CHAPTER 5 - Vegetarian Nutrition - Getting Everything Your Body Needs
At this point you’re probably starting to get worried about how you’re going to make sure you get the right balance of nutrients that your body needs, and thinking that you’ll need a spreadsheet to keep track of everything you eat. But it’s not as difficult as it may seem from the outset – you just need to bone up on a few nutritional basics to keep in mind when you plan your meals. Some people spend their entire lives studying the science of nutrition, but you don’t have to make it your life’s work. The truth is, despite what the meat industry repeatedly tells you, vegetarian diets aren’t nutritionally inferior to meat-based diets. There’s no need to worry that you’ll be lacking the vitamins, minerals and protein that your body needs. Which isn’t to say that it’s not possible to eat badly as a vegetarian – many people have lousy diets, even vegetarians. But if you eat smart, your vegetarian diet can be the healthiest way you’ve ever eaten.
Protein – Am I Getting Enough? Your first concern on starting a vegetarian way of life is that, without meat foods in your diet, you’ll lack protein. So you’ll be happy to discover that it’s almost impossible to eat too little protein on a vegetarian diet. Protein is, of course, of the utmost importance to a healthful diet. Your bones, muscles and hormones all contain protein, and eating enough of it helps keep your body strong on the most fundamental level. Unfortunately, the importance of eating animal protein has long been made unrealistically important. Man once believed that eating the flesh of other animals would make him stronger and healthier – but now that we know what we do about cholesterol and the dangers of eating saturated fats, it’s obvious that limiting animal proteins is the healthy choice. Vegetarians can, of course, be protein deficient – but that comes from undereating, or relying too heavily on junk foods. In most case, any diet adequate in calories from a variety of healthful sources provides enough protein. Grains, vegetables, beans, seeds and nuts are all protein-rich foods, easily providing what the body needs.
Contrary to what many vegetarians believed in the last couple of decades, they don’t need to weigh and balance arcane combinations of foods to get adequate protein. This myth goes back to Frances Moore Lappe’s 1971 book “Diet for a Small Planet,” in which she wrote that vegetarians needed to balance foods based on which amino acids they were lacking, creating “complementing proteins.” For some time, there were even nutritionists who created complex charts to help vegetarians pick foods that went together, and concerned meat-free eaters made sure to combine beans and rice, or rice and corn, or grains and cheese … and it was an awful lot to remember! But we now know that combining types of protein isn’t nearly as important as simply eating enough calories to maintain a healthy weight – Lappe even revised later editions of her book, admitting that she was wrong about the importance of food combining. No, if you eat enough food from different sources, you’ll probably be getting plenty of protein. If you want to get technical about it, health professionals recommend that you eat 0.8 grams of protein each day for every kilogram of body weight. A kilogram is about 2.2 pounds – so to find your recommended amount of daily protein, multiply your ideal weight by 0.8, then divide that number by 2.2. If you prefer a quicker method, just divide your ideal weight by 3. But even then, you don’t need to eat that much protein to stay healthy – keep in mind that recommendations like these always err on the side of safety, so the number you get will actually be higher than what you realistically need. But you, as a vegetarian, should strive to meet the recommended daily requirement of protein – because plant proteins are, unfortunately, less efficient foods for providing nutrients. For one thing, they’re somewhat more difficult to digest than animal proteins, and they also lack the amount of amino acids present in meat. If you get most of your protein from beans and grains, this is especially true – ovo lacto vegetarians consume a similar amount of protein to omnivores, and vegans who eat a lot of soy products also get plenty of protein. It’ll always be true, however, that as a vegetarian you’re eating less protein than people who eat both plant and animal proteins.
A 1984 study found that a typical omnivore diet consists of between 15 and 17 percent protein, while lacto-ovo vegetarians generally eat about 13 percent protein and vegans around 11 to 12 percent. Despite needing more protein and eating less, the vegans still had an adequate amount of protein in the diets. So don’t worry about doing anything fancy to meet your protein requirements – just eat from a variety of sources and get enough calories and you’ll be fine. You will, in fact, be better than fine – because meat-eaters generally eat too much protein! Studies have shown that replacing animal protein with plant protein in your diet can help lower your blood cholesterol levels, decreasing your risk of heart attack. Most people are by now aware of the danger of saturated fats in red meat and its effect on blood cholesterol – people recovering from heart attacks are prescribed diets which replace the beef with skinless chicken or fish. That is a good move, to be sure, but these people could lower their cholesterol even further by switching to a vegetarian diet and reducing the amount of fat that they eat. Plant proteins are lower in saturated fat than animal proteins and dairy products, and free of cholesterol. There are also studies that show that eating slightly less protein than is optimal is far superior than eating too much – and in this era of supersizing, most meat-eaters eat far more than they need.
