“If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.”
I have been promising for a while to get to a discussion of vegetarianism, and the first post appeared just a bit ago. We need to address the three big claims of the vegetarian, and also vegan, ways of eating: that they are healthier, more sustainable, and more ethical than any other way of eating. We’ll first look at health claims, but we cannot begin any discussion of the “healthiness” of any particular way of eating unless we first define our terms. What do we mean by “healthy?”
There is no diet in the world that can guarantee you will never fall ill, despite anything that Gwyneth Paltrow might say. Whatever and however you eat, you will one day die. No diet can stop it.
So what is healthy? Surely when we say this what we really mean is something more like the word thrive. There are many other factors, from genetic to environmental to psychological, that affect our ability to thrive. Genetics influence how readily we put on or take off weight or muscle and also seem to affect our susceptibility to cancers. We are all exposed to different germs and viruses of different sorts and at varying levels. We ingest different bacteria in different amounts depending upon where we live and what we eat. We experience different levels of stress, and our hormone levels can have a profound influence on our whole physiology.
There are even suggestions that what we eat and do is affected by our mood: exercise we do because we’re forced to do it does not seem to benefit us nearly so well as the same, identical exercise would if we enjoyed it; and if we eat abundantly in the joy of family and friends and celebration we seem to see fewer negative consequences than when we eat abundantly out of misery or stress. The human organism is a complicated machine, and all these factors are constantly working with and through one another to affect the state we call “health.” Even if we all exercised and ate identically, we would still look differently and still live differing amounts of time. So what we are really asking is not what diet is “healthy,” but what is the best way to eat to allow us to thrive under whatever other factors we are dealing with?
Is there a way to eat that will help us fulfill our best personal physiological potential, which is all any of us can do? That is really the question when we consider a vegetarian or vegan diet. Are there, speaking broadly, ways to eat that minimize our susceptibility to illness and disease––granting that no diet can give us immunity to anything––and maximize our ability to gain and retain muscle and avoid packing on more fat than is healthy-–granting again that no diet can make us look like a champion weightlifter or an Olympic swimmer unless our genetics are right?
Furthermore, we have to consider thriving in terms of calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients. We know that we need protein, carbohydrates, and fat. We also know there are some vitamins and minerals which are essential; i.e, we have to ingest them pretty regularly or we will develop some rather nasty conditions and then die. There is also mounting evidence that micronutrients are important for feeling our best, though we do not call these “essential” precisely because we are able to live without them if necessary; if not as well and enjoyably as we might with them.
These issues of energy needs, macronutrients, and essential nutrients mean it would be irrational to eat so many things that contain primarily only micronutrients, however good those might be, that we fail to leave room in our diet for essential things like enough fat and protein, vitamins, and minerals. When considering vitamins and minerals, we also have to take into account how bioavailable those are in given foods. If you care to read it, here’s a long study carefully looking into the iron content of green leafy vegetables. The upshot is:
Some green leafy vegetables are good sources of iron content, but may not necessarily be good sources of bioavailable iron.
The vegetables under study, including spinach, had a lot in them, but it could not be gotten out very well by the human body. The reason for this is that the iron in plants is different from that found in meat, which affects how we absorb and use it. Not only that, but plants are also full of polyphenols. These are antioxidants, and all the current rage for health, I might add.
So here is what I mean by the macronutrient/micronutrient issue: Polyphenols are great, but they can be put in the same class as micronutrients. If we can get them, so much the better; but we do not need them in anything like the same levels just to survive as we do macronutrients and essential vitamins and minerals. Iron is, however, an essential nutrient; and polyphenols interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron.
If you eat lots of polyphenols perhaps you really will significantly reduce your risk of getting cancer, possibly, some day down the line. But if you do not get enough iron, you will suffer serious consequences very quickly. You will start feeling exhausted all the time because your body is having trouble moving oxygen around. Then you will start having trouble thinking, and you will become more susceptible to infections. Iron deficiency will also affect your skin, hair, and nails; and if you are pregnant and iron deficient you greatly increase the risk of your baby being born too early or too small. You may have trouble staying warm and might even start craving dirt. If it goes on long enough, you will die.
So here is where we have to be sensible when it comes to our micronutrients vs. our essential nutrients. If we are stuffing ourselves to the brim full of micronutrient-rich foods, to the exclusion of foods rich in all the essentials, could we not be said to be acting foolishly? If the iron from spinach, for example, is already inferior to that found in meat, plus spinach’s rich polyphenol levels inhibit our ability to absorb even the inferior iron, does it make sense to be stuffing ourselves with more and more spinach, while eschewing meat? This would help to explain why so many vegetarians have to take an iron supplement if they remain vegetarian long-term: unless you have an illness or other non-diet related condition, if you have to take a supplement to avoid serious health issues your way of eating is not causing you to thrive.
In our next post we will look then at whether a vegetarian and/or a vegan diet is good for human thriving. We will also look at macronutrient, essential nutrient, and micronutrient counts and how different diets compare. Until then, eat your spinach: but eat your beef, too.