A naturopath's view
By Tom Ballard, R.N., N.D.
This article was originally published in December 2010
I’m honored to be sharing this article with John Robbins. My perspective comes from 30 years of reading, writing and counseling patients on nutrition and health.
I see three types of vegetarians:
1) Healthy, mature vegetarians
The relatively small number of healthy vegetarians I’ve seen tend to be lean, lead active lives, eat mostly organic, unprocessed foods, and know where their protein comes from. Protein intake often doesn’t conform to accepted norms (14 to 12 gram per pound of weight) but it’s consistent, varied and enough to keep them healthy.
2) Emergent vegetarians
Recently I overheard a woman talking on her cell phone, telling a friend that she’d decided to become a vegetarian. As she spoke she snacked on a bag of potato chips.
This is the kind of vegetarian I most often see. They continue eating a standard American processed, low-nutrient diet, with the exception of meat, which they disdain. It doesn’t work for long. They often have no concept of the difference between protein and carbohydrates, claiming they’re obtaining enough protein from potatoes and broccoli. Their usual complaints are of fatigue and low stamina, frequent colds and flus, deteriorating skin and hair, sugar and carbohydrate cravings, and even weight gain.
Some are consuming a lot of processed vegetarian protein — modified gluten, rice and soy in meat-like portions — rather than cooking grains and beans from scratch. Canned beans typically are lower in protein and other nutrients.
Successful vegetarianism requires learning your nutrition and food preparation basics. (Of course, the same rule applies to meat eaters.)
3) Beginners/Knowledge seekers
Unfortunately I don’t see enough of those wanting to gather information before embarking on this life-altering road. Uninformed teenagers becoming vegetarians is of special concern because of their developing nervous systems. A thorough health evaluation is a good place to begin.
Myths and issues
One myth in the pro-vegetarian camp is that humans did not traditionally eat meat. Anthropologists have found abundant evidence that our ancestors ate meat, often in great quantities. Eating meat was part of what made us human, as the efficient calories freed up time for cave drawings and complex human interactions.
It also is untrue that our digestive tracts don’t digest meat and the consequence is “coatings of sludge” in the colon. If you’re having trouble digesting meat, then you’re probably not digesting other foods as well. See a naturopath.
Yes, meat can pass on food-borne illness, but lettuce is a more common culprit.
Grains, often a major source of protein for vegetarians, are a relatively new food, only having been cultivated in the last 9,000 years. Some individuals don’t do well with them, making vegetarianism difficult.
There are reasons to be a vegetarian without resorting to misinformation.
I in no way want to discount the research showing the health benefits of vegetarianism. It is, however, important to bring it into context.
Most vegetarian studies are done on healthy, mature vegetarians — the successful ones. Studies don’t usually look at the many who didn’t posses the knowledge, commitment, or metabolic machinery and dropped out along the way.
The other factor that complicates vegetarian research is that it compares vegetarians to those eating unhealthy meat. Traditional meat sources were free-range and organic.
In my own experience, some individuals don’t seem to be capable of being healthy vegetarians. Even when potential vegetarian deficiencies of protein, iron, vitamin B12, omega-3s, vitamin D, calcium, iodine and selenium are watched, they still don’t feel well. Biochemical individuality and known differences in the body’s ability to synthesize protein from amino acids may account for this problem.
Raising animals for food is economically and environmentally expensive, but everything we do extracts a price from the earth. It takes 120 liters of water to produce a glass of wine and 2,700 to grow enough cotton to make a shirt. Living responsibly and joyfully requires broad ecological awareness that doesn’t paralyze us with guilt. Emphasizing a plant-based diet is healthy for you and the planet.
Strict vegetarianism may be a healthy option for you — but only if done correctly.
Tom Ballard, R.N., N.D., is a naturopathic physician practicing in Seattle and Renton. He can be reached at PureWellnessCenters.com.