The following are the most frequently asked questions about vegetarianism.
Vegetarians do not eat any part of an animal - this includes meat, poultry and fish. People adopt a vegetarian diet for a number of reasons, including concern about health, animals, the environment and world hunger, as well as for religious and/or spiritual reasons.
While labels for vegetarians can seem limiting, they can be useful to determine one’s dietary habits when preparing or offering food. Broadly speaking, vegetarians can be divided into the following categories - ‘lacto-ovo’ vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs, ‘lacto’ vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs, ‘ovo’ vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products, ‘vegans’ (sometimes called ‘pure’ or ‘total’ vegetarians) consume no animal products at all, including not buying or wearing clothing that has come from an animal (e.g. leather, fur and wool) as well as drugs that have been tested on living animals. ‘Fruitarians’ eat fruit, but sometimes include nuts and seeds in their diet.
This is because they are under the impression that vegetarians are basically omnivores who do not eat meat from land animals, such as beef, lamb and pork. This is just a misunderstanding since the word ‘vegetarian’ was coined to describe someone who eats (or a diet which includes) ‘neither fish, flesh nor fowl’. The word ‘vegetarian’, however has only a passing connection with vegetables - it actually derives from the Latin word vegetus meaning ‘lively’.
Medical doctors and government agencies recommend that people reduce the amount of red meat and overall percentage of fats in their diet. Excess dietary fat has been linked to several illnesses, including heart disease and cancer, the two top killers in the western world. As a result, many people have cut down or eliminated red meat from their diet. However, recent medical studies have found greater health benefits from eliminating meat and animal products completely.
Population studies show that vegetarians have the lowest levels of heart disease and other ailments. A study by the leading American cardiologist, Dean Ornish, MD (as reported in the medical journal, The Lancet) found that most patients who followed standard medical advice for coronary artery blockages got worse, while those who adopted a total vegetarian diet coupled with lifestyle changes including exercise and stress control showed improvement, including reversal of coronary artery blockages.
Poultry carries other risks. A variety of antibiotics are used on chickens in Australia and elsewhere, including tetracyclines and penicillins to prevent illness, while others are used as growth promoters or to prevent the multiplication of bacteria.
There has been recent concern about how the ingestion of second hand antibiotics in animals for human consumption may affect the usefulness of antibiotics in humans. Contaminated chicken is a major source of salmonella bacteria, which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections if the chicken is improperly prepared. These same bacteria are also being found with increasing frequency in eggs, even those with undamaged shells.
Fish carry more environmental pollutants than land animals, particularly persistent organic pollutants (POPs) - synthetic compounds created as industrial chemicals or pesticides. There are 12 POPs of which the pesticides dioxin and furans are the most well-known. POPs bio-accumulate, passing up the food chain via larger fish, meat and dairy products. Most fish consumed by people have eaten other fish, resulting in an increased toxic build-up - 95% of human intake of dioxins and furans (both carcinogens) comes from our food. In addition, shellfish contain high levels of toxins because of their feeding habits. Toxic chemicals in fish may accumulate to more than 100,000 times the levels present in the surrounding water. Fish (as well as meat and poultry) contain about 13 times as much pesticide residue as vegetables and grains.
In addition to chemical pollutants, fish can contain heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead. Recently health authorities warned expecting mothers to avoid eating particular varieties of fish because of their high mercury content. Shellfish such as oysters, mussels and prawns are filter feeders and suck in many chemicals while being particularly susceptible to contamination by bacteria. Fish is also a common allergen.
Any reduction in fat intake is of some benefit, but there is no cut or kind of meat that is really healthy. Beef, pork, poultry and fish have varying amounts of fat but contain about the same amount of cholesterol. A cooked well-marbled steak has no more cholesterol than less- marbled meat, while muscle meat actually has about 50% more cholesterol than meat fat. This is because muscle has a much higher water content than fat (70% compared to 15-22.5%) and when it is cooked, a lot of that water is lost, leaving behind a higher concentration of cholesterol.
Many people try these ‘miracle foods’ - which have some demonstrated health benefits - without making any other dietary or lifestyle changes. No one food can prevent illness or death from diseases which may have many deep-rooted causes. The best way to avoid these diseases is to eat a low-fat vegetarian diet and adopt health-promoting lifestyle changes, including getting enough exercise and reducing stress. A balanced vegetarian diet contains an abundance of health-protecting nutrients and fibre.
A 1980 article in Advances in Cancer Research noted, “None of the risk factors for cancer is probably more significant than diet and nutrition.” For cancer prevention, the American Cancer Society suggests a reduction in fatty foods and an increase in vegetables, whole grains and fruits. Risk factors for cancer include excess calorie intake and obesity, high animal protein intake, a lack of plant foods containing beta carotene and phytochemicals (antioxidants) and insufficient dietary fibre.
