Growing up in Wisconsin in the ’60’s, I didn’t know anything about vegetarianism; I didn’t know anyone who was one. The closest I came to it was my good friend across the street who was Catholic; her family gave up meat on Fridays. I never wanted to eat at her house on those days; those fish sticks were like little lumps of cardboard.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to meet people who for one reason or another, had elected to remove meat from their diet; I always equated vegetarian with “healthy”. At least that was true until my niece decided to give it a try while she went off to college. Megan was inspired by animal rights ideals as well as being a student on a limited budget – and I suppose it was a bit about being “cool”. She was thrilled she could justify potato chips and chocolate as integral parts of her diet.
Megan had also been raised a meat-and-potato girl from the Midwest before attending Lewis & Clark in Portland. She hadn’t been educated about basic nutrition essentials and certainly had no idea she had to worry about finding alternatives to fill in the protein gap. After a year of consuming a diet of vegetarian “junk food”, she landed in a doctor’s office with significant menstrual issues. She was instructed to add meat back into her diet – her doctor’s simple solution.
After a career in high-tech I found my way to the food industry when a friend introduced me to a company named Living Harvest. It was my first introduction into the world of natural foods and hemp nutrition . . . digestible protein, all 10 essential amino acids, and a near perfect balance of omega-3 to -6. It was a foreign language to me; it was time to do some research.
As I read about plant-based nutrition, my thoughts about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet were substantiated. But what it requires – and here’s where my niece went wrong – is proper attention be paid to the consumption of essential nutrients. With the right diet, many studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
Essential nutrients are called essential because our bodies don’t produce them, they must be consumed through food. Getting adequate amounts of essential fatty acids (EFA’s) presents a greater challenge for vegetarians, but this is an issue facing the majority of Americans today – more specifically consuming the proper balance of omegas-3 and -6.
Studies suggest the perfect balance of o-6:o-3 lies somewhere between 2:1 and 4:1 (hemp has a 3:1 ratio). And this was the statistic that really caught my attention. With prepared foods, fast foods and snack foods offering high levels of o-6 from vegetable oils, the ratio of the typical American diet can be as high as 25:1! One website estimates that 20% of the calories in the typical diet come from one thing - soybean oil. Wow!
Omega-3‘s help reduce inflammation while omega-6’s promote inflammation so it’s not difficult to figure out that an imbalance is going to create health issues. Elevated o-6 intakes have been associated with an increase in all inflammatory diseases – which is to say virtually all diseases. A partial list includes cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome & inflammatory bowel disease, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, cancer, psychiatric disorders, and autoimmune diseases. This is eye-opening stuff for someone in their 50’s who has lived a life of drive-thru’s and frozen dinners!
Today Megan is 35 and while she’s no longer a vegetarian, she does limit her consumption of low-fat meat. She’s learned the importance of getting the proper amounts of nutrients and though she lives a rather hectic life in New York, she takes the time to prepare meals from fresh ingredients. I continue to work on unraveling years of bad eating habits in our household and finding ways to achieve a balance; whether you’ve embraced a vegetarian lifestyle or not – it’s all about balance.