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Shravya Reddy’s Blog

A Shout-out to Vegetarianism - Healthy, Natural and Easy

Shravya Reddy

Posted June 16, 2009

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Two blog posts caught my eye this week, and made me want to write about one of my all   -time favorite subjects: vegetarianism. One was a strong and provocative piece by Jim Motavalli, predicting that within our lifetimes, meat consumption will disappear, except as a luxury item enjoyed by very few. He postulates that this shift will happen primarily because meat production will simply become unsustainable and economically infeasible, and not because of a change in personal eating habits, which - while desirable - will never happen in adequate measure to actually cause a demand-driven change. Please note that I personally do not align myself with some of the terminology used, likening meat-eating with slavery. But the article does get you thinking, and that's my only objective.

The second piece is a welcome emphasis by Kathy Freston that there is no compelling evolutionary evidence to indicate that humans are supposed to be meat-eaters. I've myself often heard the argument that "we would not have canine teeth if we weren't designed by nature to consume meat". Well, there is an increasing chorus of highly trained scientific experts on evolution and anthropology, none more credible than the venerable Richard Leakey himself, who are unequivocal about how human physiology proves we are all natural herbivores.

I'm not one of those vegetarians who proselytize everyone they meet about the virtues of turning vegetarian, or try to make people feel guilty about their dietary habits (I certainly hope I've never done that!). But I do feel that I can speak up amongst my close circle of friends and provide helpful information if they ask for it.  Clearly, a blog-post takes this beyond the realm of a "close circle of friends", but nevertheless, all I am attempting to do is extend the ongoing discussion I have with my friends to a wider audience of people who may be curious, be open to finding out more about the impact their diet has on themselves as well as the rest of the world, and may want simple suggestions on moving one degree further along the dietary spectrum from meat-eating towards vegetarianism.

Wikimedia Commons - Vegetarian Foods

One recent discussion I had revolved around the "impossibility" of substituting certain nutrients if one moves from a meat-oriented to a slightly more vegetarian diet. People often believe that there is no way to get adequate Iron or Protein from a meatless diet. This is inaccurate, since Protein-combining (whether in a single meal or in the 24-hour cycle) ensures that vegetarians can also get the full recommended Daily Value (DV) of all 20 amino acids, including the 8 essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized by the body (see a handy site from Stanford University that provides tips for vegetarian food combining). Similarly, as long as vegetarian diets are not unduly restrictive (such a macrobiotic diets, or fruit-only diets), one can easily get the recommended DV of Iron. The George Mateljan foundation runs one of my favorite sites that helps one figure out the best dietary sources of nutrients. For instance, see how a healthy mix of fruits, vegetables, legumes, dairy and nuts more than makes up for any loss of iron (and scroll all the way down for many more fun options!). 

There will be lots more tips coming your way - keep watching this space. And tomorrow, I'll be blogging about how vegetarianism in India is helping reduce the country's GHG emissions (in a tasty way!). Thanks for reading.

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Nikhil MehraJun 16 2009 03:58 PM

Saw this posted on my Facebook feed and decided to follow the link. I quite enjoyed the post but I had a couple of questions.

a) On a reading of your post, that of Kathy Freston and The Comparative Anatomy of Eating, none of the evolutionary arguments account for man's mind. Sure we aren't genetically pre-disposed to use our canines like a carnivore or don't bear the necessary digestive equipment, but does that also apply to cooked meat? All of them agree that we began as eaters of berries and the hunter within us was only nutritionally supplementing the gatherer, but the hunter would have been pointless without the discovery of fire. Once fire was discovered, isn't meat cured/disinfected and doesn't the use of fire render both the need for canines and more constricted intestines unnecessary? So are we only "behavioral omnivores" or actually "congenital omnivores" as long as you account for the innovative ability of the human mind?

b) Nutrients can certainly be supplemented in a veg diet, but is there research to suggest that a non-veg diet is not linked to strength in any way? I'm not talking about the variations in height or bone structure, but of variation in muscular strength. I guess, since I know you're a cricket fan, why are SA, Aussie, Eng and West Indian fast bowlers consistently bigger and stronger than a Javagal Srinath or a Venky Prasad? I understand environmental and genetic factprs are also at play, but certainly diet plays a major role in muscle strength and probably less so when it comes to height or bone structure/brittleness? Why are fish and other white meats suggested consumption for competitive athletes? Is this also a myth that needs busting?

