Why Become a Vegetarian?
As the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." If you were not raised as a vegetarian, making that choice at any time from your teens to mid-life can seem daunting. Why would you want to be a vegetarian in the first place? Read on!
There is much information available, and at your fingertips much more quickly than in the past, thanks to the Internet. I relied on books. Some bits have been further researched and changed over the years as the concept has become more mainstream. No more do we worry about "combining proteins" at a single meal to be sure of attaining the proper balance of the various types of protein the body needs. As long as you eat a diet that is balanced overall, it works out just fine.
I was raised in a household by Yankee parents--real meat-and-potatoes style food; I never liked it. I ate it only because as a child, I did not know there were other options. For example, if hamburgers had been served, and I got full, my well-meaning mother would advise me, "at least eat your burger; you don't have to eat the bun." Little did she know I would have preferred the reverse, and it actually would have been healthier.
We do not come into this world with a pre-programmed set of menus for healthy eating. Instead, we must eat what our parents serve us, at least at first. By the time we reach our teens, we have become more aware socially, and have been exposed to other families' ways of doing things, including meal choices. It is not something that happens overnight for most people.
At A Tender Age...
For me, the connection was made a little younger. At about age 8, my mind made the connection between the adorable little baby lambs out in a field and the "leg of lamb" on the dinner table. I was instantly repulsed, and refused to ever eat lamb again. However, I was that age back in the 1950's (yep, I'm an old fart), and still under my parents' roof and directions, and I did not know there were any other options available, and had never heard the word 'vegetarian.' From that day forward, however, I was a vegetarian at heart.
Going forward, my negative associations with meat continued to build. I am highly sensitive, and very empathetic to other creatures. I cringe at the thought of an animal dying by any means, and by being led to slaughter even worse. Over the years I've cried buckets full over the very concept that animals are bred for the sole purpose of being killed to land on someone's dinner plate.
Knowing all this, I have a very weak stomach for any reminders. The next thing to go from my diet was hot dogs. One day, I was eating one at an aunt's barbeque, and bit into a scrap of bone. Ugh! A graphic reminder of the source of that food. It played on me all day; I ended up being sick to my stomach later on. I never ate hot dogs again.
A similar thing happened many years later with ground beef. End of beef for me. That incident was after I was married and had young children. It was the start of my research into other things to eat.
It is my hope that at least a few who read this hub may be similarly persuaded, yet I know everyone will react and decide as they will. It is not my intent to preach, merely to present the facts as I learned them, and for everyone to evaluate those facts according to their own values.
Animals are my friends, and I don't eat my friends.— George Bernard Shaw
Vegetarian Myths Dispelled
In my reading, I learned all about the protein-balancing; e.g., "... be sure to serve rice and beans together to make a complementary dish containing complete protein." And as I pointed out in my introduction, this has been found to be unnecessary.
Furthermore, as further research into our dietary needs has shown, you should not overdose on protein, as most Americans do. It over-stresses the kidneys. Approximately 60% of your calories should come from complex carbohydrates to fuel your energy, and only about 10% to a maximum of 35% from proteins. Fats should make up less than 35%, and an even smaller ratio of simple carbohydrates and refined sugars.
I hear the anti-carbohydrate legions shouting in the distance: "Carbs are bad! Carbs make you fat!" Nonsense! What makes us fat is overindulgence. Complex carbohydtrates (this means potatoes, grains, and the like) are good carbs.
The only thing wrong with potatoes is what we put on them before eating (and I am as guilty as the uneducated on this one). Likewise bread, which is made from grains....the culprits are the toppings. Pasta is not evil. Spaghetti with a delicious Marinara sauce--yummy and healthy. With cream sauce? Uh, no, not so healthy. Simple carbohydrates, such as are found in fruits, juices, and refined sugars (think of that coffee with 2 spoonfuls or of candies) are the 'bad carbs." Limit your intake. Taken in balance with other foods and in moderation, carbs are not evil.
One of the most fascinating facts I learned was that, contrary to popular belief and opinion, vegetarians are not the proverbial 'ninety-eight-pound-weaklings.' Rather, the only person ever with enough strength and stamina to win the grueling Ironman Triathlon held in Hawaii not just once, but 6 times, Dave Scott, was a vegetarian, in fact, a vegan! (He has since re-introduced fish, and rarely, chicken or turkey, but maintains a largely plant-based diet, and was a strict vegan for 30 years including the period in the 1980s during which he raced.)There are many others more recent who swear by a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Even the lethargic and slow-to-change U.S. Government has eliminated the heavily meat-based "food groups" upon which many of us were raised, to the newer "food pyramid" showing a healthier relationship of how to balance your food intake.
