Flip side of vegetarianism | Sunday Observer

Flip side of vegetarianism

19 September, 2021

There are many people who have opted to remain vegetarians due to various reasons. Some of them do so out of love for animals. Others prefer a vegetarian diet for health reasons.

Most Hindus and Buddhists remain vegetarians as their religions are based on ahimsa or non-violence. However, non-vegetarians probably outnumber vegetarians and vegans. While vegetarians stick to a vegetarian diet vegans go a step further and do not consume any animal products such as eggs, cheese and yoghurt.

In the meantime, there are many myths about vegetarianism. Most vegetarians believe they live longer than meat eaters. However, there are many non-vegetarians who live up to 100 or more years. A Japanese man who lived a little more than 100 years claimed that he used to eat a lot of fish.

Some years ago I met a 40-year-old woman who was an ordinary office worker. She had been almost totally vegetarian for more than 20 years after she found meat and fish gave her indigestion. When she turned 40, she noticed that she was suffering increasingly from fatigue, depression, mood changes and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). A medical check-up showed that she was suffering from multiple food allergies. She was referred to a nutritional therapist. After detailed questioning, she was found lacking in iron, zinc, magnesium, manganese and chromium.

She confessed that she was not eating enough fresh food or thinking about what her diet contained. Later a doctor put her on a detoxification diet for 14 days and then a more varied diet, cutting out sugars, yeast and dried fruit and adding more beans, nuts, minerals and vitamins. After some time, her symptoms greatly improved and her energy levels came back to normal. Like her, many vegetarians fall into the dangerous trap of eliminating meat and fish from their diets without compensating for lost nutrients.

Balanced diet

Doctors always advise us to have a balanced diet. This is vital even for vegetarians. However, a recent study at Surrey University in the United Kingdom found that 80 percent of mothers believed low-fat high fibre diets were suitable for their infants and 20 per cent felt high kilojoule food was not important. Increasingly, traditional foods such as baby cereal with whole milk are giving way to low-fat yoghurts, fruits and vegetables.

Being a vegetarian can also be problematic for teenagers, particularly girls. According to the British Dietetic Association, many young women have an iron intake that puts them at risk of anaemia. They often do not realize that they have to replace meat with good sources of iron.

Today most young people consume processed vegetarian foods such as veggie-burgers thinking that they are healthier than the real thing. But meat substitutes may require strong flavouring and can be high in salt. On the other hand, if you miss out on dairy foods, you will not get vitamins B12 and calcium. Tom Sanders, Professor of Nutrition at King’s College, London, says B12 deficiency can cause severe irreversible damage to the nervous system. According to him, giving soya milk to children is better than giving no milk at all.

Most vegetarians do not smoke or drink. This is good for health. However, vegetarian diets do not reduce some health risks. A study by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund has found that deaths from stomach, breast, prostate and lung cancer were not markedly lower among vegetarians.

Vegetarians in Western countries keep their diet balanced by enriching it with a variety of dishes. Nuts form a large part of it, as do mushroom and milk products, cream, butter and cheese are in far greater numbers than is customary in Asia. Scientists say even cheese cannot be manufactured without taking life.

To make a certain kind of cheese, you have to kill a calf to provide rennet which is a secretion found in the calf’s stomach lining. Without it no variety of solid cheese can be made. In a way, a vegetarian who eats cheese to be in good health is responsible for the death of the calf.


Dieticians have pointed out that malnutrition is prevalent in countries where little meat or fish is consumed. India and Sri Lanka can be counted among those countries. When the diet is deficient in proteins, wounds do not heal readily. The human body is made up of cells which are continually perishing and they need to be replaced by new ones. Stamina and resistance to infection are also largely dependent upon the protein intake. If you feel lazy all the time, it is a sign of lack of energy and stamina for sustained work, through inadequate nutrition.

With all such health risks some people still opt to be vegetarians. By the way, most vegetarians eat only vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and soy, but eat certain animal products such as eggs, butter and cheese. Vegans, however, do not eat any animal products whatsoever.

They have to be very careful in their selection of foods so that they get all the nutrients they need. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than meat eaters.

Vegetarians also tend to have lower body mass index, lower overall cancer rates and lower risk of chronic diseases. However, vegetarians should remember that anorexia is most commonly believed to be related to vegetarianism. If your family has been vegetarian for your lifetime, or you became a vegetarian for religious or other ideological reasons, then you may be able to adhere to a vegetarian diet, but you will have to work hard to include enough fat and calories and may need nutritional supplements to ensure adequate nutrients.

If any young person wishes to be a vegetarian, they have to be aware of the benefits as well as the risks they will have to face.

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