Vegetarianism is Healthy – Fact, Fad or Fallacy
Our bodies are only as good as the food we eat – a cliché that rings true in an age and time when life threatening diseases strike seemingly healthy people, partly because, they have not been eating healthy. Food that tingles the taste buds, with its taste and flavor is one of the pleasures of life that the best of us succumb to – for only what is pleasantly palatable, will be gladly taken in.
Research costing millions of dollars has created a strong awareness about what foods are healthy, and all the processed foods we savor, are not good at all for our health. Little wonder then, that the list of foods being termed ‘junk foods’ is growing longer, and the ranks of people avoiding all kinds of meat is growing globally. A significant part of this list includes non-vegetarian foods, which are delectable, addictive and damaging.
Non- vegetarian food includes all eating red meat, fish, poultry, and other products derived from animals. This division is a bit hazy, since milk, derived from animals, is considered vegetarian, and forms a significant part of all hard core vegetarian diets.
Over the last two decades, vegetarianism has caught on, and is widely perceived as ‘healthy’, which actually means that it is healthier than a non-vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism refers to a lifestyle, the most significant part of which is following a vegetarian diet that includes plant produce and abstinence of flesh and foods that have an animal source.
Types of vegetarian diets
A diet that includes all plant produce, milk and soy products is loosely classified as a vegetarian diet. Personal preferences, religious beliefs, aversions and convictions have led to the emergence of specific vegetarian diets which include:
• The vegan diet – The most restrictive form of a vegetarian diet includes avoiding all meats and animal products including milk in all forms and eggs. Many vegans do not have honey also. Their diet includes only fruits and vegetables and soy products.
• Lacto-vegetarians – A large section of vegetarians fall in this category, whose diet includes vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts as well as dairy products. They abstain from having meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
• Lacto-ovo-vegetarians – This category of vegetarians excludes meat, poultry, fish but have eggs and dairy products besides vegetarian foods.
• Pesco-vegetarians – these people avoid meats and poultry, but eat fish, eggs, dairy products and vegetables etc.
• Semi-vegetarian/flexitarian diet – this is the most flexible diet since it permits certain types of meats, once or twice a week, supplemented by all vegetarian foods. This makes the diet less limiting and healthier since it provides the benefits of both.
People following each of the above mentioned diets strongly believe in the benefits of the diet they follow. For them it is a lifestyle reinforced by strong beliefs in avoiding cruelty to other living beings who have as much a right to live as human beings-the motto being, live, and let live. Most vegetarians in the US and Canada have been motivated by a desire for self improvement, to lead a longer, healthier life.
Vegetarian food facts
Vegetarianism is viewed mainly in a positive light around the world, and in many countries gets legal and cultural support due to its link to religious beliefs and practices, in countries like India and the UK. The dictates of religion in India, had kept a larger proportion of the country’s population, vegetarian, for centuries. In such countries, being vegetarian is not limiting in any way since ample non meat food options are available due to greater demand for the same.
Most non-vegetarians wrinkle their nose at the prospect of having a vegetarian meal. Beans and leaves are the least appetizing for them and equivalent to not eating at all. Perhaps they do not realize the health and overall benefits of a plant rich diet, and the ill effects of consuming high-fat animal protein and meats.
Some vital facts about vegetarian diets:
• According to the American Heart Association, vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, hypertension and coronary heart disease. This is because their diet is low in saturated fat, high in fiber and easier to digest. Food of plant origin is generally devoid of the ‘bad’ cholesterol.
• They are also at a lower risk of certain types of cancer especially those linked to the digestive system, colo-rectal cancer in particular. This can be attributed to the high level of cancer-protecting phyto-chemicals in vegetarian food.
• Vegetarian diets are a rich source of iron and B-vitamins essential for the body, besides phyto-chemical nutrients that facilitate the functioning of every organ of the body and prevent degenerative diseases.
• Fruits and vegetables contain Vitamins C and E, and cartenoids. All these act as anti-oxidants that protect the body cells from free radicals capable of destroying them.
• The fiber content of whole grains, legumes, beans and fruits improves digestion and prevents diseases like diabetes and other illnesses.
• Vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories since the volume of fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts compared to their equivalent of meat, has a lower calorie count.
• Bacteria and harmful chemicals like pesticides are easier to remove from plant produce than meats.
• Plant based diets are better for the planet as well, according to environmentalists.
• Vegetarians have better overall health and quality of life than non vegetarians.
• According to one of the latest research reports, vegetarians are 12% less likely to die of any cause than non vegetarians.
• Vegetarian meals cause less eating disorders than meat based meals.
Is vegetarianism just a fad?
Vegetarianism has been practiced for far too long to be just a fad, though it cannot be denied that it is becoming increasingly fashionable to be a vegetarian. From the earliest time in history, there have been advocates of vegetarianism who used religious, moral and spiritual arguments to woo the meat eating crowd in an attempt to convert them to a diet including the produce of the earth than live beings walking, swimming or flying. The 19th century, and scientific research started popularizing vegetarian diet as being more healthy but till late in the 20th century, vegetarians were a small sect, surviving on the fringe of society and not part of the main stream, except in countries like India, where religion dictated lifestyles and eating habits.
Like so many new ‘diets’ being touted as the best for weight loss, heart health, fitness etc, vegetarianism has also been tried initially as perhaps a fad, but the feeling of well being it brings, has converted non vegetarians into vegetarians.
It is in keeping with ‘being cool’ and ‘going green’, but with no harm done, it may be the best route to good health. It may be a fad, but will last out longer than any other, and one that is going to spread across borders, even in places where vegetarian options are limited.
The vegetarianism fallacy
Meat lovers and hard core non-vegetarians have long criticized vegetarianism on various counts. And this is not entirely without reason. Since any food devoid of meat qualifies as vegetarian, a section of people feel eating a bowl of French fries, onion rings, fried dumplings, fritters and other oil-rich foods are healthy too. Just keeping meat out a nutrient-empty diet does not make it healthy. It has to have the requisite nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals to qualify as healthy.
It is not entirely true that all vegetarians have lower cholesterol. Vegetarians thriving on heavy fried foods, potatoes and fat rich sweets and savories, are bound to have obesity problems along with cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease. India, with a vast vegetarian population, is a typical example.
Vegetarianism has been defined as lifestyle that involves balance, moderation and a conscious effort to balance daily nutrition with the produce of the earth.
Where vegetarianism falls short
There have been concerns about vegetarian diets providing the entire basket of nutrients needed by the human body. The question is about optimal calcium levels which come from milk, and therefore vegans would lose out unless they take calcium supplements.
Meats are a rich source of protein which vegetarians can get from beans, lentils and nuts. Minerals like iron are found in green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, prunes and nuts. The deficiency of Vitamin B-12 needs to be addressed with supplements by vegans though other vegetarians get this vitamin from milk and eggs.
A good vegetarian diet
A balanced nutritive vegetarian diet should include, whole grains and cereal, beans and lentils, fruits and nuts, rice, wheat and vegetables. Ovo-vegetarians would have the nutritional benefits of eggs, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians gain from the wholesome goodness of milk and milk products like yoghurt, cheese etc. Vegans can substitute milk with soy milk and other soy products and get wholesome, balanced nutrition.
Vegetarianism in Myanmar
It is not difficult being a vegetarian in Myanmar with its rich variety of agricultural produce, including fresh fruits and vegetables, numerous varieties of beans and pulses, soy and dairy products. In fact, most salads and soups in Myanmar cuisine can be adapted to a vegetarian palette and supplemented with stir fries that are completely vegetarian if fish sauce and shrimp paste are avoided. The distinct Indian influence in the country ensures plenty of potato based snacks and curries. Every restaurant has vegetarian options, called “the-taa-lo”. Shaan noodles, tofu curry, vegetable fried rice, dosa, vegetable biryani and vegetable hotpot are some of the safe meal options that are easy to find.
The case for vegetarianism grows stronger with every passing day. Science and the environment all favor this diet path. For those looking for role models find philosophers like Plato and Nietzche, political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Benjamin Franklin, and pop icons like Paul McCartney and Bob Marley, propagating the diets they followed throughout their lives. Turning vegetarian may become a turning point in your lives too.