Many vegetarians strongly believe that their lifestyle is both right and healthy, and are not really interested in exploring the possible downsides. So until now, discussion of the pros and cons has not been high on the list of pages to be added to the site. But the recent publicity about serious illness and death due to lack of B12 in New Zealand children with a vegan diet has prompted me to write this article.
It is widely assumed that a diet low in fat and especially one low in red meat (and thus vegetarianism) is the most healthy. This is not necessarily the case. Although many people thrive on a vegetarian diet, there are potential dangers. First let’s look at the types of vegetarianism, then have a good look at how healthy they really are.
Vegetarians eat no meat, but do eat other animal products. Some eat fish, and most eat eggs and dairy products. The majority of their diet will be from fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts & seeds.
Vegans go one step further and eat no animal products at all – no meat, fish, eggs, dairy or derivatives. Their diet will be entirely from plant life – fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts & seeds.
Fruitarians eat all fruit and berries, plus the vegetable fruits – avocado, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, olives and squash. There are slight differences in the ranges of food – for example, some may also eat nuts and seeds, at least when they first change eating styles. All food is raw so that the enzymes are kept intact. They believe that as the body adjusts to a raw fruit diet, the food is better assimilated and all needed nutrients (including protein and essential fats) are extracted from the food. An advanced fruitarian may eat only one type of fruit at each meal to get the maximum benefit from it.
I completely understand the ethical and ideological reasons why a person would wish to be vegetarian, and can’t argue with any of them. But the health reasons are a different story. There are many people who keep very good health on a vegetarian diet. But you only have to visit the blood type diet website to hear many first hand stories from people who have passionately believed in their vegetarian lifestyle, only to fall ill with a variety of chronic diseases. When they start eating meat again, usually after a lot of difficult soul searching, their health returns.
So why do many people have the idea that vegetarianism is the most healthy way to eat? Some people believe that our ancestors ate a mainly plant based diet, and so should we. Another reason is that many people believe the hypothesis that fat is bad for you, especially saturated fat. So meat, which is high in saturated fat, is bad for you. This started as a hypothesis, and was so well promoted that it has become accepted as fact. Actually, it has never been proven and the data all indicates that it is not true.
Let’s look at some of the reasons these theories fall down :
* The latest research into the Paleolithic diet shows that our ancestors actually got 65% of their food from animal sources, and 35% from plant sources, rather than the other way around.
* Anthropological studies haven’t found any societies (now or historically) in good health, whose native diet is exclusively vegetarian. All healthy groups eat at least seafood, and usually meat. The organ meats and fatty parts of the animals are most prized due to the vital fat content. Weston Price did observe some isolated cultures located in more temperate climates living primarily off fruits and other vegetation. Fish and animals were consumed less frequently and in smaller amounts, but were still an important part of the diet.
* When our digestive systems are compared to those of a dog (a carnivore) and a sheep (a vegetarian), using 39 points of comparison, we are identical to dogs on 37 points and similar to dogs on 2 points. We are dissimilar to sheep on all points. We are, in fact, omnivores.
* There is a lot of disagreement about how much protein we need. But think about this – we need protein for rebuilding our bodies in all sorts of ways, whereas carbohydrates are used solely for energy. The level is debatable, but there is no doubt our health will suffer if we eat inadequate protein. Complete protein is difficult to get without eating animal products. It is possible, of course, to get all the animo acids you need by carefully combining plant sources, but those plant sources will also contribute a high level of carbohydrate to your diet. This brings me to my next point.
* A diet high in carbohydrate has been assumed to be the ultimate healthy diet. But not so. In the decades that our fat intake has been dropping, and our carb intake increasing, obesity has increased by 25%. Some of this is because of the type of processed carbs we’re eating, but part of that is because of the nature of carbohydrate itself. It is converted to sugar by the body before it can be used and even complex carbohydrate will cause a rise in insulin levels if eaten to excess. This has resulted in a huge increase in associated diseases – those that some call Syndrome X.
* Another problem is the heavy reliance on grains and legumes. These have anti-nutrients which made them unsuitable for our Paleolithic ancestors to eat. Eventually they found out how to tolerate them by grinding and cooking them, which changed the face of history. But because we can tolerate them does not mean they are good for us, and their intake has resulted in another increase in ill health – this time chronic diseases such as food intolerances & auto-immune diseases.
