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Vegetarian Diet, Good or Bad?

Is a Vegetarian Diet the Healthiest
Way to Eat?

by Margaret Auld-Louie

What is LIVE HolistiChat?


While a vegetarian diet can be cleansing and healthy in the short term, unless one replaces all the essential missing animal nutrients, a vegetarian diet can be very unbalanced and damaging to the body in the long term. Many long term vegetarians (and their offspring) suffer from depression, mood swings, hormonal imbalances, thyroid imbalances, weight issues, no energy, lack of mental concentration—brain fog, vision problems, anemia, mental and growth retardation, scurvy, rickets and many other health issues. A staple of most vegetarian diets is soy and soy products. Unless fermented to neutralize the toxins (phytic acid, phytoestrogens, trypsin inhibitors and more), soy may cause pancreatic disorders, infertility, hypothyroidism, auto-immune disease, thyroid cancer and a host of other brain and nervous system disorders. The assumption in most media is that a vegetarian diet is healthier (such as cancer preventive and "heart healthy"), is ethically treating animals and the environment better and more spiritually advanced. In recent years, many teenage girls have become vegetarians or even vegans because it is "cool" and they feel it is healthier and kinder to animals. Based on our holistic research, even though vegetarianism may seem to be the politically correct way to eat, we do not agree that it is healthier or better for the environment. In the long-term, the body does not get the nutrients it needs to be healthy, particularly for children, teenagers, parents-to-be and nursing mothers. And despite assumptions to the contrary, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily kinder to animals or the planet than a diet containing meat. The majority of people we know assume that Russell and I must be vegetarians because we do not eat the Standard American Diet (SAD), we avoid junk food, we love animals and they know we follow a healthy diet and pursue spiritual growth. Continue reading our "wholistic" opinion below to find out why we do not believe a vegetarian diet to be healthy in the long term.

It Is All In the Teeth
Is Soy a Health Food?
Environmental Balance
Be Kind to Animals
Nutrient Deficient Diet
Does Eating Meat Increase Cancer?
Is a Low Fat Diet Good?

Vegetarian Resources

It Is All In the Teeth

One way to determine what type of diet Nature intended a species to eat is to look at their teeth. Nature provided carnivores long, sharp, pointed teeth to tear the flesh from their prey. Nature provided short, dull, flat teeth for herbivores to chew their plants. And Nature provided omnivores (humans) both kinds of teeth in order to eat both meat and plants. So, a biologist would tell us people are meant to eat both meat and plants to get all the nutrients our bodies need to thrive.

Is Soy a Health Food?

Did you know that soy farming in South America claims more acres of rainforest than beef? While much of this is grown to feed European animals, the soy industry is also vigorously promoting soy for people, and soy is often a major component of the diet of vegetarians. Soy is not an appropriate, healthy or natural food for either animals or people unless it is slowly fermented (see our article on soy). Vegetarian diets are usually loaded with soy foods and their by-products. Is soy really a healthy food? We have researched a considerable amount of scientific information and concluded that (unfermented) soy can really screw up your body and your health. To understand this in human terms, all you have to do is read some of the stories of people whose health has been damaged by soy. You can find these stories in the book The Whole Soy Story as well as the letters to the editor in nearly every edition of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal published by the Weston Price Foundation. Following is a typical story, reported in The Whole Soy Story book from someone in Boulder, Colorado:

"I am a healthy 48-year-old woman. An avid runner, I have followed primarily a vegetarian diet for over five years, and have always had excellent blood chemistry results...Last year, however, I added something significant to my regular diet of fruits, vegetables, beans and grains: soy products. I followed the conventional wisdom that this would alleviate early menopausal symptoms, keep my heart healthy, etc. I ate tofu daily, consumed soy milk in abundance, snacked on soy nuts...and looked for soy isoflavones in my supplements. Results: I now am facing surgery for a goiter (enlarged thyroid)...I have symptoms of thyroid damage. My skin, nails, hair are all suffering visibly. I have chest pain when I run. Worst of all my cholesterol has risen from 137 to 210 in the last six months. A nonsmoking, non-drinking vegetarian who eschews all dairy products simply cannot experience this kind of change in less than six months without some external factor."

There are many more stories like this, telling of a myriad of health problems caused by soy. An executive secretary in her 50's with thyroid problems tells of how the hidden soy added to the bread she was eating caused such severe forgetfulness that she could not perform her job. When she stopped eating soy, the mental problems went away.

