Some of my friends and acquaintances have begun to express an interest in switching to a vegetarian diet. Of course I am thrilled ‘ save the animals, save the planet, heck save yourselves’ my inner voice sings. Another part of me feels this is such an important change,not only for the individual but a change with such global impact beyond the individual that it is important to be honest and balanced in providing information to those who are considering this transformation.
From a health perspective the truth is that, within a balanced diet, there is room for meat. In fact meat probably sparked our ‘rapid’ evolution. Higher calorie values at a lower investment of energy meant we could benefit both from the nutrition growing bigger and better brains but also as less of our time was spent gathering and so more could be spent developing tools, communities and communication. However we have come from benefiting from the meat in our diet to dying from it. When we were hunter gatherers we ate far less meat than we do today. The hunters would spend hours if not days tracking their prey then catching and killing it, expending loads of energy while doing so. Then they would then bring that back to be consumed by the whole community. So, more important to me than having the whole world become vegan is that as a whole we begin to understand the impact of our meat dependent diets both on our health and on our planet. Rather than have everyone vegan I’d love to see the whole world drastically reduce its meat consumption whether that be through being a weekday vegetarian, fully vegan, or a flexitarian. I’d also for the welfare of all living creatures including humans, see an elimination of mass agriculture and animal raising for food.
Becoming vegetarian now is much easier than more than 3 decades ago when I first declared “I won’t eat my friends!” but it still requires some adjustment. For one thing we live, globally, but specifically in SA in a very meat centric environment. Meat is associated with masculinity – the ultimate irony given that, a diet high in red meat intake is highly correlated with erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer to name but two. And, similar to when someone declines an alcoholic drink, there is a strong reaction from those who are indulging – perhaps defensive in case you suggest they too “put down the boerie and back away” or in an effort to defend their own mindset…either way expect some pressure. So here are some tips from my own experience to help you on this journey…
Easy does it!
One way to ease into it is to consider being a weekday vegetarian / vegan. One can also begin to restrict your meat intake to one meal a day keeping it as an accompaniment rather than the main dish. Think biltong or chicken salad for instance. This allows you to indulge at a weekend braai taking some of the social pressure off. My bet is that soon you begin to notice how much better you are feeling in the week than post your weekend braai which will further help cement your decision.
Think “more” not “less”
Rather than thinking of all the bacon and steak you’re giving up focus on how you might expand your diet. Think colour, the more colourful fresh vegetables are on your plate the wider the variety of nutrients you’re getting. Now is the time to explore all those fruits and veggies you’ve never even heard of before. Pick a favourite meaty meal, maybe a burger or cottage pie and experiment with vegan or vegetarian versions…you may have to try one or two different types of recipes but I guarantee you will find one (or more) out there that will totally seduce your tastebuds. Those who are practicing a LCHF diet are both at once better and worse prepared..better because thank the lord they’re not going to shy away from some healthy fats. Oh the times I’ve been told to watch how many nuts I eat or how many avo’s I consume…trust me, when it comes to weight management, it’s not the avo’s or the nuts that are piling on the pounds, I promise! Think more! More veg, nuts and fruit and also more variety. Unfortunately the downside of LCHF diets is that they tend to restrict a lot of grains and legumes – the latter being one of a vegetarian’s best sources of iron and protein. Now there are genuinely people out there who would do well to avoid many grains (for example those suffering celiac disease) and even legumes, although the latter are less problematic. If you are one of the unfortunate who cannot digest these then you may need to do a little more work – consult a nutritionist; take various supplements or use commercial vegetarian replacements that don’t have these products in. Oh and to answer that age old question of “but ..where do you get your protein…?” The answer is ..same place as the cows and sheep we eat get theirs…from our greens! Green vegetables and nuts are critical in a healthy vegetarian diet. Nuts are awesome, they go in everything over porridge, salads, sprinkled on grilled food, in banana breads and smoothies….basically go nuts for nuts (the only one you can overdo is Brazilian nuts – high in selenium which in excess is bad for us)
Learn to cook
It’s fun learning to make old favorites in a vegan friendly way and no one is going to complain too much if you take over making dinner a couple of nights a week.
