Volume 94, Issue 36

Thursday, November 2, 2000


Do you know what you are eating?

Chemicals in animals questioned

Do you know what you are eating?

By Tola Afolabi
Gazette Staff

Who is healthier: the sickly, plant eating, meat-denying vegetarian, or the red-blooded steak-loving carnivore?

Although there are pros and cons to both lifestyles, either one can be potentially very healthy for the informed person.

"You have to know a few general rules in terms of nutrition to provide your body with a balanced diet," said Western hospital services nutritionist, Anne Zok. She explained the vegetarian lifestyle risks vitamin deficiency if foods are not chosen carefully.

Len Piche, assistant professor in Brescia college's nutrition program, agreed. "[Students] should do their homework. They should seek the help of a health professional before they adopt these [choices]."

Third-year computer science student, Andrew Hummel, said he was supplementing his vegetarian diet with vitamins. "I don't know the whole science of it," he said. "As long as I take these vitamins, it seems that I'm fine."

Vegans – vegetarians who exclude all animal products from their diet – are at greatest risk of vitamin deficiency. "Vitamin B12 is probably the single health concern for strict vegetarians," said P. Mark Fromberg, medical advisor for the Toronto Vegetarian Association. "You have a small risk of not having enough."

However, some food products are fortified with the vitamin. "In Canada, all soy beverages have to have [vitamin B12] in them," Piche said.

Other concerns for strict vegetarians are calcium, vitamin D and iron. Milk products are the primary source for both calcium and vitamin D and their exclusion may result in deficiencies if alternative sources are not chosen, Zok said. Calcium can be obtained from almonds and whole grain bread.

Although iron is found in plants, it is not absorbed as easily by the body as the kind of iron found in red meat. "The body does not combine it as well as haem iron," Zok said, but added this could be easily remedied by taking vitamin C.

Perhaps the single major concern for vegetarians and the arguing point for meat eaters is protein. "Protein is an issue for complete vegans," Zok said.

Piche explained the problem is not obtaining protein but getting a combination of various types of protein.

"[Strict vegans] have to insure they have a variety of protein sources in their diet every day," he said, adding nuts, beans, peas and lentils must be combined to get all the right protein fragments.

Deficiencies can also be found in a meat inclusive diet, Fromberg said. "It's also what isn't in meat, that makes it an issue," he said, of the growing concern with a meat-centred diet.

If food is not chosen wisely, fibre may also become an issue. "Fibre is only present in plant food – it doesn't occur in any animal food," Fromberg said.

Zok agreed, saying fibre is essential for proper functioning of the human body. "A lot of studies are showing a lower incidence of different disease with high fibre consumption."

Another issue for meat eaters can be cholesterol and saturated fat, Fromberg said. Cholesterol is present only in meat and not in any plant food, while saturated fat is found in both.

"Cholesterol has never had anything good said about it," he said, "More than 75 per cent of all the saturated fat eaten in North America comes from animal foods."

Excess salt is another concern for meat eaters. "The recommended daily allowance is 50 milligrams a day. The average Canadian gets 5,000 to 6,000 mg of sodium per day," Fromberg said. "We're eating probably too much salt."

So is the solution to avoiding salt, fat and cholesterol excess and fibre deficiency vegetarianism?

Fromberg argues it is. "Most major health problems in North America are made better if you are a vegetarian."

However, Piche said other factors must be considered when deciding which lifestyle is healthier. "Maybe the explanation lies in the vegetables and fruits and not in the fact they eat less meat," he said.

Being informed extends not only to food choices, but to food handling practices too. Both the vegetarian and meat eating lifestyles can involve food borne diseases. "E.coli has been gotten from plant foods under certain circumstances," Fromberg said, of the traditional "meat eater" disease.

He explained E.coli may be transplanted onto plant foods through cow manure used as fertilizer. "This is why you should wash your vegetables really well."

Also, lysteria, a harmful bacteria, may be present in vegetables. "It's present in the soil," Galsworthy said.

"It can contaminate any root vegetable like radishes and carrots," she said, explaining lysteria lives in decaying vegetables. "Grains can get contaminated with bacteria that produce toxins and cause food poisoning," she added.

Third-year biology student, Claudine James, agreed vegetarians are not immune from food borne bacteria. "If food is prepared in unsanitary conditions, you're still at risk" she said.

After informing themselves of the potential dangers of both the vegetarian and omnivorous lifestyle, students should be at little health risk, regardless of which choice they make. "It's all a matter of balance and variety," Zok said.

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