As I became more and more of a vegetarian, as my research continued, I found this to be true through personal experience as well. For 15 years, I was a very strict, label-reading vegetarian. I was in my mid forties, and at the healthiest, fittest and strongest point of my entire life.
I was then doing volunteer work with a local community theater, helping to construct scenery flats, running shows as stage manager (a lot of running around up and downstairs, etc.), and the ubiquitous post-rehearsal cast parties! I out-lasted the 20-somethings, could easily lift and carry full-sized scenery flats alone, and at the time, this involved taking them off the stage, out the side door, and down a flight of steps to the props room. I was the only female able to do that without struggle.
During this period, I was also rollerblading around 9 miles 2 or 3 times a week. I felt good! No, I felt fantastic!
(And no, this was not about the power of suggestion or 'mind over matter.' I discovered long ago that I am not subject to the placebo effect: if I were, those doggoned "Midol" tablets would have relieved me of the awful cramps I used to get every month in high school--a very impressionable and 'suggestible' age!) ;)
How Do You Define Vegetarian?
For some, it is a simple as eliminating meat and meat products. That is where I began, but I remained an Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian because I do love cheese and ice cream. To be sure, there are substitutes, but I never found them very satisfactory. You can make (and there are commercially-made) faux ice creams available. Tofutti® is one brand; Rice Dream™ is another. They are nothing like real ice cream, however--the Tofutti® comes closer, but the Rice Dream™ brand is more like a sorbet. That essential richness and creaminess is missing. (I will qualify that statement by saying it was true back in the 1980s. I'm sure progress has been made; I simply have not sampled the wares since then.)
For some folks, that is just fine--they don't like things that are "too rich." If rich foods bother your digestion, you are as well off to eliminate dairy. I used to drink milk as a kid--I no longer like the flavor. I now use the Rice Dream™ on my cereal--when I want it moist--I am much more likely to eat it dry as a snack.
An ovo-lacto vegetarian, such as myself (sometimes stated the other way around, 'lacto-ovo') eats dairy, eggs and honey. Some go to just one side of that equation, eschewing eggs, but not dairy, or vice versa.
A vegan on the other hand, eats nothing of animal origin.
As an ovo-lacto vegetarian, it annoys the dickens out of me, (and any other type of vegetarian), when folks "kindly offer" to fix us chicken instead of beef at their barbeque. Sorry, folks, but the last time I checked, chicken and fish were not counted among grains, vegetables and fruits. Vegetarians of any ilk simply do not eat animals of any classification. It can be phrased as, "We don't eat anything that once had a face."
Why Would Anyone Choose to be A Vegetarian?
There are probably as many reasons as there are vegetarians.
- There are those who become vegetarian for health reasons, especially those wishing to lower their cholesterol numbers: the body needs some cholesterol, but it manufactures its own. There is no need to have it in the diet. Only animal products contain cholesterol. There is none in any fruit, vegetable or grain.
- Some become vegetarian for ecological reasons. Did you know that the methane emanating from factory farms causes more pollution and so-called "greenhouse gases" than all the cars on the roads?
- Animal rights is another major reason people choose to go vegetarian. A cow is a mammal, just like us. She does not produce milk unless she is bred. That milk is supposed to be for the calf. It does not work that way. Female calves may be allowed to nurse for a while, then they are shipped off to become breeding stock and continue the milk production. Male calves have no life at all. They are stripped from their mothers as young as 3 days, and spend a very short life confined in a crate too small for them to even turn around, so their muscles do not develop. They are fed milk, but not from their mother. They are then slaughtered and sold as "veal."
- There is the ethical/philosophical angle. This was where I came in. Knowing that no matter what, I do not have it in me to kill any animal myself, I considered it a cop-out to have the process "santitized" as it were by asking someone else to do the dirty work for me so I could buy a nice neat package of meat at the grocery store.
Those of us who fit in the latter box also avoid using any animal products or by-products in other areas of our lives. For example, we buy shoes crafted from man-made materials; and there are vegans who will not eat honey because they disagree with the process of smoking out the bees to obtain the honey.
As with any belief, it is possible to find extremists as well as moderates and liberals. We vegetarians are no different from any other humans in that respect. Some wear hippie-style sandals and meditate; some wear business suits and scale the corporate ladder; others hold blue-collar jobs. You cannot pick a vegetarian out of the crowd by appearance anymore than you can a jewel thief.
