Household Number Four is a young science teacher and amateur athlete. He is also a vegetarian. His parents regard him as somewhat eccentric, and perhaps he is: he grows a lot of his own vegetables so he is sure to get organically grown foods with as few pollutants in them as possible. At the drop of a hat, he will explain to you that the air and water on this continent are, for the most part, highly polluted, due primarily to industrial wastes. The water washes off crops sprayed with insecticides and forms rivers into which industrial wastes have been dumped. So even his home-grown, unprocessed, natural foods are not completely unspoiled.
If he invited you over for dinner, you’d have to drop by six or seven days in a row before you saw two meals that seemed anything near the same. And yet, he is not eating catch-as-catch-can like some bachelors; as an athlete, he approaches his meals scientifically and gives food the attention necessary to ensure that he gets enough protein. The other three households could profit from taking some science lessons from him. Because with these lessons they could be lengthening and improving the quality of their lives. And they could be avoiding many health problems, from constipation, diverticulitis, and cancer of the colon to high blood pressure and obesity, from infectious diseases and hyperactivity to the daily aches and pains that make so much money for the aspirin manufacturers and their agencies.
What does he eat if not meat or fish accompanied by potatoes, vegetables, and a salad?
The Variety of Foreign Vegetarian Cuisines
Depending on what night you joined him, you might find your main dish was Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Russian, or Middle Eastern fare, and was usually accompanied by at least a small salad. Perhaps it was Japanese brown rice and stir-fried vegetables with tofu (bean curd made from soybeans) on one night; Italian whole wheat spaghetti with mushroom sauce and grated cheese the next; Mexican brown rice and black beans, or corn tortillas with kidney beans and cheese another night; homemade Russian blintzes consisting of thin, whole wheat pancakes wrapped around a delicious cottage cheese and egg filler the next; and houmus or baba ghanoush (mashed chickpeas and eggplant, respectively), combined with sesame paste and served with whole wheat bread, still another night.
Salads, Soups, and Casseroles
His main dish could also be a huge garden salad, liberally sprinkled with sesame seeds and with a delicious yogurt dressing stirred into it; or a steaming, hearty soup accompanied by whole grain bread. In fact, he will tell you his summer specialties are giant, varied salads based on the vegetables from his garden, and his winter favorites are casseroles and soups. He will explain that these mixed-food dishes offer some of the best opportunities for combining various vegetable protein foods, including grains, beans, nuts, and seeds; that no two soups or salads need ever be exactly identical; and that they make leftovers seem like brilliant ideas.
If you ask him why he goes through such elaborate food preparations just to avoid eating meat, he will laugh and tell you it’s not necessary for vegetarian eating to be complicated; he just makes a hobby of trying the foods of different nationalities, since he likes to cook. He will point out that the poor people of most nations rarely eat meat, so each culture has evolved various methods of combining staples to provide enough protein and some variety, even without meat.
Then he will grow serious and outline his reasons for becoming a vegetarian.
Why Stop Eating Meat?
He began to decrease his meat intake in college when as a science student he started reading about ecology. He learned that many of the chemicals and pollutants that go into the meat from the pesticides the animal eats with feed to the dyes that may be added by the wholesaler remain in it when we eat the animal. He realized that the same thing holds true of fish and shellfish; our waterways are polluted, and so our fish and shellfish, from the ocean, lakes, and rivers, are all contaminated to one degree or another by sewage, industrial chemicals, pesticides, and sometimes preservatives. He discovered that the animals raised by high technology methods often come down with the diseases of stress such as cancer and that the carcass of a cancer-ridden animal is considered acceptable if the tumor itself is cut away. Disgusted by what he read about our way of feeding ourselves, he resolved to find alternatives to meat.
What he discovered is that there are many vegetables that contain protein. If they are properly combined with each other, there is no necessity for human beings to feel dependent on meat. Besides, indirect animal sources of complete protein such as eggs, milk, and other dairy products can provide a supplement to vegetables to fully guarantee adequate protein intake. (Technically, his diet is called lacto-ovo-vegetarian, because he eats milk and eggs in addition to vegetables.)
Other Vegetable Nutrients
Not only that, but a diet high in vegetable protein foods beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and tubers offers many health advantages, he learned. Because their diet is low in saturated fat, vegetarians are better protected against arteriosclerosis and heart disease than meat-eaters. Better yet, these foods supply a variety of other nutrients along with protein.
Take one of his favorite lunches. He often carries to school with him a salad containing leftover brown rice, beans, peas, alfalfa sprouts, and tofu (and whatever other leftovers or loose greens he finds in the refrigerator that morning). This provides him with just as much balanced protein as the hamburger he would have eaten a few years earlier. Yet it also offers vitamins such as A, C, and some members of the B group. It contains, too, several minerals and an abundance of fiber, so important for good digestion and protection against gastrointestinal problems. It also provides energy from complex carbohydrates especially important to an athlete like him.
The hamburger, on the other hand, contained no vitamin C and no fiber, What it may have contained were saturated fats, sodium, antibiotics, tranquilizers, hormones, DES, sodium nitrite, and other dyes, etc. Like most people, he used to eat his hamburgers with ketchup on a bun made from refined white flour. With the ketchup he was consuming liberal quantities of sugar and salt; with the flour, another host of additives. It’s not difficult to see which of these two protein-filled meals is nutritionally superior!
The Economics of Meat Consumption
Despite the fact that he sometimes splurges on such relatively expensive treats as imported cheeses, pignolia nuts, and unsulfured, organically grown dried fruits from the health food store, he found his grocery bills declined sharply when he stopped buying meat for every meal.
Soon after that, he stumbled on another fact about the earth’s protein resources that helped confirm his commitment to vegetarian cookery. It has to do with the economics of meat consumption. Meat represents an intensive use of the earth’s protein resources. Animals are often fed with high-quality grain that could easily be consumed by human beings. If these grains were available to human beings, it could feed many more of us. The land devoted to raising feed for steers produces about a pound of protein (in the form of beef) per acre. The same acre planted with soybeans produces seventeen pounds of protein. Or to look at the figures another way: a pound of beef required eight times its weight in high-protein feed.
In today’s world, where one-third of the earth’s population faces starvation, he feels that high meat consumption by any one country is needlessly self-indulgent. If Americans ate 10 percent less meat, the savings in grain would be equivalent to the shortfall that produces starvation in India, according to Alex Hershaft, president of the Vegetarian Society and leading animal rights activist, in an interview in October 1982 on “ Natural Living” on WBAI.
Vegetarian foods are as varied as the world’s many national cuisines. In every country, people have learned to consume the proteins of grains, legumes tubers, nuts, seeds, and even starchy fruits so that they obtain complete proteins by combining various incomplete sources. This is economically practical both at the individual and global levels: it takes far more acres of land to produce a pound of beef protein than a pound of soy or wheat protein since a cow must consume eight pounds of high-protein feed to produce a pound of beef protein. Human beings might as well eat that vegetable protein directly.