I'm one of those people who wish they could be vegetarian but love hamburgers way too much. It's not nice to eat meat, and I think not eating it would make me a nicer person. So I'm working on it.
There are those who want to be veg for ethical reasons and those who believe it's a healthier way to live and eat. But is this the case? Certain nutrients are much more readily available from animal sources. On the other hand, nobody ever heard of a mad carrot.
Plus, there's more than one kind of veg-head. Vegans' health concerns are different from those of ovo-lacto vegetarians. And those fruitarians who only live on nuts and fallen fruit? Well, they'd have a hell of a time surviving in our northern climate.
That said, let's get one thing perfectly clear. If you eat chicken or fish, you are not a vegetarian. It might make you feel good to call yourself one, but you still eat dead animals and have no right to the label.
By the way, vegetarians shouldn't go nuts on processed soy products at every meal. Several studies link the estrogenic food to thyroid problems and say it can make an estrogen-responsive tumour grow.
What the experts say
"Of course vegetarianism is healthier than a junk food diet, but there are no studies that actually show a vegetarian diet is healthier than a high-vegetable diet that also contains meat, chicken and fish. The specific nutrients that vegetarians are deficient in are things that are found mainly in animal foods - like zinc . The phytic acid in whole grains will bind with zinc and prevent zinc absorption, and there is very little zinc in fruits and vegetables as compared to animal sources. Too little or too much zinc can alter immune responses. It's also necessary for good mental health. Choline (an essential nutrient) can be difficult to get on a vegan diet since eggs are the key source, but you can get it from full-fat tofu. One health problem associated with vegetarian diets is osteoporosis. Macrocytic anemia is a serious condition associated with B12 deficiency. Some vegetarians have the worst possible diet in the world. A vegetarian has to be very meticulous about what they eat."
Aileen Burford Mason, nutritionist, immunologist, Toronto
"Vegetarianism can be both healthy and unhealthy, but it is always better for the environment. It's not mentioned in the Kyoto Accord but probably should have been. Certainly, a vegetarian diet alleviates concerns about avian flu or BSE [mad cow disease]. Processed meats do not have a good reputation and may be associated with prostate cancer. Red meat may be linked to colon cancer. We have found that a vegetarian diet can lower cholesterol levels. On the other hand, vegetarians are often deficient in B12, which you get from bacteria. If you eat anything with dirt on it you'll get B12, but we wash it off. You can get vegetarian supplements. Iron can be an issue, but if you eat a lot of leafy green vegetables and legumes you won't be bad off. You can also get plenty of calcium from leafy vegetables and legumes."
David Jenkins, Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Metabolism, Nutritional sciences, U of T
"Vegetarians typically have lower BMIs [body mass indexes] than non-vegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from heart disease, lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower rates of type 2 diabetes, prostate cancer and colon cancer. Based on current health indicator trends, Toronto can expect to see at least 1,300 new cases of colon cancer and 1,400 new cases of prostate cancer in the coming year. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol as well as higher levels of fibre, magnesium, potassium, folate, antioxidants like as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals. Over 55 per cent of Toronto residents don't even meet Health Canada's recommendation to consume fruits and vegetables at least five times a day."
Kathleen Farley, executive director, Toronto Vegetarian Association
"B12 is not just an issue for vegans, but for everyone over the age of 50. There are all kinds of B12-fortified foods like some nutritional yeasts. A good one is Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula. Non-dairy milks (check the label), veggie meats and some cereals are also fortified with B12. Vitamin D can also be found in fortified foods like non-dairy milks and cereals and a lot of margarines, but most margarines aren't vegan. I recommend people take a vitamin D supplement. People might have trouble getting omega fatty acids, but you can get a ton from walnuts and flax as well as a microalgae-based DHA and EPA supplement."
Brenda Davis, registered dietitian, co-author, Becoming Vegan, Kelowna, BC