The next couple of sections get fairly graphic, but they do contain additional important facts.
I'm just giving you a heads-up, so you will be prepared.
The Real Health Costs of a Meat-Based Diet
The main health benefit of a plant-based diet stems from the fact that we are not physiologically designed to eat and digest meat. "What???!!!" I hear some folks saying! But look at our canine teeth! Bah! Compare human 'canines' on a proportion-adjusted basis to the canines of a lion,wolf, or even your pet cat or dog. Ours are puny by comparison.
We have more molars in our mouths than the true meat-eaters. Molars are designed for grinding foods such as nuts, grains and seeds. The meat-eaters tend not to chew their food very much, but "wolf" it down in chunks--yes, that is exactly where the expression, "wolfing your food" comes from! Humans who try this often find themselves the subject of newspaper articles after having to be rescued from choking on hunks of steak....if they are lucky...or they may find themselves making a premature application at the pearly gates.
Our intestines are very long...about 25 feet, on average, up to about 35 feet. The referenced chart at the start of this sentence states that as being approximately 10 times our height; however, I think they used some kind of fuzzy math. If you take an average height to be about 5'5", then that's only about 6 times the height of a person. In any case, much longer than in the carnivores. This is to allow the roughage in plant matter to be fully broken down and all the nutrients absorbed. Contrast this to an animal designed for meat-eating, such as a cat, and their intestines are only about twice their body length, with the large intestine being extremely short, basically only serving as a 'holding cell' for waste matter.
This is an important distinction. Meat that sits around for any length of time starts to rot very quidkly. This creates a buildup of "bad things" ranging from gases to bacteria. In the human, due to the length of our innards, this "stuff" sits around for a day or so, sometimes longer depending on an individual's digestive process. The longer it sits in the colon, the more of the "bad stuff" is produced. It is this overlong 'storage' that after a period of years predisposes us to ills such as colon cancer, which rarely occurs in the true meat-eaters.
Definition of an Animal Designed to Eat Meat
Many people prefer not to give up meat, stating, "I'm a carnivore!" To each his own, but that is not really true for any human. Here is how the 'designed to be' carnivores eat:
- They chase down their prey/meal over great distances on their own legs, and often miss making a kill, and may go hungry for days at a time until they succeed. They do not ride in or on any kind of transportation.
- Carnivores use their own claws and teeth to make the kill. The do not use artificial weapons or tools of any kind.
- They pounce upon their prey, and commence eating at once, while the body is still warm. They do not spit out things such as fur and bones; in fact, they crunch the bones to eat the marrow from the centers.
- They do not cook their meat or slather it in cooked or prepared sauces and condiments.
- Born carnivores chase down wild prey; they do not domesticate the animals and raise them on purpose-built farms.
If and when any person claiming "I'm a carnivore" can meet each and every one of these definitions, I'll grant you the right to make such a claim. However, even the earliest humans, upon discovering meat-eating (probably as a result of lack of plant food in winter), used tools and weapons of some kind to assist the kill, and early on learned to cook the catch.
Meat-eating, for humans, is an acquired taste, not one we were meant to have by design. Some will ask, "What about building muscle?" Protein builds muscles. Any protein. Protein and exercise, as in use your muscles! You do not need to eat muscles to build muscles.
It is my personal opinion that those who insist on eating meat should be made to tour a slaughterhouse and packing plant, but that's not going to happen, so we must rely on a gentler education for those interested in learning.
The next most common question vegetarians are asked after the protein issue is usually, "..but what about variety? Don't you get tired of eating the same things all the time?" Well, frankly, no. But it is a legitamate question to pose of meat-eaters. How many different kinds of meat are there? Counting poultry, (which includes chicken, turkey, duck and goose), you then have beef, fish, pork, lamb, venison, and.. and.... umm... let's see....that's about it, without going into items most folks never taste, such as bear, escargot, frog legs, rabbit, (awwww..poor little bunnies!)... and that about covers it. Even goose, duck, bear and venison are not common items on most peoples' menus.
Now, let's see: how many fruits, vegetables, and grains can you name? Right. Quite a few more. Variety is not a problem.
You may or may not agree with me, you may or may not decide to become a vegetarian. That is up to you. I only ask that you keep an open mind. Try it out for a month or so, if you feel so moved.
There are a lot of delicious recipes available, from simple 'comfort' foods to gourmet feasts. My family had a solid rule: try it before you knock it. You might find something you like.
Resources and References
© 2010 Liz Elias