Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

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Myth: Vegetarian diets are healthier

Nicole Senior

Fact: Vegetarian diets can lack essential nutrients
My latest book, Heart food (with Veronica Cuskelly) has a picture of mouth-watering steak on the front cover. A couple of people expressed surprise at this choice, and couldn’t believe meat was healthy. Of course a balanced diet including lean meat can be healthy and heart friendly, but meat often gets a bum rap – much of it deserved because our portions are too large and our meat choices too fatty. But is going meat-free the true path to wellness? Well, a vegetarian diet can have a few holes in it as well and lack key nutrients such as iron, zinc, B12 and omega-3 DHA. I thought I’d address a number of commonly held views about vegetarianism.

Vegetarians live longer: While it’s true the Seventh Day Adventist vegetarian community in Loma Linda California are one of the most long-lived in the world, under the cold light of science this can’t be fully explained by their vegetarian diet. This community also don’t drink alcohol, are physically active, and have strong religious faith and social connectedness. There are equally long-lived communities elsewhere in the world that do include animal foods in their diet, such as the people of the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy and the people of Okinawa in Japan . Interestingly, while they do eat meat, their diets are based on plant foods (as are heart-healthy diets today). The take-home message is, if you eat meat make sure you eat plenty of vegetables, exercise and pray!

Sardinia Centenarians

Vegetarian dishes in restaurants are healthier options: In my experience, this is the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately vegetarian dishes tend to be heavy on cheese, cream and pastry (e.g. vegetable quiche, bean nachos), and thus heavy on kilojoules (calories) and artery clogging saturated fat and salt. Unless the chef is clued up on matters vegetarian, you end up with a meat-free version of an existing dish (e.g. vegetable pasta) rather than a well-balanced meal with suitable meat-alternatives such as legumes and nuts. Teen girls please note: throwing the meat out of your burger does not make it a vegetarian meal! You need to research a restaurant guidebook or the web to find suitable vegan dishes (containing no animal products at all). More education about healthy meatless meals is needed.

There is enough iron in plant foods: I recently saw a bumper sticker on the back of a cattle farmer’s truck that said, “7 days without meat makes one weak”. Very clever, but is there any truth to it? Maybe when you consider plant foods such as whole grains, legumes and nuts contain non-haem (or non-heme) iron of which only 5% is absorbed. Added to this, vegetarian diets contain very high levels of phytates and oxalates that inhibit iron absorption. Eating vitamin-C rich foods can enhance the absorption of non-haem iron, but never reaches the bioavailability of haem iron. The haem-iron in meat, chicken, pork and fish is much better absorbed, and in a mixed meal the haem-iron enhances the non-haem iron absorption as well. Many vegetarians do fine without meat because their iron needs are lower, but children, teenagers, pregnant women and athletes need more and risk going short. Low iron can cause poor energy levels and fatigue, and delayed cognitive development in children.

Sure, meat-lovers would do well to take a leaf out of the vegetarian book by including more protective plant foods, but vegetarian diets have their hazards as well. The take-out message is that avowed carnivores and vegans are dietary extremes while health is so often found in the happy medium. Vive l’omnivore!

If you’re interested in having your steak and eating it, while still looking after your cholesterol and heart health, check out Nicole’s books at www.eattobeatcholesterol.com.au