As World Meatless Day falls on Friday, it’s appropriate that we review our eating habits, and reconsider the role of vegetables in our diet.
IN the booklet, Why Vegetarian? A Beginner’s Guide, produced by the Malaysian Vegetarian Society in the late 90s, the society’s first president, Sona Zakariya, voiced her hope that one day, instead of people asking, “Why are you a vegetarian?”, the question would instead be, “So how do you become a vegetarian?”
We often are bombarded by messages and advice telling us to “quit smoking”, “lessen sugar intake” and “cut down on fatty foods”. Some habits die hard, others die even harder. But habits can be broken, what more in human beings who are the most adaptable creatures on the planet.
According to Dr P. Vythilingam, current president of the Malaysian Vegetarian Society, there are more than one billion vegetarians in the world today, with about one million in Malaysia. And the numbers continue to grow, which should be proof enough that human beings can and do survive on a non-meat diet.
Today’s world provides even more reasons for one to switch to a vegetarian diet. If not for environmental or animal welfare reasons, then the very fact that humans are not anatomically equipped to handle the consumption of meat should be enough of a catalyst.
According to Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the term “omnivore” is dubious, as anthropologists and biologists have studied our evolutionary history and concluded that we are quite simply herbivores. Our stomach acidity and intestinal length all show that we cannot fully digest meat. And because we do not fully process the meat, we end up with excessive fat and cholesterol, something that does not occur in carnivores.
The Malaysian Vegetarian Society states that research has shown that vegetarians are less at risk of heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, cancers, bowel disorders, gall and kidney stones and osteoporosis.
Dr William Castelli, former director of the Framingham Heart Study, once said: “Vegetarians have the best diet. They have the lowest rates of coronary disease of any group in the country (US) … Some people scoff at vegetarians, but they have a fraction of our heart attack rate and they have only 40% of our cancer rate. On the average, they outlive other men by about six years now.”
Dr Vythilingam pointed to industrial farming practices that indirectly leads to the health problems faced by non-vegetarians – how the animals are bred and slaughtered, and the meat produced.
“There are a lot of antibiotics pumped into the animals (to keep them healthy in otherwise harsh living conditions),” he said. “There are the pesticides and DDT sprayed on the corn used for feeding livestock. And chickens, to make them grow faster, they are injected with hormones. This is why some people have hormone-related cancers.”
And whenever a cow is taken for slaughter, it becomes stressed and this increases the adrenaline inside its body, and this, in turn, affects the person who consumes the meat.
Further stress is inflicted on the animals in the form of the cutting of a pig’s tail (to prevent them biting each other in crowded pens), or the “debeaking” of a chick, all done without anaesthesia.
“They say the amount of DDT that is in livestock feed is 13 times more than the DDT on vegetables,” said Dr Vythilingam. “That’s a very dangerous level.”
Non-vegetarians usually argue that vegetables are also full of chemicals, so there is really no avoiding the danger.
But Dr Vythilingam said: “You can wash away the chemicals on the vegetables, but you cannot do the same with meat, because it is already inside the meat. If you put your vegetables under running water, most of it will be washed away. You can’t be washing every fibre in a piece of meat.”
He said organically-grown vegetables are, of course, preferable, but just washing your vegetables properly before cooking would also be enough.
There are a lot of myths and false beliefs surrounding vegetarianism, with many believing that a vegetarian diet lacks certain nutrients and vitamins needed for balance and health. But Dr Vythilingam said a vegetarian diet contains everything you would need and a vegetarian meal actually provides more calories than a non-vegetarian one. However, a non-vegetarian diet contains more fats and cholesterol. In fact, because the stomach has to work harder to digest meat, people often feel tired after a non-vegetarian meal.
A vegetarian meal that contains grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables will ensure a balanced diet. Iron and calcium can be found in leafy greens. Almonds, chickpeas and soyabeans also contain calcium, while grains provide protein and fibre. Vitamin B12 is only needed in microscopic amounts, and most breads today are fortified with it.
A non-vegetarian diet however, leads to an overdose of protein. And that’s not all. Because our digestive system is ill-equipped for meat consumption, some of the meat remain in our bodies and rot.
“There are not enough enzymes to digest the meat fast enough,” said Dr Vythilingam. “Which means you’re putting all this dead meat in your stomach; it is like a graveyard. It is all rotting. And you do not know how fresh the meat is. To make the meat look red and fresh immediately after slaughtering, they put in nitrites and nitrates (carcinogens). But you can’t see that it’s rotting inside.”
“And look at animal diseases – mad cow disease, Japanese encephalitis, bird flu – all these are from animals. There are no such things in vegetables,” he added.
Another false belief is that vegetarians are all lean and thin, but few know that obese vegans and vegetarians do exist.
“This is because they consume more carbohydrates, more rice, and less of other things,” said Dr Vythilingam. “Again, you have to look at how the food is prepared. If they always consume deep-fried food, that will also increase the risk of diseases. We always advise vegetarians to be cautious.”
And vegetarians too can suffer from cancer if they consume too much saturated fat and deep-fried foods. But comparative studies have shown that the number of cancer sufferers among vegetarians is lower than among non-vegetarians.
Prof Nick Day of the University Of Cambridge and the European Prospective Study Into Cancer stated that there are 40% fewer cancers among vegetarians compared to the general population.
“It’s never too late to start a vegetarian diet,” advised Dr Vythilingam. “Human beings are the only ones on earth who can adapt to anything. You can’t give a cow a piece of chicken and condition the cow to eat it. And you don’t give grass to a tiger. But human beings can be ‘conditioned’.”
● World Meatless Day falls on Nov 25. The Malaysian Meatless Day campaign invites individuals and organisations to make a pledge to go meatless on that day. You can e-mail your pledge firstname.lastname@example.org or fax it to 04-261 0126. All you have to say is “I hereby pledge to go meatless on Nov 25”. Name is required, but phone number and address are optional.