When I speak to people about taking up a vegetarian diet, I usually hear them say that they fear some deficiency in their food, protein, or vitamin intake by adopting a strictly vegetarian diet. They seem to feel that something will be missing. Rest assured that the only thing that will be missing is meat and fat.
People tend to associate vegetarianism with “New Age” thought, but vegetarian societies have existed throughout human history, and there is ample evidence to support the validity and healthfulness of this type of diet.
Strict Hindus and Buddhists have adhered to a vegetarian diet since well before Christ’s time. Indians in the Vilacamba valley of Ecuador are virtual vegetarians, and scientists have found a significant percentage of these people live to over 100 years of age. Studies of European men over 100 have discovered that the majority of them were vegetarians. The well-known Hunza tribe of Pakistan are strict vegetarians noted for their amazing vitality and long life. In 1964, Dr. Paul Dudley White, a noted heart specialist, studied 25 Hunza men ranging in age from 90 to 110 years of age. He concluded, even at that advanced age, they possessed normal cholesterol, blood pressure, and EKG patterns for men less than half their physical age.
In modern times, the largest and most impressive studies occurred in Denmark during World War I and Norway during World War II. In both these nations, the austerities of war prevented the populace from consuming their normal, meat-rich diets. The Danes lowered their death rate from non-infectious disease by an impressive 34% and the Norwegians by over 25%. After the respective wars, once their former meat-eating patterns were re-established, the death rates returned to prewar levels.
Vegetarian Health Benefits
The health benefits associated with eating more vegetables and fruits are indisputably clear. In general, vegetarians consume less saturated fats and cholesterol than people on an average American diet, and they consume higher levels of fiber, magnesium, folate, vitamins C and E, carotenoids and phytochemicals. More specifically, studies have shown a positive link between eating a vegetarian diet and a reduced risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, coronary artery disease and some types of cancer.
It is especially important for vegetarians to avoid excessive amounts of junk food since a “refined food” vegetarian diet can be potentially dangerous with its extremely low nutrient levels. Also, be sure to consume enough calories. This can be a challenge for some vegetarians due to under-eating or excessive fiber in the diet. While fiber is beneficial, excessive amounts can interfere with mineral absorption. Take care not to combine supplements with high-fiber foods. Good planning and forethought are essential.
While it’s true that several key nutrients found primarily in animal products cannot be obtained as easily from plant-based foods, there are ways to maximize your absorption and utilization of these important vitamins and minerals. To maintain optimum health, it is especially important that vegetarians consume adequate amounts of nutrients, either from foods, fortified foods or supplements.