Chemical carcinogens and cancer viruses in animal food may also be part of the problem. The statistics are compelling: Australia’s second major killer is cancer. Women who eat meat daily have a 4 times greater risk of breast cancer than those who eat it less than once a week. Men who eat animal products every day develop fatal prostate cancer more often than total vegetarian men. 1. Ovarian cancer is twice as likely to develop in women on high-fat diets as in those on low-fat regimens. 2. Populations around the world that have high meat intakes also have high rates of colon cancer. Those populations with low meat intakes have correspondingly lower rates.
- Where will I get protein if I don’t eat meat? Can I make sure I'm getting enough of the various amino acids?
Getting enough protein is not a problem if you are eating a varied diet and are getting enough calories to meet your energy needs. In fact, the only ways to guarantee a protein deficiency is to eat only those foods which fall below 10% protein on a per calorie basis (certain fruits and refined oils), or eat exclusively junk food.
For most westerners the problem is consuming far too much protein, which is linked to a number of diseases including osteoporosis, obesity, liver disease and kidney failure. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are found in all plants, and this includes the eight essential amino acids humans must obtain from food.
Those vegetarian foods highest in overall protein content include legumes or pulses (dried beans and peas), soy products of various kinds (tofu, tempeh, meat analogues), eggs and dairy products for those who consume them, and some nuts (almonds contain 20% protein). While, at one time, some nutritionists thought it was important to eat complementary proteins at the same meal, more recent studies have shown that this practice is unnecessary.
Most vitamins and minerals are found in abundance in plant foods, but some people may wonder about specific nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamins B12 and D. Iron can be readily obtained from leafy greens, dried fruits (e.g. apricots, prunes and raisins), broccoli, wheat, peas, beans and sea vegetables. Iron absorption is increased when iron-rich foods are eaten with a source of Vitamin C.
Calcium is abundant in dark leafy greens, broccoli, almonds, chick peas, soybeans, figs, carob and sea vegetables.
Phosphorus and calcium must be in a delicate balance in order to best utilise calcium. The amount of calcium that is unused or excreted by the body increases dramatically in those people who eat a diet high in protein, especially dairy products and meat which are also high in phosphorus. Dairy products, touted as good sources of calcium, are actually calcium inhibitors because of their high protein content.
The highest rates of osteoporosis are found in countries where calcium intake is greatest and most of that calcium comes from protein-rich dairy products.
Vitamin B12, which is produced by bacteria, is needed in microscopic amounts and is essential for the nervous system and all cell growth. Deficiency can lead to pernicious anaemia, spinal cord degeneration and death as well as to dangerously high homocysteine levels, which can lead to heart attack. While most cases of B12 deficiency are caused by malabsorption by the individual, not by a deficient diet, vegans, children, pregnant and lactating women should get a regular supply of B12 from specially fortified foods, including soy milk and Sanitarium Marmite. Read labels to be sure. B12 tablets (derived from non-animal sources) are available as a supplement. Vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs also obtain B12 from those sources.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone, not a true vitamin, and is related to calcium metabolism. Deficiency can lead to rickets in children. Our bodies are designed to obtain vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. Because vitamin D is fat-soluble and can be stored in the body, reasonable time spent in the sunshine during warmer months (as little as 15 minutes per day) should provide enough to last the winter. Early morning and late afternoon are best to avoid high UV radiation levels. Dark-skinned children and those who live in northern latitudes or in cloudy or smoggy areas should be sure to have reliable dietary sources of Vitamin D. To avoid toxicity, nutritionists recommend we ingest no more than the RDA of 400 IU of vitamin D.
Many people do choose to increase the amount of dairy products in their diet when they eliminate flesh foods, but this is both unnecessary and potentially unhealthy. All necessary nutrients - except vitamin B12 - can be obtained by those who eat a total vegetarian diet (no meat, dairy products or eggs). The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has called for a New Four Food Groups (whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes) which lists meat and dairy products as optional.
Some vegetarians do gain weight, but most keep a stable weight even though they eat a greater volume of food than meat-eaters. The reasons for this are quite simple. Meat and dairy products are calorie dense and most of those calories come from protein and fat. Vegetable foods contain far fewer calories for the same quantity of food and those calories come primarily from carbohydrates. Calories are not created equal. Dietary fat tends to be converted into body fat far more readily than do carbohydrates. People can eat more calories without gaining weight if those calories come primarily from carbohydrates.
