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By Chris Sovey, RN,BSN
Unfortunately, most diets today are NOT based on these principles, so we have a slew of fads that have no scientific basis. These include: The Atkins diet, blood type diets, south beach diet, and many others. It is unfortunate that so many have been misinformed by those who desperately seek to gain through monetary means. Two of the most popular diets to rise in popularity over the last 20-30 years are the vegetarian and vegan diets.
Vegetarianism includes a wide scope of eating patterns that range from consuming nearly all foods except meat (Lacto-ovo vegetarian) to abstaining from animal flesh except fish (Pescetarianism). Several other variations exist as well. Unfortunately, most people have been deceived as to what makes up a healthy vegetarian diet.
Major flaws of vegetarian diet:
A vegetarian diet CAN be a healthy option for a lot of people, but it MUST be done correctly. Here are some common points that most vegetarians overlook.
- Vegetarians tend to have lower serum levels of selenium (1). Selenium is a critical trace mineral for immunity against viruses, and is involved in a host of other biological processes. This is primarily due to the continual depletion of our soils from conventional farming operations. Selenium is found in brazil nuts and animal sources at higher concentrations.
- Vegetarians frequently replace meat proteins with grain-based or legume substitutes, such as lentils, beans, etc. In theory, this would make a lot of sense. The nutrition profile of these plants are impressive, but the problem is we can’t access those nutrients without a great expense of energy. Our bodies are not designed to break-down phytic-acid, lectins, enzyme inhibitors, and other toxic components that prevent us from obtaining the nutrients inside. If someone chooses to use these as a primary source of protein, they MUST be soaked, sprouted, or fermented before consumption / cooking. This greatly reduces the “anti-nutrients” mentioned above. (2)
- Vegetarians consume a high level of soy products. Soy is not a health food. It contains some of the highest levels of phytic acid of any plant, which in itself is a significant strike against soy. In addition, most soy is genetically-modified. Even when it is not, the cross-contamination is so common, it is likely you are still consuming genetically-modified soy. The soy that is used in beverages and food processing is rarely fermented (which is the traditional method of preparation used in other cultures), thereby making it a phytic acid powerhouse. In addition, soy contains phyto-estrogens that mimic estrogen-like properties. This may be great if you are going through menopause, but certainly not otherwise. Lastly, it is a major misconception that asian cultures consumed large quantities of soy. Traditional Japanese would eat about 1 tablespoon per day, while Chinese would consume about 2 teaspoons per day. That hardly classifies as a dietary staple.
- Vegetarians tend to be significantly deficient in vitamins A,D,E, and K. Animal sources are by far the most bioavailable choices to prevent depletion of these crucial nutrients. While carrots (and other veggies) may contain vitamin A, it is not easily accesible to us when bound up in all the cellulose. No plant sources (besides some mushrooms) contain vitamin D. Animal sources (eggs, raw dairy products, and meats are by far superior to obtain these nutrients. A, D, E, and K are critical for growth, bone health, immunity, and more.
- Too much fiber is not your friend. A healthy diet should be as energetically efficient as possible to break down, process, and transport all foods. Fiber tends to get in the way. This is another lie by our nutritional authorities. Fiber can also ferment during transit when combined with other foods, which is not a desired side effect.
- Vegetarians often consume large amounts of breads and wheat containing the devastating gluten protein. Gluten harbors a nasty little chemical known as zonulin, which literally has the ability to punch holes in your gut lining. Bread may have once been a health food, but that was when it was soaked, fermented, and contained much less gluten. As a result of cross-hybridization, most common wheat has as much as 50% gluten content. All grains are not created equal. Be kind to your grains through proper preparation and they will be kind to you.
How to be a healthy vegetarian:
- Listen to your body. See how certain foods nourish you, and respond to your needs. (That doesn’t mean go eat a large pizza! Address the nutritional or emotional deficiency that is causing you to want the pizza in the first place.)
- Make sure to include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kim-chi, beet kvass, water or milk kefir, etc. These friendly bacteria and pre-digested vegetables will greatly increase the efficiency of break-down and introduce a load of friendly bacteria that is essential for gut integrity.
- Consider consuming raw dairy products and eggs from a trusted source. You don’t have to eat meat to have a healthy diet, but raw dairy and eggs are powerhouse of nutrition and a good substitute for the vitamins mentioned above in the previous section. I need to stress that RAW dairy is by far superior to its pasteurized counterpart. In fact, pasteurized dairy is frequently linked to health problems including: allergies, asthma, digestive difficulties, auto-immune disorders, and more. However, raw dairy does not seem to present with these issues. Understand there is a small risk of contamination with consuming raw dairy, however this is frequently skewed in the data. While it may seem odd to consume milk from another species, be aware that the cultivation of cow’s milk has saved several generations and cultures from starvation during hard times. Raw milk has been proven as a means of delivering critical animal-based fats.
- Always soak, sprout, or ferment grains, nuts, and seeds to reduce anti-nutrient content. Get the most out of these little guys. By properly preparing these gifts from nature, we are better suited to accept their inherent healing and building properties.
- Stay clear of soy and genetically modified foods (GMOs). There have been NO human clinical trials on GMO safety, and the method is both imprecise and likely dangerous to our health in multiple ways. The trials that have been completed on animals have greatly increased the growth of tumors and damaged every organ system in the body.
If these principles are followed, a vegetarian diet could be sustainable and nourishing for some individuals. Be aware that everyone has different needs. Some populations have existed almost exclusively on animal products, even supplemented with animal blood (Eww!?). Other traditional cultures have survived heavily on plant-based diets. However, almost every primitive societies consumed some form of animal fats, whether in the form of meat, eggs, or dairy (See Weston A Price’s book: Nutrition and Physical Degeneration). We may be doing ourselves a grave injustice if we deny our desires for animal products. Some of us are DESIGNED to eat them as our ancestors did. It is certainly a sticky situation with animal rights and suffering, so you must decide what is best for you. However, don’t be militant (or have a superiority complex) in your beliefs to the point that you must sacrifice your health. It is ok to supplement your diet with animal products without feeling guilty. Be thankful for the animal that was sacrificed for you. As always, listen to your gut.
(1) Vegetarians and vegans may be most at risk from low selenium intakes. Accessed at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2126932/
(2) Traditional Food-Processing and Preparation Practices to Enhance the Bioavailability of Micronutrients in Plant-Based Diets. Accessed at: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/137/4/1097.long