Vegetarianism Essay, Research Paper
Vegetarianism as defined by The World Book Dictionary (1989) is “the
practice or principle of eating only vegetable foods and refraining
from eating meat, fish, or other animal products”. This definition,
though accurate, seems somewhat limited, as being a vegetarian is so
much more: it is a lifestyle choice, a way of thinking, and a way of
behaving. Over 12 million Americans and countless others, from all over
the world, have turned to the vegetarian diet (Vegetarian Times, 1996).
People who have become vegetarians have made a conscious choice to be
this and, having studied this practice, no one should entertain
becoming a vegetarian lightly. Even though there are many benefits to
becoming a vegetarian, the decision could also be harmful. There are
many reasons for people to choose a vegetarian lifestyle. Some people
adopt it as a fad, while others profess to do it because of an aversion
to eating animals. There are religious reasons for not eating meat and
still others follow vegetarianism as a way to lose weight, using it as
a diet. In each case it can be a healthy or a harmful way to eat. The
benefits or harm of vegetarianism is associated with two factors:
education about nutritional needs coupled with food choices. Even
groups like athletes can thrive on a vegetarian diet if they are well
educated to the bodies’ dietary needs ! and are well aware of the
limit-less choices available on a vegetarian diet. What follows in
this essay, is first: a brief, yet insightful look at the vegetarian
diet (the nutritional aspect) and then: an analysis of how this diet
may, in fact, be a good choice for an athlete.
The first thing people need to realize is that there is more
than just one type of vegetarian diet. In fact, there are
three basic vegetarian diets to choose from. The first is the
lacto-ovo diet. This diet includes the use of eggs and dairy
products. The second one is the lacto diet, which also includes
the use of dairy products but, unlike the lacto-ovo diet, this
diet does not include the use of eggs. The third diet is the
vegan diet. This diet excludes the use of eggs, dairy
products, and any food prepared with eggs and dairy products.
Many vegans do not use honey either (Giehl, 1979). Changing
your diet to one of these three vegetarian diets could be a
move in a healthier direction. Vegetarians are, on the
average, far healthier than those who consume the typical
Western diet (Hulsey, 1997). It is a well-established fact that
vegetarians suffer less heart disease than meat-eaters (The
European, 1992). The high quantities of fat and protein and the
total lack of fiber in meat are linked to a disturbing array of
degenerative diseases such as “cancer, atherosclerosis,
diabetes, obesity, and many others” (Akers, 1983 p. 23). There
is an emerging consensus that a vegetarian diet is actually
better than a meat-oriented diet. (Akers, 1983). The American
Dietetic Association has often voiced it’s support of the “well
planned” vegetarian diet (Hulsey, 1997). Good health, however,
is not automatically guaranteed just because someone becomes a
vegetarian. Understanding the body’s dietary needs, being
organized and having a good plan are the keys to a healthy
vegetarian diet. The body requires a certain amount of
protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals, to sustain
a long, healthy existence. Most people believe that the
vegetarian diet lacks in the required amounts of each of
these. When, in reality, these substances are in abundance in
the well-balanced vegetarian diet. In fact, from research, we
learn that “it is widely recognized that plant foods are the
best sources of many of these nutrients” (Akers, 1983 p.49).
Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are the primary sources of
energy to the body because they supply fuel necessary for body
heat and work (Dunne, 1990). Protein seems to be of the
greatest concern for people thinking about becoming a
vegetarian. Next to water, protein is the most plentiful
substance in the body. It is one of the most important
elements for the maintenance of good health and vitality.
Protein is the primary nutrient involved in the growth and
development of all body tissues (Dunne, 1990). Our society has
embedded in us the belief that the only way of getting enough
protein is to eat large quantities of meat and that people who
don’t eat meat will suffer from a protein deficiency.
Ironically, protein is the easiest of all the nutrients to
get. An entirely random selection of food plants, containing
enough calories to sustain life, will almost always provide
enough protein to meet your body’s needs (Akers, 1983).
Nathan Pritikin, states in his book The P! ritikin Program for
Diet and Exercise (Grosset and Dunlap, 1979) that “the best food
sources for protein are grains, roots, vegetables, and fruits in
unrefined, minimally processed form” (Tracy, 1985).
Securing carbohydrates and fat in ones’ diet is not as much of
a concern for the vegetarian. Carbohydrates are found
primarily in food of plant origin and essential fatty acids are
found widely in food sources from plants. There has been some
debate about the essential fatty acid, linoleic acid, and
whether or not there was a sufficient amount of it in the
vegetarian diet. The dietary requirement of linoleic acid is,
about, 1% to 3% of total calories (Dunne, 1990). A study done
on British vegans showed that “they were getting about 13% of
their calories from linoleic acid”(Akers, 1983). Clearly this
shows that the average vegetarian has little to be concerned
about. The dietary requirements of other nutrients, which may
be of additional concern to the vegetarian, are calcium and
B12. For the vegetarian, especially the vegan, fear about low
levels of these nutrients may be common. Where, on the one
hand, milk and other dairy products are a great source of calcium for
the lacto and lacto-ovo vegetarians. For the vegan, who has
eliminated all dairy products from their diet, there is, however,
little doubt that they too can get calcium from plant-based sources.
Broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and spinach all have considerable
amounts of calcium in them. As well, even though grains in the form
of breads are relatively low in calcium, they are still a good source
because of the high frequency of intake by vegans (Vegetarian Times,
Next to protein, B12 is probably the second most important
issue in vegetarian nutrition. This is because “animal
protein is almost the only source in which B12 occurs
naturally in substantial amounts” (Dunne, 1990 p.31).
However, only incredibly small amounts of this vitamin are
thought to be necessary. The average person needs about 3
micrograms per day (Akers, 1983). For the vegan, who is
worried about the lack of this vitamin in their diet, they
have many options. They can take B12 supplements or eat a B12
-fortified cereal a couple of times a week. Another option
for them is to add nutritional yeast to their food; one to two
teaspoons contains a week’s dietary requirement of this
vitamin (Vegetarian Times, 1996).
It is clear, then, that the vegetarian diet can be
healthy if it is has been instituted
properly and with the awareness of the body’s nutritional needs. This
informed approach to consuming a vegetarian diet is even more important
for the vegetarian athlete. They too can flourish on the vegetarian
diet if they include, as well, in their education a thorough
understanding of what their body will need to perform to it’s full
potential. There have been several world class athletes who have
succeeded in their sports and done it on the vegetarian diet. Six time
Ironman winner, Dave Scott, the baseball home run king, Hank Aaron,
tennis star, Martina Navratilova and many other top performing athletes
have all competed on a vegetarian diet (Thimian, 1997). All these
athletes had something else in common. Besides being vegetarians, they
all realized that to train and compete at peek performance they needed
to have a well-balanced and complete vegetarian diet.
The best vegetarian diet for the athlete is the lacto-ovo diet
because it allows them to maintain the increased levels of
protein and calcium without having to eat too many of the foods
which contains bulk. Although, a balanced vegan diet also supplies far
more protein than the required daily allowance and is quite adequate
for the training athlete (Doyle, 1979). Having too much protein in the
body is not good for non-athlete, but is even worse for the athlete.
Too much protein in the body can interfere with the body’s ability to
absorb calcium, which is extremely important to the athlete, and can
hinder performance (Vegetarian Times, 1996; Winter, 1994).
Besides all the normal concerns of a vegetarian non-athlete,
the vegetarian athlete has additional considerations. “In
addition to high quality protein, vegetarian athletes must pay
close attention to getting enough of two essential minerals,
iron and zinc” (Winters, 1994 p.1) Some peak performance
athletes suffer from a condition known as sports anemia.
Although it is iron related, it is not a true deficiency.
“Sports anemia is the body’s inability to match the increased
plasma volume that occurs at high levels of intense and
prolonged training” (Thimian, 1997, p.3). This condition can be
treated easily by taking iron supplements, increasing vitamin C
to enhance absorption, and taking a rest from or decreasing the
physical stress that caused the condition (Thimian, 1997). As
well as being aware about their nutritional needs and how to
adequately meet them, the vegetarian athlete must also follow
some basic, general, guidelines for all athletes. Having a
pre-game, carbohydrate rich meal. This will ward off hunger
pains and help to maintain blood sugar levels during an
activity or event. They must drink plenty of water during the
activity to replace spent fluids. After the activity, the
athlete must relax. The body needs time to recuperate.
Lastly, and most importantly, they must get plenty of rest.
The athlete puts their body through rigorous training and
therefore needs the sleep to regenerate, more so than sedentary
people (Doyle, 1979). Following all of these guidelines will
help ensure that the vegetarian athlete always achieves a peak
performance while maintaining superb health. Vegetarianism
has, for some time, been the scapegoat of those who believe
that there is no possible way that a person could exclude meat
from their diet and remain healthy for long. This would apply
doubly to those who would dare to reject meat and call
themselves athletes. Both the meat industry and the medical
community have for some time presented a view that anyone who would
attempt to remain vegetarian for any length of time would become poorly
nourished and, ultimately, sick. These days, however, members of the
medical community have swayed to a saner view. Research has proven
repeatedly that, with the proper education, vegetarianism is not only
safe, but even healthy. The greater fear, ironically, in the medical
community, now, is about the high rate of disease caused by fatty
foods, many of which stem from the high consumption of meat and dairy
products. Today’s doctor is far more likely to be afraid of the high
quantities of meat and dairy products that people consume that about
the absence of it. It does not seem that implausible if the diet of
choice for everyone would one day be the vegetarian diet.
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Doyle,R. (1979). The Vegetarian Handbook. Crown Publishers Inc. New York.
Dunne,L. (1990). Nutrition Almanac: Third Eddition. McGraw-Hill Publishing. New York.
Giehl,D. (1979). Vegetarianism: A Way of Life. Harper and Row Publishing. New York.
Hulsey,M. (1997). Questioning Nutritional, Ethical, and, Ecological Arguments About Vegetarianism.
The European. (1992). Doctors say Meat-eaters Face the Chop.
Tracy,L. (1985). The Gradual Vegetarian. M.Evans and Company, Inc. New York.
Vegetarian Times. (1996). Vegetarian Beginner’s Guide. Macmillan. New York.
Winters,M. (1994). Vegetarian Athletes Need to Balance Protein in Their Diet.