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 Diets: Types of Diets 
An omnivorous diet is one in which both animal and vegetable foods are eaten. Most people of the world are omnivorous, and this is the type of diet that is the easiest to balance, as there are no limitations. Of course, the knowledge of how much and what specific foods to eat is needed. These types of diets will be discussed more in the sections on the specific cultural diets. In the animal kingdom, though, many species are either vegetarian or carnivorous; some, such as bears and crows, are omnivorous.

A carnivorous diet is one that contains animal flesh—that is, meat. From a vegetarian viewpoint, anyone who eats meat is a carnivore, but truly most people who eat meat are omnivores. True carnivores who eat only meat are hard to find; in the animal kingdom, they include the wolf and cat families, which naturally subsist on the flesh of other animals. These animals are naturally adapted to hunt and consume flesh. Their speed, power, pointed teeth and sharp claws help them a great deal. They have no molars and cannot really chew; they rip the flesh from their prey and swallow it. And their digestive tracts are specifically designed to process the high-protein, sometimes fatty meals. They only eat vegetables, local greens, when they are sick.

The human, on the other hand, has different characteristics and a longer digestive tract, designed more to process the vegetable foods. We are adaptable and most likely can function as omnivores, though there are varying opinions on this question. One theory suggests that the eating of meat creates the desire and aggressiveness to acquire more, which initially resulted in further hunting. NowaDay s, we find members of our culture hunting in the stores and in the streets and sometimes for each other.

Meats are a concentrated food, high in protein, with varying degrees of fat, only certain vitamins and minerals, and almost no fiber. The protein helps in growth and many other functions such as tissue repair, and the iron content is very good. Without the proper balance of fiber, a high meat diet will increase the risk of disease of the colon and other organs. The high-fat types of meat increase the risk of cancer, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and other problems. To balance the meat in our diet, we need supplementary fiber and more of the B vitamins, vitamins C and E, and the many minerals found in the vegetable foods.

This is the most common of the vegetarian diets, one that does not include animal flesh but does use the by-products of the chicken and/or cow—eggs and milk products (vegans, or strict vegetarians, do not eat these foods). Some vegetarians are lacto and not ovo, because of a moral aversion to eating unborn chickens. And some may be sensitive to milk but find eggs okay. However, usually the vegetable foods are the largest part of the diet, which consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Throughout history, most people’s diets have been primarily vegetarian, with meats eaten only occasionally. This is still true toDay throughout much of the world. It is just in the last century that the meat foods have been so heavily consumed in the Westernized cultures, such as North America, Australia, and the European countries. This is due mainly to the commercial herding, slaughtering, and packaging of flesh foods to make them readily available at the corner store.

This book and, of course, I myself lean strongly to a more natural and vegetarian-type diet as one that is more healthful, especially as compared with a typical American diet. The suggestion is not that people become vegetarians, which is a very scary proposition to many (What? Give up my meat?!), but that people become more vegetarian, eating less meat and animal fats. Moving toward meatless meals is a beginning step. A more vegetarian diet clearly reduces our risk of many common chronic diseases, and as long as we consume adequate protein, we are safe from deficiency problems.

The most common reason for not giving up meat, besides people being used to the taste, is the fear of not getting enough protein. I believe the protein concepts perpetrated by American nutritionists to be one of the biggest fallacies about our diet. We do not really need as much protein as we might think, and it is likely that excess protein is a bigger concern than protein deficiency, at least in Westernized cultures. On the other hand, vegetarians need to be aware of obtaining adequate protein, and maintaining efficient digestion and assimilation; I have seen many people with problems in these areas.

A mixed vegetarian diet with or without eggs or dairy products can theoretically supply adequate protein, though it may take more effort than with the omnivorous diet. As long as the diet is not filled with a lot of sugars and other empty calories, the protein content is usually adequate. Protein combination, or complementarity, suggests (this is a theory) that we mix two or more vegetable protein foods at a meal so as to provide sufficient levels of all the essential amino acids. Usually one or two of these amino acids may be low in each food, and mixing them at the same meal will mean that our body has what it needs to make new proteins. However, it is important that the vegetarian eats sufficient calories so that the body does not use the proteins for fuel instead of its many other functions.

Carbohydrates and fats are more readily used for fuel, and it is they, not protein, that actually nourish the active muscles. Protein (amino acids) builds the tissue during growth, though, and this may come from dietary protein of either animal or vegetable origin. Another fallacy in many people’s concepts about protein is that animal proteins are needed for strength and endurance, or athletic prowess. Although the percentage of vegetarians in our culture is generally very low compared to omnivores, there have been some outstanding athletes and record setters through the years who were vegetarians.

