What will happen to all the animals if everyone goes vegetarian or vegan?
Variations of this question are ‘surely we’ll be overrun with animals if we don’t eat them’, and ‘won’t they all die out, so we never see cows again?’ The truth is that animals are bred not for their benefit, but specifically to produce milk or to be slaughtered for meat. So if the demand for meat and dairy products (and also for leather, which is very much bound up with the meat industry) decreases, then fewer animals will be bred: it’s as simple as that. I don’t see animals ‘dying out’ but rather a reversion to traditional species, particularly animals that can graze on hills and other terrains and that cannot be used for agriculture. You have to remember that animals bred for meat are very different from how their natural ancestors and how they would be if they were wild. They would be a lot happier if they could lead the life that is natural for them – as deer do – rather than be cooped up in indoor units or iron crates with no room to move. So in a vegetarian world, there would still be animals, but they would live a free, natural and contented life.
Don’t we need fish oils for health?
The right fats are essential to a healthy diet. We don’t need saturated fat (found mostly in animal products and processed foods) but we do need unsaturated fats, omega-3 and omega-6, There’s much more about healthy fats, where to find them and how to get the balance right, in my book Low-GI Vegetarian Cookbook (or the hardback version, Fast, Fresh and Fabulous) but I can assure you that there are plenty of rich sources of omega-3 oils besides oily fish. Nuts (especially walnuts) contain omega-3 oils, so do seeds (especially linseeds/flax); they’re also in soya beans and dark green leafy vegetables. Eating six walnuts a day or dressing your salad with a teaspoonful of walnut oil would give you what you need, as would sprinkling a tablespoonful of ground linseeds/flax seeds over your breakfast cereal or drizzling it with a teaspoonful of flaxseed oil, along with eating dark green leafy vegetables regularly – every day, if possible (and this applies to everyone, not just vegetarians or vegans). To be on the safe side, I also recommend taking a daily supplement of the algae-derived omega-3 oils.
What about calcium?
Calcium is essential for healthy bones and teeth. Most people know it’s in dairy produce but did you know there are also some rich vegetable sources? 1 cup of cooked kale, broccoli or quinoa contains more usable calcium than a glass of milk. There are other rich sources, including seeds, especially sesame seeds and sesame cream (tahini), which is used to make hummus; almonds and dried fruit, especially figs and apricots. White bread is fortified with it, as are some brands of soya milk, and it’s in tofu that has been made using calcium sulphate. Although on paper vegans have sometimes appeared to be eating less calcium than required, calcium deficiency has never been reported in them: medical studies have shown their calcium intake to be perfectly adequate. This may be because vegans do not eat large amounts of protein. The body needs calcium in order to process protein, so some apparently rich sources of calcium aren’t that effective if they’re also high in protein. For more about this, see my Low-GI Vegetarian Cookbook (or the hardback version, Fast, Fresh and Fabulous).
Where do I get my iron if I don’t eat meat?
We need iron for healthy blood and energy and since meat is a prime source, people often worry about how vegetarians and vegans can get enough. However, perhaps surprisingly, studies have consistently shown that vegetarians and vegans are no more likely to suffer from a lack of iron than other people. There are plenty of good vegetarian sources of iron: dark green leafy vegetables; grains and grain products such as wholewheat bread and pasta, millet and quinoa; dried fruit, especially apricots, figs and peaches; nuts and seeds, especially almonds, pistachio nuts and pumpkin seeds; lentils and beans, including soya products; egg yolk (for vegetarians) ; and molasses. We absorb more iron when we eat it with foods containing vitamin C like lemon juice, fresh fruit, vegetable juices, and vegetarians and vegans almost always have higher intakes of vitamin C than meat eaters.
How do vegetarians get enough protein? Surely animal protein is superior to vegetable protein?
