Twenty-One Reasons to Eat Like a Vegetarian

Nikki & David Goldbeck
co-authors, American Wholefoods Cuisine

Not so long ago, the word vegetarian was sure to elicit laughter on late night talk shows. But not anymore. Many people now recognize that vegetarian meals are not only familiar–think peanut butter sandwiches and bean burritos–but that these meat-free meals have a lot going for them. Even if you do not want to become a vegetarian, you may wish to consider adding more meat-free days to your week.

People often say to us, “I could be a vegetarian. I love vegetables.” Loving vegetables is a very good thing, since collectively they are probably the most health-protective of all foods. However, they are certainly not just for vegetarians, and despite the name, vegetarianism is not about eating vegetables.

The vegetarian diet is defined by its protein source. Meat eaters get their protein from animal flesh. The typical vegetarian obtains protein from beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, yogurt, cheese, and milk. Another group of vegetarians known as vegans refines this to exclude any food of animal origin, including dairy products, eggs, and even honey.

While at one time people were concerned about the adequacy of vegetarian diets, today even the American Dietetic Association confirms that they are healthy. Here are our twenty-one reasons to go meatless:

1. Less fat and calories. One noteworthy feature of a vegetarian diet is the potential for less artery-clogging saturated fat. For example, beans, which are a focal point of healthy vegetarian meals, contain very little fat. Soybeans and products made with them are somewhat higher in fat than other beans, but the fat they contain does not promote heart disease. In fact, the protein in soy is believed to have just the opposite effect by reducing cholesterol levels.

Nuts and seeds are indeed high in fat, but again, not the kind that is bad for your heart. In small quantities, these foods help satisfy your appetite and can thereby actually curtail overeating.

Low-fat and nonfat dairy products are another example of protein in a lean package. As you will soon see, in Enemy of the Steak, we sometimes make use of a little-known food called yogurt cheese, which is easily made from yogurt. We also use eggs in moderation because, contrary to what many people now believe, eggs are low in fat and calories relative to their nutritional return.

Finally, because many vegetarian staples are high in fiber, and because the vegetarian meals we promote emphasize more vegetables and whole grains than meat-based meals, a sound vegetarian menu is likely to fill you up with fewer calories.

2. Better nutrition. It’s often easier to get adequate amounts of most vitamins and minerals from a vegetarian diet than it is from a meat-based diet. By its very nature, vegetarian eating includes abundant amounts of vegetables on a daily basis. While there is no reason meat eaters can’t eat similar amounts of vegetables, in general, they give these foods a lower priority. The same is true of whole grains. Due to these choices, as well as the fact that beans and nuts are high in fiber while animal foods contain little, vegetarians also get far more health-promoting fiber in their diets.

This is not to say that all vegetarians enjoy better nutrition. Poorly chosen diets are unhealthy irrespective of the diet’s protein source. And vegans do need to put more effort into getting adequate calcium. Moreover, it is possible to become deficient in vitamin B12 after years of vegan eating, which is why nutritionists recommend a B12 supplement for vegans.

3. Mad cow disease. Concerns about animal husbandry have motivated vegetarians for years. Practices such as the overuse of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides in animal feed were what prompted our own turn to a meat-free diet in the 1970s. Now there is another compelling reason for people to consider vegetarian eating–the disturbing news about the health of cows, and the possibility that the meat they yield may be deadly. Mad cow disease was first seen in British cattle. Initially, most scientists insisted that it could not be transmitted to people. It seems they were wrong. Suspected cases have been traced to Canada, and several deaths have occurred in the United States.

4. Mad Dow. The fact that meat-free meals are generally less expensive than their meat-based counterparts is another selling point for most people.

5. Easy, interesting, and convenient dishes. One of the best reasons to try meatless dining is that with the increased selection of inviting ingredients and appealing recipes, vegetarian dining is easier and more exciting than ever. And despite rumors to the contrary, preparing meals without meat is no more difficult or time-consuming than preparing food in general.

6. Concern for animals. Practically all animals destined for the table are raised in inhumane conditions. They are crowded together in unclean quarters, with some rarely breathing fresh air or seeing the light of day. Lack of exercise makes their lives miserable, but it is also what makes their meat tender and juicy.

7. Concern for people. The feeding of plant protein to animals has been called a “food factory in reverse,” in that it takes almost six pounds of plant protein–soy, grain, and forage–to produce just one pound of animal protein. While not all of this plant material is suitable for people, the growing of feedstuffs has reduced the amount of land devoted to edible food production, and is a contributing factor to world hunger.

8. Concern for the environment. One of the most alarming consequences of commercial meat production is the resulting air and water pollution. In areas surrounding large-scale feedlots and factory-like poultry facilities, the stench of urine and feces is far more noxious and pervasive than the odors found on a small-scale farm. Moreover, the methane gas emitted by livestock adds to the buildup of greenhouse gasses associated with global warming, while the massive accumulation of manure in feedlots leaches toxins into the ground and, ultimately, the waterways.

