To be or not to be a vegetarian? I would like to re-phrase that question as ‘what proportion of meat in the diet can be considered healthy?’ and I would like to set the question in the context of both personal and planetary health. So what are the considerations?
From the viewpoint of Gaia it appears to be a natural law that many animals eat other animals. This is part of the natural ecology that maintains balance. There is much debate about whether humans were originally vegetarians but the reality is that now most cultures are omnivorous. The question is whether we eat within the laws of ecology or whether we choose to disrespect them. When the planet is pushed into oversupporting meat production, the price is starvation in poorer parts of the planet.
Quite clearly our western meat-eating habits cause vast distortions of the planet’s ecology. Most agricultural land in the USA is used to produce food for livestock and it is estimated that if Americans alone reduced their national meat intake by 10% enough grain could be saved to feed 60 million people. From my early experiences as a farmer I know that some land is hard to grow crops on and best used for sheep grazing and that the raising of livestock can complement the growth of grains, vegetables and fruits.
From the viewpoint of personal health some of the following considerations are helpful. First, note that the protein content of human breast milk is 5%. This alone suggests that our anxieties about receiving sufficient protein may be unnecessary. From a nutritional point of view proteins are most easily and effectively assimilated when they comprise about 10% of any meal.
In western terms, two major considerations regarding protein consumption are the oxygen balance, and the acid/alkaline balance. Oxygen accomplishes many of the tasks assigned to Qi in the body and it provides most (perhaps 90%) of the metabolic energy. Within our diets the most oxygen-rich foods are vegetables, sprouts, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds. The lowest levels of oxygen are found in meat and fats. Nutrients are more concentrated in denser foods. From the point of view of oxygen availability it would seem that a relatively small proportion of our food should consist of meat and fat.
In terms of acid and alkaline, the body maintains a pH level of around 7.4 despite our attempts to sabotage it! This is because a few points either way will result in death. In order to support the body in maintaining its pH balance we need to eat a generally alkalising diet. Acid-forming foods are defined by their mineral composition, not whether or not they taste acidic. Lemons, for example, are alkalising. Meat, dairy, sugar and most proteins are acid forming, although yoghourt and raw milk are slightly alkalising. Soya beans, tofu, Kidney beans, aduki beans, almonds, brazils, green corn and millet are exceptions to this tendency. Coffee is also acid-forming. So again we see that meat is best moderated by high intake of typically ‘vegetarian’ food.
Modern western nutritionists encourage a very low intake of meat and dairy because of the potentially negative impact they have on our health. From the oriental point of view, meat and dairy are highly respected as nutritious foods and it is for this reason that they are generally eaten in small quantities. Meat is seen as ‘healthy’ provided it is eaten in proportion. An overconsumption of meat results in the accumulation of Dampness and often Heat. An often-quoted ‘ballpark’ figure for meat consumption is two ounces of meat eaten three times a week.
We must add to this picture the problem of toxic accumulation from modern industrial farming practices. Unless it is organically reared, all meat adds a toxic burden to the body that is the price of its nutritional value. This is especially true of beef, pork and chicken. When the animals are intensively reared by inhumane methods, such as calves are for veal, there is also a psychic burden which we receive through the meat. Lamb, venison and game are likely to be less toxic.
For many people, opening their awareness to receive the pain of the animal reared for meat is unbearable and they turn to vegetarianism. Others continue to eat meat in the spirit of reverence and thanks. Many rarely give it a thought and yet remain relatively healthy. My own view is that meat eaten with awareness, from a place of informed choice, is a perfectly healthy practice and for some people a very necessary one. Having spent eighteen years of my own life as a vegetarian in a gesture to rebalance a world gone crazy, I also know that a vegetarian diet supported me well enough. There is clearly no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ position here.
For those who choose vegetarianism as their dietary path I would like to add one or two words of advice: without the quick fix of meat it is important to give more attention to balancing the diet and including good quality vegetable protein. The system will also be more clean on a good vegetarian diet. This means that imbalance will be registered more easily. Vegetarians are therefore advised to be especially careful with sugar and caffeine which meat eaters will tolerate more easily. In fact,there is often a tendency to binge on sugar and starch to compensate for the lack of animal fats and protein. For those new to nutritional ideas there are many excellent books available on the vegetarian diet and I recommend becoming as informed as possible.
Lastly, vegetarianism is best supported by spiritual belief, a trust that all necessary nourishment is available through our relationship with the divine. When we investigate our beliefs as vegetarians, we often find places of denial, places in the psyche that crave meat, that repress meat-eating as part of a more deep suppression of the life force. I encourage the exploration of these places so that ultimately one might embrace a more full and life-affirming vegetarian practice. It is my experience that those whose vegetarianism is supported by positive life-affirming beliefs rather than guilt and denial, or even the retreat from pain, generally maintain full vitality. When vegetarianism is ensnared in righteous anger or suppression of instinct, it is rarely supportive of full vitality. A healthy vegetarianism is rooted in the practice of listening to the body and mediating with the realities of today’s world.