When it comes to food choices, people usually prefer to consume more meat items than plant-derived foods. While it is debatable whether a human being is vegetarian or non-vegetarian, the modern world is dominated by a non-vegetarian population. And per capita consumption of livestock products in the industrialised countries is much higher than in the developing countries. For example, in the industrialised countries, per capita consumption of livestock products was 88.2 kilos per year, compared to 5.3 kilos for South Asia in 1997-1999, according to the World Health Organisation. India is the only country in the world where 20-40 per cent of the population is reported to be vegetarians. Now questions arise as to why people prefer to eat more meat than a plant-based diet? How healthy is eating meat? These are the issues that everyone should consider.
As far as meat consumption is concerned, humans have been consuming it since prehistoric times. It is also a great source of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. As modernity sets in and economic prosperity improve, people tend to consume more meat products. However, with the increasingly sedentary lifestyle and environmental pollution, high intake of meat is also associated with increased risks of many diseases, including cancers.
Usually, consumption of fish is considered beneficial for a healthy heart and brain. However, fish from polluted water may contain toxic mercury and dioxin. Therefore, farm-raised fish should be eaten as much as possible. Rampant use of antibiotics in poultry farming can cause the bacteria present in the animal antibiotic to become resistant. And thus, drug-resistance bacteria may enter our body through the consumption of improperly cooked meat.
Daily intake of red and processed meat (e.g. sausage, canned meat) may increase the incidence of cancers. Meat cooked at high temperature or flame contains carcinogens like nitrosamines at high levels. Thus, a tasty meat diet may prove to be toxic if the amount we consume and the way we cook it is not carefully considered.
A number of scientific studies have shown that a meat diet contains animal protein, cholesterol and saturated fats, and their elevated levels are implicated in several human diseases. Particularly in old age, high meat consumers are more likely to be obese than vegetarians. On the contrary, people who consume more fruits and vegetables are generally physically fit and are more likely to maintain their weight than excess meat-eaters.
More importantly, phytochemicals and anti-oxidants strengthen our body repair mechanisms, fight against chronic diseases and increase longevity. And a well-planned vegetarian diet can provide all these benefits. Healthy diets such as Okinawan and Mediterranean consist of less meat, more fish, olives, nuts and coloured fruits and vegetables.
Vegetarian diets not only have nutritional value but also contain many phytochemicals that fight harmful free radicals generated inside our body. In other words, high consumption of vegetarian diets helps detoxification in the body. With regard to a vegetarian diet, fruits and vegetables which contain beta carotene (provitamin A), polyphenols and other antioxidants are essential for keeping us healthy, even at old age.
We should, however, realise that our body may lack adequate amounts of protein, calcium, zinc and vitamins if we rely only on a plant-based diet or vegan diet. However, there are many dietary supplements available in the market fortified with minerals and vitamins. Vegetarians who consume dairy products, pulses and nuts can get enough protein and other essential nutrients.
Whole grains are usually low in fats, but rich in complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Those who think meat is tastier than vegetables should realise that meat becomes tasty only after cooking it with plenty of spices and oil, whereas some vegetables can be eaten uncooked. A vegetarian diet, when cooked properly, is not less tasty than a meat diet.
Realising the importance of a plant-based diet in human health, vegetarianism is gaining popularity across the globe, particularly in the Western world. A report indicated that 5 per cent of the US population makes up vegetarians. Vegetarian diets are reported to be beneficial for many people who have life threatening cardiovascular diseases.
Speaking of vegetarianism in a global prospect, there are three kinds of vegetarianism around the world. 1. Consuming only a plant-based diet (vegan diet); 2. Vegetarianism that allows eating eggs, cheese and dairy products; 3. Diet without meat, fish and eggs, predominantly found in the South Asian region, including Nepal.
Even though the majority of the Nepali people are non-vegetarians, meat being an expensive food item is only eaten once in a while. So, Nepali people are semi-vegetarian in the true sense. Vegetarianism in India and Nepal is mainly based on the religious belief that consumption of meat is a sinful act as it involves slaughtering animals. Traditionally, older people usually tend to give up meat items in their diet in our society. However, in modern society, many people prefer to be vegetarian for health reasons more than for religious beliefs.
Considering the increasing prevalence of obesity, hypertension and neurodegenerative diseases, irrespective of our dietary choice (vegetarian or non-vegetarian), consumption of a more plant-based diet has shown to be beneficial for our health. As far as meat consumption is concerned, raw meat sold in our markets is likely to be contaminated with a spectrum of pathogenic bacteria and maybe unhygienic to eat.
Consumption of meat without knowing the health status of slaughtered animals increases the risk of diseases. Use of high levels of antibiotics and hormones in commercial animals and their impact on human health are another concern. We lack adequate analytical facilities and a strict regulatory mechanism to assess antibiotic or pesticide residues in many food products we consume. In this regard, the Nepal government should enact a strong regulation regarding the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals. Staying vegetarian or non-vegetarian is our personal choice, but our diet should be organic, low in animal fat and high in important nutrients.
Written by Dr. Jeevan K. Prasain for the rising Nepal