1 April 2009

Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Myth: Vegetarian diets are healthier

Nicole Senior

Fact: Vegetarian diets can lack essential nutrients
My latest book, Heart food (with Veronica Cuskelly) has a picture of mouth-watering steak on the front cover. A couple of people expressed surprise at this choice, and couldn’t believe meat was healthy. Of course a balanced diet including lean meat can be healthy and heart friendly, but meat often gets a bum rap – much of it deserved because our portions are too large and our meat choices too fatty. But is going meat-free the true path to wellness? Well, a vegetarian diet can have a few holes in it as well and lack key nutrients such as iron, zinc, B12 and omega-3 DHA. I thought I’d address a number of commonly held views about vegetarianism.

Vegetarians live longer: While it’s true the Seventh Day Adventist vegetarian community in Loma Linda California are one of the most long-lived in the world, under the cold light of science this can’t be fully explained by their vegetarian diet. This community also don’t drink alcohol, are physically active, and have strong religious faith and social connectedness. There are equally long-lived communities elsewhere in the world that do include animal foods in their diet, such as the people of the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy and the people of Okinawa in Japan . Interestingly, while they do eat meat, their diets are based on plant foods (as are heart-healthy diets today). The take-home message is, if you eat meat make sure you eat plenty of vegetables, exercise and pray!

Sardinia Centenarians

Vegetarian dishes in restaurants are healthier options: In my experience, this is the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately vegetarian dishes tend to be heavy on cheese, cream and pastry (e.g. vegetable quiche, bean nachos), and thus heavy on kilojoules (calories) and artery clogging saturated fat and salt. Unless the chef is clued up on matters vegetarian, you end up with a meat-free version of an existing dish (e.g. vegetable pasta) rather than a well-balanced meal with suitable meat-alternatives such as legumes and nuts. Teen girls please note: throwing the meat out of your burger does not make it a vegetarian meal! You need to research a restaurant guidebook or the web to find suitable vegan dishes (containing no animal products at all). More education about healthy meatless meals is needed.

There is enough iron in plant foods: I recently saw a bumper sticker on the back of a cattle farmer’s truck that said, “7 days without meat makes one weak”. Very clever, but is there any truth to it? Maybe when you consider plant foods such as whole grains, legumes and nuts contain non-haem (or non-heme) iron of which only 5% is absorbed. Added to this, vegetarian diets contain very high levels of phytates and oxalates that inhibit iron absorption. Eating vitamin-C rich foods can enhance the absorption of non-haem iron, but never reaches the bioavailability of haem iron. The haem-iron in meat, chicken, pork and fish is much better absorbed, and in a mixed meal the haem-iron enhances the non-haem iron absorption as well. Many vegetarians do fine without meat because their iron needs are lower, but children, teenagers, pregnant women and athletes need more and risk going short. Low iron can cause poor energy levels and fatigue, and delayed cognitive development in children.

Sure, meat-lovers would do well to take a leaf out of the vegetarian book by including more protective plant foods, but vegetarian diets have their hazards as well. The take-out message is that avowed carnivores and vegans are dietary extremes while health is so often found in the happy medium. Vive l'omnivore!

If you’re interested in having your steak and eating it, while still looking after your cholesterol and heart health, check out Nicole’s books at www.eattobeatcholesterol.com.au



Anonymous said...

I have heard those comments before but it would be more helpful to give advice on how vegetarians can be more healthy rather than attempting to save teenage girls from a life of meatless burgers. A lot of us a vegetarians for ethical reasons, I believe what you say about iron absorption but that is not going to make me start eating meat.

Anonymous said...

I find it somewhat strange that Ms. Senior claims vegetarian diets are low in B12. Considering vegetarians still consume dairy products. (Interestingly calcium can interfere with Iron absorbtion).

In regards to the iron issue. The British Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association agree that vegetarians are no more likely to suffer from iron deficiency than meat eaters (BMA, 1986; American Dietetic Association, 2003). Although vegetarians have lower iron stores, adverse health effects have not been demonstrated with varied vegetarian diets in developed countries. In fact, moderately lower iron stores reduce the risk of some chronic diseases (Hunt, 2003).

Finally most meat analogues have added iron and zinc added to the product.

I find it dissapointing that Ms. Senior doesnt tell the whole story when it comes to a vegetarian or Vegan lifestyle.


Anonymous said...

I have been vegetarian for 30 years and have successfully raised 2 vegetarian children to adulthood. my iron levels throughout pregnancy and after were higher in the normal range. they are still perfectly normal after 30 years and so are the rest of the family.Being vegetarian has little bearing on iron levels or B12. I hope i am wrong in suspecting some sponsorship influence by the meat industry here.

Anonymous said...

Research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association last year compared fish oil supplements to DHA from microalgae. They found that both were equally effective in raising blood levels of DHA in the subjects.

GI Group said...

Yes this is great news for those who don’t eat fish. DHA is DHA whether it is made by the physiology of a fish, or made by algae. There is lots of exciting research around this novel source of long chain omega-3 fats in order to create a more sustainable supply (as well as a vegetarian-friendly source).

GI Group said...

Re vegetarian for 30 years ... Nicole says: 'Congratulations on your success. No, definitely no meat industry sponsorship here.'

nari said...

I Worked in Quait for 10 years where I have seen strict Indian vegetairians (as a part of the hindo religion) ,and I have seen the severe megaloblastic anaemia among them due to severe vitamin B 12 defficiency which is not available in plants,so if you are such a strict vegetairian please get Vitamin B 12 suplements,by the way I am haematologist.

hermin said...

yes Nari, i agree with you. This is probably our anonymous fellow (the vegetarian for 30 years) has had a normal level of B12. If you go vegetarian, you can get vit B12 from:

- egg
- milk (a little bit)
- nutritional yeast
- fortified plant based foods (e.g. cereals)
- vitamin B12 supplements e.g. tablets

Re iron intake: vegetarians CAN get enough iron, especially if they wisely consume it together with vitamin C sources, PLUS taking supplements.

I think what Ms Senior wants to point out is simply: vegetarians can be at a higher risk of getting anemia ***IF*** their requirement is higher, and/or if they don't plan their eating pattern carefully and make sure that their nutrient intakes are balanced!

Hope it clarifies the matters for all?

Anonymous said...

You can take B12, iron, zinc, and all the other nutrients that vegetarians usually lack in pill forms. Plus, recent studies DO show that people who reduced or banned red meat from their diets lived a longer, healthier life.
And, you only mentioned the bad points on vegetarianism. Think about the animals!

Anyway, your article was interesting, but you forgot to mention the numerous benifits to being a vegetarian.

I have been a vegetarian for almost a year now, and I plan on following a no-meat diet for many more years.