International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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18th World Vegetarian Congress 1965
Swanwick, England


PRACTICAL ASPECTS OF VEGETARIANISM
By DR. RALPH BIRHER, ZURICH
Vice-President: The International Vegetarian Union

AMONG the many practical implications of vegetarianism I would like to deal with two I find worth some special attention.

You know the paradoxical situation: the world's food situa-tion calls for drastic reduction, if not elimination, of meat and egg consumption, but a public craving, both in developed and under-developed countries, for meat consumption and the prevailing indulgence in bloody food are rapidly growing and this growth seems to be matched only by the tendency of the nutritionists to decree meat and animal protein as essentials for health and efficiency. And in the face of this grotesque situation we vegetarians are so very few to defend what looks to us like pure common sense.

Now you perhaps do not know that this situation has reached its climax in Germany. There, a government subsidised Nutrition Society is entrusted with training the dietitians and nutritionists. Through them the Hamburg professor Joachim Kühnau, sometimes called the pope of the nutritionists on account of his paramount influence, is intensely teaching a new revolution in nutrition since 1960. This revolution consists in the return to a very carnivorous nutrition similar in proportion to that of the hunting cave dwellers of prehistoric times whose protein consumption has been ascer-tained as amounting to about 220 grams a day, about 10,000 years ago at the height of the Glacial Age. That such a nutritional fare should be declared fit and necessary for modern civilized men by the Chairman of a nutritionist society whose members regard them-selves as very scientific, seems a joke and utterly unreasonable. But they teach it in full earnest and with an impressive array of seemingly scientific arguments and facts and, what seems even less believable, Kiihnau meets no serious opposition at all. He met with general acceptance of this unbelievable thesis.

Here is what he holds in a nutshell: the cave dwelling hunters of the Glacial Age were the first men on earth. Their life was similar to that of modern men in that we have idle muscles but strained nerves, brains and endocrine glands. Therefore, like them, we too, need very much protein and very little fat and carbohy-drates. There is no such thing as food meant for men by nature. It is man's privilege to enjoy complete freedom of food choice. Our organism can adapt and accommodate itself to any kind of nutrition without drawback. Man is an omnivore. Once, we switched from the carnivorous kind of nutrition to the nearly vegetarian kind of the neolithics. Now we need to switch back to the hunters' nutrition, regarded as being the original human food. Brain, nerve and endocrine function now need much protein to enable them to master stress situations. This new revolution in food habits is now coming and is quite inevitable. It comes to us like Fate. We have to prepare to adapt and to teach people so that they will understand and not spoil the process by conservatism and lack of understanding. And this is the noble task of the German Nutrition Society!

You will understand at once, as I of course did, what such teach-ing means to us, and to the world. I was looking forward to the clear-cut and elegant rectifications that would come out of Kühnau's profession. To such nonsense some outstanding nutritionists, would, I felt, run counter. But nothing happened. Kühnau's wisdom seemed hors concours. Or was I wrong myself? Were the scientific facts now in his favour?

I thus delved into the matter myself. Of course, they were not in favour of Kühnau's thesis. The scientific evidence was all against him, and so I compiled it in a memorandum which got support from many experts and made Kühnau tactiturn about his thesis.

Here in a few words, is what can be said on the ground of first-class scientific results and knowledge : -

1. The nervous system and brain need practically no protein at all in order to function fully. The heaviest strain and most exacting work of brain and nerves can be performed for weeks on end without any protein intake. There is no relation between nerve functioning and protein needs.

2. Stress situations require a higher hormone production, and constant adaptation to changing situations - a higher enzyme production indeed, and protein is part of hormones and enzymes. So it is logical to assume that higher hormone and enzyme requirements means higher protein need. But just how much more? This was never ascertained as the scientific service of the Encyclopaedia Britannica asserts positively. The excess needs must be very small, since it is known that continuous high stress and adaptation, as during war time, given perfect health, have been successfully -mastered during long periods with as little protein intake as thirty to fifty grams per day. Kühnau deduces the alleged tremendous quantity needed from the fact that in athletes, soldiers, etc., very often enlargement of the adrenal glands, kidneys and liver are observed, announcing a higher hormone production. He surmises that these organs produce hormones to master the stress situation. But there is no proof for this idea. Leading physiologists call this kind of adrenal, kidney and liver enlargement flatly "a brave exertion of the body to get rid of unwanted excesses" mainly of protein decomposition. The enlargement is an emergency measure on the part of the organism which has been abused. Lately scien-tific workers in the United States have deplored the fact that almost all athletes show kidney hypertrophy after matches and are prone to kidney disorders. And you know from the performances of the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club that those athletes who avoid kidney hypertrophy, by avoiding protein excesses in their food, have much longer careers and perform at least equally well.

