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Facets of vegetarianism

BY: Dr W. B. Owusu
File photo
File photo

A friend once swore not to eat any animal product again after he discovered that the inside of a piece of chicken thigh (“drum stick”) he was eating had blood. This was the result of the meat not having been grilled properly. He now proudly eats only foods of plant origin.

Vegetables are parts of plants that we consume as food. Vegetarianism is a food habit that excludes animal flesh and in extreme cases, other products of animal origin.

It emphasises the consumption of foods of plant origin — vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and nuts.

Vegetarians are, therefore, people who generally do not eat meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or any by-products of animal slaughter.

Types

We have varieties of vegetarians – (i) lacto-vegetarians who consume milk and dairy products in addition to vegetable diets but exclude egg, meat, poultry, fish, (ii) ovo-vegetarians, who eat no meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products, but do eat eggs, (iii) lacto-ovo vegetarians who do not eat meat, poultry, or fish, but do eat dairy and eggs and (iv) partial vegetarians, who avoid meat but may eat fish (pesco-vegetarian, pescatarian) or poultry (pollo-vegetarian), and there are many more.

A distinct group referred to as vegans or the true (“total”) vegetarians, do not eat meat, poultry, fish or any products derived from animals, including eggs, dairy products and gelatin.

Another category – the fruitarians – relies solely on fruits, vegetables, nuts, honey and seeds.

Reason?

An individual’s decision to lead a vegetarian lifestyle may be influenced by religious beliefs, health considerations, ethical persuasions, moral values, environmental interests, animal welfare concerns and economic factors.

In metropolitan Accra, for example, approximately 80 per cent of vegetarians are probably from religious groups, with the remaining 20 per cent practising it for other reasons (personal communication).

Those who do so for religion often quote portions of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, to support their decision(s) [e.g. Genesis 1:29-30, Genesis 9:4, and Daniel 1:8-16].

Some ecological estimates have it that every person who adopts a pure vegetarian diet saves at least one acre of trees every year, while others opine that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce about half a kilo- of meat but only 25 gallons to produce the same amount of wheat.

Available prevalence of vegetarianism vary from five to 10 per cent in Europe and North America, eight to 10 per cent in Central and South America, and 16 to 20 per cent in Africa and the Middle East and 19 per cent in Asia.

Caution

Considering the importance of good protein in nutrition and health and the fact that some nutrients can only be obtained from animal foods [e.g. cobalamine (vitamin B12), haeme iron, zinc,], vegetarians have to carefully plan their diets in order to get the essential nutrients they need to be healthy.

The presence of oxalates and phytates (anti-nutritional substances) and too much fibre in plant-based foods may retard the availability and biological utilisation of some essential nutrients, especially calcium and zinc.

Research

Traditionally, research into vegetarianism has biasedly focused on its concomitant potential nutritional deficiencies. Recently, however, the pendulum has swung the other way, and studies are now also putting primacy on the health benefits of eating meat-free diets.

In line with this, plant-based eating is now recognised with respect to both its nutritional sufficiency (if planned well) and the available ways to avoid any associated risk(s) for chronic illnesses.

Potential benefits

Compared with those who eat meat, vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fibre, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) such as carotenoids and flavonoids.

As a result, they are likely to have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, all other factors being equal.

It is difficult to tease out the influence of vegetarianism from other practices that vegetarians are more likely to follow such as not smoking, not drinking excessively and getting adequate exercise.

Further research on these is being pursued vigorously internationally.

Nuts are also heart-protective, in spite of their relatively high caloric densities. They have a low glycemic index (lower effects on blood glucose levels) and contain many antioxidants, vegetable protein, fibre, minerals and healthy fatty acids.

Walnuts, in particular, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids which have many health benefits. Even so, fish is the best source of omega-3s lower triglycerides and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

What about bone health? It is worth noting that people who follow a vegetarian diet, especially a vegan one, may be at risk of getting insufficient vitamin D and vitamin K, both of which are needed for bone health.

Much concerns about vegetarian diets have focused mainly on protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils). Topping up the diet with supplements of these with professional advice may be helpful.

The writer is a Harvard-trained freelance writer on science and public health matters. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.