Enjoy your writing. I quite enjoyed this post and hope to read the others soon. Also these questions are purely speculative, if you have a clutch of links pointing to contra research, pls pass them on. I find the veg v. non-veg debate enthralling because it seems to encompass everything from science to morality to religious compliance. I'd venture to say it's got more facets than the abortion or the homosexuality debate. Take care and best of luck.

Shravya ReddyJun 16 2009 09:13 PM

Questions may be speculative, but they are incisive! Thanks for reading, and for posting such well-thought out questions here!

On the question of cooking, I am uncertain whether the discovery of fire and the use of fire to cook was too recent in evolutionary time for that to have contributed significant adaptations already. The first humans (Homo Erectus) appeared 1.8 million years ago, but cooking food cannot be traced back any farther than 200,000-400,000 years ago. Perhaps this is too late to demonstrate that human physiology is truly designed to consume meat? I will check with an evolutionary anthropologist friend and get back to you. (Also, I haven't found literature saying that fossil evidence shows larger canines before 400,000 years ago, so that is another reason I don't think our bodies really adapted or changed enough once we started cooking meat).

Thanks for your Cricket them! As for a meat-based diet being the cause for being built bigger and stronger, I would be wary of attributing size purely to the diet, without controlling for variations in phenotype, morphology, genotype and even type of exercise routines (not to mention the creatine and other supplements those guys usually take!). And if consuming meat protein would lead to bigger, stronger musculature, wouldn't the East Asian build be comparable to the Caucasian build?

Anyhow, loved your comments because they were so thought-provoking. Do keep writing in, it will keep me on my toes!

(And to be fair, since you asked, here's a slightly contra article:

Shravya ReddyJun 16 2009 09:20 PM

Full disclosure here: While I believe a vegetarian diet can be complete in every way, I do wonder if the sheer quantity of available protein in meat makes it advantageous to consume when one is in one's growing years. It would probably take a lot larger serving of a Kale/Soy/Milk/Beans type meal to boost that kind of fast growth, than it would take a small serving of poultry. Thus, I cannot say that I would oppose meat consumption for young children, in their growing years (under 18). Check back with me in ten years and I'll tell you what my kids are allowed to eat (in moderation)!

ShayanJun 17 2009 02:51 AM

Quick thoughts:

- On the whole cricketer's genotype debate, the best examples are the differences between the Indian and Pakistani bowlers. I wouldn't venture as far out to East Asian gene pools when comparing builds, because that is too much genetic variation to account for when trying compare on the basis on diets

- Kale doesn't taste very good

- Nikhil's idea of behavioral affinity got me thinking. There is nothing that replaces all forms of meat 'texturally' (aah, the very term for chefs and food critics), nutrition and taste aside.

- I'd like you to cover India's cows and their contribution to GHG and if there's any link to our cultural outlook towards our bovine friends, which encourages it.,8599,1890646,00.html

Look forward to the next one.

Shravya ReddyJun 17 2009 12:38 PM

Hi Shayan,
Thanks for your comments!

Clearly, you've never tasted Chef Shravya's Kale! Well, it is a recipe I owe to Valerie Keane at NRDC, but I think it may change your mind. Let me know if you'd like it emailed to you.

As far as texture goes, I'm a big big big lover of mushrooms (and yes, one reason may be the behavioural affinity I once had for meat, and which I used to miss when I switched to vegtarianism). Done right, they can often mimic the texture. And there's always soy patties. But a recent discovery I've made is Texturised Vegetable Protein (TVP)...Do try it sometime, and let me know if that does the trick.

Thanks for the Time link. Cows will be covered soon, thanks for the suggestion!

Nikhil MehraJun 18 2009 01:11 AM

I'm a couple of days late to this because I'm just plain lazy.

Why does the human body need to be compared to either a carnivore or an omnivore? What distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is the brain. What role does the brain play in deciding what food is consumable? Hence I pointed to the discovery of fire. Maybe there was no need for evolution because we had the brain which is trained or can be trained by virtue of the external environment to decide when meat is consumable.

As to the cricket examples, let's put them aside for a second. I'd love a list of successful vegetarian sportspersons and whether or not they were veggies in their development years. Surely, meat consumption helps in bulking up, which is good for athletes and generally horrible for the ordinary person. Is this in doubt?

You guys know a scary amount. Gotta catch up.

P.S.: Shravya, if you like the texture of mushrooms, you'll absolutely love sea food.

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