fail. It is also important in the process of cell reproduction, thus a lack of B-12 can cause pernicious anemia, a condition in which the bone marrow that produces blood begins to fail and ends up in full arrest. An absence of B-12 in infants and small children can cause deficiencies in neurological development, resulting in a failure for nerves to myelinate, resulting in brain damage such as severe retardation or slowed motor capabilities. Although these risks are less in vegetarians who eat milk and eggs, they are eliminated unless the right amounts of these animal products are consumed.
Along with the nutrient deficiencies described above, The Department of Health and Human Services of the FDA printed a report on vegetarianism in 1994, which describes the Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½pluses and pitfalls’ of a vegetarian diet. This report said that some vegetarians are also at risk of vitamin D, calcium, and copper deficiencies. Vegetarians who do not eat any dairy food or animal flesh may not get adequate amounts of vitamin D if they are not exposed to sunlight. Children are especially at risk with this type of deficiency, and may develop rickets as a result. With or without sun, these same vegetarians may also consume inadequate amounts of calcium, which can contribute to an increased risk of osteoporosis. The absence of meat may also reduce levels of copper, which helps support the body’s immune system as well as builds and strengthens red blood cells and blood vessels.
Nutrient loss is not the only danger of an insufficient vegetarian diet. Calorie deficiency, coming from the misconception that a vegetable-based diet is nutritional without increasing amount of food intake, is also a concern for vegetarian nutrition In order to compensate for the loss of foods rich in zinc and protein (not to mention calories), a greater amount of food must be consumed. If energy needs are not met, body proteins will be broken down for energy, and this creates additional problems. Calorie deficiencies can lead to lethargy, loss of muscle tone, malnutrition, and other health complications.
There are two main categories of poor nutrition that vegetarians fall under: poor quantity and poor quality. Poor quantity refers to not eating adequate amounts of food, either purposefully or due to uninformed decisions. While it is possible to obtain almost all of the necessary vitamins from a carefully planned vegetarian diet, a commonly reported mistake of vegetarians is to eat too little. A larger quantity of food is needed in a vegetarian diet because the food consumed in such a diet has less caloric density than meat and other animal products and has only small amounts of the nutrients discussed.
The other common mistake is eating the wrong Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½quality’ of vegetarian foods. Many vegetarians eat the wrong foods or do not include enough variety into their diet to properly balance their needed nutrients. For example, an imbalanced, but common, vegetarian diet consisting of fruits, veggies, bread and cereal can result in osteoporosis, anemia, fatigue, and poor healing. New vegetarians are showing signs of greater iron and zinc deficiencies, indicating poor understanding of the necessary implications of a vegetarian diet. Another health risk to vegetarians comes from eating the wrong foods. Replacing meat with junk food, refined food, or processed food, does not ensure health, nor will it supply adequate nutrients to the consumer. For example, sugar contains no protein, nor do soft drinks or alcohol. Jams and jellies only contain one percent protein calories and cookies have four percent protein calories. Processing and refining foods also remove many valuable vitamins and minerals. Many companies mask this by supplementing some foods with Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½added’ nutrients, but do not put all the vitamins and minerals back. Also, many vegetarians are ill informed, believing vegetarianism revolves around vegetables only, when in reality it centers on grains and legumes. The issues of poor quantity and quality are often results of the motives for switching to a vegetarian diet.
A common reason for eating vegetarian is to lose weight. This is usually a successful diet, as overweight people typically lose weight after converting to vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is usually not the first diet that overweight people try and that may cause problems due to misunderstanding the mechanics of dieting versus the mechanics of healthy vegetarianism. They have already dieted and learned to eat less and exercise more. They therefore tend to replace reasonable proportions of meat with similarly proportioned salads or other vegetarian meals, disregarding the fact that although the amounts of food are similar, the vegetarian foods have significantly fewer calories and nutrients than the meat that has been replaced. In order to make up for the small portions, these dieters can eat high fat foods such as tofu, soymilk, nuts, seeds, vegetable oil, dairy products and eggs. All of which are good sources of non-meat fat, calories, and nutrients, but are usually avoided by dieters due to fat content.
