Ingrid Weihmann is a nutritionist and co-owner, with Cliff Jefferson, of Only Natural, Timaru's organic shop.
Hmm, I have wanted to write this article for a long time, but have shied away from it because vegetarianism is an emotive topic that deserves intelligent and sensitive discussion.
I will start by telling my own story. I was brought up on a farm in the UK. My mother is an extremely good, basic cook, and we were fed well in terms of both quality and quantity. We ate our own sheep, pork, bacon, ham and chickens, and bought in local beef. Plus we drank raw unpasteurised milk from our cows, and ate eggs from our free-ranging hens. We ate animal foods at every single meal. We kids were healthy, bright and robust, and my parents were able to labour physically from dawn ‘til dusk virtually every day.
When I left home and moved to the city, it was exciting to meet people with different backgrounds and viewpoints. I went out with a vegan for 2 years, then a vegetarian – we are still together today. In the city, the available meat (supermarkets, butchers) was remote from its source, and it bothered me that I did not know how the animals had been raised. It was easier for us both to eat vegetarian food, and I enjoyed cooking this new way and experimenting with new ingredients. I thought it was a healthier way to live because we were eating lots of whole grains and legumes, which are at the base of the food pyramid that our governments promote, and not much fat, which is at the apex of the pyramid. (I now know that the food pyramid is a nonsense).
My health declined over the years, imperceptibly. I was tired, my periods were an ordeal, I was plagued with yeast infections. The blood donor service refused my blood because of low haemoglobin. Iron tablets did not seem to help. As time went on, I could not think clearly, my memory was poor, my moods volatile, my hormones out of balance, my thyroid function low and my hair and skin dry. Because it all happened gradually, and because I was eating good quality foods, many of them organic, and because we still ate fish now and again, I did not seriously associate my problems with my diet. I could always rationalise them with another explanation.
Low ferritin result
18 years of vegetarianism later, I had my first ferritin test and the result shocked me – 5, in a normal range of 20-200. I knew that I could not correct this with tablets, because it was clear that cutting out meat had deprived me of many other nutrients as well as iron. I cried bitter tears as I sat in front of my first meat meal – a steak cooked lovingly by my partner. I took Bach flowers, I discussed my dilemma with a spiritual mentor. It is a big shift in consciousness to reverse a practice that has been part of your identity for 20 years.
Once the first barrier had been crossed, the floodgates opened and I found myself craving meat and eating lots of it, catching up. The colour returned to my skin, and my energy improved. About 3 years later, I feel like a different person – more energy, more brain power, emotionally stable and more grounded. It has been a slow process, however, and I owe a large part of my recovery to discovering the Weston A Price Foundation, an American non-profit group which exists to educate about nutrition.
‘Green’, animal welfare and new age groups often promote vegetarianism, or even veganism, as better for the environment, the solution to world hunger, or a necessary step on the path to spiritual enlightenment. There is no space to examine all these points here, but if you are interested in exploring them I suggest you check out this article: http://www.westonaprice.org/mythstruths/mtvegetarianism.html
The Yoga of Eating
A very profound and honest consideration of the ethical, moral and spiritual aspects of vegetarianism can be found in the book ‘The Yoga of Eating’ by Charles Eisenstein. I would also recomment ‘Nourishing Traditions. The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats’ by Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A Price Foundation. If you are not convinced, then at least the book shows you how to correctly prepare grains, legumes, nuts and seeds for optimum digestion.
Eisenstein puts it very well when he speaks of his own objection to the way factory farming produces food. He compares this with smaller, mixed farms with both crops and pasture, animals outdoors, animal manure used to increase soil fertility, while giving animals a good quality of life – ‘In a farm that is not just a production facility but an ecology, livestock has a beneficial role to play’. I can identify with this strongly. Now that we live in the country again and we either eat our own animals or those raised locally by people that we know, using organic methods, it feels right to eat the meat – always giving thanks and respect to the animal that provided it.
Nutritional arguments for eating meat
From a nutritional standpoint, these are the reasons why I believe that meat-eating is superior to strict vegetarianism as a means of best sustaining this physical body in which we reside:
1. Meat (especially organ meats like liver) is more nutritionally-dense than any plant food. It contains:
--- First-class protein (all plants are deficient in some essential amino acids whereas meat supplies them all)
--- Vitamin B12, which is only found in usable form in animal foods (vegans beware!)
--- Long-chain omega-3 essential fatty acids DHA and EPA, which are only found in animal foods.
