eNutrition
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Nutrition for Nursing Students, independent study

Vegetarian

defined

As a Nursing professional, you will probably encounter patients who are, or who claim to be, vegetarians. At first glance, the vegetarian “movement” may seem to be yet another fad, but the ‘vegetarian lifestyles’ are more complicated than you would expect. Although some of these life styles seem to be fads, some are serious and well reasoned. However, not everyone who claims to be a vegetarien is a vegetarian. We shall examine several of the types of vegetarian life styles, with attention to the nutritional [and Wellness] implications of the associated life style choices. We must examine the implications of these life style choices because, based on anatomy and physiology, Humans are clearly omnivores; and omnivores are creatures that eat anything that doesn't eat them first.

    So why would a creature capable of eating anything that doesn't eat it first (even when, under other circumstances, who is having supper and who is supper could be reversed) deliberately choose to eat only defenseless plants? To quote from The King and I, “Is a puzzlement… ” I mentioned (above) that some vegetarian lifestyles are serious and well reasoned. These are the life styles founded in religious belief systems (limited to the far eastern traditions of India, China, Tibet, …), where the faith-based avoidance of consuming defined animals dates back to before western civilization began (or over 6,000 years ago). Even Judeo-Christian traditions (Jewish [and Christian Old Testament]) include ‘forbidden (unclean)’ animals as food (such as pigs). These traditions date from 400 or more generations, although our species has been around for at least 70,000 generations as omnivores. For the eastern versions, it is difficult to argue that the practitioners of vegetarian life styles ‘suffer’ from wellness issues; they have managed for hundreds of generations to remain free of nutrient deficiencies, and to exhibit a rather high level of wellness (and unreasonably long life expectancies). However, they also practice a large number of life style choices which tend to reduce stress; and it is more likely that the complete life style choices are responsible for the high wellness rather than just the vegetarianism.

    At the opposite extreme are those people who are on vegetarian diets simply because other food is not available, and most of these people exhibit clear symptoms of nutritional deficiencies (or starvation relative to several nutrients).

    The remaining population of vegetarians are those who are following either a fad, or the advice (or ‘teachings’) of the proponents of various fads. The basis of this statement is the premise that formal religions are not “a la carte,” but expect that those who profess to follow the teachings of the religion must follow all of the teachings of the religion, not just those that ‘feel comfortable.’ One does not become an orthodox Jew by avoiding eating pork any more than wearing a crucifix makes one a ‘born again’ Christian. To follow Hinduism does not require being a vegetarian, but only to be at peace with yourself concerning your life style choices (http://www.hindunet.org/healthlifestyle/). Buddhism similarly emphasizes harmony of spirit, mind and actions; but does not require vegetarianism (http://buddhism.about.com/od/basicbuddhistteachings/The_Basics_What_the_Buddha_Taught.htm). In religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, many practitioners find vegetarianism to be consistent with their religion, but not to be a major tenant of the religion. This is a sharp contrast to the Judeo-Christian prohibition of consuming ‘unclean’ animals. An alternative view of living in harmony with nature can be found among some Native Americans, where eating meat is acceptable if you first apologize to the Spirit of the animal for killing the animal, and thank the animal for providing food for your family.

Contemporary Western Views of Vegetarianism

Animal rights

Animal Behavior studies are scientific studies of the behavior of animals, and are recognized as a sub-discipline of Biology [often listed in introductory texts as a sub-group in Animal Ecology]. Students considering entering the field of Animal Behavior are repeatedly warned against becoming anthropomorphic, where anthropomorphism is defined as “assigning Human attributes, such as emotion [and complex reasoning], to non-Human animals.” It is sufficiently risky to assign emotions to fellow Humans, who are capable of verbalizing ‘how they feel,’ because there is a low correlation between emotions perceived by others and the emotions being experienced by a Human. You have probably observed this personally: some other Human may have tried to tell you how you feel [which means they are guessing how they would feel under similar circumstances rather than asking how you actually feel], although how you felt did not match their prediction. When a pet owner describes how their dog or cat feels, the dog or cat can not verbalize their feelings, whether or not the pet owner has guessed correctly. The only reliable method known for determining how a patient feels is to ask them to verbalize their feelings (and even then the reported feelings are highly likely to be ‘edited’ for the audience). With non-Human subjects, there is no means by which the researcher can determine how the subject feels. I have great difficulty trying to accept the reports of elderly Humans, claiming to be pet ‘parents’, and describing an extensive dialogue with their little, white dogs. I, personally, have never met a dog which tried to carry on a conservation in response to a question I asked to the dog.