When we eat too much protein, it’s up to our kidneys to filter out the excess. In the process, calcium is lost, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. Since plant-based diets are lower in total protein, vegetarian diets are better for your bones! Excess protein is also, understandably, hard on the kidneys and unhealthy for people with kidney disease. Plant proteins contain all the same amino acids, to differing degrees, as animal proteins, and eating enough of them gives you all the protein you need. Studies have shown that people can meet their protein needs just by eating rice, wheat or potatoes so long as they meet their caloric needs. By eating a variety of plant foods throughout the day and consuming enough calories, you’ll be getting enough healthy plant protein. You’ll have a lower risk of heart and kidney disease, and you’ll be eating protein that’s more efficiently produced besides, using less valuable resources than animal protein. It’s what people call “win-win!”
CHAPTER 6 - Parasites - The Guests Who Came to Dinner
The intestinal tract is like a luxury hotel for parasites, bacteria and fungus. It’s warm, it’s moist, and oxygen is limited due to all the waste matter that’s packed in there. The colon – one of the most important organs in the body – is a dumping ground for waste, the place where the body toxins and excess nutrients that could be harmful to the system. It’s also where your body absorbs the nutrients that it needs in order to function and survive – so the health of your colon is mighty important. Parasites in particular can be dangerous to the health of the colon, leeching nutrients from the body and emitting emit harmful toxins that can further weaken the colon’s integrity. This can lead to a number of problems, from the mildly annoying to the deadly, such as: Blood sugar imbalances Bloating Sugar cravings Fatigue Insomnia Weight gain or loss Teeth grinding or TMJ Diarrhea Itching Irritability Malnutrition Anemia Immune deficiency It’s estimated that over 90 percent of Americans contract a parasite of some kind at some point in their life. They enter our bodies from a variety of sources, including pets, food and unwashed hands. You can pick up parasites from contact with pets and other people, or just by walking barefoot. Children are easily infected by being less aware of hygiene and playing with dirt and other possible contaminated substances. But meat consumption is probably the biggest contributor to parasites flourishing in our bodies. Eating meat can cause constipation, and constipation creates the perfect environment for parasites to thrive. These unwelcome guests multiply in the haustras, the pouches in the colon where debris is stored. At their least offensive, they cause intestinal gas – but if you experience any of the symptoms above, even something as seemingly minor as chronically itchy skin, you could very well be harboring parasites in your colon.
There are several families of parasites: Roundworms, Tapeworms, Flukes and Single Cell parasites. Each group has its own unique subset of parasites who do different things to your body. Let’s look at some of the more common intestinal parasite and what you can do to avoid them:
Giardia lamblia are protozoan parasites that infect humans via consumption of contaminated food and water. It’s commonly found in untreated water supplies, and is one of the most common causes of diarrhea in travelers, but people sometimes pick them up while swimming in ponds and lakes.
Giardia is responsible for the condition known as giardiasis that causes diarrhea, bloating, flatulence, abdominal cramping, weight loss, greasy stools, and dehydration.
Toxoplasma gondii is another protozoan organism commonly found in the colon. Cats and kittens often carry it, and it can be transmitted to humans who handle of cats – especially their feces. You can also be infected with them by breathing in their eggs.Toxoplasma is responsible for the disease toxoplasmosis, which causes chills, fever, headaches and fatigue. If a pregnant woman contracts toxoplasmosis, it can lead to miscarriage, or birth defects such as blindness and mental retardation.
Roundworms are are the most common intestinal parasite in the world, affecting over one billion people. They’re also one of the largest parasites, and can grow to up to 30 inches in length. Humans can contract a roundworm infection by eating improperly cooked meat, or by handling dogs or cats infested with roundworms. Symptoms include loss of appetite, allergic reactions, coughing, abdominal pain, edema, sleep disorders, and weight loss.
Hookworms are able to penetrate the human skin, and often enter the body through the feet when people walk barefoot through contaminated areas. They can be all over the world, in warm, moist tropical areas, and can live in the intestines for up to fifteen years. A hookworm infection may cause symptoms such as itchy skin, blisters, nausea, dizziness, anorexia, and weight loss.
Trichinella parasites, caused by the consumption of raw or undercooked pork, can can mimic the symptoms of up to fifty different diseases. Possible symptoms of infection include muscle soreness, fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, edema of the lips and face, difficulty breathing, difficulty speaking, enlarged lymph glands, and extreme dehydration.
