Wednesday, July 9, 2008

It's Not Just Tofu Anymore

Vegetarianism actually shouldn't be a "fad". Or, if it is, then it's one of history's oldest and most universal, appearing in cultures as diverse as the ancient Greeks (Pythagoras) and intertwining itself into the very social fabric of India. As a practice, it is fairly uninvolved--eat things that don't require shedding blood. Of course, you could debate whether plants "bleed", but the reasons for going vegetarian don't always have to do with animal rights. Actually, many people do so for their health--I am a vegetarian simply because I have never liked the taste of meat. Still others do so out of concern for the environment, and the latest "thing" is to go vegetarian because $4/gallon gas is making meat too pricey to buy.

Veganism is a more recent development. People who are vegans don't eat animal products--not milk, cheese, eggs, butter, and some of the strictest won't use honey. This makes life tricky, to say the least, as recipes have to be tweaked and ingredients substituted, but today it's not too difficult, given the enormous numbers of food substitutes that are available.

Many of the websites on vegetarianism and/or veganism tout the health benefits of eating a diet that has less saturated fat. A vegetarian diet, however, is not necessarily a healthy one, and I will use my own diet the last week as an example of how to be terribly unhealthy while following a vegetarian diet: eating too many candy bars and cookies, drinking too many diet colas, skipping meals, only to buy a cone of French fries on my way home. To be fair, it was because I hadn't had the time to prepare meals in advance (ordinarily I make bean soups, vegetarian chili, and all manners of healthy good stuff to bring with me to work) that week, but it illustrates the point quite admirably: just because you're a vegetarian doesn't mean you're healthy.

Barring such extreme cases, it is true that eating more fruits and vegetables is good for you. But what about the claims, for instance, about protection against cancer and heart disease? There are too many factors to make such claims. The Japanese, for instance, are well-known for their healthy cuisine, but they also eat less, live in cities and not suburbs (thereby making walking a more effecient form of transportation than driving) and have a culture which makes it easy, in many ways, to know where you belong, thereby easing a great deal of stress. Food alone does not cause or cure cancer, though it can determine how your body responds to it. Getting the right nutrition can literally be a matter of life and death.

Today, nutritional deficiencies tend to be rare, thankfully. And for that, we can thank the manufacturers of vitamins and multivitamins, and the government, for mandating that bread be stuffed with extra folate. The food industry, always angling for that butter zone between health and zing, stuffs orange juice with calcium, and yogurts with vitamins A and D.

Which begs the question: is it better to eat some animal products and get your nutrition naturally, or no animal products and depend on vitamin-overloaded soy products and the like? We're not going to go into matters of taste--maybe, if I start a cooking blog.

And on this, the jury is still out. I've informally polled some vegetarian friends--their answers are mostly that "it's just what suits me". A few are lactose-intolerant, some thing eggs are meat and therefore don't eat them. Though there have been some studies suggesting that soy products interfere with hormonal balance, one must wonder if the farming methods employed by modern farmers have anything to do with it, as soy milk has been enjoyed in the Far East for almost 2000 years, and breast cancer rates are still far lower there than they are here.

It's something to think about, that's for sure--but paying attention to one's own health isn't exactly a bad thing. If anything, we've been doing far too little of it.

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