To further provide evidence that vegetarianism is adopted as a form of diet, a study conducted in Australia polled middle to high school students concerning their views on vegetarianism. Eleven percent of the girls in the Roper poll indicated that they never eat meat while forty percent of the girls indicated vegetarianism was “in.” Only three percent of boys ate vegetarian and sixteen percent said that vegetarianism was “in.” This difference of attitudes about vegetarianism between the sexes is not nearly as high among adults. The study believes that this suggests that many teenage girls use vegetarianism as a new fad diet used to achieve the media aggrandized standard of beauty.
The National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders estimates that more than eight million Americans suffer from full-blown eating disorders and that eighty six percent of them develop the problem before age twenty. While anorexia is relatively rare, occurring in just three percent of women, its consequences can be dire. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate among eating disorders. A report in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine analyzed how teens hide eating disorders behind the healthy facade of vegetarianism. The study found that while vegetarian teens ate more fruits and vegetables than their omnivorous peers, they were also twice as likely to diet frequently, four times as likely to diet intensively and eight times as likely to abuse laxatives, all behaviors associated with eating disorders.
Another contemporary problem of vegetarianism comes from the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease. According to The Times “the sight of thousands of burning animal carcasses may be inspiring more people to eat vegetarian.” This outbreak of foot and mouth disease has generated more interest in vegetarianism than any other issue in recent history. Nearly four million of Britain’s sixty million people eat vegetarian, and in the last month calls to the Vegetarian Society have doubled and hits on their Internet site have gone risen twenty percent. Preliminary analysis shows purchase of meat substitutes (i.e.- corn, vegetables, fish) are up twenty to sixty percent depending on category. With all this new interest in vegetarianism, there is a threat that people will choose to become vegetarians because it is safer than eating infected meat, rather than making it a health choice. In this way, many of these new vegetarians will change diets without doing the proper research to understand how to be a healthy vegetarian.
Some people choose to become vegetarians because they believe that meat is too expensive and/or takes too long to prepare. A related problem to poor health resulting from improper choice of food is that some foods needed to be a healthy vegetarian are as expensive, if not more so than meat. To eat a proper variety of fruits and vegetables in the proper amounts is costly. Vitamin aids or supplements or nutrient drinks are also pricey. Due to these factors, many vegetarians rely on cheap and quick foods such as white breads and rice, with only small amounts of rich, nutritious fruits and vegetables creating an inadequate diet revolving around convenience.
Eating at restaurants or other establishments outside of the home can also pose a problem for vegetarians. Many restaurants have vegetarian options, but they are usually scarce. One of the few choices available to vegetarians is salad, but restaurant salads are usually composed of mostly iceberg lettuce, which has no nutritional value. Restaurants do not typically provide any kind of vegetarian meal for children, which is also a major health concern in the growing vegetarian society.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of New Zealand says that children are at particular risk from vegetarian diets. It is recognized within the medical profession that dietary inadequacies can develop in vegetarians, and that children are at more risk than adults. A child’s requirements are greater and he or she is less likely to exert the same control over what s/he eats in comparison with adults. Some of the more tragic consequences of strict vegetarianism occur in infants. The general finding has been that during the first six months after birth, growth is usually satisfactory in breast-fed babies. Vegetarian parents, however, often wean babies later than non-vegetarians, not realizing that breast milk alone no longer supplies adequate nourishment. If a child is not ingesting anything more than breast milk between 6 and 18 months of age growth can be retarded. Once weaned, problems can still remain in a child’s diet. Vegan infants normally start off on a relatively high fiber diet and this is thought to suppress digestibility of dietary fat. This probably contributes to the slower growth, smaller stature and leaner bodies possessed by vegan children by the time they have reached two years of age.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry also attributes non-diet related risks to children of vegetarian parents. Many of these risks are due to some vegetarian parents’ fear of the child becoming overweight. Some vegetarians limit their child’s access to fat, a nutrient which children need to thrive. Also, quite a high proportion of vegan children are not immunized against whooping cough or polio for ethical reasons, as the vaccines may be raised in animals. Finally, when a child becomes sick or unhealthy, the vegetarian parents tend to think that the problem is diet related, and attempt to fix the diet before seeking out medical care.