3. We have to keep in mind that it is an undisputed fact that excess protein cannot be stored for later emergency consumption. This means that excess protein must rapidly be split up and elimi-nated otherwise it has to substitute glycogen needs by a rather wasteful and stressing process as with the hunters' diet. Constant excess protein intake has been termed by no less than Selye as a "stress conditioning factor ". This compulsorily forced decomposi-tion of excess proteins has a seemingly positive aspect: it injects some extra energy into the body by what is called the specific dynamic effect and simultaneously stimulates the sympathetic or ergotropic nerve system similarly and concurrently with other stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, excess kitchen salt and sugar. This is felt to be helpful when tired but tends to be dis-turbing when in good condition. Contemporary athletes are relying heavily on these stimulants. Excess proteins thus become a means of doping. And what holds for excess protein holds especially for meat, for in meat the mass of protein as a stimulant is reinforced by other means of stimulants such as uric acid, extrac-tive substances and toasting substances, making meat a multiple stimulant, and this may be responsible for its popularity. Multiple stimulation is taken for a gain in strength. But this sort of doping, not only used by athletes but by most people of our times, is wasteful and harmful, like all kinds of doping. It must be paid for in many ways: hypertrophic degeneration of liver, kidneys, endocrine glands, vegetative nerves, capillaries, pathologic intestinal flora and many other disorders. Slowly this is being realized by many. The meat-rich kidney and liver diets are abandoned now and, in arteriosclerosis, the number of experts holding that animal protein is deleterious is growing.

It is needless to mention that Kühnau's alleged human freedom of food choice is unfounded and dangerous as well. A wide range of adaptability exists in human beings to all kinds of food, of course, and we may reach a kind of equilibrium living on very contrasting and even inhuman foods, but buoyant health ensues only by attuning to the ordered laws of life and to the kind of food meant for men by creation. The frugivorous nature of human teeth is a fact. To pretend that primitive men were clad with hides and eating flesh, as Kühnau does, gives rise to the absurd supposition :hat he was able from the first day on earth, naked and barehanded as he was, to manufacture weapons and tools, make fire and supple clothing out of hides: performances which doubtlessly took a very long evolution of learning. It has been shown now that it took him 1+ million years to learn such technique, and that, in the mean-time, he was reduced to vegetable food garnished with some small and soft animals, all uncooked.

May I now turn to the main objection, a practical one.

A return to hunters' nutrition in modern times - meat. meat, meat and some vegetables -as Kühnau pretends is inevitable and adequate for modern living conditions. Such a return would prove to be both impracticable and fatal. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, who have to deal with feeding the over-crowded globe, and see the haunting need to feed twice as many humans as now exist, in thirty-five years from now, has made it clear again and again that the tremendous problem can only be solved by a return to a vegetarian nutrition, by drawing human food directly from the soil instead of passing it through animals. There is a law of progression in food production, that enforces this idea. With carbohydrates, fats and calories this progression obvious, and probably well known to all of you. But with protein it is very impressive too and less generally known, so that you may like to get the figures. They read like this: -

One acre of arable soil - under the same conditions - produces 26 pounds of protein when used for calf fattening.
Let us take that as = 100%
The acreage produces:
72 pounds of protein when used for dairy farming =270%
215 pounds of protein when used for wheat crops = 813%
360 pounds of protein when used for soya crops = 1363%
419 pounds of protein when used for cabbage crops = 1587%
770 pounds of protein when used for growing leafy vegetables on fields = 2917%

On this background the FAO says: production must, no doubt mainly rely on growing what can directly be consumed as food.

The FAO experts had also to verify precisely how little and not how much - protein per day, and per 70 kg. of body weight is needed to maintain adults healthy and efficient. They found that 35 grams - not 70 grams as the text books say, and not 220 grams as Kühnau would make us believe - are quite sufficient, even when only vegetable proteins are available, provided these are wisely combined.

