Home
Campaigns
Health & Nutrition
Students
Resources
Urgent Actions
News Releases
Photos and films
Contact

Join our email alert list. Click here.

Nutrition in a nutshell

Western Diet / Wrong / Meat Based Diet / Variety / Protein / Carbohydrates / Fats & Oils / Vitamins & Minerals / Calcium / Iron / Types of Vegetarian

"Going vegetarian? But what about your PROTEIN? What about your HEALTH? It can’t be good for you!?” Or, so say some people. Wrong!

Let’s compare two of today’s most common diets and see which one appears better for your health.

A typical Western diet:
This diet, packed with animal products like hot dogs, sausages and cheeseburgers, has been described by a top nutritionist as “the most atrocious diet in the world.” There are scientific facts to support that opinion.

There is a great deal of evidence indicating that eating too much meat and dairy products, as well as consuming too little fruit, vegetables and cereal foods, are major factors in promoting the development of heart disease and many forms of cancer. In other words, the typical Western diet is a big-league culprit in killing off the majority of people in the United States before their time.

Click here to see table

A Western vegetarian diet:
Vegetarians rely on fruits, vegetables, legumes, pastas, breads, cereals and whole grains as well as other kinds of plant foods to provide most of what they eat. Vegans eat no animal products of any kind and exclude all dairy products - as many progressive health authorities now advise us to do.

Many scientific studies comparing vegetarians with typical Western diet eaters have found that vegetarians are considerably healthier and less likely to suffer from a wide range of illnesses than meat eaters, and they tend to live longer. What’s more, there apparently are no illnesses to which vegetarians seem more prone to develop than are meat eaters. Since 1898, nutritionists have been telling us that: “No single factor is more important in determining the outbreak of cancer in the predisposed than high feeding. Many indications point to gluttonous consumption of meat as likely to be especially harmful.” (Scientific American, December 1898).

Many more modern studies have now confirmed this early finding and have added a significant number of other diseases to the list that afflict meat eaters more than vegetarians. In their position paper on vegetarian diets, the American Dietetic Association (ADA), notes that vegetarian diets are associated with reduced risk for a number of chronic diseases, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, mellitus, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, and kidney disease. (“Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Messina, V. & Burke, K., V97 No. 11, 1997, p. 1317.) In many countries of the world - developing countries where few animal products are eaten - such diseases are virtually unknown.

So why have some people got it wrong - including a lot of doctors and journalists, for that matter?

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, nutritionists advocated large protein intakes to ‘assure good health’. Since the 1980’s it has become evident that more protein is not better. In fact, too much protein can damage the kidneys, bones, and significantly increase the risk for colon cancer. Now, leading health authorities in the USA, Britain, Australia, and other countries are agreeing on the need to shift away from animal products towards plant-based diets.

Despite all this, there is confusion, and not all of it is accidental. When a piece of research that suggests that meat-based diets are healthy makes the news, it is often found out later to be poorly done, unreliable, and paid for by companies that sell animal products. Nevertheless, as physician and nutritionist, John McDougall, M.D., states, “People love to hear good news about their bad habits,” and “It is used as a justification to continue consuming the disease-inducing, standard American diet.”

It is no secret that food is a very political issue. Big companies make huge amounts of money from animal products and wield enormous power - so governments are not very willing to challenge them. There hasn’t been the political will to change the national diet, even though the World Health Organization says that’s what urgently needs to happen.

But, some people say, we’re meant to eat a diet based around meat.

No we’re not! Over millions of years, human beings have evolved to eat a diet based upon plant foods. From the very earliest times right up to the middle of this century, the vast majority of people obtained most of their nutrition from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, roots, seeds, nuts, and other plant-derived foods. According to William C. Roberts, M.D., the distinguished editor-in-chief of the prestigious medical publication, the American Journal of Cardiology: “Although human beings eat meat, we are not natural carnivores. No matter how much fat carnivores eat, they do not develop atherosclerosis (clogged arteries). When we kill animals to eat them, they end up killing us because their flesh, which contains cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings, who are natural herbivores.”

Not only did early humans eat many times the plant food we eat today, they ate only a fraction of the animal food. So when both nature and cardiologists are in agreement, it makes sense to listen to what they say. Whatever fears parents may have about a vegetarian diet, the really unhealthy way to eat is to continue consuming the typical Western diet.

A vegetarian diet is an excellent way of nourishing your body which will not only leave you pleasantly full but positively glowing with good health! (Vegetarian food tastes great, too!)

Click here to see table

Variety is the key to a healthy, well balanced diet.

All food contains a mixture of nutrients in different quantities known as protein, carbohydrates (including fiber), fat.

Protein
Protein is needed for growth, repair of tissue and protection against infection. Protein is made up of small ‘building blocks’ called amino acids. Vegetable-based foods contain all the amino acids the body needs. By eating a range of whole, plant-based foods you will get all the different amino acids you need - and in the right proportions. Especially good sources of high quality protein include soy products (e.g. tofu, soy milk, veggie burgers), cereals (e.g. rice, pasta, wholemeal bread), legumes (e.g. baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans), nuts and seeds.

