This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.
I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.
This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?
- The Health Argument
Is vegetarianism really more healthy? I was sceptical for a long time, but the science tells a compelling story.
First of all there are the obvious points – meat and dairy products affect cardiovascular health, they are carcinogens in excess (although of course many things are carcinogens in excess), they affect cholesterol, and their lack of vitamins, antioxidants etc mean they are intrinsically unhealthy if eaten in a poor diet.
But there are more insidious effects. The unethical and cruel use of antibiotics in animal farming has led to newly evolved strains of bacteria which are resistant to known antibiotics. These ‘superbugs’ move from farms into the population by two routes – the meat itself, and the environment in which they exist. So the continued use of antibiotics on farms poses a considerable risk to human health. Antibiotic use promotes the evolution of superbugs, which contaminate meat and poultry, thereby causing disease in people. Superbugs can also leave the farm via workers, wind or liquid runoff, and via wildlife. But even if they don’t immediately cause illness, bacteria are able to exchange genetic immunity with other bacteria wherever they encounter them, via their plasmids (structures that can change independently of chromosomes).
Why then are antibiotics used? The majority of use is in healthy animals, to prevent infection or speed up their growth. This is particularly the case in intensive farming, where animals are kept in confined conditions. In other words, the intensive system itself demands this because it is unnatural and won’t work in any other way. More than half of global antibiotic use is administered to livestock, often to entire herds regardless of the number infected; and in some countries they are given out routinely to promote growth. This has led scientists to conclude that farm animals are a major cause of antibiotic resistance, and this finding has been confirmed by a 2018 Food Standards Agency study.
It’s not intrinsically more healthy to be a vegetarian if the only thing you do is stop eating meat. It’s just as easy to be an unhealthy vegetarian as it is to be an unhealthy omnivore. The benefits arrive when meat and dairy products are replaced with fruit, vegetables, beans, soy etc. Also, vegetarians lose their vitamin B12 intake when they forego meat, which is why products like marmite are vital. (Luckily, I love marmite!)
Another preconception is that meat-eaters are more susceptible to sickness due to tainted meat. In fact they are more susceptible, but not by much. Bacterial infections can easily be passed along by vegetables, eg the current Romaine lettuce problem (E. coli).
Nor is protein an issue. Human beings in fact don’t need much protein to live happily. Most healthy individuals need about 0.8 grams daily per kilogram of body weight. So for instance somebody at nine stones would need only 45 grams a day, all of which can be supplied by plants, whose protein is just as good as that from meat.
To summarise the health benefits of vegetarianism: vegetarians have much lower cholesterol levels than meat-eaters, in whom cardiovascular disease is more common; vegetarian food is typically low in saturated fat, and usually contains little or no cholesterol; vegetarians have lower blood pressure than omnivores, with some studies showing that adding meat to a vegetarian diet raises blood pressure levels rapidly and significantly; a vegetarian diet high in complex carbohydrates and low in fat is the best dietary prescription for controlling and preventing diabetes, because this diet can lower blood sugar levels and often reduce or even eliminate the need for medication; studies of vegetarians show that death rates from cancer are only about one-half to three-quarters of the general population’s death rates.
On this last point, why do vegetarian diets help protect against cancer? One main factor is that they are lower in fat and higher in fibre than meat-based diets. But also, plants contain cancer-fighting substances called phytochemicals; for example, vegetarians usually consume more of the plant pigments beta-carotene and lycopene, and therefore suffer less incidences of certain types of cancer.
The science is clear. Adopt a vegetarian diet, get some marmite, and enjoy the benefits.