    The Animal Rights groups (such as PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] and other such groups) begin with the premise that the anthropomorphic world view is an accurate description of reality. Consider the following quote from PETA's Mission Statement: “PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time” (http://www.peta.org/about/index.asp). It is not clear [from the full Mission Statement of PETA] how they can determine that an animal “suffers the most intensively”, or even that the animal is aware of suffering at all. In fact, if an Animal Behaviorist were to conduct a study to measure emotion in a non-Human animal by introducing radio-isotopes to detect brain activity in order to determine what part of the animal brain is involved in emotions, then to subject the animal to various emotion-elicting conditions to determine how the animal's response varies with different stimuli, PETA would most likely object to the experiment as cruelty [since “laboratories” are specifically listed as a location where “animals suffer the most intensively for the longest periods of time”], and studies of brain activity require that the animal be restrained so the head does not move during the brain scan.

    The Animal Rights groups argue that Humans ought not to eat animals, nor animal products, because the animals suffer during the processes of food production. On the other hand, they do not argue that, for example, a dog which attacks a human with the ‘intent’ to inflict bodily harm ought to be tried and convicted of a felony crime, as would a Human exhibiting such behavior. I have no doubt that the Animal Rights enthusiasts are sincere, and that they mean well. However, their argument for vegetarianism is founded on a faulty premise.

Environmentalism

Most histories of the environmental movement trace it to the Conservation movement of the 1890's. At first, the concept of Conservation was applied to the forestry industry, which was changed from simply harvesting trees from ‘the wilderness’ to the establishment of Tree Farms, where the trees were considered to be a crop to be planted, then harvested. This view was expanded to include [Wildlife] Management of ‘wild’ areas for hunting and fishing interests as well as timber harvest. Early on there was also a counter movement urging the Preservation of ‘wilderness’ for use by the hiking and camping interests, which lead to the formation of the National Park system. This has expanded to include wildlife sanctuaries, then to wilderness areas. No honest history of the environmental movement traces it from the science of Ecology, since virtually all of the organizations involved in the movement pre-date Ecology as a science, so the scientific basis for the environmental movement lies not in Ecology but in Natural History. The study of Natural History was conducted mostly by ‘amateurs,’ which implied self-taught, yet often knowledgeable, people who engaged in the activity for pleasure rather then professionally. On the North American continent, the natural historians tended to hold a rather romantic view of Nature [such as Henry David Thoreau and his Walden Pond and Audubon and his spectacular paintings of birds], and the proponents of the environmental movement tend to cling to this view. As a Science, Ecology generally seeks to understand the processes by which the natural world functions. The contemporary environmental movement is generally considered to have begun with a Woodstock-like festival on April 22, 1970, promoted as the first Earth Day.

    Many of the ideas espoused by the Environmentalists bear a striking resemblence to the Judeo-Christian notion of Man as the steward of Creation (although many Environmentalists claim to be Atheists or Agnostics). In is from this idealistic view of the natural world, colored by the anthropocentric [defined as “Man-centered Universe”] notion of Man as steward of Creation, that we get concepts like “the environmental footprint of Man,” once explained as the number of acres needed to provide for all of the needs of a single Human (and wastes produced by that individual). Their defense of the vegetarian life style is that Humans who eat only vegetable material have a smaller footprint than omnivores, because some of the row crops produced are used to support livestock (as food) rather than to support Humans. While this ‘hypothesis’ is intellectually attractive, there are now reports of health/wellness issues, and of nutrient deficiencies (including calories) among western vegetarians. Again it is, at best, difficult to separate the dietary choices from other life style choices which serve to increase stress levels dramatically. Among the worst offenders in maintaining a high level of stress are the ever present electronic communication capabilities, which support incoming communication ‘ 24/7. ’ It seems to me that if you don't have time to think about your ‘place in the Universe,’ knowing that you have an environmental footprint (or a carbon footprint) is just as unimportant as that last Facebook/Twitter post from a friend noting that “I'm sitting on the patio” in 140 characters or less.

    The western vegetarians may
      1. avoid red meat
      2. be quasi-vegetarian (exclude red meat and poutry, but include fish, milk and eggs
      3. be lacto-ovo vegetarian (no animals, but include milk and eggs)
      4. be lacto-vegetarian (no animals, but milk)
      5. be macrobiotic (emphasize locally grown and whole foods)
      6. be vegan (no animal products; sometimes no animal-based clothing), or
      7. eat only raw food (uncooked vegan)
All of these practices ignore the evolutionary adaptation of Humans to an omnivorous diet.

health claims

Some vegetarian proponents claim their practices can lead to reduced risk for
      • heart disease
      • stroke
      • hypertension
      • Type 2 diabetes
      • chronic bronchitis
      • gallstones
      • kidney stones
      • obesity
      • high blood cholesterol
but there is no clinical evidence to support any of these claims.

diet design for vegetarians

The major concern, among Nutritionists, concerning the vegetarian diets is the difficulty of obtaining complete proteins. Recall that each species, including Homo sapiens, require the correct ratio of amino acids. Most vegetarian protein sources are low in a few essential amino acids so to get adaquate amounts of them, it is necessary to get too much of other amino acids. Even the frequently promoted combinations of plant sources (“complementary protein sources”) do not generally solve this problem. A secondary issue is that many of the on-line information sources for vegetarian diet design tend to be mythological rather than reliable.



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revised: 24 Aug 2009