When I was growing up I was taught how to hunt, fish and trap animals for food as well as being fed an omnivorous diet, but today I have found that I no longer need animals in my diet. The Vegetarian Times recently found that out of the 311 million people in the US, 7.3 million eat a vegetarian based diet and 22.8 million eat a vegetarian inclined diet. Over the past century people have begun looking into the health implications of plant based diets as a way of improving their health and increase their longevity.
This research paper is intended to inform the reader of the nutrients required by a US adult, ages 18-35, and prove that a plant based diet meets those nutrient requirements. This journey began for myself over a year ago and while continue for decades to come while plant based diets began with the birth of mankind and will continue as long as we continue to live. Definitions associated with plant based diets
Vegetarianism has been around since the beginning of mankind, however as society has progressed so have plant based diets.
Today the term plant based diet can be confusing because of the varying levels of animal consumption in an individual’s diet. The first definitions that will be examined are plant based foods and an omnivorous diet. Plant based foods are those foods which consist of “…fruit[s] and vegetables, nuts, natural vegetable oils, and whole grains…” (“sharecare”) An omnivorous diet is one which is based on the consumption of both animal products (red meat, poultry, fish, etc.) and plant foods. Due to the fact that plant based diets have changed and now incorporate varying levels of animal consumption there is a need to define the levels so that confusion can be avoided. The four categories of plant based diets are ovo-lacto vegetarianism, pescetarianism, lacto vegetarianism and total-vegetarianism.
Ovo-lacto vegetarianism is when an individual consumes primarily plant based foods while still consuming eggs and dairy products. (Null 4) Pescetarianism is a diet which abstains from consuming land animals and birds while still consuming seafood as a support to a primarily plant based diet. (“Pescetarian Life”) Lacto vegetarianism is a diet which contains dairy products like an ovo-lacto diet except eggs are no longer consumed. A total vegetarianism diet is a one which consists of only plant foods and abstains from any animal product such as, “meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and honey.” (Null 4)The research presented in this will focus on a total-vegetarian diet because it allows for the least variables and is the diet which most studies use because of the limited variables. Nutrients required by the human body which are viewed by many as scarce in a plant based diet
The human body is a complex system which requires the support of nutrients which are provided by the food individual’s consume and then absorb into their bodies. In order to look at the ability of a plant based diet to support an 18-35 year old person’s nutritional needs we will first examine those most basic nutrients required by a human. This section of the paper will look at the following nutrients; carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fiber, calcium, and vitamin B12.
The term carbohydrate refers to the naturally occurring molecules which consist of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. This molecule is used throughout the animal kingdom as the most abundant and “…least expensive source of energy.” (Guthrie 35) The idea of being an inexpensive source of energy refers to the fact that carbohydrates are easily broken down by the human digestive system which converts them into glucose. The belief that carbohydrates present the most abundant source of energy while still being nutritious can be misleading due to the two main types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are present in most diets in the form of fructose (sweet sugars), sucrose (table sugar), maltose and lactose. (Driskell 29) These simple carbohydrates are easily broken down, converted into glucose for the body and easily flow into the blood stream. The downside to this form of carbohydrates is that they are most common in the form of refined sugars or refined flours which retain very few vitamins after being processed. (“HealthStyle Fitness”)
As the body uses this form of glucose a cycle begins which involves fluctuations of high and low blood sugar. This cycle works when blood sugar rises after the consumption of simple carbs and then as the blood sugar begins to drop the body demands more simple carbs to bring blood sugar levels back to up. The cycle that is formed essentially keeps the body from burning body fat because there is a continuous demand and consumption of simple carbohydrates. The second form of carbohydrates is that of complex carbohydrates which consist of polysaccharides, three or more monosaccharides. These complex carbs are found in the form of starch, fiber and glycogen (animal starch). Those complex carbohydrates consumed in the form of starch are found in plant foods like corn, wheat, potatoes, cereals, pastas, and beans.
When they are broken down these carbs allow for the slow production and release of glucose into the blood stream and allowing for a consistent blood sugar level. (Guthrie 27) Dietary fiber is another form of complex carbs which are present in plant foods because fiber is “…the structural framework of plants.” (Driskell 29) The presence of dietary fiber allows for the slow breakdown of starches because the human body lacks the enzyme necessary to break down most forms of fiber. (Driskell 29) The last form of complex carbohydrates is glycogen which is found in animal muscles and livers. Simply put, simple carbohydrates are easily broken down and absorbed by the human body but poses few vitamins while complex carbohydrates are broken down slowly by the human body allowing for stable blood sugar levels.