* Vegetarians usually get a lot fo their protein from soy. There is a lot of discussion of how good soy really is for you, and many people now believe it isn’t. While women may be able to tolerate a certain amount of it, the high estrogen content makes it unsuitable for men and children. It should only be eaten in fermented forms (eg. tempeh, miso and tamari) and in small amounts. It is unwise to rely on it as the main form of protein.
* Straying from the diet of our ancestors also means that we are getting a different intake of the micro-nutrients – vitamins and minerals. Our bodies need these in carefully balanced amounts and imbalances can cause all sorts of problems. The lack of B12 in a vegan diet has been the cause of serious child illnesses and developmental problems. For those who are able metabolically to follow a vegetarian lifestyle, it is critical to ensure that adequate supplementation is undertaken.
Despite the latest research on the Paleolithic diet, I don’t believe we all need the same diet. If you read the section on metabolic diets, you will see that there is a spectrum of dietary needs. A continuum you could say, with those people whose metabolism is essentially unchanged from our Paleolithic ancestors at one end and those who have evolved to need a diet higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat and purines at the other. For those with an Agriculturist metabolism, a vegetarian diet may well be the most healthy. More extreme Agriculturists may find a vegan or even a fruitarian diet is suitable. But remember that these are extreme diets and for those who are not Agriculturists they could do much more harm than good.
So how do I know if I should try it? you may ask. Read up about metabolic diets and especially about Agriculturists. If you think it sounds like you, give it a try. As always, if you feel unwell after an initial adjustment phase (give it at least a week, but if you feel really bad, don’t go more than a couple) try something else.
Your next question might be “I’ve been a vegetarian for xxx amount of time now. How do I know if it’s working for me?”. Have a run through this checklist :
1. Are you eating a wide variety of foods, including lots of different types of fruits, berries, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs?
2. Do you keep your grains and legumes to a minimum, and make sure you prepare them optimally? (see “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon for how to reduce the anti-nutrients and make them digestible)
3. If you are not eating fish, eggs or dairy, are you making sure you combine your food correctly to get complete protein at every meal?
4. Are you getting an adequate intake of essential fats?
5. Are you supplementing to make up for any nutritional gaps?
6. Is your weight appropriate & stable? ie. You are neither too fat or too thin.
7. Do you have a good level of muscle mass?
8. Do you feel energetic?
9. Do you feel satisfied by the foods you eat, with no cravings, bingeing or food reactions?
10. Do you keep good health? ie. Good immune status and no chronic conditions
11. Are your hair, skin and nails in good condition?
12. Is your sex drive within normal limits (normal for you, that is)?
If you can answer Yes to all of these questions, sounds like you’re on the right track. If you answer No to even one of these questions, you need to look at the reasons why. Also, remember that changing to a vegetarian diet may have very good results at first, as you eliminate a lot of junk food from your diet. But it’s how you go on the long haul that is important.
A side note about meat quality:
Vegetarians often say to me “But meat is full of toxins and hormones, so we need to avoid it anyway.” Not necessarily so.
If you check out the whole foods page, you’ll see that I’m not suggesting you eat just any meat, but only good quality meat. I agree that factory farmed meat shouldn’t be eaten by anyone. Look for quality meat that comes from animals who were:
- Free range
- Grass fed (beef and lamb)
- And preferably organic
This way, your meat is nutritionally superior, and you know that it’s come from an animal that lived its life in the way it was meant to.
This is only a brief discussion of some of the possible drawbacks. For a full and frank discussion of some of the issues surrounding vegetarianism, I would recommend visiting www.beyondveg.com/ for more information.
At the end of the day, only you can work out your own best diet, so you need to take responsibility for that. But I highly recommend being fully informed first.
Footnote : much of the information on Paleolithic diet came from The Protein Power Lifeplan. If you feel a Paleolithic diet sounds more like you, this book is well worth checking out.
I may have given the impression that I’m “anti” vegetarianism, but that’s not the case. What I AM against is the automatic assumption that a vegetarian diet is the most healthy one, without considering individual metabolic needs. It’s great when a person eats a whole food, vegetarian diet, and thrives. It’s tragic when another person eats the same diet, believing it’s healthy and instead ruins their health.
Where people are vegetarian for moral, ethical or spiritual reasons, it can cause a real dilemma. What do you do when your body’s needs conflict with your spiritual needs?
