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The Health Problems of Vegetarians

Aug 17, 2007
Health practitioners are becoming increasingly alarmed at the growing problem of vegetarians and vegans who practice a restricted diet only to end up with a spectrum of malnutrition disorders. Where are these cases coming from, and who is convincing these people to slowly starve themselves to death? And the answers we will explore here aren't too cheery.

Vegetarianism is practiced by individuals for either its perceived health reasons or by some groups for religious reasons. Not all vegetarians have the same dietary requirements; some are people who have decided to give up eating some or all meat. A vegan is the strictest kind of vegetarian, a person who also abstains from eating all types of animal products including cheese, milk, and eggs. Some vegetarians will eat items such as fish and eggs, and others will eat some types of dairy products such as milk or cheese.

However, regardless of the various motivations and practices, psychology has a name for vegetarians. "Orthorexia Nervosa" is a fixation on keeping a "righteous" diet, and it was first diagnosed by Colorado physician Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997. The term is derived from the Greek root word "ortho", meaning straight and correct, and refers to a psychological syndrome where the patient's food choices grow progressively narrower over time under the illusion of keeping the peace with either nature or a deity. The restrictions grow progressively narrower, until the person is convinced that anything outside of the handful of food groups they will eat is either poisonous or a sin. Nothing is allowed inside the body of a devout vegan which might be interpreted as a toxin. A vegan diet is an attempt to gain control over at least one simple aspect of a person's otherwise ordinary life, and in this way relates to bulimia and anorexia.

Like anorexia and bulimia, the disease of veganism is a perpetual cycle. The patient cuts half the food pyramid from their diet, starts to feel sluggish, then is told that the reason they feel down is because they have more toxins in their body and need to cut out even more food groups. For the religious motivation, the rational is likewise that they are feeling the symptoms of starvation because they are not spiritually pure enough, and the only cure for it is - guess what - to starve even more.

Unlike other psychological disorders, extreme veganism has its own organization spurring its - there is no other way to say it - cult members to greater and greater denial, and to recruit others to do likewise. Some members of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for one, publishes and distributes a body of literature which ranges far afield of merely treating animals ethically, to encouraging the radical vegan lifestyle. These tracts find their way into the hands of a target demographic, young teens, some of whom are impressionable enough to take them too seriously.

As a disclaimer, this is not meant to point the finger at all animal rights groups, all animal rights causes, or even all of PETA. Nor is it a blanket condemnation of all religions that have laws governing diet. But the facts as previously stated are nevertheless taking place.

Only a few of the dietary necessities that vegetarians typically fail to fulfill:

* Zinc, which is an important element needed for healthy skin and a healthy immune system.

*Calcium, which of course is not only needed to keep our bones strong but it is also needed for functioning of the nerves and muscles, as well as helping our blood to clot properly.

* Vitamin D, which is essential for the absorption of calcium and phosphorous.

* Iron, a deficiency of which leads to anemia.

* Vitamin B-12, needed for blood formation and cell division within the body. A deficiency in this vitamin can cause severe and irreversible nerve damage.

* And of course, plain old protein is needed for the body to grow and repair itself.

This is not to say that studious supplementation and careful menu planning can not compensate for most of the gaps left by the extreme vegan diet. But as any medical professional knows, whether you're talking about a vegan or a body-builder, the human body cannot survive indefinitely on protein powders, shakes, and pills. And the extreme vegans won't even take to the protein powders (whey solids come from milk!), and are after all eventually mistrustful of the health and food industries in general.

The problem of extreme diet restrictions is one more challenge that the health profession faces. The real cure for this practice will be the eventual education of the public on proper nutrition. Unfortunately, given the past luck with convincing people that folk remedies and snake oil cures are quackery, the prospects don't look good.
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