Vegetarianism: Maybe It’s Not that Taboo After All

The term “vegetarian” only came into use relatively recently. Just a few short hundreds of years ago, it was known as “Pythagorean”, or the “Pythagorean diet” after the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. He believed that living off a meatless diet would prolong his life. So convincing was he that his followers adopted his diet as well. Centuries later, in 1847, the term “Pythagorean” was switched to “vegetarian” with the establishment of the first vegetarian society in England.

As of 2016, there are about 375 million vegetarians in the world. However, according to the 2014 Meat Atlas of the Friends of the Earth and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, only a small percentage of people in the world – and many for different reasons – are defined as “vegetarian” of which there are nearly half a billion.

Now, why are almost half a billion people abstaining from some of the most luxurious meals? Living a life without consuming meats reduces the risk for chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancers. Harvard Medical School supports these claims in the Becoming a Vegetarian article on their website. Nonetheless, this must be done in the right way. Anybody can technically live life with a meatless diet while eating very poorly. Somebody cannot just eat things such as pizza, cake and chips expecting to have the same health benefits as a healthy vegetarian.

According to the American Dietetic Association: “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” Several studies show that different plant foods eaten throughout the day provide enough amino acids and nitrogen retention that additional proteins are not necessary.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford), researched 65,000 people and concluded that vegetarians had a 19 per cent lower risk of death from a heart disease than people who eat meat.

The main reason vegetarians have a lower susceptibility to chronic diseases and a longer healthier life is because they consume less saturated fat and cholesterol than meat eaters. Instead, as a source of fat, they resort to the “good fats” such as nuts, grains and olive oil. Thus, they have lower “bad” cholesterol, lower blood pressure and a lower body mass index. Now, studies comparing colon cancer rates between vegetarians and non-vegetarians are not consistent, but they do show that vegetarians have low levels of carcinogenic in their colons as opposed to meat-eaters.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians, those who do not eat meat but do consume eggs and dairy products, resort to alternate resources for their nutrients. For example, they resort to vegetables such as bok choy, broccoli and kale as sources of calcium. They rely on eggs, dairy, beans, lentils, chickpeas and more as sources of protein. In western countries, several studies show that vegetarians have the same levels of iron and zinc as meat-eaters. 

Although following a vegetarian diet is beneficial, Enza Gucciardi, a professor in Ryerson University’s school of nutrition, states that vegetarians may get into a cycle of eating the same foods with limited variation. “Eating a varied diet is important … a good balance of fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans, whole grains and dairy products for those who are not vegan,” Gucciardi said. 

Today, one in four adults and one in 10 children are obese in Canada. “Bad fats” are the ruling cause for this fact, which are found in processed meats. According to the Canadian Obesity Network, processed meats cause strokes, arthritis, heart disease and other health issues.

Alida Lacobellis, a masters in of Health Science in Nutrition Communication student at Ryerson University, advocates the importance of having a well planned diet as a vegetarian in order to actually see the benefits of that studies suggest. “The more foods you cut out as a vegetarian, the more carefully you will have to plan your diet to ensure you are avoiding nutrient deficiencies,” Lacobellis said. “Vitamin B12, iron, and calcium are some common nutrient deficiencies that can occur with vegetarian diets, especially those that exclude all animal proteins, dairy, and eggs.”

The Harvard Medical School published a Healthy Eating Plate chart with what they say “accurate recommendations for following a healthy diet.” They also explicitly explain that The Healthy Eating Plate “is not influenced by the food industry or agriculture policy.”

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The Canadian governments chart suggests that people should consume more vegetables, fruits and grain products servings a day than meat. It supports the claim with the following statement: “Have meat alternatives such as beans, lentils and tofu often.” However, on the same chart the following is displayed: “If you eat luncheon meats, sausages or prepackaged meats, choose those lower in salt (sodium) and fat.”

Is the Canadian government essentially telling its people eating the “less bad” processed meats is OK for one’s health? The Healthy Eating Plate contrarily explains that we should avoid bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats all together.

People have different reasons for following a vegetarian diet. Some do it for ethical reasons, others for religious purposes, others for its health benefits and some for a combination of reasons. Ischaemic heart disease and strokes are the leading causes of death in the world. Vegetarians and studies conducted around the world advocate that among several factors, the consumption of meat is one of the main ones to blame for.

“Many people automatically equate vegetarian diets with good health, but unless you're eating a well balanced whole foods vegetarian diet, this isn't always the case,” Lacobellis said.

Lacobellis recommends seeing a registered dietitian to help plan a healthy vegetarian diet based on the latest nutrition science. You can find a dietitian near you by using the Find a Dietitian feature on the Dietitians of Canada website.