This post is a continuation of my What and Why to Eat for Optimal Health series that explores optimal eating habits and compares the pros and cons of different diets including vegan, vegetarian, raw food, and the paleo diet.
The vegetarian diet is simple. No meat. Anything else goes. Though some people stretch the definition to include eating fish (fish eaters are also known as pescetarians).
The main reason to choose vegetarianism is an objection to killing animals for food. Many other reasons are often given, but the bottom line is that vegetarianism should only be chosen for ethical concerns and not because of some alleged health benefit. There is little objective scientific or nutritional basis for choosing a vegetarian diet.
Many vegetarians make similar claims to the Paleo Diet that their diet is the natural human diet. They may also point to apes and other non-human primates as peaceful herbivores that eat fruits and leaves, thus humans should be that way too.
However, both of those statements are highly problematic. There is massive and wide spread evidence for hunting in the form of pits full of charred bones with cut marks dating as far back as tens of thousands of years ago. Clearly we humans hunted, cooked, and ate animals for significant part of our history. Additionally, among hunter-gatherer tribes that still exist today, there are no known groups who do not consume meat.
Secondly, there is wide-spread documentation of organized hunting by apes. Chimps are highly war-like towards each other and frequently form hunting parties to catch and eat small monkeys. So much for that myth.
Though it has widely been acknowledged that vegetarians are at risk for protein deficiency, there has recently been an interesting turn of events in the declaration of “The Protein Myth.” Instead of addressing the dietary issue, it has been shoved under the carpet by claiming that we don’t really need as much protein as we thought we did.
The protein myth itself however, appears to be a myth. Depending on what source you look at, it appears that many nutrition experts have revised down recommended protein levels but the lowest level I saw advocated–even by vegetarian/vegan sources–was 50g per day based on a 2000 calorie diet.
This can be tough to achieve on a diet of fruits and veggies alone that usually top out around 2-3g of protein per serving. Clearly attention must be paid to protein if you are not eating meat.
To confound the protein problem, we learned from the Paleo Diet that there are some major problems with the most common sources of vegetarian protein–soy (also in the form of tofu), legumes, and dairy. Vegetarians still have eggs open to them, but eggs are high in cholesterol so you should only eat them in moderation.
If that wasn’t enough, we also learned that the second largest source of vegetarian calories–grains–also causes health problems.
What’s a poor vegetarian to do? Nutritionally vegetarians are placed between a rock and a hard place. Removing meat from your diet leaves a void of inadequate protein and some vitamins like B12 which are only found in animal foods. And mounting evidence shows that most of the protein substitutes traditionally used in a vegetarian diet damage your health.
At this point I was finding more questions than answers. If our ethics lead us to a meat-free diet, how can we possibly eat in a healthy way?
In the next post I will explore the Vegan Diet and The China Study and see if the vegans know something that the vegetarians don’t know about optimal nutrition.