The human body is really more adapted to eating as vegetarians. Our long and convoluted intestinal tubing is very different from the carnivore’s short system, where the meats can move through rapidly before they putrify. Our digestive tracts are more like those of the herbivores, where the length allows increased absorption area to help break down the plant fibers and utilize the nutrients.

The strengths of the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet are many and the weaknesses few. Both are more pronounced for the strict vegan diet, but here we focus on the lacto-ovo diet, which usually provides sufficient protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12, all of which are concerns for any vegetarian. If eggs or milk products are eaten once a Day along with other wholesome foods, the diet should be fairly balanced in all respects.

Vegetarians have in general lower blood pressure and weight than their meat-eating companions. Their incidence of hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer are all reduced. Studies of the Seventh Day Adventists, a large vegetarian population, shows their incidence of coronary artery disease about half that of the average population. The incidence of coronary artery and heart disease correlates with each country’s intake of meat throughout the world.

The high amount of fiber and lower amount of fat in the vegetarian diet are also very helpful in keeping cholesterol down and digestive tract diseases at a minimum. The high amounts of vitamins and minerals present in vegetables, especially, are also an advantage. Many vegetarians find that they have a higher level of energy. I certainly did when I changed to vegetarianism, and this has continued through the years. My diet has been re-created numerous times to suit my lifestyle and the changing seasons. It is still primarily vegetarian, with occasional fresh fish or organic poultry.

Potential problems for vegetarians include a reduced iron and vitamin B12 intake and thus a higher incidence of anemia. As stated earlier, this is less a concern for the lacto-ovo-vegetarian than for the strict vegan, but it is still something of which to be aware. Oral iron and vitamin B12, or even B12 injections, could be needed to fulfill the body’s needs (more likely with poor digestion and low hydrochloric acid output) and maintain the tissue stores of these important nutrients.

There is some concern that infants, growing children, and women who are pregnant or lactating should avoid vegetarianism. This is unfounded, particularly for the lacto-ovo diet. Pure veganism, in these cases, I think, should be avoided. If children can eat a wholesome diet with a good protein balance, they can grow well and be healthy on a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, as can pregnant women. Sometimes they may be even healthier, perhaps because vegetarians tend to have better food habits and less abusive tendencies in general than the average population.

This is the strict, or pure, form of vegetarianism. No animal products are consumed, only fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. No eggs, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter, or other milk products are eaten.

This diet is not suggested for children unless the parents can painstakingly oversee it and select the right foods. It is difficult with this diet to obtain a balanced intake of all the nutrients that are needed during growth; however, it can be done. This is true also in pregnancy and lactation, where higher intakes of most nutrients are needed. I am not suggesting that this cannot be done; it just is more dangerous in its risk of creating deficiencies and subsequent health problems.

Overall, the vegan is often of a lower than average weight, even underweight for his or her size, and usually has a low cholesterol level. Many of the advantages of the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet are even truer of the vegan diet. There is a much lower incidence of hypertension, obesity, heart disease, and some cancers, most notably of the colon, breast, uterus, and prostate. The fiber content of the diet is usually very good.

However, the potential nutrient deficiencies are a concern. Vitamin B12 is the main one. Iron and calcium may also be low. Protein levels may be all right if the person is very conscious of protein intake and complementing food. Vitamin A may be low unless a high amount of the orange, yellow, and green vegetables is consumed. Vitamin D is often low; some sunshine will help. Zinc may also be low unless seeds and nuts are consumed regularly.

In general, though, I suggest a good supplement program for vegans, includ- ing those above-mentioned nutrients. A vitamin B12 level and general biochemical profile every few years will help reassure us that the diet is providing adequately for bodily functions. As with any type of diet, if health is faltering or sickness is recurring, an investigation should be made. Overall, though, with the right intention and knowledge, the vegan diet may be a very healthy one.

Macrobiotics is a philosophy of life centered around a diet originally brought to this country from Japan by George Osawa. It has been expanded upon and shared with many by teachers and authors Michio and Aveline Kushi, a Japanese couple living in the Boston area, and by the magazine East West Journal. Macrobiotic diets, either very strict or more liberal, have been adopted by a great many young people in this country and throughout the world.

A macrobiotic diet consists almost exclusively of cooked foods. Raw foods are felt to be difficult to digest and too cooling for our system. A minimum of fruits is consumed, less than 5 percent of the diet, and most of those should be cooked. Dairy foods and eggs are usually avoided; the only animal products recommended are whitefish such as halibut, trout, and sole, and these are also kept to less than 5 percent of the diet. Thus, it is primarily a vegetarian, almost vegan, diet, but it seems to contain more protein and nutrients than the standard vegetarian cuisine.

(Excerpted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition ISBN: 1587611791)
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 About The Author
Elson Haas MDElson M. Haas, MD is founder & Director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (since 1984), an Integrated Health Care Facility in San Rafael, CA and author of many books on Health and Nutrition, including ...more
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