There’s a running joke that vegans and vegetarians will find ways to slip mention of their eating habits into conversation within five minutes of that conversation beginning. Having been vegetarian for fifteen years (did I just uphold the stereotype?), I’ll admit that I’ve come across some true preachers, though the ones whom I’ve met on the other side of the pasture – the “omnivores” – have been quite a bit less respectful and a great deal more aggressive. I return to forceful pranayama when I’m confronted with those who feel that my diet is a matter of their interest and an appropriate subject of debate.
A supportive diet is discussed in early yoga texts. It’s generally acknowledged today that a light regimen avoiding meat, poultry, fish (as vegetarianism does), and eggs (as veganism does) is ideal for yogic development. Food choices are, regardless, highly dependent on personal background, tastes, and ideals. It goes without saying, however, that one’s goals – especially those related to fitness and well-being – greatly influence the nutritional changes that one makes. Because vegetarianism is so strongly associated with progress in yoga, we’ll delve into it here.
I’m often asked why I went “lacto-ovo” vegetarian, and lately, why I’ve begun to avoid dairy and eggs. The question is inevitably raised around a dinner table at which I’m the only vegetarian, of course, which brings me – once again – to a bit of deep breathing. Regardless, I try to answer sensitively and with awareness of the fact that a person’s eating choices are motivated by deeply personal factors.
I’d like to introduce the idea of vegetarianism to you. In conjunction with a more active lifestyle, the switch away from animal-based foods reformed my life and has helped me to maintain good health and avoid the onset of heredity diseases. Diet, like yoga, must be individualized if it’s going to be effective, and I would strongly encourage you to do your own research and speak to trusted health-care professionals before committing to any sort of change. For those of you who already maintain a vegetarian routine, I hope that this will serve as a bit of reinforcement and encouragement.
There have been a few very influential books that I’ve consulted over the years that have helped me to understand the impact of food on the body. One excellent example was written by a member of the Robbins family many years ago. Diet for a New America, written by John Robbins, is a thorough overview of a number of subjects related to eating habits, medical findings, and the ecological impact of both omnivorous and vegetarian diets. I had difficulty reading through all sections of the book, but I tend to have a vivid imagination. Though I found Robbins’ book a number of years after I made the switch away from meat, poultry, and fish, I appreciated it for its basis in research and investigation.
John Robbins speaks about diabetes and other diseases related to weight that ran rampant through his family, mentioning that the eponymous ice-cream chain and a culture of unlimited indulgence were never questioned as causes. Similarly, my family was sedentary, and while our food was largely home-cooked, it abided by the “meat, potato, and a side of vegetable” rule that was the hallmark of healthy eating at that time. It never ceases to amaze me that the Canadian Food Guide once suggested that up to twelve slices of bread per day could constitute an appropriate dietary choice.
There is another book, written by Jane Heimlich, called What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You. Heimlich discusses a number of diets that contravene the “food-guide” rules and advocate largely vegetarian programs. Several of these “rogue” regimens were formulated by doctors whose patients were not responding to traditional treatments, but whose health fairly immediately improved when their diets changed.
One of the most frustrating experiences as a lay citizen interested in the effect of diet on health is discovering that “facts” regarding nutrition vary so widely. These heterogeneous results are based on the findings and claims of different groups, including advocacy groups, the interests of which can have more basis in profitability than in science. When I first began to move beyond government guidelines, I learned quickly that “medical-model” dietitians disagree with naturopathic doctors, who disagree with sports-nutritionists. I started off simply wanting to know how much daily protein is ideal, and I came up with several very different answers. Nutrition is far from an exact science.
I’ve found that the medical establishment is macro-nutrient obsessed. Fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are the primary considerations, and factors like the mineral and vitamin content, the glycemic-index rating, and the artificiality of ingredients are scarcely considered. I could choose an icing-coated, boxed breakfast pastry with ingredients eight syllables long, and that would qualify as a legitimate “grain/carbohydrate” selection on any government food guide. I could, just as easily, choose a bowl of quinoa cooked in home-made broth as an option in the same category. My experience with the medical model is that it lacks both understanding and “teeth” when it comes to educating the public about the importance of micronutrients and ingredients that require fewer than five-hundred processing steps.
Sports-nutritionists tend to favour the short-term benefits of narrowly focused food choices (i.e. tuna contains a tremendous amount of protein and little fat, so eat that every day!) and downplay the cons of a lack of variety in the diet. Certainly, the hypertrophy seen in bodybuilders and power-lifters requires real dietary precision, and whatever foods most “cleanly” deliver selected nutrients in given amounts are those that are preferred. In my experience, there is a spectrum, even in the amateur-sports community, of opinions about the necessity of natural foods. Some are of an allopathic mindset – as long as the macronutrient profile on a product will support the physical end-goal, it is an appropriate choice. Others take more of a naturopathic approach, which is one that we’ll discuss below.
Naturopaths, in my opinion, have the most comprehensive knowledge of nutrition. A significant amount of time is allocated to nutrition in naturopathic training, and it results in a profound understanding of the value of different foods and their impact on the body. While there may be similarities between the recommendations made by different naturopaths, the needs of an individual will largely determine how these recommendations are put into place. Not all naturopaths recommend vegetarian diets, but what I have observed is that they place great emphasis on unprocessed ingredients, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. The safety of organic ingredients is also stressed.
Having spent a great deal of time reading, researching, and consulting health-care providers, I believe that a vegetarian diet is an ideal. Certainly, individual needs will vary, but findings on obesity and resultant heart- and endocrine disease, digestive illness, and chronic pain conditions indicate to me that vegetarian diets are safest. Studies of longevity show consistently that diets that eschew meat result in longer life-spans. Communities the traditional diets of which are based most on plant materials tend not to suffer from conditions that have, in North America, become inevitable “lifestyle” diseases. For these reasons, I chose vegetarianism. With a history of heart-disease in my family, I wasn’t about to continue on with the trend of saturated fat with a side of embolism.
Overall, the diet-health connection is one of three major reasons that I chose vegetarianism so many years ago. Moral and ecological concerns were also motivating factors, but in the interest of keeping this readable, I’ll return to those in a later post. While food is an item of primal importance, I hope that these explanations will make new considerations and investigation possible.