Another macronutrient group is that of proteins or on a more basic level, amino acids. When people take in proteins they are in fact consuming strings of amino acids which are broken down and then put together in varying structures to be used to “…construct tissue proteins, hormones, enzymes and other substances crucial to our existence.” (Kimball 49) The human body has the ability to produce most of the amino acids required for existence while some amino acids, called essential amino acids, cannot be produced in the quantity required for life support. Proteins are commonly viewed as complete proteins which supply all amino acids required by the human body, both essential and nonessential amino acids. The most common source of complete proteins is animal foods because animal muscle already possesses all amino acids required for tissue growth. (Guthrie 85) This perception of requiring complete proteins in order to consume the required amount of proteins is not the only way of reaching this daily goal.
One nutrient which accounts for nearly 41% of the American diet today is fat in either its natural or its altered state. (Guthrie 45) Throughout human history having excess fat was seen as a sign of wealth and power because those who could afford to be fat were those people who did not have to work for a living. Over the years this has become a social factor because fat has the attribute of altering food’s flavor and in a sense addicting people to it’s’ taste. However fat has two main factors in the human body other than making foods palatable and those factors are as stored energy and supporting healthy cell structures. The interesting fact that is misconstrued is that the essential fatty acids are everywhere in the news are not the main contributor to these factors, instead, “Highly unsaturated fatty acids are even more physiologically active in the body than essential fatty acids and…are needed for the formation of healthy cell membranes.” (Carlson 31)
One of the reasons why the human body requires fat for the formation of cell membranes is because as people move they need their cells to move with them. If people had rigid cell membranes like plants we wouldn’t be able to breath much less walk down the street. In addition to aiding in cell membranes composition, fat is also used as energy reserves within the human body so that when food consumption does not meet energy requirements then the body can burn fat as a source of energy. (Guthrie 56) The reason why fat is used as a reserve for energy is because when one gram of fat is burned for energy it creates 9 calories of energy as opposed to carbohydrates and proteins which produces 4 calories per gram. Overall fat is a required part of the human diet because of its use in cell productions as well as a source of energy reserves for everyday life.
Fiber has recently hit the news as a required part of the human diet not because it was recently discovered but because people have been consuming far too little. Dietary fiber can be described as the, “…portion of consumed plant material that is resistant to degradation by the enzymes of the small intestine.” (Carlson 51) The reason why consuming enough fiber is important is because when people eat complex carbs they are taking in fiber which allows for a consistent blood sugar level. However as carbohydrates are refined they are stripped of not only their vitamin content but also of their fiber content.
When fibers are striped from carbohydrates it makes intestinal passage time faster and those vitamins and macronutrients present do not have enough time to be absorbed into the body. Another reason why rigid fibers are required in the human diet is to keep the intestines clear. As humans consume non-fibrous material it tends to collect along the sides of the intestinal tract and leave layers of buildup similar to plaque in arteries. The reason why fiber is needed is to keep food from building up because the buildup can limit the ability of the intestines to absorb those nutrients which are consumed. (Calloway 145) Fiber is one of the requirements which many people do not think about because they cannot simply eat a handful of fiber, instead people must make sure to incorporate it in their diets.
Most of the American culture is told to drink milk so that they can consume the amount of calcium required for strong bones and healthy living. This urge to consume calcium is spurred by the thought that in order to maintain healthy bone structure people must consume enormous amounts of calcium. This concept may be true in those people still growing during their early years and for people over the age of 50 whose bones begin to release more and more calcium, however most college students do not require excessive amounts of calcium. Once people are around 18-20 their bones either cease to grow or slow down to the point of millimeters and then calcium is used in blood plasma as a key ingredient for clotting as well as a required element for muscle contraction. (Calloway 149)
Another misconception is that calcium is released directly into the blood stream for use after digestion when in fact calcium used in the blood is taken from our bones and ingested calcium merely replaces the lost calcium. Nutrients required by the human body which are viewed by many as scarce in a plant based diet and where they can found in plant based foods The most common misconception that people have about plant based diets is that they will not consume enough nutrients required for their overall health. This misconception is false in all fields except vitamin B12. A plant based diet provides the human body with enough carbohydrates, proteins, fats, calcium, and fiber for a more than healthy lifestyle. The following section will provide the sources of nutrients described above for persons who consume a plant based diet.
