By Tania Bhattacharya
A few years ago, an African-American friend by the name of Mavican, told me that she has been suffering from Iron Beta Thalassemia from her childhood. Her doctors had advised her to maintain a substantial intake of red meats to help her condition. Once I became aware of this, I was inspired to dig deeper into the benefits of Omnivorism, something that has been traditionally downplayed in the narratives of healthy living in the 21st century.
Beginning with the January of 2006 till the middle of 2008, I had been a voluntary vegetarian. At the end of that period, I began realizing that I was not able to maintain the needed levels of nutrition, and hence, reverted back to being an Omnivore. It was also when I realized how it felt like to be at the receiving end of moralizing, that so many vegetarians and vegans have turned into a hobby. During those two and a half years, I had harangued everyone from acquaintances, to colleagues, to radio jockeys, over the virtues of going green and eschewing meat.
Mavican’s revelations were stunning. I hadn’t yet fathomed, that meat could have benefits or that its consumption provided life-giving benefits for so many individuals. This is not to say that vegetarianism, or Veganism, are misleading. On the contrary, they have helped millions around the world, overcome obesity, heart-related disorders, and Diabetes Mellitus. But Mavican’s experiences had left me with an epiphany: Diet was not a binary of good versus evil, with Omnivorism necessarily playing the role of Satan.
This article will specifically deal with certain benefits of eating animal proteins and their association with the body’s healing process. It will also focus on the inherent drawbacks of the vegetarian and vegan lifestyles; which has long been a taboo subject, due to the popularity of the two on a global scale.
A right cut of red meat provides the eater with all the Amino Acids in one place. There are twenty of them, most of which cannot be produced by the cells of the human body. Amino Acids are found in rich quantities in proteins. One may argue that proteins are also found in abundance in plant-based foods, for example, lentils like daal. The flip side though is, that plant food requires a long breakdown process, unlike animal proteins which are quickly absorbed by the human system. My friend Mavican was asked to resort to a diet of red meats, because they are not only a rich source of Iron, but the iron in them is easily digestible and accessible to her cells, than say, the iron content found in spinach, which would take doubly long to digest and become useful to her.
Herbivore animals like the bovine species have very long digestive tracts as compared to Carnivores. Long digestive tracts are required for foods that involve a complex pattern of digestion. By contrast Carnivores like the Felids or Reptiles, have much shorter digestive tracts, which are indicative of a diet that involves animal proteins which by nature, yield easily to the process of breakdown. The human digestive system is suitably designed for an Omnivore diet, much like the Canid family of the animal kingdom.
Many Omnivores erroneously argue that the presence of canines are singularly linked to a diet rich in animal proteins. A cursory glance at the dental pattern of Hippos disqualifies this notion. Hippos are for the most part vegetarians, though in times of food scarcity, they can be opportunistic enough to devour animal carcasses found in the living spaces of their watery world. That a vegetarian animal can be endowed with canines is proof enough, that the dental structure of humans, which also has the occurrence of canine teeth, is not proof of deliberate Omnivorism. However, our digestive tracts are suited to the meat-eating environment and as we shall see, Omnivorism has multiple benefits, which have been conveniently overlooked by overzealous proponents of healthy eating.
In early 2016, I was diagnosed with Hypothyroidism. It had not appeared alone. It was also responsible for another deficiency, that had plagued me since 2012. As medical examinations I was made to undergo revealed, my hypothyroidism was the main factor in leaving me with PCOS. PCOS refers to a condition known as ‘Polycystic Ovaries’. Both hypothyroidism and PCOS are incurable. They belong to a category of illnesses defined as Autoimmune Disorders. When the immune system of individual mistakes the cells of the very body it is meant to protect, as enemy cells, and attacks them, the term Autoimmune Disorder is applied. Autoimmune Disorders are incurable. Despite the strides made by modern medicine, medical science has been unable to come up with a preventive measure or a cure for this type of illness. It has not been able to define even, why the immune system can go awry and become an enemy to its own body.
While global epidemics like AIDS, Hepatitis C, Diabetes, and others regularly receive attention at discussion fora, Autoimmune Disorders have been relegated to the back burner of healthy living classroom lectures. Autoimmune conditions like Terminal Ileitis (ulcers in the ileum), Celiac Disease (allergy to gluten which is found in wheat), or Hypothyroidism, are devastating disorders that plague the patient for life. The behavior of these conditions is erratic. There are long remission periods when the symptoms disappear, giving the sufferer the impression, that they have been cured. Months or weeks later, the symptoms resurface. This pattern remains prevalent throughout the sufferer’s lifetime.
The diet of a Hypothyroidism, or iodine deficiency, affected an individual is necessarily devoid of many plant-based foods. These are members of the Cruciferous vegetable family which includes vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, and brussels sprout. Fruits like strawberry are a strict no-no as well. All the mentioned edibles are termed as Goitrogens. They are culprits in introducing goiter, through malfunctioning of the pituitary gland, which in turns results in PCOS. Cruciferous vegetables and strawberry, contain a chemical which bonds with iodine molecules and prevents them from being absorbed by the thyroid gland.
