Vegetarianism: Myths and Realities

(The following are excerpts from a talk given in 2003 to a group of Hawaii dietitians.)
 Question #1:  Are there better health implications with a vegetarian diet versus a diet that consists of lean meats?
Dr. Ruth: Yes, there are a number of long-term, large-scale studies that show that a vegetarian diet is healthier as measured by the absence of heart disease, cancer, stroke, anemia, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and the more positive aspect, greater longevity. The Framingham Study, the China Diet Study, and Dr. Dean Ornish’s proof of the reversal of heart disease by diet are all landmark studies that verify the observation that the lower a diet is in animal foods, the healthier people are.
Lean meat is not the healthy food that many believe it to be. For example, broiled steak is still 82% calories from fat. Fish is frequently touted as healthy and yet, sea bass is 55% fat and mackerel 60% fat. It is possible to find fish that is lower in fat and yet, this is not an advantage because the lower the fat, the higher the protein. Most Americans are already eating far too much protein. As adults, we only need about 2.5% calories from protein. Even if one removes the skin from chicken and broils it, there is still too much fat and protein. Excess protein leads to osteoporosis, kidney disease, and high cholesterol levels. Keep in mind that cholesterol is present in all animal tissue, an integral part of the cell membrane.  A vegetarian diet without added oils provides a good balance of 80% carbohydrate, 10% protein, and 10% fat.
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Question #2:  What are the different practices/levels of vegetarianism?
Dr. Ruth: Strictly speaking, the strict vegetarian, or vegan (vee-gun) is the true vegetarian. Many who call themselves vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs and are known as “lacto-ovo vegetarians.”  The next level, humorously called “pesco-chicko-fisho” vegetarians, are people who have eliminated red meat from their diet. It’s a start but as pointed out above, fish and chicken are still too high in fat and protein.
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Question #3: Your recommendations on adapting the food pyramid to a vegetarian lifestyle.
Dr. Ruth: If one just cuts off the top two levels of the pyramid, we are left with vegetables, fruits, and grains. Bear in mind that this leaves a great deal of variety for menu planning. There are approximately 20 different types of grains, 90 vegetables, and 60 fruits to choose from as opposed to the much more limited variety of animals, i.e., cows, pigs, fowl, and fish. Variety is definitely in the plant kingdom.
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Question #4: What about calcium?
Dr. Ruth: Calcium has developed into a major issue for two reasons. First, going back in history, there was a time when dairy farming was just being established. A marketing arm, the National Dairy Board, was created to help establish a demand for dairy products by selling the public on a supposed link between milk and healthy bones. Actually, there is calcium in all plant foods and the villi in the small intestines absorb all minerals in a balance as determined by the body’s needs. An overwhelming quantity of any mineral will interfere with the absorption of the other minerals that bones need such as phosphorous, magnesium, boron, copper, and fluoride. There is also some evidence that too much calcium can cause problems such as kidney stones, calcium deposits in soft tissues, and interference in brain function.
The second reason that calcium has developed into a major issue is the epidemic of osteoporosis in this country. Because of the misleading connection established in the minds of the public, the increased consumption of dairy is actually leading to an increase in osteoporosis. In Dr. Harris’ book, The Scientific Basis of Vegetarianism he illustrates quite clearly that the countries that have the highest dairy consumption also have the highest fracture rates, and conversely, those countries who don’t consume dairy (about 3/4 of the world’s population), have the lowest fracture rates. Of course, calcium isn’t the only issue relating to bone health. One gets all the minerals that bones need from leafy greens, and bones will only be as strong as they need to be, therefore, the need for effective, weight-bearing exercise.
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Question #5: What about food contamination?
Dr. Ruth: A major item in the news these days has to do with many of the problems in processing, shipping, storing, and consuming animal products. Flesh, unfortunately, is the perfect breeding ground for salmonella, brucellosis, trichinosis, yersiniosis, etc. and that also extends to us humans since we are animals as well.  And now, of course, there’s Mad Cow Disease which has now been discovered here in this country. While we don’t know a great deal about how it gets transmitted other than through cattle feed or with our food, there is a long incubation period before you see the symptoms. It is caused by prions, folded proteins, which are self-replicating and spread throughout the brain. This causes holes in the brain, leading eventually to extreme disability and then death. There is no treatment, therefore, no cure–every case invariably ends in death. Prions are seemingly indestructible as they survive temperatures over 1000 degrees Centigrade.From Great Britain there are reports of people converting to vegetarianism in droves because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease). In Canada a report of a cow with Mad Cow Disease has caused  major losses to the large cattle industry there. An outbreak in Japan caused nearly 10,000 people to be sick from e.coli which was traced to beef.  There are frequent recalls of hamburger, and even more frequent bouts of “stomach flu” which are probably not even recognized by lay people as food contamination.  This also holds true when the chemical contaminant issue is examined. Animal foods have a much higher concentration of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and hormones in their bodies when compared to plant foods. The safest diet is the one which consists of plant foods.
Ruth E. Heidrich, Ph.D.