By Dr. Eduardo Gonzales
Q: Is it advisable to go vegetarian? Do vegetarians really live longer than meat eaters? —firstname.lastname@example.org
Statistics show that compared to omnivores or meat eaters, vegetarians—people who do not eat meat, poultry, fish or seafood, insects, gelatin, animal rennet, and stock or fat from animals— have a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) and are less likely to become obese. They, likewise, have a lower risk of developing hypertension, coronary artery disease, cancer, dental caries, type II diabetes mellitus, arthritis, appendicitis, constipation and diseases of the colon, and gall stones. Furthermore, their mean blood cholesterol level is lower. Accordingly, vegetarians, as a group, have a longer life expectancy and enjoy a better quality of life than omnivores.
Still, the better quality of life and a longer lifespan that vegetarians enjoy over meat eaters is probably not solely a result of their diet. It is also partly, if not mainly, due to their other healthy lifestyle practices. Most vegetarians exercise regularly, do not smoke, refrain from alcohol, avoid stressful situations, know how to relax, and observe more strictly the rules of personal hygiene and environmental sanitation.
The plusses of a vegetarian diet
A vegetarian diet is definitely healthier than a diet that includes meat. Plant products are devoid of cholesterol and saturated fats, substances that predispose to many chronic diseases. They also contain less total fat and more fiber. Likewise, plant products sold in the market contain fewer additives, preservatives, and other “unnatural chemicals.” Furthermore, plant products do not transmit animal-borne diseases such as anthrax, bovine encephalitis, tapeworms, and flatworms. Aside from simply being healthy, a vegetarian diet is also environment-friendly. Scientific studies have shown that methane, a greenhouse gas that stays longer in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and which is believed to be responsible for one-fifth of the rise in global temperature since 1750, is mainly produced by domestic animals. Domestic animals produce methane as they digest food and then release the gas to the environment either by belching or farting. A herd of 200 cows can produce annual emissions of methane roughly equivalent in energy terms to driving a family car more than 180,000 km.
Thus, by shifting to a vegetarian diet or decreasing their meat intake, people can reduce the need for domestic animals and consequently, help ease global warming.
The negatives of a vegetarian diet
A vegetarian diet, however, has some drawbacks. Unlike meat which is a nutritionally complete food, no single plant product contains all the nutrients that the body needs. The assortment of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, present in most plants product is not as good as in animal meat. Also, calcium, zinc, and vitamin D are in short supply in many plant products. Additionally, iron from plant products is not as readily absorbed by the digestive tract as that from meat, hence, vegetarians are susceptible to anemia. Furthermore, riboflavin is present in some plants but only in small amounts. Additionally, vitamin B12 is not produced by plants at all. Deficiency of B12 results in macrocytic anemia, a condition characterized by large but incompletely developed red blood cells and nervous system dysfunctions. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include fatigue, tingling in the extremities and irregular heartbeat, and neurological symptoms such as memory loss and disorientation. It may even lead to dementia. In brief, vegetarians are vulnerable to protein and micronutrient deficiency.
Vegans have a lower risk of developing hypertension, coronary artery disease, cancer, dental caries, type II diabetes mellitus, arthritis, appendicitis, constipation and diseases of the colon, and gall stones
Incidentally, most experts on nutrition do not recommend a purely vegetarian diet for infants and growing children because scientific studies have consistently shown growth retardation among children raised on vegetarian diets.
If you wish to turn vegetarian
If you wish to transition to a vegetarian diet, you must first educate yourself. Get acquainted with the nutritional requirements of your body. Then, familiarize yourself with the nutritional content of most plant products so you can take them in the correct mix and amount to ensure that you consume a well-balanced diet that contains all the nutrients, in adequate amounts, that you need. Unless you do this you run the risk of suffering from dietary insufficiency. You may also consider not turning vegan. Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any product derived from animals including honey. Instead, you can just be a lacto-ovo-vegetarian and include dairy products and eggs in your diet, or lacto-vegetarian and include dairy products in your diet, or ovo-vegetarian and include eggs in your diet. You may also want to consider taking vitamin and mineral supplements.
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