Chapter 16 – The
Healthiest Diet on Earth
What do you think would happen if you ate nothing but
meat – all kinds of meat – and dairy products?
You’d die, probably within a year. What would happen
if you ate nothing but a varied vegan or vegetarian diet
including fruit, veg, beans, grains, nuts and seeds?
You’d probably be much healthier than most people
That has to be the staring point for understanding what
is and what isn’t a good diet. So, if anyone ever
tells you that meat is vital for life, you can be certain
they don’t know what they’re talking about.
You know the sort of thing, someone who smokes like a
chimney suddenly becomes a world authority on health
when it comes to vegetarianism.
Health is generally the biggest worry of non-veggie
parents when young people decide to give up meat. Parents
often think you’re going to fade away or be stricken
by an army of diseases without your daily dose of dead
animal protein. In fact, they should be really pleased
because all the evidence suggests that veggies are usually
much healthier than meat-eaters.
All the latest reports, including one by the World Health
Organisation, say that people on a meat-based diet eat
twice as much sugary and a third more fatty foods than
is good for them. If you’re between 11 and 16,
the figures are even worse because meat-eaters in this
age group eat three times as much of these unhealthy
foods. A good example of a fatty, sugary meal is cola,
burger and chips followed by ice cream. A staple diet
of this kind is bad news both because of what’s
in the food and also because of what’s not in it.
So let’s start with the burger meal and look at
what it contains that you don’t need. Top of the
list is saturated animal fat – and burgers contain
a lot. The fat’s minced up with the meat, even
when it looks lean. It’s also used in dairy products
such as ice cream and often the chips are fried in it
too, soaking up large amounts as they cook.
This doesn’t mean that all fats are unhealthy – it
just depends on what kind you eat. Basically, there are
two main kinds of fat – unsaturated fats, found
mostly in vegetable foods, and saturated fats, found
mostly in animal-based foods. Unsaturated fats are better
for the body than saturated fats and a certain amount
are essential in everyone’s diet. Saturated fats,
on the other hand, aren’t needed and perhaps one
of the most important health discoveries of all time
is that saturated animal fats are linked to heart disease.
Why is that so important? Because heart disease is now
the biggest killer of men and women in the Western world.
Meat, fish and dairy products also contain a substance
called cholesterol and this together with the fats is
helping to cause this epidemic. In contrast, unsaturated
fats like olive oil, sunflower oil and corn oil actually
help to reduce the artery clogging cause by animal fats.
As well as containing things that are bad for you, burgers – in
fact all meat products – are lacking in things
that you do need. These substances include fibre and
fie extremely important vitamins.
Fibre is made up of the tough bits of fruit and vegetables
that your body can’t digest. It contains no nutrients
and passes straight through the body, but despite that
it’s extremely important. Fibre gives the bowels
something bulky to grip on to, and that helps them to
work properly, forcing the waste food from the body.
It seems that fibre acts like a brush, sweeping the bowels
clean (now there’s a lovely image). Too little
fibre and the food takes longer to pass through our bowels,
allowing poisons to infect the body. Lack of fibre combined
with too much animal fat helps cause another killer disease – colon
Recent medical research has also identified three vitamins
that actually help to protect people against about 60
diseases, including the big killers of heart disease,
stroke and cancer. These are vitamins A (the type from
plant foods only), C and E and they’ve been given
the name antioxidants. These vitamins are the goodies.
They work by wiping out molecules called free radicals
(which are the baddies and not some fringe political
group). Free radicals are constantly produced by the
body as a result of breathing, exercise or even digestion.
They’re part of the process known as oxidation – the
same process that causes metal to rust. These molecules
don’t make you rusty but act like out-of-control
hooligans, dashing around the body crashing into cells
and damaging them. Anti-oxidants mop up free radicals
and stop them causing the damage which can lead to disease.
In 1996, over 200 studies confirm the amazing benefits
of antioxidants. For example, the National Cancer Institute
and Harvard Medical School revealed that eating vitamins
A, C and E from fresh fruit and vegetables reduced heart
disease and cancer. These vitamins even help keep your
brain active in old age!
However, none of these three antioxidants is in meat.
Meat also contains little or no vitamins D, which controls
the level of calcium in the blood, or K, which helps
blood to clot. The only source of all these vital health
protectors is fruit and veg, and sunlight, butter or
margarine in the case of vitamin D.
Over 30 years, a huge number of scientific studies have
also been carried out into how different diets in general
affect people’s well being. These studies have
shown without doubt that vegetarian or vegan diets are
the healthiest there are. Some of these studies have
compared the diets of tens of thousands of people in
places as far apart as China and America, Japan and Europe.
One of the biggest and most recent was carried out in
Britain by Oxford University and the first results were
published in 1995. The study looked at 11,000 people
over a 13-year period and came to the staggering conclusion
that vegetarians get 40 per cent less cancer of all kinds,
30 per cent less heart disease and are less likely to
drop dead before reaching old age.
The same year, a group of doctors in the USA, called
the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, came
up with an even more astounding result. They looked at
over a hundred different pieces of research from around
the world and on the basis of their findings came to
the conclusion that vegetarians get up to 57 per cent
less heart disease and up to 50 per cent less cancers
of all kinds. They also found there were fewer cases
of high blood pressure amongst vegetarians and in those
who did have high blood pressure it tended to be less
severe. Again, the improvement was estimated at up to
50 per cent.
To put worried parents’ minds at rest, these doctors
also found that the brains of young vegetarians developed
quite normally. In fact at the age of 10, veggie kids
tended to be a year more advanced mentally than meat
eaters! So convincing were their arguments that the USA
government has now accepted that ‘Vegetarians have
excellent health, obtain all the nutrients they need
and vegetarianism is a suitable diet for US citizens.’
The usual meat-eaters’ argument against this type
of discovery is to say that veggies are healthier because
they also tend to drink or smoke less and that this is
why they do so well in these studies. Not true – as
serious studies, like the ones I’ve written about
here, always compare like with like. In other words they
compare only non-drinking veggies with non-drinking meat-eaters,
and so on.
None of this stops the meat industry from advertising
meat as the healthiest food in the world. Although it
obviously isn’t, all their publicity may cause
parents to worry. Believe me, meat producers don’t
sell meat to make people healthier, they do it to make
a lot of money.
Okay, so what diseases do vegetarians get that meat
eaters don’t? None! Pretty amazing, eh?
I became vegetarian for the animals but there were other
unexpected benefits. I started to feel healthier – I
became more supple which is important for an athlete.
I also needed much less sleep and woke up feeling much
fresher. My skin improved and I had more energy. I love
- Martina Navratilova, world tennis champion