A vegetarian diet provides more than ample nutrition for children and may actually help protect them from some illnesses - including those caused by pesticides and contaminants in foods. Vegetables and grains are lower on the food chain and so contain far fewer pesticides and contaminants. Parents should make sure that children eat enough calories (from unrefined whole foods, not junk foods).
Children have small stomachs so it is wise to include judicious use of some fats (avocados nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters) and dried fruits to add calories to their diets. All vegetarians, including children, should eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Animals closest to us physiologically are vegetarian or nearly vegetarian, and so were our not- too-distant evolutionary ancestors. Humans can digest a wide variety of foods and this ability undoubtedly contributed to our species’ survival throughout history.
Unlike most species, humans have choice about their diet which is dictated more by tradition and culture than by physical restrictions. While scientists disagree about specific anatomical and physiological points, one of the best indicators that humans are suited to a vegetarian diet is the many health benefits found with plant-based diets and the many diseases and illnesses linked to eating meat. The ability to eat an omnivorous diet may have had survival value in the past but it is now clear that meat-eating threatens human health and planetary survival.
Animals have their own lives and destinies separate from human needs. While some people interpret religious teachings to mean that humans have dominion over animals, many believe having dominion does not necessarily mean that we have to kill animals for food. Many religions have vegetarian sub-denominations, and having compassion for animals doesn’t contradict the teachings of any of the major religions.
It makes sense to worry about all beings on this planet because our lives are interconnected. Much of human suffering is directly linked to animal consumption, including heart disease, pollution, water scarcity and starvation. The truth is that there would be plenty of food for everyone if grain was grown for direct consumption by humans and not by animals destined for the meat market:
1.3 billion people could be fed with the grain and soybeans eaten by US livestock.
The US population is only 320,000,000. 80% of US corn and 95% of oats are eaten by livestock.
90% of protein, 99% of carbohydrate and 100% of dietary fibre is wasted by cycling grain through animals.
64% of American agricultural land is used for livestock feed.
An acre can yield 100kg of feedlot beef compared with 17, 000 kg of potatoes.
A kilo of feedlot beef takes 16kg of grains and soybeans.
15 pure vegetarians can be fed on the same amount of land needed to feed one person on a meat-based diet.
Many people are concerned about companion animals such as dogs and cats, or those used and killed in laboratory experiments or trapped for their fur. Those are important issues but they do not preclude concern about animals raised for slaughter. Almost 10 times as many animals die for human consumption as for all other causes combined.
Conditions on many factory farms and at slaughterhouses are deplorable. Many animals live and die in cramped, filthy quarters that do not allow such basic physiological needs a sunshine, stretching, or for some, any unrestrained movement at all. Laying chickens, for example, are usually squeezed four to five birds per cage, and this crowding leads to stress- related diseases. At the slaughterhouse, many animals are boiled alive or bleed to death from slit throats.
While some laws call for humane slaughter (where animals are rendered unconscious first), killing animals for food can never be considered humane. Remember, it is not only the slaughter of animals which is cruel, but also their transport from farm to saleyards to slaughterhouse since animals are terrified by this process.
Recycling is a critical part of protecting the environment but by simply changing our food choices we can make a much larger positive impact. One of the greatest hazards facing the environment is meat production because it consumes so much water, fuel for transport, electricity for refrigeration and waste from excrement, slaughter and the saturated fat sludge that is deposited constantly into our drainage systems.
The demand for cheap beef is a major reason for the destruction of Central American rainforests. This contributes to species extinction and, along with deforestation, contributes to carbon dioxide pollution, a major factor in the greenhouse effect. Tropical rainforests provide a substantial part of the earth’s oxygen, house 80% of the planet’s land vegetation, and are home to more species of plant and animal life than all the remainder of the earth.
It takes 5 square metres of rainforest for each quarter- pound hamburger made from imported cattle. With every acre destroyed, species become extinct and carbon dioxide pollution increases, adding to the greenhouse effect. At the same time the atmosphere is robbed of oxygen that would have been generated by that vegetation. The ‘greenhouse effect’ is also caused by an excess of methane, a naturally occurring colourless, odourless gas produce in part from the decomposition of organic matter. Each year around the world ruminant livestock release some 80 million tons of methane in belches and flatulence, while animal waste at feedlots and factory farms emit another 35 million tons. These account for between 15 and 20% of global methane emissions.
The vast majority of land in Australia is currently used to raise cattle and sheep. This is causing severe degradation and erosion because of overgrazing. Historically, topsoil depletion has been a cause of the demise of many great civilisations. In the last 200 years, Australian agricultural practices have destroyed about 1,500 years’ worth of topsoil. Meat-based diets also waste fossil fuels and raw materials. It takes more than 15 times as much energy to produce a kilo of pork, for example, as it does to produce a kilo of fresh fruits and vegetables. A large percentage of the energy used in Australian agriculture goes into livestock production, the majority of it for meat.
