Vegetarianism And Its Advantages And Disadvantages
( Originally Published 1913 )
The Dangers of a Strictly Vegetarian Diet
IT is the object of these lines to prove that a strictly vegetarian diet, when continued for a long time, is a very unhealthful and dangerous mode of nourishment. It is above all most irrational. For when—as I have so frequently seen in the vegetarian restaurants in Germany—a person who works hard all day takes for his midday meal a plate of green-vegetable soup, then, as the principal dish of the repast, carrots or spinach with potatoes, after this some apple sauce, and finally a few nuts or a small quantity of some other fruit, he is in great danger. It is truly a murderous diet. His evening meal is also similarly composed, and his breakfast consists of some substitute for coffee. As a person absorbs with such a diet only a minimum quantity of albumin and carbohydrates, he subjects himself to all the dangers which we have enumerated in the chapters devoted to a one-sided diet and to insufficient nourishment. The greatest of these is, however, the fact that the composition of the principal fluid of the body—the blood—is defective and its quantity is insufficient.
This gives rise to anemia, and a most frequent result of such long-continued undernutrition is tuberculosis. Indeed, notwithstanding frequent visits to vegetarian restaurants in various countries, I have never seen a strict vegetarian who did not look pale and thin.
There cannot possibly be a really scientific basis for such an erroneous mode of living. The most important producer of energy in our foods, the albumin, is only very slightly represented, and of this limited amount a considerable portion is lost in the intestine owing to the difficult assimilation. Since, however, strict vegetarians do not lay much stress upon albumin, the carbohydrates should necessarily be all the more plentifully represented in their nourishment. It is, nevertheless, unfortunately the case that in the majority of vegetarian restaurants in Austria and particularly in Germany the main object seems to be to furnish very cheap foods. They are consequently greatly frequented by poor people who wish to dine cheaply. The proprietor naturally wishes to realize as much as possible ; consequently many aliments containing considerable amounts of carbohydrate, such as tapioca, sago, maizena, honey, and sometimes even rice, do not appear on their bills of fare, or are possibly not much called for, as the price is too high. According to Rubner, when there is too little albumin in the food, more carbohydrates and fats are necessary. In such a ridiculously strict vegetable diet this point is not even considered. The food consists principally of vegetables, and possibly cereals and fruit; in the majority of cases, however, the bulk of the food is composed of green vegetables, roots, cabbages, etc. Considerable amounts of these must then be taken in order to fill the requirements of the moment, and to still hunger.
The cow is in the field from early morning until the evening in order to—and this is her only occupation—absorb a sufficient quantity of food for her needs ; and since the latter consists of grass which is not very rich in nitrogen, she must take a very great deal of it to thrive. If she does not do this and stops feeding, she is ill. A cow cannot starve for several days, nor can a strict vegetarian do so. He also must, day in and day out, take large quantities of food ; I must admit, how-ever, that some who subsist upon a fruit diet can, after a long training, manage with less. Whether they are as thoroughly invulnerable to a possible infection as those who use all kinds of foods is a question. The average strict vegetarian must, therefore, eat large quantities of cabbage and other varieties of vegetables, cereals, potatoes, etc. In order to utilize and assimilate it all, he would have to imitate the cow and possess four stomachs, to rechew his food. The intestine would have to be very much longer, with a large cecal pouch, containing the same ferment as in the rodents,—the cytase,—for him to be able to digest the great quantity of cellulose contained in such food. Since, however, he is not provided with all this, he will fare badly when such a diet is too long continued. To assist, in so far as possible, the digestion and assimilation of the foods in themselves already so poor in albumin, these foods must be very carefully masticated, which is only possible when the teeth are good; much saliva and gastric juice must also be provided—we have already mentioned that bread requires five times as much pepsin as meat—and the intestine must secrete much fluid, in order to further the digestion and the elimination of the large amounts of feces resulting from such foods. All this would require an outlay on the part of the organism, since the cells thus given off would have to be replaced. The only substance in the food capable of accomplishing this renewal is the albumin. Now, in such a strictly vegetarian diet the absorption of albumin is very slight, for the intestinal juice cannot readily digest the cellulose in which the albumin is inclosed. Animals are better off in this respect, for all-wise Nature provides whatever is required to fit the circumstances, and has given to rodents a special ferment which breaks down the cellulose. As the human vegetarian is not provided with such ferment, much of the albumin in his food is lost to him. The starches are for the same reason also poorly assimilated. A considerable portion of the albumin and starch content of the food is also lost because such a diet exerts an irritating effect upon the intestine, and it is consequently expelled too soon, before the nutrient substances have been absorbed. As a result of this, with the usual food of a strict vegetarian there must undoubtedly be a deficiency of albumin, as well as of carbohydrate; such a person is undernourished and is consequently subject to the dangers above named.
A great disadvantage of such an erroneous mode of feeding is the very great amount of feces formed and the too frequent bowel movements. I have myself experimented with such a strict vegetarian diet for several days, and found that, instead of having, as usual, one bowel movement each day, there were two or three and sometimes even more ; the feces were very much increased, as a considerable portion of the food itself was expelled with them. Such an augmentation of the stools is in no way advantageous, as the intestine is subjected to too violent exertion. While the cow gives off a quantity of dung, it serves as a valuable fertilizer for the earth from which she receives her nourishment; human excrements play no special rôle in this connection.
It is certain that the digestive organs must suffer under such a diet, and that they must undergo certain changes due to their overactivity; this is self-evident owing to the fact that they were not adapted by nature for such use. When a true vegetarian parent wishes to bring up his child—after it has been weaned—upon a strictly vegetable diet, it may be possible that the child's intestines will become longer and better adapted for such food, but in the adult this is not to be expected. Since, however, the suckling child of the vegetarian lives solely upon milk, i.e., a substance of animal origin, and could not be nourished in any other way, I cannot comprehend why he does not realize that this forms the proper food for the child, and does not therefore continue to feed it upon a milk-egg-vegetable diet, which is in my opinion the best and most rational one.
Such a strictly vegetable diet very frequently gives rise to gastric and intestinal disturbances, and many a vegetarian would undoubtedly be cured of his mania—for they are indeed often fanatics—were he to be shown his feces with the large amounts of undigested food contained therein. The intestines have vainly endeavored to utilize the latter, but the results are not at all in proportion to the effort entailed. Such a defective diet also has an injurious effect upon the nervous system and the mind as well, which fact has previously been referred to. While it is thus injurious to a normal individual, the vegetable diet may, on the other hand, be very beneficial in certain diseases, such as gout, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, and obesity. All of these diseases are frequently the result of overfeeding, and consequently a less generous and nutritious diet, such as the purely vegetarian one, may be most useful. When, however, such a diet is to be persisted in for any length of time without giving rise to injurious consequences, certain rules must be followed which we shall discuss in the next chapter.