All this amounts to saying that our vegetarian outlook will become imperative before long and that this must be realized by the nutritionists and by the public, the sooner the better. There is a grave socio-political implication in this. We must, above all, stress again and again how utterly unjust, socially; and dangerous, if not pernicious, politically, it is, to sustain a thesis like that of Prof. Kühnau, or even to maintain the present meat consumtion and how blind and unwise it is constantly to declare with the tenor of scientific infallibility that we need a lot of protein and especially of animal protein. The nutritionists of our time know this cannot be true. They know there is no scientific basis for it. They realize how weak their standing has become, and still they strenuously seek to prove, and to prove it again, that meat, much protein and much animal protein is essential, telling us at the same time that it has already been proved beyond any doubt, and that to say anything else is cranky. I have been closely watching this funny game now for decades. The classic book on this scientific comedy is due to be written and it will make future generations laugh - if they should be able to laugh. For such a mentality - don't they realize it? - must raise the hatred of the underdeveloped to boiling point. It must induce them to do just the wrong thing and thus prevent any reasonable solution.

Now the second practical aspect of vegetarianism I would like to discuss is this. We tell the contemporary world, so prone to meat-eating and to all kinds of rich and stimulating foods: you should abstain from meat - meat that makes the centre of their meals and of their culinary delight, meat which has become a first-class stimulant for them in their nerve-tearing lives. How can we hope to get a hearing and to succeed if we cannot offer them meals poten-tially equal, if not superior, in culinary attractiveness to the best kitchen performances of our time? That's what Dr. Bircher-Benner realized at the beginning of this century and why he incessantly urged us towards better performances in the culinary field.

Whereas all the contemporary culinary thinking and art was centred around meat, it now had to be built up around fresh raw food and in such a way as to seduce and enchant a princess, and convince a gourmet treating him with unsophisticated, unconcen-trated, non-stimulating food and depriving him of meat, white flour, sugar and many other things considered essential for palatability. We find it hard to believe, even now, that it was possible to solve this problem in so satisfactory a way. I am not going to dwell on the subject now. That is not my field and you can find it in his books, I only mentioned the problem in order to indicate what we found to be an important, and yet avoidable, handicap. I mean to advocate so-called incompatible foods and make it compulsory to observe such incompatibilities

Thus some teach that protein-rich and starch-rich foods should not be eaten at the same meal; others that carbohydrates and organic acids should not go together, etc. Such alleged incompati-bilities, of course, are based on some real observations and may be opportune in some cases. But we hold that they need not be generalized, and should not be imposed on the healthy or even on the sick. They seem to be rooted in some disorder or degenerative state of some organs or in allergies. But when you try to get a survey of the different incompatibility-teachings you find that more than twenty of them exist in different countries, and that none of them coincides with the others. Thus, a person who would decide strictly to observe all the existing incompatibility rules pretending to be compulsory for health would have to starve. He could find no combination for composing a meal. And as these rules consider-ably contribute to the chaotic aspect of our nutritional views as seen by open-minded scientists, I would like to see this problem discussed and clarified, so that we can go ahead again. We think that existing compatibilities should be overcome so that compati-bility is restored.

Nowhere in the history or geography of nutrition - my special field of studies - have I found such rules among people in buoyant health, living on natural, frugal, nearly vegetarian food. Indeed, we need the whole variety of healthy foods for our patients, and for those who wish to remain healthy. We studied the incompatibility problem again and again and found that we could succeed in nutritional therapy without them. In casses of doubt we begin with juice-fasting and raw food, and both can be prepared and blended so that even the most susceptible patient, with his incompatibilities, tolerates it, and then, slowly, his susceptibilities subside and the diet can be tentatively enlarged. Patients who didn't improve when observing incompatibility rules recovered by this method in a relatively short time. But some precautions must be taken. One of them is that roughage must be really fresh and, of course, uncontaminated by insecticides, and that this must be eaten at the beginning of meals, with care and attention to the taste, and that no sugar is added at all.

Last, but certainly not least, in importance, I should mention, but not discuss, the most practical aspect of vegetarianism. We have to be vegetarian out of our innermost feeling and intuitive understanding of the living world and not only out of correct thinking. It must be with us, as Carl Gustav Jung says in his Reminiscences (Erinnerungen):

"I could not free myself of the feeling that warm-blooded animals are our relatives and not mere brain automats . . . My compassion with the creatures did not stem from the Buddhist airs of Schopenhauer's philosophy, but it rooted in deeper soil . . . in the unconscious identity with the animals . . ".

This unconscious identity rather than meat abstinence is our noble quest, and I think you agree with me, that that is what we fight for in everything we do.