Just add this…
The only nutrient hard to find in a vegetarian (and nigh impossible in a vegan) diet is vitamin B12. Made by bacteria it used to be found in water, soil and the intestines and guts of animals as they digested their food – however clean chlorinated water meant goodbye dysentery but also goodbye vitamin b12, ditto with the way we farm the soil these days so find a good supplement of B12 preferably slow release and, assuming you’re taking the advice above, you will never be the stereotype of the listless, pale vegetarian so often evoked when people hear you’re going to try a more vegetarian diet and finally…
Know your reasons!
There are a lot of reasons people become vegetarian or vegan – explore them. This will help you keep focused and stay on track (or get back on if you slip).
Health reasons: we’ve already explored this and it’s a popular reason for giving up meat these days. Again, to be healthy you need not be totally vegetarian but, most reputable studies indicate, ideally a person should reduce meat intake to no more than 5% of your diet and avoid processed meat such as ham and bacon to gain the benefits of a plant based diet and avoid the risks in eating meat. In fact for many reasons, including the knee jerk reaction to hearing “vegetarian” I’ve started referring to my diet as “largely if not completely” plant based. – Of course, I am working towards totally plant based because of the next reason…
I became a vegetarian when I was 6 or 7 and visited an abattoir. I think if slaughterhouses were housed amongst us and had glass walls we’d nearly all be vegetarian. If you can’t face going to an abattoir, visit the Holocaust museum or a Genocide memorial – it’s the same. Sure, one is human the other animal but even if you value human life as more valuable, today it is widely and scientifically understood that all living creatures experience pain, fear, anxiety and loss. If you want to explore this you could also watch Forks over Knives. Personally I cannot. I know terrible atrocities are committed against living creatures, I cannot expose myself to the trauma of watching it but…some people think it’s “not so bad” and can’t believe it’s that traumatic, perhaps for them some of these documentaries including undercover videos taken by activists may open their eyes and hearts.
Another big driver in people’s decision to try a more vegetarian diet. Monocrops and mass agriculture may have seemed like a brilliant development 50 odd years ago, however it has not been an unmitigated success other than for those who profit from it. In fact and counter-intuitively it has probably resulted in a higher percentage of people starving. There are a whole lot of reasons for this, firstly land that perhaps once supported an entire community would now be owned by a specific farmer or industry. It would be used to produce food to maximum efficiency – this means using soil over and over, using pesticides and mono crops – all of which are problematic. I’m not going to go into these too deeply but will leave some links at the bottom. Sitting here in the Cape, with water shortages a very real problem, the biggest issue for me is the one of how much water it takes to farm the way we do today. You will find a wide range of figures regarding how much water it takes to “produce” (see how we deliberately desensitise ourselves to the animal’s life as it becomes ‘produce”?) a kg of beef. It depends on a variety of things, free range or not, grass or corn fed (or skittle fed?) etc but estimates range from 5000 to 20 000 liters per kg. Bottom line even most conservative estimates range out at A LOT! It’s not just beef but also many starch crops (rice for instance) and particularly many of the crops we feed to the cattle are also water intensive.
Most Hindu people won’t eat beef since cows have a spiritual connection to Lord Krishna but beyond that many Hindu’s try to follow a path of nonviolence and thus avoid eating meat at all (if you think there is no violence in the burger patty on your plate ..you are sorely mistaken, even deliberately misled). One of the bigger studies done on vegetarianism used the Seventh Day Adventists as many follow a vegetarian diet. Seventh Day Adventists have restrictions on what meat they may eat and in fact many are vegetarian because they take their dietary guidelines from the bible Genesis 1 verse 29. Which says : 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
In fact, while, according to the bible we were decreed by god to rule over / be guardians of/ lord over animals (depending on which interpretation you read) in the bible it is only post man’s sin that there comes mention of animal sacrifices. These are not the only belief systems which lean towards vegetarianism as part of their spirituality – see here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_and_religion
So as you take this journey into healthier and kinder eating here are some useful links and, remember, easy does it, know your reasons and think MORE not LESS.
Colin Campbell Interview “The China Study” at Hippocrates Health Institute.
Forks over Knives