My philosophy is that part of any spiritual journey is honouring the mental, emotional and physical needs of the vessel we’re in and nurturing it accordingly. While the more spiritually advanced amongst us may thrive without meat, my personal belief is that we cannot over-ride our body’s needs when the body is not yet ready to change.
Some ways that people have found to get around this dilemma include:
- Giving thanks to the spirit of the animal that was sacrificed to give them life and health
- Eating only organic, free range animals that have been humanely killed
- Including bone broths in the diet to reduce the amount of meat needed
Where the dilemma cannot be resolved, it is a challenge to find a way to supply the body’s needs as closely as possible, without compromising the spirit.
Update: Here are two personal viewpoints of a vegetarian lifestyle – one from a family that found that veganism destroyed their health, and one from a family who are well suited to vegetarianism.
First is an extract of a letter was printed in the Spring 2003 edition of Wise Traditions – the quarterly magazine of the Weston A Price Foundation. This really highlights how important it is to be aware of how your diet is affecting your health, and to make your own decisions on what is healthy for you. remember that
We are trying to undo the teaching we did through our workshop to students across the US. We taught a vegan diet, extolling the virtues of the “Hallelujah Diet.” In the end our family lost our health on the diet as well as many of Hallelujah Acres “Health Ministers” and our students. [Hallelujah Acres is a Canadian religious group that promotes an extreme vegan diet.]
… I am so thankful for the work of Dr. Price and the Foundation…… We know we won’t win all the people, but we want to inform those who are searching for truth, as well as help the people recover from their deficiencies.
Judie Westbrook Chandler, AZ
“Myths and Truths about Vegetarianism” by Stephen Byrnes and posted on the WAPFwebsite contains a wealth of references on the dangers of the vegan diet.
Second is an email that was sent to me. My responses are included.
Your site is very interesting – and I have derived a lot of information from it. Still I have one objection. Your site has a definite bias toward Hunter-gatherer type diets – although you disavow this.
Being a Hunter Gatherer myself, I acknowledge it is probably impossible for me to be totally unbiased. And H-G diets are the ones I know most about. Also, in our society, there is a large bias towards diets that suit Agriculturist types, so possibly I over-react slightly in response to that. However, I am as unbiased as I can be with my own experiences and observations. Thank you for the opportunity to expand that.
My observation is that the majority of people are actually mixed type – with small minorities of people who have the extreme Hunter-gatherer or Agriculturist type metabolism.
Agreed. However, people with extreme metabolisms of either type are probably disproportionately represented amongst people with chronic health problems. They are disadvantaged not only by the poor food supply available in many western countries, but by the fact that what is commonly regarded as a “balanced” diet doesn’t suit either extreme.
I find that the extreme types spend a great deal of time debunking each others theories. This is wasted time and energy. As what is true for one is definitely not true for the other.
I am beginning to doubt whether most of these extremists accept the validity of the others metabolism – although the scientific proof is incontestable.
Common sense observation will demonstrate that we are mainly omnivores with different needs for the amount of proteins and fat we need.
I find much erroneous thinking from the extreme sides. Example it is distressing for me and my wife to read the constant criticism of the vegetarian lifestyle. Huntergatherers attempt to debunk the agriculturist metabolic type as a fraud make ridiculous indefensible comments about vegetarianism. One link from your site is Barry Groves article debunking vegetarianism – not one assertion in that article has any scientific (or even logical sense). He asserts in various ways that there are no healthy vegetarians and never have been any vegetarian cultures. This is insulting and exhibits a total lack of understanding of the facts of the world of the millions of vegetarians.
I’ll have another look at that link and take it off if I agree with you. Can you tell me which link it is – I can’t find a link to a Barry Groves article.
Perhaps there is some racism in this. I am an Indian who was raised in a vegetarian culture and have seen thousands of healthy dynamic people who eat very little or no non vegetable food. These people are strong – healthy – energetic – intelligent and many of our leaders have achieved all of the human ideals. I can give you long lists of famous people of immense achievement who are vegetarians – or I could show you strong ordinary people who do hard physical labor on little more than rice (or wheat) and lentils, supplemented with some vegetables and fruits.
Speaking for myself, there is no intentional racism. But maybe there is unintentionally. The majority of my “audience” is in New Zealand or the US, where the proportion of Agriculturists is lower than in India.
Millions of women conceive and deliver healthy children on vegetable food. The fact is that hunter-gatherers do not believe in the validity of these obvious facts. They can not accept that millions thrive on vegetable based diet. So they make up bogus facts to belittle the vegetarian achievements – this is simply head in the sand stuff.
