Eat Your Veggies!
Vegetarian and Vegan Nutrition

Most nutritional studies recommend that we eat far more plant-based foods and a lot less meat, dairy and eggs.

But is a diet completely devoid of animal foods safe?

Nutritional studies of long term vegetarians and vegans (vegans abstain from dairy and eggs in addition to meat) have found these people to be generally in excellent health, without any nutritional deficiencies.

In fact, vegetarians, on average, are much healthier than the general population. They live longer than average, tend not to be overweight, and have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, and other serious ailments. Vegetarian children have a lower incidence of childhood illnesses. Vegetarian athletes have excelled in everything from endurance sports to body building. The only man to win the Ironman Triathlon more than twice was vegetarian Dave Scott, a six-time winner.

Statistically speaking, vegetarians enjoy premium health.

If a vegetarian diet is so healthy, why don't more doctors recommend it?

Everyone, including doctors, is affected by the culture they live in. We happen to live in a society steeped in animal products. Canadians are among the highest meat eaters in the world. Our meat and dairy industries have become powerful and determined to preserve their huge share of the food market.

Starting at a young age we are taught that animal products constitute two of the four food groups. This information is often supplied to schools courtesy of the meat and milk boards. They also conduct extensive advertising campaigns on TV, billboards and in magazines designed to give the impression that meat and dairy offer vital sources of nutrients. What they never mention, are the serious nutritional drawbacks.

How exactly are meat and milk unhealthy?

Meat is deficient in calcium. Milk is deficient in iron. Consuming animal products—lacking in fibre and carbohydrates, and overloaded with saturated fat, cholesterol, protein, and trace chemical residues—is a significant factor in the high rates of chronic disease that plague our society today. Millions of meat-eaters die or suffer from heart disease, cancer, kidney disease and osteoporosis. Conversely, how many vegetarians do you know that are stricken with a chronic protein, iron, or calcium deficiency? It is excess not deficiency that is killing us. The leading causes of death in Canada are linked to the excesses inherent in animal products.

What is the key to healthy eating?

Whether you eat a vegetarian or non-vegetarian diet, the key to health is simple. Include a wide variety of different foods in your diet — no one food source is nutritionally complete by itself. Choose from grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Finally, avoid eating too much in the way of over-processed and refined foods.


Protein: By meeting your daily calorie requirements, you are virtually guaranteed of getting enough protein. Kwashiorkor, the disease linked to inadequate protein consumption, is almost unheard of in Canada.
According to the American Dietetic Association, the amino acids from all the grains, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts and fruit eaten in a given day combine naturally in the body to form complete and ample protein. Combining grains and legumes at the same meal is therefore unnecessary.

Iron: Only about one fifth of the iron in a standard diet comes from meat. Dairy products are deficient in iron. The richest plant sources are: green leafy vegetables, soybean products and other legumes, whole grains, dried fruits, nuts, seeds and molasses. Cooking with iron pots and pans also contributes to dietary intake. Vitamin C enhances iron absorption.

Calcium: Calcium is found in dairy products but only in tiny amounts in meat and fish. A few of the best non-animal sources are; green leafy vegetables, legumes, tofu, soy milk, sesame seeds, figs, and molasses. Hard drinking water generally contains plenty of calcium. There have been no clinical reports of calcium deficiency in vegans and it is known that the human body can adapt to lower intakes.

Zinc: Zinc is readily available in many plant foods — whole grains (breads, pasta, rice), nuts, legumes, tofu, peas, parsley, bean sprouts, and yeasts. There have been no clinical reports of zinc deficiency in vegetarians or vegans.

Vitamin D: Forms in the presence of direct or indirect sunlight. Your body stores vitamin D during the summer for winter use. Margarine and butter are fortified with it.

B12: Only a tiny amount of vitamin B12 is needed but lack of it can lead to pernicious anemia. Rich non-meat sources include: dairy milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, eggs, fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, TVP, and vitamin pills. Other sources may prove reliable such as the surface bacteria on lightly washed organic vegetables, and bacterial activity in the small intestine, but these are yet to be scientifically verified. Long term studies of vegans have detected a very low rate of B12 deficiency. Ironically, due to problems absorbing B12, more meat-eaters than vegans suffer from this deficiency. The human body stores a 2 to 7-year supply of B12.

All other vitamins, minerals fats and carbohydrates are widely found in the plant kingdom. It would be almost impossible to devise a varied diet which would lack them.

If you have any problems switching to a vegetarian diet it may be that your body needs a few months to adjust. Also try experimenting with a variety of different foods and cooking methods. If you are still worried about developing a nutritional deficiency, you can always have your blood tested every couple of years.

Bon appetit.

Beware of the Dietary Double Standards:

When a non-vegetarian gets sick, people assume it's because of stress, overwork, germs, lack of sleep or just chance; but if a vegetarian gets the same illness it is often their diet which is suspect.

1. Position Paper on Vegetarian and Vegan Diets,
The American Dietetic Association, 1988.

2. Vegan Nutrition — A Survey of Research,
Gill Langley MA PhD, 1988.

3. Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple. Michael Klaper MD. 1986.
Compiled by Stephen Leckie, Outreach Director for Toronto Vegetarian Association, and a healthy vegan for the past six years.

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