Reasons to go vegetarian

Rebecca Butterworth

Going vegetarian was a slow but definite process for this former farm girl, who discovered that there's more greens than just a worth cause

A girl who grew up on a dairy farm in the Upper Murray region of NSW is not supposed to question where her meat and milk come from.

As a sworn omnivore, I used to think vegetarians were pale, humourless, slightly smug types. I ate meat every day for the first 28 years of my life and never gave much thought about how it came to land on my plate.

But recently my brother showed me Earthlings, the Joaquin Phoenix narrated documentary on animal cruelty. I’ll spare you the gory details, but overnight I stopped eating meat that I couldn’t prove had respectable origins.

Since then, I’ve been finding new reasons to keep me trying vegetarian dishes. Many of you are already with me. If you don’t have an on/off relationship with meat, chances are you’ve dined with friends who do.

There are as many reasons for this as there are names: vegetarians, pescatarians (people who eat fish but not red meat), flexitarians, lacto-vegetarians (a vegetarian who eats dairy but not eggs), ethical meat eaters.

While only four per cent of the country are full vegos, according to a 2009 survey by Datamonitor and Brainjuicer U&A Australia, 37 per cent of Aussies have reduced their meat consumption for health and expense reasons. For a country that grew up on Chiko rolls and Four’N Twenty pies, that’s a big deal.

Now don’t have a cow – I’m not suggesting you give up meat. But if you care about your health, weight and sexiness (Natalie Portman is a vegetarian. Enough said…) read on.

The way forward

If eliminating meat makes you want to run for the nearest cheeseburger, how do you feel about cutting back? The food movement Meatless Mondays took off here in 2009 after success in eight other countries. The initiative encourages expanding your vegie recipe repertoire on the first day of the week, when you’re more likely to be motivated to take on a health initiative.

The goal isn’t animal welfare, but to reduce meat consumption globally by 15 per cent – for our health and a happier planet. A similar initiative has just launched called Meat free Week which is a fundraising week aimed at making consumers consider the amount of meat they eat and where the meat comes from.

In support of Meatless Mondays, the Dietitians Association of Australia released the report Is There A Case For Going Vego? summing up just some of the payoffs you get for following the Lisa Simpson way of eating.

Less bikini anxiety is one – vegetarians, especially vegans, are leaner than omnivores by one to five BMI points. And whether you’re meat-free or not, no-one can argue that scarfing more spices, herbs, fruits and vegies isn’t a good thing.

“People who eat good vegetarian diets [not just copious amounts of cheese and “fake” meats] normally also have less cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer,” says nutritional consultant Margaret Klemick.

And according to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) there is also good, consistent evidence that people who regularly eat diets high in fruits, vegetables and legumes have substantially lower risks of stroke, hypertension and eye disease.

Too much of a good thing

Even if you love meat so much your last meal on death row would be a giant steak, you still need to think about cutting down – most of us are eating too much of the stuff. According to NHMRC guidelines, Australian adults should eat 1 to 1.5 serves (65-100g) of meat a day, that is – at most – between 36.5kg and 55kg of meat per year.

But currently, the average Aussie woman chows down on 116.6kg per year – increasing from an average consumption of 104.3kg in 1990 and 97.7kg in 1967, according to the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics.

“Eating meat is easy. It’s a complete protein right there and it also contains iron, zinc and B12. But it takes a long time to digest and it pulls calcium and other minerals from the body to help metabolise it. It also contains saturated fat, too much of which can lead to heart disease,” says Klemick.

Sure, I understand if cutting back scares you. Or makes your stomach start growling at the mere thought of living on vegetables alone. But once I did my research I got hooked on the vegetarian scene – the cookbooks, restaurants and websites. But you need to be informed – and think outside of the meat-and-potatoes box.

‘‘The nutrients that are in meat are also in other foods, but to get them requires a bit of planning and education,” says Klemick. The essential rule is to always combine a grain with a pulse. So you need rice with that vegie chilli. Or tasty grainy bread with your baked beans. This ups the quality of the proteins you’re eating and means the old debate about whether vegetarian protein is insufficient doesn’t cut it any more.

“That relates to people with a very, very poor diet, who maybe don’t have access to much food at all,” says Mark Berriman, director of the Australian Vegetarian Society

Protein is the stuff that makes you feel full, as well as repairing damaged tissues and building new cells. The average woman needs 46g of protein a day, and a one-cup serving of chickpeas gets you about a third of the way there. Problems come when you let simple carbs (white bread), sugars and trans fats crowd out the healthier choices.

Going meat-free occasionally won’t stop you smashing your gym goals either. Greg Cox, Senior Sports Dietitian for the Australian Institute of Sport and a long-time vegetarian, won the Triathlon Olympics Distance World Championships for his age group in 2009.