Protein is essential for growth, maintenance and repair of tissues and for the healthy functioning of the body. All protein, whether of animal or vegetable origin is made up of the same protein building blocks called amino acids, arranged in different patterns in different foods. When your body has unpicked the patterns it doesn’t know whether these blocks have come from beef or beans, chickens or chicory, and it doesn’t matter. As long as the building-blocks are there, the body can put them together to make the structures it needs. You don’t need to ‘combine proteins’ yourself (that’s a very old-fashioned way of thinking about vegetarian proteins); the mixing and matching will happen naturally in a meal or during the course of a day and, in any case, your body can keep unused amino acids in reserve for matching up later. For more about protein, see my Low-GI Vegetarian Cookbook (or the hardback version, Fast, Fresh and Fabulous and for how to eat a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, click here.
Isn’t the food very fattening?
Some people worry that they’ll put on weight if they become vegetarian or vegan, but I’ve also just as often heard the opposite fear, especially from men: ‘Will I lose weight and muscle and become a thin and weedy specimen?’ The truth is, you can get all the nutrients you need for health and vitality from both a vegetarian and a vegan diet. Vegetarian/vegan sportsmen and women include basketball players, body builders, runners, wrestlers, skaters, cyclists, skiers, gymnasts, sailors and surfers, triathletes: look at vegetarian or vegan websites for full lists of names. The fact is, being well nourished depends on taking in the right nutrients, and you can do this as well, if not better, on a vegetarian or vegan diet as you can on a meat one. As to whether the food is ‘fattening’, that comes back to calories and those derived from vegetarian foods are no more or less fattening than those found in animal products. Having said that, I have met quite a few people over the years who have told me that they lost all their excess weight when they turned vegetarian (or vegan).For more about losing weight on a vegetarian diet, see my books Vegetarian Slimming, The Vegetarian Low-Carb Diet, and Low-GI Vegetarian Cookbook.
Help! I haven’t got time: all that chopping and grinding…
Vegetarian cooking used to be quite labour-intensive, though I must say I’ve always thought that this was somewhat exaggerated and was as much to do with getting used to working with unfamiliar ingredients as to the actual effort involved. Now, however, there are so many convenience foods, sauces, mixes and frozen and chilled dishes that preparing a veggie meal can be as fast as you want. If you like making your own fast meals from scratch, there are lots of ideas and recipes in my book Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Meals in Minutes.
Surely it’s only natural to eat animals?
Well, how would you feel about going out to kill a cow for your lunch? The hunting, shooting and fishing brigade apart, most people flinch at or are repelled by the thought of actually killing an animal themselves. They buy and eat meat because on the whole it’s packaged nicely and they can overlook the horrors that the animal has gone through in order to end up on their plate. Actually I don’t think that it’s natural for our species to eat meat. We do not have the physique of carnivores; our teeth and mouths are not the right shape for killing and tearing animal flesh and we have the long gut that is a characteristic of herbivores and enables them (and us) to digest plant foods. And that’s exactly what our ancestors did: they lived on fruits, nuts, seeds and leaves until they began to hunt and even then they only ate meat very occasionally. Our bodies are not adapted for the huge quantities of meat and dairy products that most people in the West (and sadly increasingly in the South and East) eat today.
Plants feel pain, too!
Yeah, right! Anyone who thinks that plants and animals are in any way comparable in this respect really needs to take some elementary lessons in biology.
Isn’t it boring, being vegetarian or vegan?
No, not at all. How could it be boring when there are so many wonderful ingredients available to us? Hundreds of wonderful fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, cereals and grains and all the products made from them such as breads in every variety, pasta, polenta, rice; tasty flavourings, oils, vinegars and piquant sauces… there’s nothing boring about being vegetarian or vegan and I’d be happy if I had a pound for all the people who have told me, with amazement, how much more varied their diet is since they turned vegetarian. If you doubt this, all I can say is, first have a look at the Recipes section, then buy a good recipe book! Try Rose Elliot Vegetarian Supercook or Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Meals in Minutes ,or Rose Elliot’s Vegan Feasts or Rose Elliot’s Complete Vegan to get you going.
What about eating out?
