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When vegetarianism isn’t so healthy

November 2, 2013

In many minds, the word “vegetarian” conjures up an image of clean living, pure foods, and radiantly healthy, skinny individuals. Forgoing meat, fish, eggs and dairy is lauded by many as better for the body and mind, and the increasing popularity of eating plants has resulted in a proliferation of ready meals and products that bask in the aura of “vegetarian healthy.” But is this really true? Processed food is processed food regardless of whether it contains animal products. So don’t be fooled into thinking you are being kind to your body just because the box or packet has a vegetarian label.

Frozen veggie burgers, soy cheese, rehydrated textured soya sausages, chicken nuggets without the chicken and soy protein isolate nutrition bars are all a far cry from the image of whole grains, beans, baskets of vegetables and the statutory helpings of lentils. In the world of vegetarian processed foods, soy is a common ingredient, substituting animal products such as milk, yoghurt and meat. Soy itself is a healthy plant, but the huge demand has resulted in much soy being genetically modified, something not everyone would choose to eat. In many cases, processing the soy denatures its protein, decreasing the nutritional value. Or it may have been processed using hexane, a substance classified as an air pollutant and neurotoxin. Companies argue that hexane is used in the earliest part of processing and that virtually none remains in the final product, but tests have been mixed.

If this is making you feel uneasy, look for “whole soy beans” in the ingredients list and search for a “GMO free” label on the packaging, or seek out 100 percent organic soy products. Try naturally fermented soy products such as miso, soya sauce and tempeh and don’t forget edamame (green soy beans). Do moderate your intake, remembering that it is not good to overdose on anything. Too much soy can affect hormonal balance in both men and women and unfermented soy can block absorption of certain nutrients.

The general woes of processed foods affect vegetarian versions, which can be high in sodium, sugar, unhealthy oils and transfats. The taste enhancer MSG is a common ingredient, sometimes hidden within other ingredients such as hydrolysed proteins, yeast extract, whey protein and many more.  Not everyone is sensitive to MSG, but as it is omnipresent and care should be taken to control exposure. Too much can cause skin rashes, headache, nausea, heart palpitations, dizziness and depression.  

There is hot debate on whether a vegetarian diet is healthier than one that includes meat, with both sides calling on a wealth of studies and analysis to back their claims. Regardless of whether you choose to eat animal products or not, it is important to know what is actually in your food. There’s no avoiding it, eating healthily requires some effort and organization. If you do succumb to occasional packaged food, read the label and be prepared to pay more for convenience foods created by companies that are making a conscious effort to keep the real goodness in and artificial stuff out.  

Julie Godfrey BSc (Hons) is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, a full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and registered with the Nutrition Therapy Council and the Complementary Health Council (CNHC). You can contact Julie via www.foreverhealthyco.com or email jgodfrey@foreverhealthyco.com.

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