--- Iron, in its best-absorbed heme form
--- Well-absorbed forms of other minerals and nutritional factors such as zinc, calcium, iodine, carnitine and coenzyme Q10
2. Meat-eating increases your intake of fat. You may have learned that this is a bad thing. Consider, however, that animal fat:
--- Is your only source of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Fat-soluble vitamis E and K are found in both plant and animal fat.
--- Facilitates mineral absorption
--- Helps protein utilisation
--- Helps you to feel full, tastes delicious, keeps you hydrated, keeps you warm, gives you energy, and many more functions
3. Vegetarianism relies on grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, which are very hard to digest. As a species, we have not been eating these foods for as long as we have been eating animal foods and we have not evolved a way of completely digesting them. The problem is twofold – these foods are high in phytates, which prevent absorption of minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, copper and magnesium, and they also contain enzyme inhibitors meaning that your pancreas has to work hard to digest them. This is the reason, for example, why so many people are ‘gluten- sensitive’. If foods are not able to be digested properly, problems like bloating, flatulence, pain, IBS, food intolerance, fatigue, and leaky gut syndrome appear. These foods must be fermented by soaking in an acid medium in a warm place before use – even flour. This is how people used to prepare them before big companies started mass-manufacturing food. Luckily, there are still some artisan bakers who can make fermented soudough bread, or you can make it yourself.
4. Many vegetarians rely on soy to provide protein. This is the hardest of all legumes to digest; it contains enzyme inhibitors, phytic acid and in addition isoflavones that suppress thyroid function and have an oestrogenic effect. This is why it should not be given to children.
Differing dietary needs
A vegetarian diet may feel good at first, and indeed may be beneficial for some health conditions such as cancer or gout for a limited time. Over time, however, malnutrition of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals, and possibly lack of protein and saturated fats may lead to all manner of problems such as fatigue, anaemia, digestive problems, hypothyroidism, candidiasis, hormonal imbalance, low libido and hypoglycaemia.
Evidently, we are all individual and as such we have differing dietary needs and lifestyles. If living a celibate, contemplative life, strict vegetarianism may be appropriate. However, if you are expecting to lead a busy life working and bringing up children I am doubtful that vegetarianism would supply optimum energy and enjoyment unless good amounts of butter, raw milk, cream, cheese and eggs are included and plant foods are prepared correctly. No traditional vegan societies have been found, and I do not believe that this regime would be sustainable over time and through the generations.
Greetings. I am a vegan mother of 5 and grandmother of 10. Nearly all our family are vegetarian or vegan.
My health and theirs is great, ferritin levels are satisfactory, no iron deficiency anaemia, no high cholesterol , no high blood pressure, no diabetes. The later diseases have all been linked to eating animal protein among other things.
While I do not dispute your story and experience, I do dispute the so called facts you furnished afterwards about first class proteins etc, look at the research and see the breakdown products of eating so called first class proteins. I don't know why or how your health deteriorated but may suggest that something in your diet was not in balance.
We as a family focus on whole foods and whole grains and quite an amount of raw veg foods and little processed foods. As I said before we are all full of energy and healthy and blood tests over the years confirm this. I am 59 years of age and have followed a plant based diet for many years. Please read The China study and keep an open mind and reply to me after this if you have evidence to refute the studies.
Thank you for sharing your story about your family enjoying good health – always good to hear. Perhaps you are genetically better able than most to manage without any animal foods, but I do think it wise for vegans to periodically check iron stores and B12 status, particularly as a decline in health can be insidious.
When it comes to deciding what foods are most nutritious to eat, I trust the knowledge of indigenous populations, who ate animal foods like fish, meat, eggs and dairy and did not suffer from today’s degenerative diseases like diabetes, cancer and digestive distress.
I have found traditional wisdom more reliable than so-called ‘scientific’ studies which are manipulated to justify personal ideologies and/or increase financial gain for the funder. Anyone who wants to back up their point of view with ‘science’ will find those that agree with him/her, and ignore the ones that do not. Cultures eating their traditional foods did not have any political, economic or ideological axe to grind, they just ate the foods that appeared to keep them healthy and able to reproduce healthy offspring. Certainly cultures have differed in what they eat and in the ratio of animal to plant foods, but in the history of mankind I have never heard of a population of vegans.
I agree wholeheartedly with you about focusing on whole foods and avoiding processed foods and am convinced that we would be a vastly healthier nation if we were all prepared to put these principles into practice.
Yours in good health