Animal agriculture guzzles huge amounts of water. It can take the same amount of water used for all purposes by a typical household in a month to produce a kilo of beef. It is far more efficient to produce plants (which require only about 2% as much water) for human consumption. Millions of tons of non-recycled wastes are produced by factory-farmed livestock each year. These wastes can be from 10 to a few hundred times more concentrated than domestic raw sewage, and much of it ends up untreated in our water.
Animal excrement and fertilisers have been blamed for some 40% of the nitrogen and 35% of the phosphorous released into our rivers, lakes and streams. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that almost half our wells and virtually all surface streams are tainted with agricultural pollutants.
It is cheaper to eat a balanced vegetarian diet than a nutritionally equivalent meat-based diet. Certainly there is a great deal of variety in a vegetarian diet, and it is possible to buy many convenience and specialty foods that may cost more. However, these foods are not necessary to provide a nutritionally-balanced, varied and interesting vegetarian di
This is a common misconception. Vegetarians often eat a wider variety of foods than many meat-eaters. A vegetarian diet can be like opening a window to a whole new world of foods. Remember, a balanced vegetarian diet will include the many varieties of fruit and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds as well as less commonly eaten foods such as seaweed (an excellent source of iodine and calcium).
It depends. For some people there may be a period of adjustment, especially if they are trying unfamiliar foods. It may take a little planning ahead - such as soaking dried beans the night before to cut down on cooking time - but many meals, such as spaghetti, vegetables, stir-frys and salad, take no longer to prepare. Grocery and health food stores sell vegetarian convenience foods such as burgers, sausages, cutlets and patties that can cut down on preparation time.
It doesn’t have to be. All the staples of a vegetarian diet can be found on the shelves of regular supermarkets or in the gourmet, specially, ethnic and health food sections. More bulk and specially products are now available to meet the growing demands of consumers concerned about their diets. Health food stores and coops - found in most areas - offer vegetarian staples and convenience foods. Mail-order companies also provide vegetarian foods.
It is not as hard as you might think. Growing consumer demand has prompted many restaurants and airlines to offer vegetarian meals. Ethnic restaurants often offer meatless options. When in doubt, ask the restaurant staff. Most will adjust the ingredients or cook something that is not listed on the menu.
Begin assessing your current diet. Look for meat-free versions of foods you already enjoy, such as chili without meat, or tofu burgers or vegetable cutlets instead of chicken. You may want to look through a few vegetarian cookbooks, check out your local health food store or supermarket, natural foods or ethnic restaurants for ideas. If you feel unsure, try cutting down on your meat intake while introducing new vegetarian foods or increasing those vegetarian foods you are already familiar with.
Set a period of, say, three months as a target and assess your progress at the end of it. If you want to, you can either continue for a longer period or, if you are still reducing your meat intake, try reducing it a little more over the next three months.
There is no golden rule other than to feel comfortable and confident about what you are doing. Just keep in mind the many vegetarians who have been living healthy active lives for years. Contact your local vegetarian society for support and to find out about how to meet other vegetarians with whom you can share your experiences and knowledge.
You may eat more food because you’re eating less fat, which is calorie-dense. Meat, the leading source of fat in the Australian diet, has no fibre and is high in calories. So relax, you may be eating more food, but it is bulky and has fewer calories per unit of volume than meat.
You may lose weight. Most people are pleased that healthy vegetarian foods have less fat and calories.
You may be less constipated. People who eat a typical Australian diet may be constipated and not realise it. Making the switch to a healthier, high-fibre vegetarian diet can lead to more regular bowel movements.
People may give you a 'hard time'. Your dietary changes may be perceived by your family, friends and acquaintances as threatening or as criticism. Be cheerful about your choices, and remember to let people come to their own dietary conclusions.
Most new vegetarians report that they feel great! Some say they’ve never felt better in their lives. For some people there is a brief adjustment period where they may feel weak or tired as their bodies detoxify This should pass quickly if you are eating a varied diet comprised of unrefined foods. Meat acts as a stimulant, and you may experience withdrawal symptoms like someone who has just given up coffee. This should pass within a few days to a month. Many do not experience this adjustment at all and most find after they adjust that they have more energy and feel better than ever.
Remember, you will be embarking on an exciting journey! Get ready to enjoy a wide variety of new foods. Some vegetarians like the many meat substitutes and analogues available commercially, especially in the beginning. You may want to try tofu ‘hot dogs’ or soy burgers, for example. Others find the meat-like texture unpleasant. You will undoubtedly find your favourite vegetarian foods after you have had a chance to experiment. Enjoy the experience!