I am frequently asked “Should I be a vegetarian?” A 60 years old female, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, told me she’d read that a vegetarian diet is superior for fighting cancer. She came to my office seeking advice.
As a naturopath I see in my practice long standing vegetarians, resent converts, and people who have simply decided to eat a diet rich in vegetables for health reasons. Vegetarianism is not for everybody! Before you go vegetarian you must do some study of nutrition, anatomy and physiology to understand what is involved. Here are few topics to ponder:
1. Learn about “junky” vegetarians, but do not become one yourself. Often people who eliminate meat tend to eat more pasta, bread, cheese, cakes, sodas and other processed foods. You have to understand that processed foods lack vitamins, minerals and protein, but are high in simple carbohydrates, and thus can be harmful to your health in the long run. Be sure to understand why! Learn about main sources of protein in our diet, such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, rice and beans. Learn about complex carbohydrates and why they are better than simple carbs. Learn about omega3, 6 and 9, and good fat vs. bad. This is all just basic nutrition.
2. All the food that you eat is broken down into smallest particles in our digestive tract. For example, proteins are broken down into amino acids. Those amino acids are absorbed into the blood stream and become building blocks for our own protein. To understand how protein is absorbed from your diet, you must learn about saliva, teeth, stomach, small and large intestine and understand how the health of this last organ in particular affects digestion and absorption of all nutrients. If any part of the digestive tract is not healthy, being vegetarian can compromise your health.
3. Vegetarians tend to be deficient in Vitamin B12, because the best source of Vitamin B12 is meat. B12 is key to a healthy nervous system and deficiencies can result in permanent damage to peripheral nerves. Vitamin B12 also helps with synthesis of DNA during cell division. Lack of B12 causes formation of abnormal cells, which eventually leads to anemia. Legumes such as lentils and peas have limited amount of amino acids Tryptophan and Methionine. Vegetarians must know a little physiology to understand how these amino acids are used in our body to build complete proteins. Although it is easy to diagnose Vitamin B12 deficiency, a deficiency of amino acids is more difficult to pin point and treat.
At the end of the appointment with my 60 year old patient, we agreed that for now she will have 2-3 vegetarian days a week, and in the meanwhile will learn some nutrition, anatomy and physiology. She can start to experiment and have fun exploring new ways to cook. Later she can decide if a complete vegetarian diet is right for her.