Meat contains all the amino acids that comprise protein, but that doesn’t mean it is better for us than plant protein. As stated previously, eating large amounts of animal products, even lean-looking meats, means eating saturated animal fats and cholesterol. It is these artery-clogging fats which are believed to be a main cause of heart disease as well as diet-related cancers. Meat also contains little carbohydrates, no fiber or calcium, and few vitamins - but frequently contains dangerous microbes like Salmonella and E. coli. The problem of food-borne infections - including the lethal ‘Mad Cow Disease’ (in humans known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) is a growing one. In view of all the foregoing, it is a comfort to know that well-balanced vegan diet can supply all the protein you need, whether you are a growing child or a mature adult.

How much protein do we need?
Not as much as we think - recommended amounts have more than halved in the last 20 years as several chronic diseases have been linked to eating too much animal (not plant) protein. The average adult needs to consume between 40 and 70 grams of protein per day.

To give you a comparison between some meat and vegetarian products, a standard 50 g beef burger contains 10.2 g of protein and three (90 g) fish sticks 12.l g; half a can of 225 g baked beans contains 11.5 g of protein; an average serving of pasta (190 g cooked) contain 8.5 g, an average serving of kidney beans (160 g cooked) 12.4 g, and a small packet (25 g) of peanuts contains 6.1 g.

Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are our main and most important source of energy and most carbohydrates are provided by plant foods. There are three types of carbohydrates: (1) ‘fast releasing,’ (2) ‘slow releasing’ and dietary fiber. ‘Fast releasing’ carbohydrates (simple sugars) are found in fruit, sweets, syrups, and many processed foods. Much of it is refined sugar - the kind you sprinkle on your cereal - and it is best avoided, as it provides energy but no fiber, vitamins or minerals. ‘Slow-releasing’ carbohydrates (starches) are found in whole grain cereals and grains (e.g. bread, rice, pasta, oats, barley, buckwheat, rye etc.), some root vegetables such as potatoes, and most fresh fruit. The World Health Organization recommends that 50-70 percent of our diet (as energy) should come from slow releasing carbohydrates, as they are vital to good health. Typical meat eaters don’t get enough complex carbohydrates while vegetarians and vegans tend to get plenty.

Dietary fiber is the indigestible part of vegetable foods (whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals and beans). Despite its indigestible nature, fiber is essential for the digestive system to work properly. It acts like a broom in the intestines, sweeping away toxins and helping prevent diseases such as colon cancer - which is a significant 40 percent less common in vegetarians than meat eaters. While a vegetarian diet high in plant foods contains plenty of fiber, meat contains none. Carbohydrate-rich foods should be consumed in as unrefined a form as possible; for example, brown rice, whole grain pastas and breads, whole beans, etc., are more health enhancing as they contain more fiber and vitamins.

Fats and oils
We need a little fat (essential fats) in our diet every day to repair tissue, manufacture hormones, and to carry some vitamins. Good sources of essential fats are pumpkin seeds, walnuts, flax seed oil, hemp seed oil, and soy products, as well as other nuts and seeds like almonds, Brazil nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds. Fats can either be saturated or unsaturated (which includes mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated).

A rough guide is that saturated fats are normally solid at room temperature and they include animal fats such as lard and butter. Unsaturated fats are normally liquid at room temperature, such as sunflower or olive oil. There are few vegetable fats that contain saturated fat - coconut oil and palm oil are the most common ones. Since your body can create saturated fats from unsaturated fats (but not the other way around), you don’t need to eat saturated fat in your diet, according to the WHO.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance called a sterol. It is found in animal foods but is completely absent from plant foods. The body can make all the cholesterol it requires so we do not need to include it in our diet - at all! Saturated fats increase the level of cholesterol in blood while unsaturated fats can help to lower it.

However, too much fat of any kind is linked to cancers and other diseases. The single biggest dietary cause of clogged arteries, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes is our animal fat and refined sugar-laden diet. The more of these there are in your blood, the greater your risk of getting one or all of the above diseases. At the moment, one in three boys and one in four girls can expect to die of heart disease later in life - that’s how huge an epidemic there is. And it looks set to get worse as young people consume ever greater amounts of fat - mostly animal fats - and sugar.

Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins in fresh fruit and vegetables actually protect us against some 60 or more diseases, including the big killers, cancer and heart disease. Especially valuable are the vitamins known as antioxidants. This group is composed of beta-carotene (vitamin A) and vitamins C and E - the so called “ACE” vitamins. They are found abundantly in plant foods. A recent discovery at Glasgow University in Scotland has identified another family of powerful anti-oxidants - flavenols, including lycopenes, found only in red fruits and vegetables. Again, there are none in meat.

The reason why antioxidants are so important is that they are our main defense that we have against damaging molecules called free radicals, which are thought to play a major role in causing over sixty major diseases related to aging. Free radicals are molecules that have become unbalanced by losing an electron. To try and regain their missing electron, these molecules crash around like back-alley muggers, trying to steal an electron from other molecules. This theft can create a chain reaction in which DNA - the human genetic blueprint -becomes damaged and begins to produce diseased cells, which can lead to cancer and other health catastrophes.