“The vegetarian diet lends itself to sports nutrition goals,” he says. “It’s low in kilojoules, but still contains adequate carbohydrates and protein to meet the goals of someone who’s active, as well as other performance-boosting nutrients like iron and calcium. A high percentage of protein in the Australian diet comes from good breads and cereal foods, which most of us eat anyway.”

Because they can’t rely on meats, many vegos end up eating a wider variety of foods than their carnivore counterparts. Plan meals from the full spectrum of the food rainbow – vegies, fruits, grains, legumes, eggs and nuts – and you’ll never be bored.

Eating animals

The Meatless Mondays initiative also has benefits for the planet. According to Livestock's Long Shadow, a report by the United Nations, eating vegetarian just one day a week will reduce methane emissions from agriculture that contribute to global warming. Currently 40 per cent of global greenhouse emissions can be attributed to farmed foods – more than all transport combined.

While it’s pretty hard to pass up a juicy piece of steak or contemplate never licking your fingers after spicy chicken wings again, it pays to pick your meat wisely. In 2008, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry reported that Australians consume 470 million chickens per year – up from 3 million chickens 50 years ago. That’s an increase of over 15,000 per cent.

Yes, chicken is a less fatty meat than most, contains more mood-boosting tryptophan and is a good source of protein, but according to Glenys Oogjes, executive director of Animals Australia (the most active animal protection organisation in the country), 90 per cent of chickens are raised in factories.

“These chickens have been selectively bred so that they grow very quickly. They will be kept at 20 birds per square metre. Because their bodies have been grown to have very large breast areas, they have difficulty lifting their body weight, or getting to food or water which is only a few metres away,” Oogjes says.

Growing up on my family's dairy farm, I’ve seen first hand that it is possible to treat animals well. I decided to take the bull by the horns and talk to my father, a third generation farmer, about my concerns about the treatment of animals.

I started off by showing him Earthlings. He was horrified but raised some salient issues. “We’re duty-bound to keep cows fat and healthy – my oldest one is 15,” he told me. “My cows get two months’ holiday. That’s much more than I get!”

According to Australian animal protection institute Voiceless, 90 per cent of all pigs and chickens raised in Australia are raised in factory farms. It’s definitely possible to be an ethical meat eater – you just have to ask the right questions.

At the Glenloth Game stall at the Heathmont Farmers’ Market in Melbourne, a 1.7kg chook labelled “free range – no growth promotants” cost me $22.00 (at Woolworths, a 1.6kg chook labelled “free range” cost me $10.58, and a “normal” 1.7kg chook costs around $10). Ian Milburn has run Glenloth Game in Victoria's Mallee region since 1989, allowing his chickens to roam and scratch outside during the day and mixing their grain feed by hand from the best stocks available.

“I’ve always believed in quality,” he says. “A small company like ours just has to be better. We can’t compete in economies of scale.”

According to Voiceless, under Australian law, suppliers of chicken do not need to disclose their production methods. In Milburn’s opinion, about 80 per cent of product sold as free range isn’t.

“We’re now selling more to people who believe in the ethical raising of animals,” he says. “It’s small, but growing – and I think that will continue to increase.”

That night I roasted my Glenloth chicken and shared it with my husband. It was good – softer than the chicken you get from the local supermarket. It didn’t change my mind about meat, but it certainly felt better even though it was more expensive (buy seasonal vegies to keep costs down) to eat this way.

The green side

However inconvenient it may be, there’s no denying the scientific fact that our excessive meat intake is destroying the planet. With all the food given to and resources used on animals in livestock, we could feed all the humans on the planet.

Then there's methane – the gas in animal poo and the stuff that makes you dry retch if you’re not used to farm life. Methane from sheep and cattle accounts for around 14 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture is Australia’s second largest greenhouse gas polluter after the energy sector. The International Panel on Climate Change calculates that methane is 62 times as potent as CO² over a 20 year period.

Berriman says this is an important calculation: “It shows that our Australian agriculture will have a bigger impact on climate during the next 20 years than all our coal-fired power stations together, which produce only about 180 megatonnes of CO². Hybrid vehicles, changing light bulbs, water-saving showerheads – it’s all insignificant compared to our diet choices.”

In the end, I chickened out, and told Dad over the phone that I had become a vegetarian. “That’s alright. I don’t have any problems with it,” he told me. “Just be sensible.”

I went from every-day meat eater to vegetarian almost overnight. But it’s a different story for everyone. For me, milk, and free range eggs are acceptable, as I’m comfortable with the life afforded to these animals. For you it could be trying out Meatless Mondays. Whatever you decide, it doesn’t have to be for a worthy or smug cause – there’s no better reason than safeguarding your future health.

National Vegetarian Week is May 20 – May 26 2013.

Whether you want to go off meat all together or just one night meat-free, why not start with one of these delicious recipes? Click the image for the gallery

Or other WH Meatless Meals

Roasted Red Capsicum Pesto pizza
DIY Trail mix
Spring pea soup