Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Vegetarianism - Is It The New Eating Disorder?

You’re sitting in your favourite restaurant with a group of friends at the start of what promises to be a great night out. The waiter arrives for your order and one of your girlfriends casts her eye down the menu and announces: ’Sorry, I can’t eat any of that. I’m vegetarian. Just bring me a salad.’

More often than not, she’ll be the thinnest and palest in the group - and looks as if what she really needs is a juicy steak and a pile of chips.

Before all you proper veggies dash for your pen and paper to write me vitriolic letters, I’m not anti vegetarianism; in fact, I often prescribe vegetarian regimes for my own patients and a good vegetarian diet means less heart disease, lower cholesterol level, less obesity, little risk of high blood pressure and much less likelihood of bowel cancer.

For these reasons, many people turn veggie purely for the health benefits. Of course, lots of people turn their backs on meat, poultry and fish for highly laudable moral reasons, but they don’t take the trouble to learn about balanced vegetarian eating. These are the veggies that most frequently end up in my consulting room with health problems - problems which are easily resolved by simple improvements in their eating habits.

Much more worrying is the growing number of young women - from teens to 30-somethings - who are obviously claiming to be vegetarians as a disguise for a potential underlying eating disorder.

What could be easier if you don’t want to eat, than to say to your friends and family that you CAN’T eat something because it’s contrary to your principles? You quickly pick up all the propaganda - meat is murder, don’t eat anything with a face, how can anyone eat dead flesh - and before long you have an excuse for saying no to almost any food.

When you’re pressurised to drink milk or eat eggs and cheese, you declare yourself a vegan. When you can no longer face a jacket potato or a slice of bread, you become a fruitarian, who eats nothing but fruit, nuts and seeds. You finally join the lunatic fringe and when your weight drops to 6 stone something, you announce that you’ve joined the sect of breatharians, who believe they have no need to eat food, but survive by absorbing the mystical life-force - actually, it’s just fresh air - directly into their bodies. Led by Australian Jasmuheen - one exposed by a down-under TV documentary - this irresponsible and exploitative sect has already caused the death by starvation of a number of young women.

People talk about their vegetarian friends in the same hushed and reverent way in which they discuss a stoic, uncomplaining neighbour with terminal illness. After all, veggies have the moral high ground: they’re prepared to give up the pleasures of meat to save the suffering of animals; they’re brave enough to stand up for their principles in our mostly carnivorous society. For these reasons, they deserve our respect and admiration - often tinged with more than a little guilt.

Could there be a simpler subterfuge which protects the burgeoning anorexic from the social and family pressures to eat? No-one would try to force a vegetarian to eat a BLT or a pork chop.

So You Want To Be A Healthy Veggie?

There’s absolutely no need to eat animal products for protein, and a balanced vegetarian diet will provide all the necessary nutrients, a lower intake of saturated fat (the kind that gives you heart disease) and a much higher consumption of the fruits, vegetables and salads that are rich in cancer-protective substances. The one exception is the group of omega 3 fats and the most valuable come from fish, not plants.

The inclusion of soya products is a huge benefit, especially for women, as the plant oestrogens they contain are protective against breast cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease and the unpleasant symptoms of the menopause.

Guarantee your optimum intake of essential nutrients by eating a wide selection of the following:

• For protein - modest amounts of eggs and cheese, plus plenty of soya dishes and a mixture of cereals and pulses, e.g. rice with beans, bread with lentil dishes and potatoes and dahl.
• For iron - beans, lentils, wholemeal flour, oats, dried fruits (especially dates and raisins) dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, parsley, fortified breakfast cereals and eggs. Stinging nettles and dandelion leaves are rich in iron, and you can make tea from both of them – a teaspoon of chopped leaves to a cup of boiling water. Nettles also make great soup, and dandelion leaves give an unusual bite to your salad – do pick them where the dogs can't go! Elderberries, parsley, watercress, chives, lovage and fennel are all sources of blood nutrients so add to salads and fruit dishes.
• For calcium - all dairy products (a small carton of yogurt provides 20 per cent of your daily needs; a matchbox size piece of Cheddar cheese will give you 50 per cent): tofu, calcium-enriched Soya milk, almonds and other nuts, tahini, sunflower and other seeds.
• For vitamin B12 - meat is the richest source, so veggies need to make sure they get theirs from a good mixture of eggs, dairy products - choose low-fat varieties - fortified breakfast cereals, yeast spreads like Vegemite and Marmite and fortified Soya milk. A daily B complex supplement is an added useful protection.
• For folic acid - essential to prevent birth defects, but now known to be a vital factor to protect against heart disease in both men and women no matter what their age. Abundant in eggs, all dark green leafy vegetables (but don’t over-cook them), dried beans like kidney beans, butter beans, chickpeas etc., yeast extracts, all wholegrain cereals like brown rice, wholemeal flour and oats.

Following these guidelines will ensure that your vegetarian diet provides you with optimum amounts of all the other nutrients essential for long-tern health and well-being.


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