Tapeworms are the largest colon parasites that are known to infect humans. There are different types of tapeworms that infect different animals – there are beef tapeworms, pork tapeworms, fish tapeworms, and dog tapeworms. They can grow to several feet in length and live in the intestines for up to 25 years. Symptoms of a tapeworm infection are diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, and change of appetite.
Flukes, or Trematodas, are small flatworms that can penetrate the human skin when an individual is swimming or bathing in contaminated water. Flukes can travel throughout the body and settle in the liver, lungs or intestines. Symptoms of a fluke infection include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and swelling.
CHAPTER 7 - The Happy Vegetarian - How a Meatless Diet Will Improve Your Health and Well-Being
Let’s talk digestion. No, really, this is fascinating – and important. If you still have any lingering suspicions that humans are supposed to eat meat as a primary source of protein, you might want to take a look at the digestive tract of true carnivores. Meat is hard to digest, and it takes time for it to break down so that its nutrients can be used by the body. We’ve already talked about the differences between the teeth of carnivores (sharp amd pointy for tearing flesh) and the teeth of plant-eaters (blunt and flat, like ours), and that’s where digestion begins – in the mouth. While you’re chewing your food, the enzyme’s in your saliva begin the digestive process, the first step in breaking it down to its most usable form. After you swallow, the food moves on to your stomach, where it’s dunked in a bath of hydrochloric acid that’s creaks it down further into a substance called chyme. It travels from there to the digestive tract where its slowly pushed through by contractions of the intestines called peristalysis. As it goes, tiny little hairlike fingers called villi absorb most of the nutrients from the chyme. Finally, the almost completely digested food makes it to the colon, where water is absorbed from the chyme along with some more vitamins and nutrients before exiting through the rectum.
Meat – the protein that overstays its welcome.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Looking at a true carnivore – like, say, that lion with his big sharp teeth -- we can see enormous differences in their digestive tract. Specifically, the lion’s small intestine, where most of the nutrients are only about three times the length of his body. This means that the meat he eats moves through his system quickly, while it’s still fresh. Humans, however, have much, much longer intestines, with food taking from 12 to 19 hours to pass through the digestive system. This is ideal for plant-based foods, allowing our intestinal tracts to absorb every little bit of nutrient available, but it also means that when we eat meat it’s decaying in a warm, moist environment for a very long time. As it slowly rots in our guts, the decaying meat releases free radicals into the body. Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that are present to some degree in every body. When you hear advertisements trumpeting the importance of foods and supplements containing cancer-fighting “anti-oxidents,” it’s these free radicals that they’re battling. Scientists only know a little bit about free radicals at this time, but what they do know is this: free radicals are connected with the aging process, and may play a part in heart disease and cancer. They are, essentially, the tiny mechanisms that break down our bodies so that, eventually, we die. While they’ll always be a part of you – free radicals are built in to cells as part of their normal activities – you can do things to minimize their damage. Too much sunlight in the form of excessive tanning encourages the production of free radicals, which is why even though a little sunlight is important each day (remember our buddy, Vitamin D?). Using a good sunblock will not only help you avoid skin cancers, it’ll help keep you younger in general. But the biggest thing you can do to limit the free radicals in your body is to avoid eating meat. For the 12 hours or more that meat is rotting away in your system, those tiny, free radical time bombs are multiplying in your system.
Along with that, as meat protein breaks down it creates an enormous amount of nitrogen-based by-products like urea and ammonia, which can cause a build-up of uric acid. Too much uric acid in your body leads to stiff, sore joints – and, when it crystallizes, can cause gout and increased pain from arthritis. Carnivorous animals, interestingly, produce a substance called uricase, which breaks down uric acid. Humans don’t produce uricase, though – another clue that we’re not meant to be meat-eaters.
The raw and the cooked
When you eat meat, how much of it do you eat raw? Well, Mr. Lion eats his raw, while its still brimming with enzymes that aid in digestion. Humans, however, cook their meat. In fact, we cook our meat to temperatures over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. This has the benefit of killing most disease-causing bacteria, but it also kills the enzymes in the meat. Whenever you eat dead food – food lacking in the natural enzymes that help you digest it – your pancreas has to work extra hard to provide more so the food will break down for digestion. This puts strain on the pancreas that it wasn’t originally designed to handle. Which isn’t to say that you should eat raw meat, like the lion. But it’s another consideration when we look at whether humans are designed to eat meat – when true carnivores eat raw, fresh meat, all the enzymes are present to help them garner the nutrients they need as it passes quickly through their short digestive tracts, and the nutrient-depleted waste is eliminated soon after.