Environmental Balance

Eating a vegetable-based diet does not prevent animals from being harmed either. Most vegetables, even organic, are grown on large farms that use mechanized vegetable farming, resulting in numerous animals being killed (the soil organisms, insects, rodents and birds that live wild in the vegetable fields). In addition, monoculture agriculture (growing one plant in great quantity) depletes the soil and is ecologically damaging. Neanderthin author Ray Audette states "The production of wheat in ancient Sumeria transformed once-fertile plains into salt flats that remain sterile 5,000 years later." Slate, the online magazine, recently ran an article on Whole Foods pointing out that most of the organic produce at their store rarely comes from the small, local, family-run farms they promote but rather from a few large corporate farms in California. Transporting organic food from these farms cross-country uses a tremendous amount of energy. Growing plants for food is not always the best use of land, either.  Two thirds of the earth's land is unsuited for cultivation but can be used to graze animals and these animals can subsist on plants that are not fit for human consumption. The Maasai people in Africa are nomadic herders and they believe that tilling the land for crop farming is a crime against nature. Once you cultivate the land, it is no longer suitable for grazing.

Be Kind to Animals

We realize that many people are vegetarians because they object to killing animals and then eating them. Our feeling is that since we are biologically designed to need nutrients only found in animal products, and our bodies have the physiology (teeth and digestive system) of omnivores (animals that eat both animal and plant material), then it cannot be wrong for us to kill animals for food anymore than it is wrong for a lion to kill its prey. What is wrong is the inhumane manner in which animals are raised and killed today in factory farms. These animals are fed inappropriate food for their species (such as animal parts being given to herbivores), raised in filthy conditions, do not have room to move around and are given antibiotics and hormones to keep them alive in these horrid conditions and maximize production. We agree that meat from these animals is not very healthy to eat and the animals are cruelly treated. On the other hand, eating animals raised on pasture without hormones or antibiotics, from a mixed-used farm run by small farmers, is not cruel in our opinion, nor does it damage the environment. In fact, a farm that integrates animal husbandry with growing vegetables is the most ecologically sound use of land and kindest to the environment. The manure from the animals is used to fertilize the plants and the animals help to protect the plants from destruction (such as chickens eating insects that destroy plants). The meat, dairy and eggs from such a farm will contain far more nutrients and a more appropriate balance of fats than factory-farmed food. This food is more expensive and difficult to find but is becoming more widely available as people request it. The meat is typically labeled as "grass fed" and can be found at some health food stores. (The dairy and eggs usually must be purchased direct from the farm). For a thoughtful discussion on the ethics of eating meat, see this article: www.westonaprice.org/healthissues/ethicsmeat.html.

Nutrient Deficient Diet

What about the argument that vegetarians can obtain all the nutrients they need from food if they combine proteins (beans & grains) and take B12 supplements? And what about cultures such as in India that have been successfully vegetarian for thousands of years? The fact that vegetarians do need to take an artificial supplement (B12) to meet their needs for vitamins tells me, as a biologist, that the diet is inappropriate. If a species is eating the diet designed for it by Mother Nature, it should contain all the nutrients in the food the animal needs for optimal health, without having to add man-made substances created in a laboratory. Some people argue that soy and blue green algae contain B12, however these are forms of B12 that cannot be absorbed by humans and, in fact, increase the need for B12. Vitamin B12 is found in dairy and eggs, so it is primarily vegans who are at risk of B12 deficiency. The argument against veganism being a "natural" way of eating is that if these same people who are vegans had lived just a few decades ago, when fortified foods and vitamins were unavailable, they would have died. So, how do Indians stay healthy on a vegetarian diet? There are two factors: 1) their diet usually contains dairy products (and raw milk, in the era before pasteurization, is very high in nutrients) and 2) their grains are infested with insects, which provide many beneficial nutrients including B12. Some Hindus are vegans but apparently the insects infesting their grains provide the B12 they need. When they later moved to England, they developed megaloblastic anemia (caused by B12 deficiency) within a few years. In England, the food supply is cleaner and does not contain insect parts as in India.

However, it's not just B12 that is lacking in a vegetarian diet. Other critical nutrients lacking are the fat-soluble nutrients, particularly Vitamins A and D. The beta carotene found in vegetables is not the same as Vitamin A (though it may be listed on the label as the same). It has to be converted by the body into Vitamin A and not all bodies can make this conversion, particularly children, people with hypothyroid issues and diabetics. So maybe children really do have a sound reason for not wanting to eat their vegetables (their bodies are not as good as adults as absorbing the nutrients in plant foods). Vitamin A is critical for a healthy immune system and many former vegetarians have found that they are healthier and get fewer illnesses when they eat animal products.

Vitamin D is also critical to health and to the absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It is difficult to get enough D from brief periods of time in the sun at the latitude of the U.S. Only sunning at midday during the summer months with most of the body surface exposed will produce enough. Traditional cultures, even in the tropics, ate diets high in Vitamin D such as intestines, organ meats, skin and fat from certain land animals, as well as shellfish, oily fish and insects. The Standard American Diet does not provide sufficient Vitamin D and vegetarians get even less, since it is primarily found in animal foods, particularly animal fat.