The most important source of energy in a plant based diet is that of carbohydrates because all plant based foods present carbohydrates. The important factor which most persons living on a plant based diet acknowledge is that complex carbohydrates are the basis of all meals because of the longevity of the calories consumed. Instead of eating all fruits, which are mostly simple carbohydrates, total vegetarians eat other plant foods. These foods, which consist of fiber, increases the time complex carbs remain in the intestinal track and increase the time required for digestion. An example is the consumption of serving of black berries compared to a serving of oatmeal. The black berries will break down quickly and cause the person’s blood sugar to spike. The oatmeal on the other hand will remain in the person’s stomach for a greater period of time and also stay in the intestines for longer allowing for the same amount of calories consumed as in the black berries to be released into the blood stream slowly.
The next major requirement of a plant based diet is protein or more specifically amino acids. One of the major misconceptions in America is that proteins only exist in animal foods because protein is used to grow muscle so therefore eating muscle provides the ingredients to support muscle. This is interesting because the largest land animals in the world are those which consume only plants and they maintain the greatest muscle mass known to man. Amino acids are present in all plants, however, not all amino acids are present at the same time meaning that plants do not contain complete proteins.
However, “…when grains and beans are consumed together, their amino acid profiles complement each other and produce a mix that is ‘complete’ and therefore a good match to the body’s needs.” (Norris 15) This means that while plant based foods do not contain complete proteins in themselves they do create complete proteins when consumed with additional plant based foods. This concept is supported by developing nations where diets consist primarily of plant foods and yet these people consume enough proteins. (Guthrie 82) Most sources agree that when the proper amount of calories are consumed for an individual the person in question is also taking in enough protein because of the combination of amino acids throughout the plant world.
Fats are the second most over consumed major nutrient after proteins because in an omnivorous diet fat is in all animal products. Most fat that is consumed directly from animal products are “…invisible fat, including that marbled throughout meat fibers, in finely divided form either emulsified in egg yolk or homogenized in whole milk, or found as a constituent of whole-grain cereals and nuts.” (Guthrie 45) In addition to these direct animal fats there has been an increase in the amount of fats consumed in the form of vegetable oils, which are becoming a staple in today’s society thanks to fast food chains. This last fact points out that reducing the amount of fat in one’s diet cannot be isolated to the reduction of animal foods but is instead connected to a healthy diet in general where oils are reduced so that they do not dominate one’s fat intake. In addition to the oil concept, society has suggested that consuming only essential fatty acids is required while research has found little evidence proving health benefits substantial enough to eliminate additional fats from one’s diet. (Norris 52)
Fiber is one nutrient which is overly simple to find in plant based foods because the majority of fibers out there today are plant based. When people eat enough complex carbohydrates they are also consuming their required amount of fiber, “the typical American omnivorous diet contains only about 10-20 grams of fiber daily…most vegans consume 25-50 grams per day.” (Carlson 52). The only factor which people should look at when preparing their plant based meals is to not cook their foods to long because fiber can be broken down when enough heat is present for a long enough period of time.
Calcium and Vitamin B12
Calcium and Vitamin B12 are two nutrients which require people to pay attention to the foods that they eat in order to meet dietary requirements. Those people who live on a plant based diet should make sure to incorporate dark greens in their diet because these are the main source of calcium which they should be eating. In fact, “…kale, collards, broccoli, and turnip greens…” can provide as much as 50%of our daily calcium requirements. (Norris 43) This means that by eating one serving of these vegetables someone has the ability to meet their calcium requirements because, “…even omnivores get as much as 40 percent of their calcium from plant foods.” (Nollin 42) On the other hand, vitamin B12 is more difficult to get by eating plant foods because the bacteria which produce it are found in animals and their feces. Therefore most total vegetarians take a supplement to ensure they are getting enough B12 if they don’t already consume fortified plant foods like fortified soy milk or fortified cereals.
A vegetarian lifestyle has the ability to supply all required components of a nutritious diet required by an 18-35 year old American. The section on carbohydrates highlights the importance of a diet composed of complex carbohydrates and few simple carbohydrates primarily because of the complex carbs retention of vitamins. After reading the sections on protein the reader can now see how a plant based diet provides just as much protein as an omnivorous diet because of the compounding amino acids present in plant foods. Plant based diets also meet fat needs because of the fat content in nuts and vegetable oils. Therefore living on a plant based diet allows for nutritional needs of human beings to be met without including the consumption of animal products.
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