The Truth Behind Vegetarianism

by Alexandra Cushman on March 14, 2014

Although the majority of humans choose to partake in an omnivorous diet, 2.5% of Americans currently choose to follow one of vegetarianism. The vegetarian diet is comprised primarily of plant foods, and does not include fish or meat of any kind. While many choose to partake in the diet for its physical health benefits, several also choose it for psychological or ethical reasons. While the diet is known for its numerous health benefits, it does not come free of risks. Numerous studies have therefore been conducted to assess whether or not the vegetarian diet is superior to that of an omnivorous one.

 

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Much of the evidence from these studies suggests that vegetarian diets offer distinct advantages over omnivorous ones. The benefits of the vegetarian diet arise from its reduced levels of animal proteins, cholesterol and saturated fat. These low levels of fat put vegetarians at low risk for developing diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, ovarian and breast cancers (Marsh K., Zeuschner C., Saunders A., 2012). A recent dietary intervention of individuals with obesity and type II diabetes supports the cardiovascular health benefits of vegetarianism. The study’s intervention group was comprised of clinically obese individuals diagnosed with diabetes II, who were fed a strict vegetarian diet over an 18 week period. The result of the 18 week intervention period was an average weight loss of 2.6kg, and a mean fall in LDL cholesterol levels. In addition to this, the intervention group experienced lower plasma lipid levels and increased glycemic control. These low levels are associated with a decrease in the risk of coronary heart disease, the most consistent benefit of a vegetarian diet. Low risk of chronic cardiovascular disease in vegetarians can also be attributed to an average lower body mass index, and higher level of physical activity (Marsh K., Zeuschner C., Saunders A., 2012).

Protection against chronic cardiovascular disease is not the only benefit to a vegetarian diet. The diet, rich in complex carbohydrates, provides exceptional amounts of the body’s essential vitamins and nutrients. These include high levels of dietary fiber, vitamins E and C, folic acids, carotenoids and phytochemicals. These vitamins and nutrients possess various strengthening properties for the body’s teeth, hair and nails, as well as benefits to digestion and sight. Vegetarian diets provide copious amounts of these nutrients, as well as essential minerals such as iron. Iron is essential to life, and is the transport protein that carries oxygen to the blood allowing for successful cellular respiration in the body’s tissues (UCSF, 2014). Staples in the vegetarian diet such as beans and dark leafy greens are excellent sources of iron, and aide in reducing vegetarian’s risk of developing anemia (iron deficiency). Recent studies have shown that despite a lack of meat consumption (a major source of iron), vegetarians are at no higher a risk for developing anemia than non-vegetarians (Haddad A., Tansman J., 2003).

While partaking in a plant based diet provides individuals with many health benefits, it also places them at serious health risks. These risks are nutritional deficiencies that may result from a vegetarian’s poor meal planning or lack of proper vitamin and mineral supplementation. One of the major challenges for vegetarians is finding appropriate sources of protein, a macronutrient found most abundantly in meats. Protein has more physiological functions in the body than any other macronutrient, and thus is absolutely necessary for successful bodily functions. Although found in every cell of the body, protein functions chiefly in the processes of transportation and pH balance. A lack of the macronutrient causes tissue breakdown, and in serious cases atrophies of the heart and muscles (American Dietetic Association, 2013). In order to avoid these serious health risks, the American Dietetic Association suggests that every individual consume .4g of protein/day for every one pound of body weight. A woman weighing 120 pounds therefore needs approximately 48g of protein per day. Again, this nutritional guideline is often difficult for vegetarians to meet because their diet lacks meat, the most significant food source of protein.

In addition to protein deficiency, a plant based diet places vegetarians at high risk for vitamin B12 and calcium deficiencies. Vitamin B12 is a vitamin essential to the body’s successful immune function, but is not made naturally in the body nor found in plant foods (Haddad H. et al., 2013). Fortified foods and vitamin B12 supplements are therefore a necessary staple in the vegetarian diet. Without these, vegetarians place themselves at high risk for developing vitamin B12 deficiency anemia, as well as serious problems in immune and cognitive functioning. Despite this high risk, studies show that the majority of vegetarians are vitamin B12 deficient, which is an area of serious health concern (Haddad E. et al, 2013).

 

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Calcium deficiency is an additional threat to cognitive and immune function. While calcium is most well-known for its role in maintaining strong bones, the mineral also plays a role in almost every function of the body. Without the American Dietetic Association’s recommended 1000mg of calcium per day (American Dietetic Association, 2013), vegetarians are at risk for osteoporosis, chronic numbness, convulsions, and life threatening heart problems. In order to prevent calcium deficiency, vegetarians must consume three to four full servings of calcium per day. These are most commonly found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, as well as vegetables such as collard greens and turnips (American Dietetic Association, 2013).

