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Veg Out

Minding your peas and cukes

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October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, a time to ponder the relative benefits of a meat-free diet. It can't be denied that it's much easier on the body to eat plant foods loaded with health-promoting vitamins, fiber, and anti-oxidants than to fill up on high cholesterol, satu-rated fat-laden, disease-causing animal flesh.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than one-third of all cancers are diet-related. The Oxford Vegetarian Study in England says that vegetarians have 30 percent less risk of heart disease, and those eating neither meat nor dairy had 57 percent less risk.

There's some debate on whether humans were designed to eat meat. Those who say we weren't cite factors like the shape of our teeth (our "canines" are tiny compared to canines' canines), we have flat fingernails instead of flesh-ripping claws, our long digestive tracts are about the same proportion to body length (12 times) as grass-eating animals, and we don't produce the strong stomach acid necessary to break down and digest meat -- so why do we need those little purple pills? Others argue that the idea of humans as natural vegetarians has no scientific basis in fact, and that our anatomy indicates our omnivorous nature. History backs this up, as fossil evidence proves we've eaten meat for 2.5 million years or more.

Ethical issues aside, a vegetarian diet benefits the environment. In his 1987 book Diet for a New America, John Robbins provides some mind-boggling facts about ecological damage from livestock production. Here are just a few:

Water needed to produce one pound of wheat: 25 gallons.

Water needed to produce one pound of beef: 2500 gallons.

Length of time the world's petroleum reserves would last if all humans ate a meat-centered diet: 13 years.

Length of time those reserves would last if all humans ate a vegetarian diet: 260 years.

Number of humans who could be fed by the grain and soybeans eaten by US livestock: 1.3 billion.

Obviously, Dr. Atkins didn't consider these factors when devising his high-protein diet. And, as someone who went back to eating meat after about 10 years of vegetarianism, I have to admit that sometimes a juicy hunk of beef is just what I crave. But those veggies -- they sure can be scrumptious, and, like mom always told you, they're good for you. Turns out they're good for the planet, too.

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