When we eat cooked meat, though, our bodies have to work extra hard to digest it, using precious energy needed for other purposes, overtaxing the pancreas, and creating free radicals as the dead flesh decays in our intestinal tract. But when we eat a plant-based diet, we’re feeding ourselves food that’s abundant with living enzymes, which breaks down efficiently in our systems, and which provides extra energy by not demanding that our organs work overtime to use it.
Being new to vegetarianism, it’s more than likely that you’re the only person in your household going meatless. Whether you live with a partner, your parents, your children or roommates, sticking to your guns when everyone else is chowing down on meat loaf or cheeseburgers can be difficult. Even if they’re supportive of your decision, you’ll have to deal with them not understanding all the ins and outs of your new lifestyle – and if they’re not supportive, you may find them ridiculing your food choices or even actively trying to sabotage you.
The first thing you need to accept is that it’s not your job to make them change to suit your way of eating, any more than it’s theirs to turn you back into a meat-eater. If they want to change, that’s great – you can share this book with them and you can all work on menu-planning together! But the best way you can influence others in your household to adopt healthier habits is to be a good example – and not turning them off by lecturing them!
What’s the best way to deal with vegetarian needs when the rest of the family expects meat and potatoes for dinner? Should you just partake of the same meal as the others, only skipping the meat? Or should you make it clear that you have special needs, and eat a separate meal from everyone else? If you’re the primary cook in your family, you may not want to prepare multiple entrees every night – and you might not want to cook a meat-based dish for others when you’ve given it up yourself. And if you’re not the family chef, is it fair to ask them to go to extra effort for you, night after night? Only you know the dynamic in your home, so only you can figure out the answers to these questions. One thing is certain, however – you need to sit down and talk to the people you live with about your dietary needs and figure out the most agreeable way to make it work for everyone. If you can’t stand to have meat around you at all, this is a huge issue. You may have to ask the others in your home to cook meat outside on a grill, and dedicate a special section of the refrigerator to meat storage, asking that it’s wrapped in such a way that you don’t have to look at it. If your feelings aren’t that strong, you may simply want to negotiate who cooks what, and when – perhaps you can arrange to cook completely vegetarian meals for everyone three nights a week, and prepare your own entrée on the other nights. It all comes down to what your needs are, and the compromises you and your family are willing to make.
A little patience and negotiation can overcome issues between a meat-eater and a vegetarian, but what if you have children? It’s a little like a “mixed marriage” where you have to decide in which religion you’ll raise your children! Few areas can lead to disharmony in a relationship faster than disagreements on how to bring up the kids, so sit down and negotiate this one with your partner before you go any further. Raising your child to be vegetarian is certainly a healthful option – kids benefit from going meatless just like adults – and we’ll discuss the how-to of that in Chapter 16. The most important thing right now is to figure out how you’ll handle meals at home with your kids. Some families eat nothing but meatless meals at home, but allow the children to eat meat at school and at their friends’ houses. Others create meals that offer options for everyone in the family, so that the omnivores and the vegetarians can choose whatever they like. On the other hand, you may feel so strongly that your children become vegetarians that there may be no room for compromise. You’ll need to lay this out for your partner in a kind, non-confrontational way and, even if you do, it may lead to conflict. It may seem like it’s “just food,” but it’s an important issue – if you can’t easily negotiate the issue, there’s no shame in working it out with a family counselor. Remember, though, that no matter what their age, people like to eat good food – so if you put together tasty, attractive menus full of flavor, color and a variety of textures, you’ll find that the kids and adults are more willing to try vegetarian meals.
If you’re the main cook in the family, cooking multiple entrees for family dinners can be a huge pain. It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s also the easiest solution to making sure you get something to eat while keeping everyone happy. And it’s also, you’ll be surprised to learn, the best way to sway others to your side. Look at it this way – your omnivorous tablemates can enjoy the meat-based portion of the meal while you eat your vegetarian option, and all of you share the (meatless) side dishes. Of course, your vegetarian food is going to look so good and smell so delicious, they’ll want to try your food, too. So the next time, you just make the vegetarian dish, and chances are they’ll never miss the meat-based dish! Pretty soon, you’ll be making vegetarian meals almost every day of the week … mission accomplished. You can also make your meal out of all of the non-meat dishes on the table which, if you plan well, should be enough to fill up your plate and your belly. Steamed vegetables, roasted red potatoes, a salad and a whole wheat roll is a fine meal – let the others have the pork chops, because you’ve got plenty to eat. This is a good approach when you find yourself at a Thanksgiving dinner, office party or dinner at a friend’s house and you can’t dictate the menu – just eat what you can, without making a big deal out of your vegetarian lifestyle.