Patients who have Crohn’s Disease, also referred to as Terminal Ileitis – though some forms of TI can be curable – is similarly instructed to forego green leafy vegetables, and sprouted lentils like moong, in addition to raw salads, because they produce gas. What is otherwise healthy to the community of workout addicts, is the bane of TI patients. Additionally, intestinal disorders like TI, Colitis, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disorder), and Gastritis, render the victim Lactose Intolerant, which sets in as a symptom of their respective condition. This means that they not only must avoid many greens, they have no recourse to a vegetarian protein intake through milk and milk products, either. What about soy then? Advocates of vegetarianism and veganism swear by soy, claiming it to be a superfood. Well, soy is quite indigestible to people with an intestinal problem. Intestinal disorders make the small and large intestines incapable of absorbing nutrients. No matter how nutritious the plant food that is being eaten, most of it is expelled by the digestive tract of a patient with a lingering stomach disorder. By a quirk of fate, white meat and animal proteins like eggs and seafood, become central to such persons and their diet. Animal proteins accelerate gut healing, something that is constantly needed by people with intestinal disorders as well as other forms of Autoimmune Diseases.
My gynecologist under whom I am being treated for both PCOS and its related Hypothyroidism, has instructed me to eat large quantities of lean meats and poultry. Vegetarianism and Veganism are certainly not the way to go for people like me.
Animal Proteins are a good source of the following: Iron, Calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12 (Vitamin B Complex), Magnesium, Zinc, and Amino Acids. Unfortunately, these are the very nutrients that many vegetarians and vegans are found to be lacking in. The idea that non-vegetarian food is merely beneficial as a source of protein, in incorrect.
The first of the two pertains to animal welfare. There are many vegetarian and vegan pet owners, who are wise enough to feed their canid and felid family members, the latter’s choice of food. Such a sacrifice is welcome and is truly commendable. It must take a deep conviction and evolved ethics for a human to forego the priority of ideology and focus on what type of meals keep their pets happy. But for the most part, this does not happen. The vast majority of vegetarians and vegans feed their cats and dogs a steady plant-based diet. Dogs are omnivores. They can survive on plant-based foods. But there is a very visible line between surviving and thriving. A thriving organism is one, that has been allowed to eat the foods of its own choice. As Omnivores and members of the Canid species, dogs are happier with large doses of animal proteins present in their meals. Canids – the species to which domestic cats belong – are Obligate Carnivores. Obligate Carnivorism is a biological condition, wherein, the organism is unable to break down and digest plant-based foods. They are completely dependent on animal proteins, or as Indians are more prone to call them, ‘Non-Vegetarian’ meals, to sustain themselves. Cats fed vegetarian and vegan meals, get afflicted with kidney stones and bladder problems. Many incidents of vegetarian and vegan owners bringing in cats that are close to death due to a plant-based diet have been reported from around the world.
Food has left an imprint on how human civilization has been shaped. When humans started out, they were hunter-gatherers. At this stage, women and men were at par, with an equal distribution of activities between them, both outdoors and indoors. Men went out to hunt, while their womenfolk went out to gather berries and fruits. However, with the advent of farming, the hunter-gatherer pattern was replaced by rootedness. Now, men went out to till their fields, while their women were required indoors to tend to home and hearth. The concept of land, in turn, led to the notion of property, and by extent, to national economies and the defense of one’s territory. None of these ideas were ever inclusive of women. The introduction of the practice of farming was the beginning of Patriarchy as well. In the society of Stonehenge in pre-historic England, the hunter-gatherer phase had placed equal importance on the Moon goddess as it did on the Sun god. Once the lifestyle was exchanged for Farming, the Sun god gained prominence over the worship of the Moon goddess. Today, most traditional beliefs, incorporate an emphasis on Sun worship, with the Moon – representative of feminine power – being sidelined to almost oblivion, except for being invoked during a handful of events.
The second issue that is almost never broached, is the one about the environment. Vegetarian and vegan activists have long informed us about the side effects of eating meats and consuming milk. However, they have never found the time to discuss the far-reaching consequences of their lifestyle choice, on the environment. According to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), farming is the biggest factor behind topsoil erosion and habitat loss. Topsoil once lost, cannot be regained. Both modern farming implements like tractors and traditional methods of tilling the soil are harbingers of this dangerous condition. As the numbers of vegetarians and vegans grow around the world, increased farming will be resorted to. Forest areas will be sacrificed to make way for farms and plantations. Every single hectare of a wooded area is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna.
One may argue, that containing the population growth will automatically act as a suppressant to habitat loss. This is only partially true. Humanity’s woes are not from the single factor of population explosion but from the double jeopardy of population and affluenza. Affluenza is the catch-all term for the wasting habits cultivated by the privileged among us. To illustrate this better, let us take the example of two families, A and B. A lives below the poverty line and has ten members, eight of whom are children. Family B, is well-heeled and has only four members, two of whom are children. As a result of the disadvantages incurred from a low-income lifestyle, A has far less access to the earth’s natural resources. Whereas well off Family B, is able to spend more, and consumes a considerable slice of the earth’s natural wealth through various requirements. It has always been easy to deride low-income families for ‘breeding like rabbits’ and thus causing stress to our resources, but as the abovementioned hypothetical example reveals, conservation of the environment is as much a reflection of prudence as it is of smart choices in planned parenthood. If humanity is well-intentioned, it will not just curtail its will to reproduce; it will also take drastic measures in cutting down on its consumerism.
None of my arguments are meant to belittle vegetarianism or veganism, or even the particular Jain diet. Indeed, every single vegetable and fruit will produce its own benefits and drawbacks. It is how we make our foods work for us, is what counts in the end.
The debate over diet is a never-ending one. But if anything, it can no longer encourage a binary, where the debilitating effects of a plant-based lifestyle choice are swept under the carpet, or the hidden benefits of Omnivorism are rubbished.
People will always be free to choose what they want their bodies to receive. But one thing is certain. What is on your plate, is not a one size fits all.
Tania is a freelance writer. The opinion expressed here is her own.