Vegetarianism like non-vegetarianism has many horrible examples of poor diet. Most people do not eat intelligently or scientifically and therefore most people veg and non-veg have poor health. Therefore to site studies that show poor health of vegetarians are simply bogus. How many reams of paper would it take to print out a list of references showing how meat eaters have horrible health. Meat eaters and vegetarians in general suffer from the same health issues – most of which have nothing to do with whether they do or do not eat meat and or vegetables. Most health problems in the modern world have to do with eating processed grains (perhaps all grains) – sugar – processed polyunsaturated plant oils – food preparation styles (such as deep frying) – stress – hormone imbalance – etc. etc, etc. The modern world is dangerous for all of us meat and vegetable eaters – and we must solve the problems to be healthy.
The issue of the modern western vegetarians is one issue and a great deal can be said about it but I will discuss the traditional vegetarians of India.
The problems of modern western vegetarians is very relevant to people who come to my site. The observations of a healthy vegetarian on how to eat a balanced diet would be a very useful addition. If you have time to say a great deal about it, I’d love to add it to the site.
In general most Indian vegetarians follow the vegetarian lifestyle because of religious belief. Contrary to popular concepts – vegetarianism in India is only widely practiced in the past 150 years. Theoretically most people defining themselves as vegetarians are grain eaters who supplement their diet with vegetables, fruits, milk products (milk, yogurt. butter), and legumes. In south India there are millions who call themselves vegetarians who actually eat fish once or twice a week.
In practice the eating of animal foods is very limited because of two factors – poverty, and tradition. Many modern middle class vegetarians (such as those who live in Maharashtra and Gujarat states) follow a modern scientific style of diet which either eschews animal foods or takes them in small quantities. They can only take milk and its products – never any other animal food such as eggs. Their protein intake is low. Yet a large percentage of them thrive in superior health.
That is really one of my points, that sometimes vegetarianism is followed for other reasons than health. My page is not aimed at those people – except where I can supply info that might help them. My main concern is for people who believe it is healthy for everybody, and then follow a diet that is not suitable for them.
The modern health movement in India advises against all processed foods, sugar, fried foods, highly spiced foods, etc.
Sounds a lot more enlightened than Western nutritional advice.
I would venture to say these people are amongst the healthiest people in the world. Most of the wealthy families of modern India follow this diet regime (which actually was the original type of vegetarian diet advocated by the religious leaders of the past). Look in any popular Indian magazine and you will see some of the healthiest and most beautiful people in the world who never ate flesh in their life. Many of the intellectual leaders of the modern age in India are strict vegetarians and many are strict vegans (examples of vegans are people like Mariji Desai (prime minister of India – all Indian PM’s have been vegetarians) – Radhakrishnan – Tagore – Gandhi – etc.)
I read at your site where someone said that we can never take the word of vegetarians about their diet. The fact is in my house we never had any non-veg foods to eat and as I was growing up I never saw anyone who even questioned our diet system. In our culture people do not eat flesh period – and they do not lie about that fact. These types of assertions about vegetarians is simple prejudice. The fact is these people can not accept anything which does not fit their prejudicial model.
Whereabouts on my site is that comment? I read a similar comment on a discussion board recently, where that had been the personal experience of one ex-vegan. But I can’t find it anywhere on my site.
My wife and I are both agriculturists – in my youth I ate milk, yogurt, and butter so did she. We are medical researchers in Endocrinology and for many years have been interested in the concept of metabolic typing as we had done research on the old Endomorph. Ectomorph, etc. system. After reading Dr. Kelly and Dr. Wolcott’s work I changed my diet to an even more vegetable based diet. I take fresh organic yogurt once or twice a week. I also take fat from butter usually at my evening meal as we cook with it. I will gladly compare my health to 99% of all men my age (64).
Knowing the facts of vegetarians makes many of the comments I read such as some at your site – criticizing vegetarians – as being at the least – prejudiced and uninformed – at worst these comments are insulting and laughable.
I don’t recall criticising vegetarians anywhere. If you can point out the particular comments you take issue with, I’ll happily review them.
There is a vast range of needs for proteins and fats amongst we humans – these needs are personal and must be discovered by each individual. For the high protein types to constantly degrade the status of non meat eaters and vise versa for the veggie types to denigrate the meat eaters is simply not defensible in the modern age where all studies together show that there are a vast range of types and their personal needs.