So can high-temperature cooking - in particular, the frying or searing of meat. Researchers cooked beef burgers, bacon and soy burgers and found that both the beef burgers and bacon produced significant amounts of the most damaging free radicals while the soy burger produced virtually none. Antioxidants are the “heroes” who neutralize the damaging free radicals, and so protect the body against diseases. Antioxidant vitamins are mainly found in fresh fruit and vegetables, and vegetarians and vegans usually eat more fresh fruit and veggies than meat eaters. This is probably one big reason why vegans are usually healthier and tend to live longer. To assure yourself an ample supply of these valuable vitamins, be sure that you eat a reasonably varied diet and don’t live on chips and candies! Eat a variety of foods like whole fruits, vegetables, cereals (e.g. whole grain bread), beans, as well as ‘healthy’ snacks such as your favorite nuts or seeds.

Some of the most notable vitamins and minerals include:

Vitamin A
Vegetarians and vegans get plenty of vitamin A from eating foods containing beta-carotene - in fact it’s almost impossible to become deficient in this vitamin these days! We convert beta-carotene into vitamin A in our bodies. Beta-carotene is high in green vegetables (kale, collards, chard, bok choy, spinach, etc.) as well as red and orange vegetables (squash, carrots, yams, sweet potatoes, etc.) - and as we’ve seen, it protects you from several diseases.

Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
We only need tiny amounts of vitamin B12 (less than three millionths of a gram a day to be precise!) because we store it in our liver for years. Vegans need to obtain cobalamin from eating B12-fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast and soy milk.

Vitamin C
As with almost all vitamins, vegetarians and vegans get more of this from their diet than do meat eaters. You’ll find high amounts in fresh oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, strawberries, green peppers and other fruit and vegetables. Again, it’s not
in meat.

Calcium
Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth and for the working of muscles. It is virtually absent from meat products, and as stated, excessive amounts of animal protein in the diet can actually leach calcium from the bones - weakening the skeleton and leading to osteoporosis. Calcium is found in dark green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale, and collard greens), legumes, dried fruits, tahini (sesame seed butter), nuts and seeds (particularly almonds and sesame seeds). Some soy and rice beverages, as well as some brands of orange juice, are fortified with calcium. It is wise for most vegans to include high calcium foods in their diet.

Iron
Iron deficiency can be significant, especially in women of childbearing age (who lose iron each month in the menstrual flow). However, all the world’s leading health advisory bodies agree that meat-eaters are just as likely to suffer from iron deficiency anemia as vegetarians. Everyone - especially women - should ensure a good supply of iron in their diet. It’s needed for healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen to all parts of the body. Good sources of iron are baked beans, whole grain bread, molasses, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit (particularly apricots and figs), cocoa, lentils, legumes and pumpkin seeds. Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron by a factor of six - another reason why fresh vegetables and fruits are so important in the diet.

Many reputable health organizations including the World Health Organization, American Dietetic Association, and the British Medical Association, all agree that vegetarian and vegan diets can lead to superb states of health. Any young person who changes to a completely plant-based diet is greatly improving their chance of avoiding a number of deadly diseases. In the process you will help to bring an end the horrors of factory farming, and help to stop the onslaught which is destroying the world’s oceans; you will also begin to offer hope to the world’s starving peoples and will help the environment start to recover.

The Different Types of Vegetarians

A vegetarian eats food that is free from any ingredients obtained from the killing of animals. A vegan eats food free from any animal products. Because there are so many foods that vegetarians eat, it’s easier to state which they don’t eat!
A vegetarian does not eat red meat (eg lamb, bacon, pork, beef), white meat or poultry (eg duck, chicken, turkey), fish or other sea creatures (eg tuna, cod, prawns, lobster) or slaughterhouse byproducts (eg animal fat, gelatin, as it is made from crushed bones, horns etc). A vegetarian may or may not eat eggs and dairy products (eg cow’s milk, cheese, butter, yogurt).

Vegetarians who choose to eat dairy products and eggs are LACTO-OVO VEGETARIANS.

Those who eat dairy products but not eggs are LACTO VEGETARIANS.

Those who eat eggs but not dairy products are OVO VEGETARIANS.

Those who avoid all animal products, including all dairy products, eggs and honey are VEGANS.

 

 

Michael Klaper, M.D. is an honors graduate of the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, and has post-graduate training in internal medicine, surgery, anesthesiology and obstetrics. He is the author of Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple and Pregnancy, Children, and the
Vegan Diet.

Dr. Christine Fenn is a leading nutritionist and an international speaker. She advises athletes and top business people on how to achieve peak performance through diet. She specializes in nutrition for expeditions and planned the diets for grueling expeditions to the North Pole
and Everest.

Chris lives in the UK and is a regular contributor to BBC radio and TV and is the presenter for the BBC World Service series The Good Foods Guide. Chris puts theory into practice and eats well. She needs to - having climbed Kilimanjaro twice and cycled across the USA from coast to coast!