Does Eating Meat Increase Cancer?

What about the frequent statements in the media that eating meat and animal fats produces cancer and heart disease? Many scientists have shown these claims to be false or to only be associated with processed or overcooked meats. Instead, a high-carbohydrate diet as well as excessive consumption of polyunsaturated fats from refined vegetable oils are associated with cancer. Primitive cultures, such as the Eskimos, Aborigines and Maasai traditionally eat diets high in animal products and animal fats but show low rates of cancer and heart disease unless they switch to a modern Western diet. Then they are prone to the same rates of degenerative diseases that plague us. The media frequently uses the term "artery clogging saturated fats", however, studies have shown that arterial plaque is composed mostly of unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated. Mary Enig, the Ph.D. expert on fats who first sounded the alarm on trans-fatty acids, has shown that both trans-fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats are the major culprits behind cancer and heart disease, not saturated fats.

Numerous studies show that low fat diets are associated with many problems such as depression, violence, cancer and fatigue, as well as growth problems, failure to thrive and learning disabilities in children. High-carbohydrate/low-fat diets tend to increase insulin in the body which is now known to cause inflammation leading to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Excessive carbohydrates as well as monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, also lead to weight gain. Vegetarian diets and in particular vegan diets are by nature high-carbohydrate/low-fat. Maybe it's not just junk food that is making our children obese and prone to mental problems--autism, violence, learning disabilities, depression, etc. Animal products and especially animal fats (including the fats in whole, raw milk) provide nutrients that are especially needed for growing bodies and the developing brain and nervous system. Instead, schools are providing low-fat, pasteurized milk to "counteract" the obesity epidemic and well-meaning parents think a vegetarian diet is healthy for children.

Is a Low Fat Diet Good?

A low fat diet is also likely associated with the increasing rates of infertility afflicting couples. Traditional cultures fed parents-to-be animal products that are super high in the nutrients needed for healthy reproduction such as eggs, liver, fish eggs, cream, butter, seafood, etc. Native American couples experiencing infertility would go on a "bear fat" diet, which usually resolved the problem. Today, we're told that it's healthier to eat vegetarian and that being vegan is the ultimate in health. A local paper, which runs a weekly feature on how couples met and what their wedding was like, ran a story several months ago about a vegan man who persuaded his fiancé to become vegan as well. The story focused on how wonderful it was that this couple was eating so "healthy". Unfortunately, that couple may well have difficulty conceiving and bearing children and their children's health will likely suffer as well. They won't know why this is or even associate it with what they are eating because they think their diet is perfect.

Proponents of vegetarian diets also don't take into consideration biochemical individuality. As some former vegetarians have discovered, not Salmoneveryone can be healthy on a vegetarian diet, no matter how well balanced and supplemented. Nutrition expert Sally Fallon describes the Native American and Irish races as "obligate carnivores", meaning that their bodies require animal meat and fat to obtain all the nutrients they need and adds that they tend to become alcoholics when their diet is lacking this. People with ancestry of Innuit, Scandinavian, Northern European or sea coast peoples that ate diets high in seafood may have lost the ability to convert alpha-linolenic acid into EPA and DHA (essential fatty acids found only in animal foods). This means they can't get the fats they need from flax oil or other plant oils. If you have pets, you should note that this is also true of many dogs and all cats. (Cats, being pure carnivores, have no need for and therefore don't produce the enzymes that convert plant oils into EPA and DHA.) Flax oil or seeds added to pet food and supplements is useless to a cat.

If a vegetarian diet is not the ideal healthy diet, then what is a healthy way to eat? We think it makes sense to look at what traditional cultures have eaten for thousands of years, before the advent of Western processed foods (like white flour, white sugar, refined vegetable oils, etc.). There are few cultures left now that are untouched by Western civilization. Fortunately, researchers such as Dr. Weston Price studied the diets of traditional people in the 1920's and 1930's when it became possible to travel to the far corners of the globe, before these cultures started eating modern foods. He was hoping to find a healthy vegetarian culture and was disappointed when he did not. He found that all healthy cultures used some animal foods. Also, paleontological evidence shows humans have always been omnivores. For more information, see our article on Healthy Traditional Diets.

While the ideal diet will contain animal products from animals raised outdoors on pasture, vegetables from small, organic family-owned farms and wild seafood, even the less ideally-raised animal foods still contain essential health-promoting nutrients. Sally Fallon tells the story of an elderly neighbor who opened his refrigerator and showed her a shelf full of cream. Though the cream was grocery store pasteurized cream and not from grass-fed cows, it still promoted the health and longevity of this elderly man because cream is so concentrated in the fat-soluble nutrients (like Vitamins A and D).

Vegetarian Resources

For more information on vegetarianism, we recommend the following resources:

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