I was raised in a culture which denigrated meat eaters as unevolved types – still stuck in our paleolithic meat eating past and all humans should be evolving into a more refined dietary style suited for thinkers and spiritual practioners. Gandhi led this movement in the past century. All advanced yogis as an example who have a very high level of physical strength, endurance, and flexibility are strict vegetarians. I personally know men and women who are models of physical perfection who live on fruits and nuts. Also they are not actually eating meat behind closed doors. This is considered to not just be a physical achievement but also a spiritual achievement. Most yogi’s say that high levels of body purification and flexibility can not be achieved by meat eaters. Therefore most modern Indian vegetarians believe that we are evolving toward vegetarianism.
I think there is probably a lot of truth in that. But I also believe that we have to honour the body we’re in. As we evolve we may find that our physical needs change. But I don’t believe we can force evolution by eating a vegetarian diet if it is inappropriate.
Regardless of the validity of that assertion it is abundantly clear that human beings are omnivores who must decide personally what diet best suits them. Meat or no meat is not really the question. The question is how much protein, fat , and salt do we need and what type of these substances do we need. My father was a protein type and so is my son (who has the same body type and metabolism my father had) yet he never ate flesh in his life yet he lived a long healthy and socially meaningful life on vegetable based diet with large quantities of milk and its products. He was a big eater and frequently amazed people with his gustatory gusto.
Agreed again. But bear in mind that Indians as a race, are generally much better suited to getting their protein from dairy. Not everybody is able to use dairy as a major protein source.
Robert Mc Ferran mentions the case of many agriculturists who do well on as little protein and fat as possible – I am such a type. If I leave all animal proteins from my diet I do best. Yet my wife must take milk products daily to feel at her best. There are many variations in human metabolism – I hope we can all learn to understand and accept this fact as I see this issue developing into a war between the right or wrong of vegetables versus flesh. That is a shame especially since metabolic typing has already solved this apparent contradiction.
Below is a second email from Vinod. I have also asked if he would be prepared to write an article on Ayurveda for the site.:
Thanks for your thoughtful answer to my letter. I found nothing in your comments to question.
My opinion is that if we can learn to understand and accept each others differences (some even opposite) then we will have made one of the biggest steps toward our evolving civilized state. The fact of being so different in such simple and familiar things as food choices, mind set,etc. is confusing for many. This is why the conservatives and the liberals never understand one another to the point that they often describe each other as the enemy. They have a different world view – stemming from basic things like metabolism and it’s resulting mental states. Huntergatherers and Agriculturists have opposite world views because there minds have the opposite tendencies, attractions, and aversions. Our old religion (Vedas – thought to be around 5000 years old) have postulated that the two extremes of our nature are not the goal of the majority – the goal of most human beings is somewhere toward the middle of these two extremes.
The old scholars believed that one who has flexibility in their metabolism were more suited toward a greater range of conditions and experiences. In modern evolutional terms a mixed metabolism offers an evolutional advantage for human beings. These great understandings later evolved into the realization of the Buddha in his advocacy of a middle more flexible state than had been understood by most believers of the day. He advised against extremes because it was not flexible enough to get us through conditions that were opposite to our nature. Example me – I am near extreme agriculturist and do not feel well (mainly energy problems and sluggish mind) if I had to eat lots of protein and or fat. According to the Buddha this is not flexible enough for many conditions. The fact that we are moving in that direction (of the Middle Way) is revealed in the fact that our species are almost exclusively omnivores.
I have already written a great deal about this great divide and will put some of it together for you to read and see if it is of any usefulness for your site.
You know many of these subjects have long been discussed in the religious and philosophical literature of India, Tibet, China, and Japan. The ancient medical system of India called Ayurveda – has described all of these things that modern medical science is just now discovering – thousands of years ago. In Ayurvedic tradition there are 3 basic metabolic types with the majority falling into 6 sub types – which are combinations of the 3 basic types. So with 3 basic types and the six sub types all human beings fall into one of nine distinct metabolic types. The translation of that system into modern understanding is easy for anyone who clearly understands the metabolic types as described in Mc Farran’s work. Ayurveda clearly describes the type of diet each type should follow for maximum health – as well as every other facet of life as it applies to each type. One very important aspect of that system is its analysis of the disease tendencies of each type. I have been thinking about the synthesis of these old and new systems for many years. Many others in modern India are thinking about these subjects and much has been written on the subject in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam etc.