Some aspects of vegetarianism have been discussed in Chapter 3, Protein, and this type of diet was more fully described in Chapter 9. Here I explore the particular nutrient needs of those following a vegetarian diet, as well as reviewing briefly the many advantages and a few disadvantages of this most humane diet.
Vegetarianism has a long history, and a primarily vegetarian diet is still the most common type on the planet. Even in America, most people’s diets were mainly vegetarian until the turn of the twentieth century, when beef consumption began to increase; it continued to increase steadily until only recently.
A change to a vegetarian diet automatically reduces intake of both protein and saturated fats unless there is a marked increase in consumption of dairy foods and eggs. One of the biggest problems with the contemporary American diet, which I have discussed earlier, is the focus on (or obsession with) protein as the staple of the diet. This is probably responsible for the increase in cardiovascular diseases and cancer because it also naturally increases the intake of saturated fats. We need to return to a focus on whole grains, legumes, and vegetables to give us the high-complex-carbohydrate, high-fiber, high-nutrient, and low-fat diet that is so essential to good health and longevity.
Vegetarianism is indeed becoming more popular again. It has support from the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, who in their subtle way are finally acknowledging that diet is an important component of health and disease. Many more diet books and cookbooks are focusing on the vegetarian diet, and more athletes, business people, and others are adopting this diet and lifestyle plan.
It is clear to me that vegetarianism makes a statement about both health and planetary consciousness. In a provocative new book, Diet for a New America, John Robbins discusses the inhumane treatment of animals and the waste of resources (water and land) by the cattle and poultry industries. Our diet says a lot more about us than just our personal tastes, as Mr. Robbins tells us on the book cover: "How your food choices affect your health, happiness, and the future of life on earth." We all need to be more vegetarian even if we are not "exclusively" vegetarian. Supporting the current carnivorous planetary program is a factor that creates pollution, economic imbalance, and relative starvation, and this is what, I believe, we are trying to change for the health and peace of our future generations—our children.
In my experience, vegetarians often adopt many other positive health habits in addition to eating more naturally. Those who are vegetarians more for health than for religious reasons tend to eat wholesome foods, avoiding the refined flour and sugar foods and other empty-calorie treats, which are also vegetarian "foods." I believe that even the Seventh-Day Adventists, the most celebrated group of vegetarians, at least in the medical literature, could have a much healthier diet and better statistics if they would adopt these principles. Still, as a group, they have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and a lower incidence of cancer, heart disease, and obesity than the meat-eating population. A decrease in chronic diseases and an increase in longevity go hand in hand with vegetarianism.