It’s getting better. Most places offer a ‘vegetarian option’ and an increasing number are becoming aware of the needs for vegans, too. I must say, it is a joy to go to a restaurant where there is actually a large choice of dishes, and we don’t so often get that. You can usually get a delicious meal at Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants; Indian restaurants are wonderful for vegetarians but vegans needs to watch out for butter-based ghee (some places will use vegetable ghee if you ask). Chinese and Thai restaurants can be great, too, but you do need to be vigilant about fish creeping into the flavourings – Thai curry paste often includes fish and some of the Chinese flavourings may contain it, too.
I’m vegetarian but I eat fish!
Sorry, but vegetarians do not eat fish. Please do not call yourself vegetarian if you eat fish; since a number of people in the public eye have made statements such as the above it has brought quite a bit of confusion among restauranteurs and even the general public and this has made if difficult for ‘real’ vegetarians. It’s commonly thought that fish do not feel pain, but that’s not the case. There have been many studies that have shown fish do feel pain. They suffer greatly when they are caught and suffer from crushing or asphyxiation as they are brought to the surface of the water and deprived of oxygen.
What about vitamin B12?
This is a vital vitamin, but only very tiny amounts are needed. Vegetarians can get this from dairy foods and free range eggs. If you don’t eat much of these foods, or if you’re a vegan, you just need to make sure that at least three times a week you eat some foods such as soya milk, yeast extracts, veggie burgers or breakfast cereals that have been fortified with vitamin B12 (read the labels). It’s simple, really, but, if you’d rather, you can always take a vitamin supplement.
What about vitamin B2 (riboflavin)? I’ve heard vegetarians might be short of this.
For most people milk and cheese are important sources of riboflavin, but these are not the only foods which contain it. If you are vegan or a vegetarian eating little dairy produce just make sure you regularly include other good sources such as almonds, yeast and yeast extract, wheat germ and quinoa, soya beans and products made from them such as soya milk and tofu, avocado and fortified breakfast cereals.
What about vitamin D?
Vitamin D is made by the action of the sun on our skin. It’s also in milk, cheese and butter and is added to most margarines, including soya varieties. Healthy adult vegetarians and vegans can usually get enough from these sources but the very young, the very old and those who don’t get outdoors much would be wise to take a vitamin D supplement especially if they’re eating little or no dairy produce or margarine. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D from your diet in the winter, or take a supplement of Vitamin D2, which is animal-free
Do I need to take supplements?
If you’re emphasising grains, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds, with plenty of dark green leaves and yellow vegetables every day, you will be meeting your needs for all the essential vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, with the possible exception of B12 and vitamin D, which I’ve explained about above. So in the majority of cases, people following a vegetarian or vegan diet would not need to take a vitamin supplement, but, if you are concerned, you could take a daily multivitamin.
Do pregnant women need to eat meat?
Vegetarians and vegans really can produce perfect, healthy babies. They’re being born to fourth and fifth generation vegetarians and vegans in the UK now, and of course around the world whole cultures have been vegetarian for thousands of years. I am a life vegetarian and I had three beautiful, healthy daughters who were brought up completely vegetarian and two of them now have their own healthy vegetarian children. Research has shown that a well balanced, high-fibre, low fat vegetarian diet (as described in this book), is very healthy for both adults and children and provides all the nourishment needed. This is now widely acknowledged among health professionals including organisations such as the British Medical Association. For much more about vegetarian (and vegan) pregnancy and babies, with menus, meal ideas, recipes and lots of practical tips, see Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Mother, Baby and Toddler Book. There is also a comprehensive section on this in my Low-GI Vegetarian Cookbook (a slightly adapted and updated paperback version of Fast, Fresh and Fabulous).
What about vegetarian babies?
It’s widely recognised, including by the British Medical Association, that a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients needed for babies and children. It’s also quite safe to bring a child up as a vegan, with no animal foods at all, as long as you make sure that plenty of nutrient-rich foods are included. Where concern has been expressed over the growth of babies and children on vegetarian-type diets, they were in communities following very restrictive and not typical vegetarian or vegan diets. For much more detailed information about vegetarian and vegan pregnancy and babies, with menus, meal ideas, recipes and lots of practical tips, see Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Mother, Baby and Toddler Book. There is also a comprehensive section on this in my Low-GI Vegetarian Cookbook (a slightly adapted and updated paperback version of Fast, Fresh and Fabulous).