The above are the three most common nutritional deficiencies found in the vegetarian diet, all of which are preventable. The key to their prevention is proper meal planning and vitamin supplementation, which ensures that a vegetarian’s nutritional intake meets not only energy needs, but also crucial vitamin and mineral needs. Proper education regarding these common nutritional deficiencies is necessary for all vegetarians, and is their primary responsibility before deciding to undertake a plant based diet.

 In addition to the effects of a vegetarian diet on physical health, come its controversial effects on mental health. Numerous published articles support evidence of an elevated prevalence of mental health disorders following the onset of a vegetarian diet. These disorders range from that of depressive and anxiety disorders to somatoform disorders (mental disorders where patients experience pain that they are unable to trace back to any certain cause). This elevated prevalence of mental disorders is supported by the research of a recent study. The study was a representative community survey, which categorized its participants into three dietary considerations: completely vegetarian, predominantly vegetarian, and non-vegetarian. Participants took part in an initial mental health survey, followed by in-depth interviews conducted by clinically trained interviewers (Massimo F. et al, 2010). Results of the experiment displayed a statistically significant (p < .05) comparison in mental disorders in those participants who were predominantly vegetarian as opposed to non-vegetarians, and an even more statistically significant comparison of mental disorders in completely vegetarians to non-vegetarians. This supports evidence that increasing levels of vegetarian eating corresponds to an increase in prevalence in mental disorders, because those who were predominantly vegetarian had a higher prevalence of mental illness than those who were non-vegetarians, yet a lower prevalence than those who were strictly vegetarians (Massimo F. et al, 2010).

 

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Research proposes several causal mechanisms for this association between mental disorders and vegetarianism. First, that the onset of a vegetarian diet follows the diagnosis of a mental disorder. In this case, the choice to become a vegetarian may be attributed to an increase in health oriented behavior. For example, the individual suddenly feels overcome with the desire to eat in such a way to positively influence the course of their mental disorder, as a form of safety or self-protection (Massimo F. et al, 2010). Another association between mental disorders and vegetarianism is the common increase in sensitivity to the suffering of animals and human beings that vegetarians often feel. This heightened sensitivity to the slaughtering of animals is what often leads vegetarians to half meat consumption completely (Massimo F. et al, 2010).

This heightened sensitivity is supported by a recent study of the brain’s functional networks in vegetarians and non-vegetarians. This study found that vegetarians have a higher level of empathy when witnessing negative treatment of humans and animals especially. These levels of empathy and distinct brain responses were found more often in vegetarians than non-vegetarians (Massimo F. et al, 2010). This suggests that a vegetarian’s choice of diet is motivated by underlying moral and ethical factors.  These are often driven by their belief in legitimacy in all forms of life, an ethical philosophy that extends far beyond simply food, and of which finds omnivorous behavior morally unacceptable. (Massimo F. et al, 2010).

While many choose a vegetarian diet for ethical reasons, some choose it in response to environmental concerns. While factories and slaughterhouses pollute the environment, vegetarian diets conserve Earth’s resources, and reduce waste. The run off produced from U.S. factory farms is currently responsible for the pollution of hundreds of thousands of streams, and is one of the country’s greatest threats to water quality and public health. Pesticides, fertilizers, and expansive irrigation processes used for meat production are therefore an additional driving force behind why many choose to meat out of their diet completely (Massimo F. et al, 2010).

                                                 Sources

Craig WJ. (2010) Nutrition concerns and health effects of vegetarian diets. Journal of        Clinical Nutrition Practice. 25(6): 613–20. Retrieved March 6, 2014 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24107225.

Haddad E., Tanzman S. (January 2003). What do vegetarians in the United States eat?    The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 78(3): 6265-6325. Retrieved March  6, 2014 from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/626S.long

Haddad EH, Berk LS, Kettering JD, Hubbard RW, Peters WR. January 1999.  Dietary intake and biochemical, hematologic, and immune status of vegans compared with nonvegetarians. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 70(586S-   93S. Retrieved March 6, 2014 from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/70/3/586s.full.

Hemoglobin and functions of iron. (January 2014). UCSF Medical Center, Retrieved March 5, 2014 from http://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/hemoglobinand_functions_of_iron/.

Marsh K., Zeuschner C., Saunders A. (January 2012). Health implications of a vegetarian diet: A review. Medscape. 6(3): 250-267. Retrieved March 7, 2014 from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/763435_2.

Massimo, F. et al. The Brain functional networks associated to human and animal  suffering differ among omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans (2010). Pub Med. Retrieved March 5, 2014 from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2877098.

Mishra S., et al. (May 2013) A multicenter randomized contolled trial of a plant-based nutrition program to reduce body weight and cardiovascular risk in the corporate setting: the GEICO study. Pubmed. Doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2013.92. Retrieved March 5, 2014 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3701293/.

Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets (July 2013). American Dietetic Association. 109(7): 1266-82. Retrieved March 5, 2014 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864.

 

 

 

 


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