Despite the fact that vegetarians have less bowel problems, less heart disease, and lesser rates of some types of cancer, some nutritionists doubt that it is the exclusion of meat from a vegetarian diet that creates the health benefits usually associated with vegetarianism. Comparisons between the health of vegetarians and non-vegetarians are often complicated by differences in lifestyle and habits and because of changes in eating pattern for reasons of existing illness.
A study was done on Seventh Day Adventists to compare lifestyle differences. This sect usually refrains from smoking and drinking alcohol and coffee, but they may or may not be vegetarian. Health records have shown that the risk of death from cancer has been shown to be lower in Seventh Day Adventists than in the general population (Mills et al, 1994), but there was no difference in the prevalence of cancer between vegetarian and non-vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists.
Another study examined the reasons for mortality in meat eaters and non-meat eaters over a 12-year period. The vegetarians in the study tended to be more health conscious and the mortality rate was about twenty percent lower than in the meat-eating group. The vegetarians and fish eaters had a forty percent reduction in mortality from cancer, which was independent of any associated difference in prevalence of smoking or other important lifestyle variables. It was concluded, however, that the results do not justify excluding meat because several features of a vegetarian diet, apart from not eating meat, might reduce health risks.
This issue, whether vegetarianism is healthier than eating meat, often arose up during the course of the research. Many factors that assumed to be attributed to vegetarianism, such as lower obesity and lower cancer rates, are not actually diet related. Vegetarians tend to be more health conscious people in general: they are more likely to watch fat intake and to include exercise in a daily routine, they are less likely to smoke or drink, and they also eat more fruits and vegetables than non-vegetarians. A number of medical experts believe that it is these non-diet factors that make vegetarians healthier, rather than the lack of meat in their diet. Vegetarians who are choosing such a way of life for health reasons should consider whether meat needs to be cut out completely, or if other dangerous factors in their diet should be removed along with simply adding more fruits and vegetables to their diet.
Whether it is a vegetarian diet or a vegetarian state of mind that produces health benefits, educational nutrition programs should include a vegetarian option. Nutrition education is important in the food choices of the public, throughout the lifespan. The American Dietetic Association, the Society for Nutrition Education, and the American School Food service Association all agree that school-based nutrition programs and services are the most efficient and able means available to improve the health of American youth. They recognize a link between diet and chronic disease and view nutrition education as a major source of health promotion and disease prevention.
The American Fitness Association of America says that nutritional knowledge is critical by the middle school level. This is the age when busy parents often rely on their children to feed themselves. Currently, teachers spend only eleven to fifteen hours on average per year teaching nutrition. The AFAA attributes this to the public schools receiving few funds to fund a nutrition program, nor does the State mandate nutrition education. Some of the school districts that have nutrition programs are running out of money to properly maintain their existing programs.
In 1990 the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 was implemented, requiring nutrition labeling. This was designed to be a form of nutrition education, as the nutrition label provides information to the public about key nutrients that are of public health concern. This allows consumers to make informed food choices and to compare the nutrient content of different foods. Unfortunately, the American Dietetic Association noted in a 1999 study of nutrition behaviors of college students that most people do not understand all of the terms on food nutrition labels. Students usually used food labels to compare brands and not different nutrition options, showing that the labels did not directly affect food choices. This study said that the labels could be an effective tool for making healthy food choices if the public could be educated on the terms and phrases used on the labels. Education should also emphasize the importance of all available nutrients rather than merely the fat and calorie content of foods.
In conclusion, it can be said that a vegetarian diet can indeed improve on the lifestyle and general health of a person who follows the diet correctly. Yet there are many factors that need to be taken into account when making a dietary decision, as it greatly affects the health of the individual selecting the diet. Choosing vegetarianism is not just “not eating meat”, it is a lifestyle that must be adopted fully and followed to its greatest potential. In order to make an educated decision in regards to a diet that is not omnivorous, one must be educated in the nutritional needs of the human body as well as how to support said needs on a diet devoid of meat and other animal products. Efforts are currently being made to provide such education, and thereby hopefully improve the nutritional condition of today’s vegetarian society.