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Congress Condemns Meat Madness
by dietician Jane Brophy from The Vegetarian October 1992

Although scientific evidence confirms that there must be a dietary shift from animal foods to plant foods, world governments do not acknowledge this data as they dare not risk upsetting the powerful meat and dairy industries. This revelation was made by Cornell University's Dr Colin Campbell, a star speaker at the Second International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition held in Washington DC in July [1992].

Campbell claimed that evidence in favour of a vegetarian diet is so overwhelming that public health authorities should be advocating a large scale switch from animal foods to plants.

Dr Patricia Johnston, of Loma Linda University in the US, opened the conference of dieticians, doctors and nutrition researchers, saying vegetarian nutrition "had come of age". She said "the challenge we are facing is in providing a diet that is nutritionally adequate, protective against chronic diseases and deficiencies, and sufficient to supply the world's increasing population whilst simultaneously being ecologically responsible."

Five years ago the widely reported First International Congress On Vegetarian Nutrition showed the world that vegetarians suffer less of all the chronic Western diseases such as heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, gallstones, kidney stones and diet related diabetes.

Canadian politician and former United Nations Ambassador, Steven Lewis, in his keynote speech, spoke of the havoc meat eating is wreaking on the earth's ecosystems. He spoke passionately about the desperate situation in which many developing countries find themselves.

Highlighting the insanity of African countries exporting grain to feed cattle for meat production in wealthier countries whilst importing grain to feed their own people. Lewis quoted from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) annual report "A new slavery has shackled the African Continent and its name is debt... each year Africa struggles to pay one third of the interest due, the rest is added to the rising mountain of debt under which the hopes of a continent lie buried... one quarter of all export earning is paid out in debt repayment."

Campbell's massive - and now famous - China project formed the core of his presentation. The project examined the incidence of chronic diseases among 6,500 Chinese people and looked at the links between their diet and these illnesses.

According to Campbell the American Government's recommendation to reduce fat intake to 30% is largely a political figure (in the UK the Government recommends a reduction to a conservative 35% fat). Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that a much lower fat intake reduces cancer risk. To achieve a fat intake lower than 30%, animal products must be cut drastically from the diet.

The China Study was the first to look at the relationship between all nutrients in the diet and the risk of disease rather than isolating a single nutrient or disease from other factors. Numerous studies show that as you reduce your intake of animal protein and increase intake of fibre and protective nutrients from vegetables, the risk of cancer is reduced.

The study proves that iron, calcium and all the vitamins and minerals needed for good health can be achieved on a vegetarian diet. The iron intake in China is double that of the average Western diet. Despite having a very high fibre intake and the iron being mostly non-haem from plants there is no evidence that there is any problem with iron-deficiency anaemia in China. In fact, in China, the higher the fibre intake the higher the iron levels in the blood.

Comparatively 70 per cent of protein in the average American diet is from animal sources compared to 7 per cent in China. The average protein intake in China is 64g per day compared with an average of 93g per day in America and a high of 192g per day for 10 per cent of people. Protein levels this high are not needed and evidence from the China study suggests that they are in fact harmful.

Blood cholesterol levels in China range from 88-165 mg/dl compared with a range of 155-274 mg/dl in America. If Chinese people migrate to America, within a few decades of following the Western dietary habits they too develop typical American cholesterol levels. Figures from America and the UK show that vegetarians have significantly lower cholesterol levels than their meat eating counterparts.

A lower blood cholesterol level means a lower risk of heart disease. But doctors are concerned that having a cholesterol level lower than 160 mg/dl increases the risk of cancer. Dr Campbell points out that it is not simply the low cholesterol level that causes the cancer.

Even amongst the very low cholesterol levels of the Chinese, the groups in the population who had levels towards the higher end had a greater risk of heart disease and colon cancer. Dr Campbell concludes that to prevent chronic diseases the lower the cholesterol level the better.

In areas of China where there has been a Western influence even small amounts of meat can cause cholesterol levels to rise.

Dr Campbell said that if everybody ate the low animal products diet of China people would probably live longer, but that the main effect would be to drastically reduce morbidity from heart disease and cancer, therefore saving the health service considerable sums.

Next on the list of star speakers was Dr Dean Ornish of the University of California who took the medical world by storm last year when he published study results in The Lancet proving that lifestyle changes can actually reverse the damage caused by coronary heart disease and that heart disease was not, therefore, an inevitable decline. Not only did Dr Ornish's patients get better but the more they followed his lifestyle changes the better they became.

Early in his medical career Dr Ornish witnessed the way in which patients would have major heart surgery and then go back to the same diet and lifestyle that caused the problem in the first place. Five years later they would come in again to have a further by-pass to the original by-pass. He became increasingly frustrated with this field of medicine because "It was like mopping up the floor when the sink overflows without turning off the tap."

