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The Vegetarian Gourmet: The Great American Meatout

By Steven R. L. Millman
Staff Reporter

Greetings and salutations from the Vegetarian Gourmet on March 20, the day of the Great American Meatout! The Meatout is the world's largest annual grass-roots dietary education campaign, marking the first day of spring by encouraging our fellow Americans to go one day without animal products. The Meatout, like the Smokeout, is intended to help people kick the "meat habit" and encourage them to eat a diet healthy for their bodies, their environment, and their souls. This week the Vegetarian Gourmet will forego the usual recipes and restaurant reviews to speak a bit about the myths and realities of vegetarianism and throw out some interesting information. The Vegetarian Gourmet can be reached at gourmet@the-tech.mit.edu.

Myths and Realities

Myth #1: Vegetarians are sickly.

According to the World Health Organization, vegetarians as a group are among the healthiest people. There are no populations in the world which have both high meat intakes and low or average rates of colon cancer. There are also no populations in the world which have both low meat intakes and high or average rates of colon cancer. Vegetarians have considerably fewer problems with heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, kidney disease, diabetes, peptic ulcers, gallstones, arthritis, irritable colon syndrome, hypoglycemia, constipation, diverticulosis, hypertension, osteoporosis, hemorrhoids (oh the humanity!), obesity, asthma, trichinosis, spongiform encephalopothy, food borne illnesses, and nearly all forms of cancer.

Myth #2: Vegetarians, especially vegans, don't get enough protein.

Even though this question was answered pretty definitively by Hardinge and Stare in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2:73) way back in 1954, people still ask the Vegetarian Gourmet how he can possibly get enough protein. Despite what you might have been told in the bygone years of your impressionable youth, experts agree that only between 2.5 and 10 percent of calories one consumes need to be protein. The National Academy of Sciences suggests that a useful rule of thumb is 0.57 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For a six foot four inch man of 200 pounds, this equates to about three ounces of steak or one cheeseburger. Any more protein than is needed by the body is released daily along with other wastes. Too much protein can be a health risk itself.

Almost all plant based foods have protein in more than sufficient quantities to provide what we humans need. Only certain fruits lack the marginal amounts required to live. A vegetarian would have to either be starving or eating nothing but kiwis and grapefruit in order to not get enough protein.

Myth #3: OK, vegetarians get protein, but only meat and dairy are complete proteins.

In order to survive, humans require twenty-two amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Of these, eight "essential" amino acids cannot be manufactured by the human body and must be ingested. Foods like meat and dairy products, which have all of the essential amino acids, are called perfect proteins. The argument is that vegetarians need to be careful to combine foods in order to get all eight essential amino acids with dishes like rice and beans.

However, virtually the only way to miss getting all of the essential amino acids you need is by eating the exact same food all the time. A diet of broccoli and water would be sorely deficient in terms of essential amino acids, but it would also be lack many vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. A vegetarian diet with some variety provides all of the essential amino acids without fuss or worry. Finally, the soy bean, and hence tofu, tempeh, and their more processed derivatives, are all perfect proteins, equivalent in that respect to meat.

Myth #4: So vegetarianism is fine for adults, but children need animal products like milk for calcium and higher protein needs.

No doubt that the healthiest infants will those who who drink mother's milk as their exclusive menu for at least the first several months of post-partum life. But this is a far cry from saying that babies or older children need to drink cows milk or other animal products that don't come from mom. Nutritional biochemist Dr. T. Colin Campbell has found that most children who ate meat consumed about ten times as much protein as necessary.

A series of studies show that animal products, no matter how rich in calcium, cause calcium depletion in the body, resulting in weaker bones (not stronger) and higher incidents of osteoporosis. In countries where animal protein intake is low, osteoporosis is nearly non-existent. There are no other species that consume milk past childhood, and, besides humans, no other species ever consumes another animal's milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that no children drink whole cow's milk during their first year. Cow's milk consumed by infants is known to be responsible for intestinal bleeding, indigestion, iron deficiency syndrome, juvenile diabetes, and is the leading cause of food allergies.

After about the age of four, human children stop producing certain enzymes which make the digestion of milk simple. While only 20 percent of Caucasians become seriously lactose intolerant as a result, more than two-thirds of people of African, Asian, Native American, and Mexican descent suffer from this condition which can cause bloating, vomiting, gas, cramps, headaches and asthma. Director of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Frank Oski says, "There's no reason to drink cow's milk at any time. It was designed for calves, it was not designed for humans, and we should all stop drinking it today, this afternoon."

Myth #5: Leave me alone, at least I'm not hurting anyone else.

Not exactly true. In addition to the enormous cost to our health care system (a proposal to put warning labels on red meat was recently crushed by the meat lobby), there is a tremendous environmental toll exacted by the meat industry. All over the world, forests are being cut down to create more grazing area for beef cattle. Since 1960, nearly half of all the Central American rain forests have been destroyed explicitly for this purpose. These rain forests are the primary source of oxygen and contain much of our biodiversity.

South American rain forests are also being toppled at an alarming rate to make room for beef cattle pastures. Think about that the next time McDonald's gives away toys celebrating Earth Day. Altogether over three million acres of crop land in the United States are lost to topsoil erosion each year as a result of raising livestock, and eight acres of forest per second are destroyed to create new land for grazing. In case you were wondering, each vegetarian saves one acre of trees per year by reducing his or her demand for meat.

In addition, livestock excrement in the U.S. alone amounts to 250,000 pounds per second, roughly twenty times what the human population produces. That excrement is not only the leading cause of topsoil erosion, it is also a leading cause of groundwater contamination.

More Myths and Realities in the weeks and months to come, but, for today, try twenty-four hours without meat. You might find you like it.