Is it More Healthy to be Vegetarian?
This is a fascinating and controversial subject. I have studied food from many different angles, through many life experiences, for over twenty years now. In this article I want to raise some interesting points that have arisen out of my research and personal experience.
This is not an attack on vegetarians, nor a defence of my own choices. I don't say that there is any right or wrong way - we all have our own decisions to make. Simply having a discussion about this issue is already a healthy thing!
What is a vegan? What is a vegetarian?
Vegans eat no animal products. There are many different styles of vegetarianism depending on what is restricted in the diet. Some vegetarians eat anything except meat, others choose to exclude eggs or dairy products. The reasons for making such restrictions may be health, morality, religion , budget or convenience.
There are serious health problems associated with over-eating animal foods.
I am not going to expand on what these problems are in this article. I do want to point out that usually these problems stem from the amount being eaten. Balance is the key point. Specific individuals may have allergic reactions to some animal products, but most of the problems arise from over-eating animal foods and under eating plant-based foods. Plant foods provide many substances which can cleanse the body of any toxicity from meat digestion. The most important of these is dietary fibre. Raw and fermented plant foods also create and sustain a healthy intestinal environment that can cope with small to moderate amounts of animal foods. Fish is especially beneficial, providing quality protein and healthy fats.
"Vegetarian" does not necessarily mean "healthy"
Some vegetarians cut seafood and animal food from their diet - often because they don't want to cause suffering to animals - but don't make any effort to replace the missing protein, fats and other nutrients. It is just as easy to be a junk food addict when you are vegetarian, living on 2 minute noodles, baked beans, bread, coffee and sweets. Some people may have great moral intentions, but may be living on a restricted budget with limited nutritional knowledge.
I personally know some very healthy vegans. However to sustain this diet over many years healthy vegans put a lot of effort into learning about and choosing good food. Supplements and superfoods may be necessary to get sufficient amounts of all nutrients. It is neccesary for vegans to include nutrient rich foods in their daily diets such as seaweed, plenty of dark leafy greens and well-prepared protein sources (like tempeh and legumes) to maintain good health. Furthermore, avoiding sweets and refined carbohydrates is important for minimizing nutrient loss and food cravings.
At this point in my life I seem to thrive on eating meat.
I don't eat a lot of meat -perhaps 100 - 150g, usually wild venison, about twice a week on average. I also eat fish two or three times a week, and free range organic eggs almost every day. I occasionally eat yoghurt, but very little of other dairy foods. I feel more balanced with my eating habits than any time I can remember.
I have gone through periods of years at a time eating a vegan diet, with insignificant amounts of animal foods. In many respects I felt extremely healthy during those times. A vegan diet is cleansing and purifying - physically, emotionally and spiritually. However I always seemed to reach a point where I would crave more protein- and sometimes I'd eat animal food without really wanting to admit it to myself or others. One indication of the imbalance that is common with a vegan diet is that I can now see a clear connection between the lack of protein and fats in my diet and wild cravings for sweets. Sugar or even dried fruit robs the body of nutrients and can be a prime cause of mineral deficiencies for vegans.
I believe we can eat fish and animals and still treat them with compassion.
When we consider all the different diets that have been prescribed by d religions worldwide, it's obvious that there are no clear right or wrongs in regard to the issue of eating animal food. I find it interesting to hear anything religious leaders say about food. Amongst Buddhist communities worldwide and throughout history there have been a huge range of rules and guidelines. The Dalai Lama, a life-long vegetarian, for several years ate meat, on the recommendation of his doctors. More recently I read that he was advocating his followers avoid eating meat!
I believe the most important thing is to learn about the background foods we eat. Simply having good information can make us adopt more compassionate eating habits, without anyone telling us what's right or wrong. I don't want to support cruel practices of animal husbandry or slaughter. It doesn't make me happy to know the conditions in which caged chickens are reared. This is why I don't eat it, or buy organic free range chickens. Wild animals and fish have their freedom and feed on healthy plants - for me it feels good to eat these foods.
I am well aware that I am fortunate to have the luxury of choice in these matters. I always say we should, from moment to moment, make the best decisions we can given our present circumstances - our own unique body, our physical and social environment, our religious and moral beliefs and our financial situation.
We should eat in the way that supports our full health
If we have any moral duty in regard to food, I believe it is to eat the food that helps us be the best we can possibly be - whatever that means for us as individuals. Optimum nutrition is one of the foundations for optimum health and can allow us to be truly free in body and mind. With a clear head and pain-free body we are truly able to be of service to the world. It's like putting on our own oxygen mask before attempting to help others!
I believe that by creating our own good health we plant a seed for profound change. This simple intention and action will in itself bring about social and environmental balance - including fishing and farming practices in which animals are well-cared for.