Low-Meat Diet Needs No Fleshing Out

Dr. Lawrence Power studied endocrinology and metabolism at the University of Michigan and was on its faculty for five years. He is the author of more than 100 health and scientific publications. Questions may be sent to him at P.O. Box 1501, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48106.

"We've had several inquiries since your presentation," the caller said, in reference to a talk that had covered today's food problems.

"They're concerned about protein deprivation on your diet; alarmed about eating only one or two servings of meat or chicken or fish a week."

The changes recommended involved a lowering of dietary fat and cholesterol and a raising of fiber. It's the kind of diet we're all heading for in the interest of less cancer and heart disease, but it's a sharp departure from the one to which we've grown accustomed over the past three decades. Inevitably it emphasizes vegetables and grains, in fact five to 10 servings of them a day, and less flesh. So those in attendance became concerned about protein. Where is it in such a diet with all its vegetables and grains?

Germany's Postwar Experience

Well, for starters, about 15% of whole grain calories is protein, and vegetables too are good sources, as nutritionists learned from the German experience. For several years after WWII, German children, as part of the population in general, suffered a food shortage aftermath. They ate a diet deficient by today's standards, about 80% of its calories coming from flour and the rest from vegetables. There was no milk and no meat, except for a tiny weekly serving of fatty sausage. Yet to the surprise of nutritionists who later studied the children, their diet left no sign of physical or mental problems. Indeed, in a selected subset of children given dried-milk supplements as a test, no benefits could be demonstrated from the extra protein.

Vegetables are probably today's best-kept nutrition secret. They can contain protein to the extent of 20% to 40% of their calories. During the talk about today's food problems that provoked concern about protein deprivation, the audience was told to get about 400 of their day's calories from vegetable sources. Thus, if 30% of those calories came from protein, then vegetables would provide about half the day's protein needs. In our diet today, protein constitutes about 12% of the calories, as it did around the turn of the century. Back then, however, flesh sources provided 40% of the total and non-flesh sources the rest. Today flesh provides 60% of the total and non-flesh sources the rest. So we've come to equate protein with flesh and become concerned about "protein deprivation" when told to cut back.

It's All in the Mind

Other sources of protein in the diet beyond vegetables are grains such as brown rice, whole-grain breads and pasta or oats as porridge, plus beans, peas and lentils that could be made into inexpensive and hearty winter soups. Such intakes easily meet the day's protein needs. There's no risk of deprivation on a diet devoid of flesh when a multiple vitamin that includes B-12--the only vitamin that a strict vegetarian diet lacks--is taken daily. It's all in the mind of the meat-eater.

Last year nutritionists in Sweden reported on their evaluation of a population of long-term vegetarians compared to Swedes on the typical mixed diet. Vegetarians for an average of 30 years, their clinical and biochemical examinations revealed no vitamin or protein deficiencies, nor any sign of malnutrition. Indeed, their cholesterol levels and blood pressures were lower than average while their general health and energy levels were higher. To get those benefits, you may have to cut back on some of the things you love.

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