On the waterfront, the fishing industry is heading toward self-destruction by compromising the ocean’s ecosystems. The demand for reef-fish has contributed to the loss of coral reefs, some said to be over a million years old. Fish farming is no less damaging, since shoreline aquaculture has led to the decimation of mangroves–the trees and shrubs that protect the landmass. In fact, mangroves are considered natural shields against tsunami waves.

9. Concern for the future. According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, 70 percent of the world’s commercial fish stocks are in danger due to unsound fishing practices and overfishing. Industrial-scale commercial fishing has been blamed for the severe depletion of many fish species over the past fifty years. In addition, the escape of farmed fish can spread disease and threaten the genetic purity and survival of wild species. On land, the loss of arable soil to animal raising and animal feed production threatens the future of farming.

10. Concern for your health. Numerous studies point to the connection between meat eating and many types of cancer and heart disease. Every leading health agency, from the American Cancer Society to the American Heart Association, promotes a diet emphasizing vegetables, fruit, grains, and legumes (beans).

11. Resistant bacteria. Antibiotics are routinely administered to animals for enhanced growth as well as disease prevention–a constant threat due to overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions. This practice has led to a surge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and is adding to the increasing world crisis of drug-resistant diseases.

12. Food-borne pathogens. While meat is not the only source of food-borne disease, the majority of deadly E. coli cases have been traced to meat products. Moreover, factory-raised poultry is notorious for the presence of Salmonella and Campylobacter. While these bacteria are not likely to kill you if you are in good health, they can make you mighty sick. Moreover, for the young, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system, the outcome can be much worse.

13. Kitchen contamination. Poor food-handling practices in home kitchens are far more serious when meat, poultry, and fish are on the menu. Failure to properly sanitize cutting boards, knives, utensils, and other items that come in contact with food can result in the spread of harmful bacteria to the rest of the meal.

14. Persistent pesticides. Pesticides, heavy metals, and other environmental toxins that are found in all industrial societies accumulate in the fat tissues of both animal and human. When people consume fat-containing meat, poultry, and fish, they simultaneously take in these accumulated chemicals. These concerns are so serious that the US government advises pregnant woman and young children to avoid eating certain fish altogether, and suggests limits on the consumption of others.

15. Protein loading. Even if no other protein-providing foods were eaten in the course of a day, it would take only about 6 ounces of meat to satisfy the 45-gram protein needs of the average woman, and just 3 ounces more to take care of a man’s 65-gram protein need. For people with higher protein needs, including athletes, heavy laborers, and pregnant women, only 100 grams (what you would find in about 14 ounces of meat) are required. Consuming protein above these levels serves no useful purpose. Furthermore, animal-focused high-protein diets like those touted by some weight-loss programs can disturb liver and kidney function, as well as increase the loss of bone calcium. While these are long-term consequences, more immediate effects such as dizziness, nausea, and bad breath can reduce the general quality of daily life.

16. Feisty phytochemicals. A newly identified class of food components called phytochemicals is believed to be among the most health-protective elements in food. Some phytochemicals are potent antioxidants. Others can alter human enzyme production in order to subdue inflammatory ailments. Some regulate hormones in a manner that may enhance bone strength. Phytochemicals have been shown to help cells resist cancer-causing agents and fight retroviral infections, including AIDS. In addition, they have been credited with having a positive effect on circulation, vision, blood clotting, cholesterol production, and more, thereby preventing or curbing a wide range of ailments. As their name suggests, phytochemicals exist only in plants.

17. Fortifying fiber. Only plant-based foods contain the fiber that aids digestion, contributes to satiety and thereby curbs overeating, slows down the release of carbohydrates into the blood stream to help maintain proper blood sugar levels, and reduces the body’s production of artery-damaging cholesterol. Most meat-centered diets are deficient in fiber.

18. Happy hearts The fat in animal foods is mainly saturated fat, which is the only kind of fat that has been directly implicated in heart disease. Conversely, the predominant fats in most plant foods, which are limited largely to nuts and seeds, are believed to raise levels of the so-called “good” HDL-cholesterol, which appears to reduce heart disease.

19. Living longer. Longevity studies from around the world–including studies of Seventh-day Adventists in North America, wartime Europeans, and populations in China and Okinawa–indicate that the healthiest and longest-living people eat relatively few foods of animal origin. While genetics may play a part, peers and progeny who eat a more meat-centered westernized diet do not enjoy similar longevity.

20. Weight control. British researchers studying the eating habits of 22,000 people over five years, including meat eaters and vegetarians, found that while all put on a few kilos, meat eaters who changed to a vegetarian or vegan diet gained the least.

21. Adventures in eating. Because vegetarian meals are not routinely available everywhere, vegetarians become more resourceful and adventurous away from home. They seek out different international cuisines, venture off the beaten path, and look beyond the meat entrées on the menu. As a result, they are apt to engage in more conversation when they travel, be open to trying new places, and be on the lookout for options that others might never notice.