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GreenWise - February 2005

Being Vegetarian:
Patricia wants to lose the weight that's been creeping up on her since she turned 40.

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Harry has just heard from his doctor that he needs to lower his cholesterol. At dinner one evening, six-year- old Marcus, always a picky eater, tells his parents, Charlotte and Tom, that he's not going to eat meat anymore.

There are many reasons why people explore and adopt vegetarianism as a way of eating. For some, it's all about health. The driving force for many is their feelings about animals and cruelty. Environmental concerns inspire others. Still others choose to become vegetarians for religious reasons.

If, like Charlotte and Tom, you've just been the recipient of a child's "I don't eat meat" announcement, you're likely to feel that you need to learn a lot - and quickly - to ensure your child still gets all the right nutrients. (See part two of this series in the March issue.) Here are the most common reasons for the vegetarian decision.

Health Benefits
The vegetarian diet - which has long been considered a bit peculiar, if not downright dangerous - has finally found a place among accepted eating plans. In a position paper issued jointly with the Dietitians of Canada, the American Dietetic Association says that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."

"Vegetarian diets," the paper says, "offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals." Type 2 diabetes, now raising concerns as a potential epidemic in this country because of the large numbers of children and youth developing the disease, occurs less often in vegetarians, as does high blood pressure. Vegetarians also have lower cholesterol, lower body mass index (a measure of obesity), and lower rates of death from some kinds of heart disease. Vegetarians must be doing something right, since their rates of both colon and prostate cancer are lower.

Plant-based diets - with a minimum of red meat, if any - are now recommended by the American Institute of Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. This disease-preventive approach means heaping the plate with vegetables and fruits, along with beans and minimally processed whole grains.

Ethical-Moral Choice
Many children, teens, and young adults become vegetarians because they love animals, and especially after learning how animals raised for food in factory farms are treated during their short lives. Some, called "semivegetarians," will eat fish, free-range chickens, and other animals that have been treated humanely.

Better for the Environment
A plant-based diet requires much less energy to produce than a meat-based diet. In terms of negative effects on the environment, eating meat is number two on a list compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Because of the amount of resources used to feed livestock, the environmental cost of not eating meat is much lower. Many vegetarians say we could feed far more hungry people if we ate the grain itself, rather than using it as feed for animals. For each pound of beef from a feed lot, 16 pounds of grain and soybeans are required. And in terms of acreage, only 165 pounds of beef can be produced on an acre of land. That same acre could be used to grow 2,000 pounds of potatoes.

Besides using far more water and energy, producing meat for consumption also pollutes water because of the volume of waste products. Beef production accounts for 17 times more water pollution damage than pasta production, according to Warren Leon, PhD, coauthor of The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices and Is Our Food Safe? (Three Rivers Press, 1999 and 2002, respectively). "The contamination to the nation's waterways from manure run-off is extremely serious," Dr. Leon says. Because it also uses far more land than grain, the production of beef is 20 times more threatening to wildlife habitats, he says.

Antibiotic resistance from overuse is another area of concern for people who choose vegetarianism for environmental reasons. According to UCS estimates, "70 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy pigs, cows, and chickens to promote growth and prevent disease." This group also reports that "the Centers for Disease Control considers animal use of antibiotics to be the major cause of foodborne illnesses that resist treatment with antibiotics."

If you or a family member decides to try vegetarianism, you'll find information on protein, calcium, and other nutritional concerns in next month's article. Whether or not eating vegetarian appeals to you, always be sure to eat a well-balanced diet with lots of veggies and fruits.

"Food and Environment,"on of Concerned Scientists,
"Group's Surprising Beef with Meat Industry" by Glen Martin, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/27/99
"Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian Diets," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 6/03

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