Dr Ornish's study involved 28 patients in the experimental group and 20 in the control group. The control group received the usual care people with heart disease receive including a reduction to 30 per cent fat diet. The experimental group were put on a strict low-fat vegetarian diet stopped smoking, were given stress management training, took part in group support and took moderate exercise. After a week the experimental group had a 91 per cent reduction in the frequency of chest pain, in one year 82 per cent of the experimental group had improved without the use of any lipid-lowering drugs, their blood cholesterol levels had come down, the cholesterol plaques in their coronary arteries were reduced and the heart showed significant healing. In fact the worse their condition was at the beginning of the study the more improvement they showed.

Dr Ornish believes his treatment methods will become standard practice in the future. He points out that 40 years ago doctors actually advocated smoking and those who advised giving up were thought weird. More and more, attitudes are changing towards vegetarianism and soon it will be no more weird to be vegetarian than to quit smoking.

His programme is often described as radical but he thinks it is far more radical to continually have by-pass surgery. To be on the moderate programme is to be given the worst of both worlds as even the 30 per cent fat diet requires some effort, but the improvements are small. The American Heart Association believes his changes are too difficult to follow but Dr Ornish retorts "it's not what's easy, it's what's true".

Although the moral and ecological arguments in favour of vegetarianism were placed firmly on the agenda the main purpose of the Congress was to present the results of scientific research on vegetarian nutrition and the number and depth of subjects covered was immense.

The Protective Power of Parsnips

Dr Herbert Pierson of the American National Cancer Institute described the vegetarian diet as a "life smart" decision, having studied an amazing number of natural chemicals found in plants that can protect from cancer. He presented us with a long list of anti-oxidants found in plants, those vital nutrients that protect our bodies from oxidation, in addition to the widely talked about vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene. To name a few there are the phenolic compounds found in fruits, vegetables and grains and the terpenes found in citrus fruits and other aromatic fruits.

Certain Prostaglandins promote cancer and are formed, ultimately, from the essential polyunsaturated fatty acid, linoleic acid, found for example in sunflower oil. Many vegetable substances prevent this, including salicylates found in figs, polyacetylenes found in carrots, parsley and parsnips, and sulphides found in garlic and onions.

Just like everything in nature and nutrition the balance between too little and too much is a fine one. The body does in fact need some of the cancer causing prostaglandins to maintain the uterus during the early implantation of the young embryo. Interestingly parsnips have been used as a natural contraceptive by American Indians because they inhibit this process. It is so effective that some companies are considering marketing the extract as a natural contraceptive drug.

Health tips on individual vegetables peppered Dr Pierson's talk. For example a sliver of ginger under the tongue has been found to be a better suppresser of motion sickness than the best anti-motion sickness drug, rosemary is a better preservative than the chemical additive E321 or butylated hydroxylotuene (BHT), and green chillies have cholesterol lowering properties. Flax and linseed have also been found to be a powerful anti-cancer agent when added to food and are also a rich source of essential fatty acids, lignans and boron which is now thought to protect against osteoporosis (thinning of the bones).

A Heart Healthy Diet

"Nuts are good for you", was a story first made public at the Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition. Dr Gary Fraser, Professor of Epidemiology at Loma Linda University in California studied 34,000 people from the American Seventh Day Adventist religious group, 50 per cent of whom are vegetarians. he examined all the dietary factors that are associated with heart disease and came up with some surprising results.

He found that eating nuts five times a week halved the risk of a heart attack, regardless of the type of nuts. All other risk factors, such as smoking, exercise and other dietary components were taken into consideration and eliminated from this conclusion.

The more frequently meat is eaten the higher the risk of developing heart disease. Dr Fraser's work has shown that being a vegetarian has a two-fold benefit, not only does the absence of meat help prevent heart disease but there are also other positive aspects of the vegetarian diet, namely increased fruit, vegetables and nuts, which actually protect against heart disease.

It is well known that blood cholesterol levels contribute to heart disease, however, Dr Fraser found that the more fruit, vegetables and fibre consumed, independent of blood cholesterol levels, the lower the risk of heart disease, "There is something present in fruit, vegetables and fibre that protects against heart disease beyond the impact of blood cholesterol." he said.

Dr Fraser recommends the following for a healthy diet:

  • Plenty of fruit, vegetables and grains that are high in protective nutrients and fibre.
  • A low fat intake with the emphasis on mono and poly unsaturated fats found in nuts, and olive, sunflower and soya oil.
  • Eating a variety of nuts in small quantities on a regular basis.
  • To use red meat and dairy products sparingly and preferably not at all.