Surely children need meat to make them strong and healthy?
No, they don’t, at least if you take any notice of the statement issued by the American Dietetic Association (1997): ‘It is the position of The American Dietetic Association (ADA) that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.’ Obviously it’s important that their diet is nourishing and well balanced, keeping to the healthy formula of carbohydrate, protein and fruit or vegetables, as described in How to be a healthy vegetarian or vegan and How to plan great vegetarian and vegan meals, and make sure that there are some concentrated sources of nutrients such as nuts and seeds, nut butters, tahini and hummus, which are great on wholemeal bread, oatcakes and wholegrain crispbreads; and also dried fruit. It’s useful to have a supply of canned or cooked beans and cooked brown rice for instant healthy snacking. Heated up – or eaten cold, as a salad – and served with some chopped avocado or a swirl of olive oil, (or cold-pressed flax seed or rapeseed, for their omega-3 content), they’re very filling and nutritious. If getting enough calories is a problem, these good quality oils can be drizzled over almost anything: cooked grains, pulses and vegetables. Vegetarian fake meats are often popular with this age group, and tofu, tempeh and seitan are particularly good too, because of their high protein content. There is a comprehensive section on feeding vegetarian children in my Low-GI Vegetarian Cookbook (a slightly adapted and updated paperback version of Fast, Fresh and Fabulous) and see also Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Mother, Baby and Toddler Book.
What about older people?
There’s no age limit on being vegetarian or vegan. Older people can, and do, thrive on this way of eating. In fact the diet of the people who live on the Japanese islands of Okinawa, where there are more centenarians than anywhere else in the world, is largely vegetarian. One of the most striking things about the Okinawan diet is the amount of complex carbohydrate – whole grains and grain products and vegetables, including pulses – that it contains: a staggering 7–13 servings of each every day! In addition to this they eat 2–4 servings of fruit, 2–4 servings of soya products, especially tofu, small quantities of seaweed, small amounts of oil and a wide variety of herbs and spices. They eat minimal amounts of dairy produce which, combined with seaweed, makes up just 2 per cent of their diet. Their total intake of fats is only 24 per cent compared with around 40 per cent in the US and Britain and their main cooking oil is cold-pressed rapeseed. For more about this diet and lifestyle, ‘foods of longevity’ and how to incorporate them into your own diet, see my Low-GI Vegetarian Cookbook (a slightly adapted and updated paperback version of Fast, Fresh and Fabulous).
What about vegetarian and vegan cheese?
Vegetarian versions of most cheeses are widely available, and are clearly labelled ‘vegetarian’. This means that they have been made without the use of animal rennet (obtained from the stomachs of dead animals).They are improving all the time with increasing number of vegan cheeses made from plant based ingredients. When in doubt, ask at the cheese counter; I’ve always found the staff to be very helpful and knowledgeable where vegetarian cheese is concerned. There are some cheeses, however, that never vegetarian. These include traditional Parmesan cheese, so we have to use ‘Parmesan-style’ cheese. There are several types on the market, including Twyneham Grange Parmesan (www.bookhamcheese.co.uk (external link)), available from Sainsbury’s, and English Parmesan-style cheese supplied by Castelli and available in Waitrose and Tesco. It’s not that easy to find vegetarian Gruyère, either, though there is Joseph Heler’s British Gruyère; he’s based in Cheshire. I do quite often use Emmental cheese instead of Gruyère: it’s easy to find vegetarian versions of that, and the taste is very similar; also Edam can sometimes be used instead. You also have to be careful with blue cheeses. Roquefort is never vegetarian, neither is Dolcelatte; however you can buy very good vegetarian Stilton, and Danish Blue. As more and more people become vegetarian or vegan, I am sure the range of suitable cheeses will continue to increase.
What is your opinion of artificial sweeteners?
The sweetener I most like to use is stevia. This is about as natural a sweetener as you can get because it’s made from a herb. In fact, you can sweeten your tea by just dipping a stevia leaf straight into it. However, it’s normally used in the form of a white powder or liquid, and that’s how I buy it. Another I like is Xylitol which is available and made from birch.