Nutrition & Health   > Guide to Healthy Eating Questions & Answers


Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) -- 5100 Wisconsin Ave NW, Suite 404 --
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A healthy person is a blessing on animals. Most sicknesses in western society are cured with drugs made from animals, and/or tested on animals, by the doctors who very likely have acquired their skills by experimenting on lab-animals. Under the circumstances, a compassionate vegetarian must learn how to remain healthy.


Two-Year-Old's Bones and Teeth


n I've heard that dairy products contain growth hormones and pesticides that might be harmful, but I'm worried about my two-year-old's bones and teeth. Doesn't he need milk to develop properly?


Milk and other dairy products are also loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol, and drug residues. About 30 percent of American children are overweight, largely because of their high fat intake. And there is evidence that milk consumption contributes to heart disease, ovarian cancer, and even cataracts in later life, and that colic in infants is caused by antibodies in milk.

Cow's milk is not "a natural," even for children. Greens, beans, nuts, and seeds will provide all the calcium and protein your son needs.


Product Testing on Animals


n I don't like the idea of hurting animals to test products, but I'm nervous about using face creams, toothpastes, and things that could get in my eyes if they haven't been tested. How can I be sure the products I use are safe?


Product tests on animal merely measure the damage substances inflict on animals' eyes, skin, lungs, and other organs; they don't ensure safety to consumers, and they aren't used to develop antidotes for harmful reactions. Emergency room physicians, and attorneys, can testify that thousands of people each year are injured by animal-tested products.


Many companies that don't use animal tests do test their products, of course, using human skin patch tests, cloned human skin, and new technologies that are more accurate than animal tests. Or they simply use time tested ingredients that are known to be safe.


Salmonella and Cantaloupe


n I recently read about a number of people becoming sick with salmonella poisoning as a result of eating cantaloupe. I knew that salmonella is a problem in foods like potato salad, chicken and eggs. Is it true that fruit is a source of salmonella poisoning, too?


While salmonella bacteria usually are found in animal products, they can also grow on other foods if the food is contaminated with this bacteria. The outbreak of infection that you are referring to occurred when people ate cantaloupe that was sitting out at a salad bar. Presumably, the cantaloupe had been out for some time. The cantaloupe at your grocer is not a source of concern.


This situation points to the importance of safe handling of all foods -- that is using clean utensils and cutting boards in preparation and keeping foods at an appropriate temperature. Generally speaking, however, fruits that are kept refrigerated after they are cut open should be safe. In terms of food poisoning, fruits and other low-protein items are generally considered to be safe. Poultry, eggs, cream-based dishes, and dairy products are the leading causes of salmonella poisoning.


Protein for Athletes


n I have been a vegetarian for three years and have always enjoyed good health. However, I began lifting weights recently. My program is fairly rigorous at times, and I'm worried about getting enough of the right kinds of protein now that my muscles are being worked so strenuously and are bigger. Are there special recommendations for vegetarian athletes?


First and foremost, exercising muscle requires extra calories. It takes about 2,500 additional calories to create one pound of muscle. Body builders also require more protein than non-exercising individuals -- perhaps as much as 50 percent more. However, meeting protein needs is easy -- even for athletes. As long as you meet your increased calorie needs by eating more healthy foods such as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, you will automatically meet your increased protein needs.


Since the average American consumes twice as much protein as he or she needs, most non-exercising individuals actually end up consuming more protein than even an athlete requires! For athletes, as for all people, there is no need to follow special rules for combining foods and no advantage to using amino acid supplements.


Peanut Butter


n I am a sixteen-year-old who has been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for three years. Recently I eliminated dairy foods and eggs from my diet. I am concerned about nuts and seeds in my diet. I eat a fair amount of peanut butter and other nuts. But I've read that they are high in fat. I also heard that peanuts can cause cancer. Should I avoid peanuts and other nuts?


Actually, peanuts aren't even nuts. Because they grow in a pod, they are classified as legumes. But because they are nutritionally similar to nuts -- especially in their fat content -- they have earned an honorary position among that food group.


There has been some concern about the fact that peanuts can be host to a mold called aflatoxin. Aflatoxin, which causes liver cancer, is the most potent carcinogen known. In the United States, peanuts are inspected for aflatoxin and small amounts are frequently found in peanut butter. Since liver cancer is relatively rare in this country, aflatoxin is apparently not a serious public health problem. In countries where food inspection is poor and peanuts are central to the diet, aflatoxin may be more of a concern.


Nuts and seeds are the only groups of plant foods that are high in fat. Their fat is mostly poly- and mono- unsaturated. (Coconut is the rare exception, being high in saturated fat.) Regardless of the type of fat, high fat intakes are associated with risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, and obesity. On the other hand, nuts and seeds are powerhouses of nutrition.


They are rich in fiber, protein, B-vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, and in some cases, calcium. So with nuts and seeds in the diet, it is somewhat of a balancing act. Including one or two servings of these foods in your diet every day will help you to meet the increased calorie and nutrient needs of adolescence. But balance these foods with generous servings of whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruits. As long as you aren't loading up on fatty snack foods like chips and sweets, your meat and dairy-free diet is probably low in fat. That means that there is a place for small amounts of nutrient-rich nuts and seeds in your meal planning.


Margarine and Butter


n I have elevated blood cholesterol levels and have been making changes in my diet to lower my fat intake. One of these changes includes using margarine on my food instead of butter. However, now I have heard that margarine contains fats that may actually raise blood cholesterol. Would it be a better idea to use butter after all?


Actually the best idea is to use neither, since both butter and margarine are equally high in fat. Butter is predominantly made up of saturated fat, while margarine contains a mix of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fats. Nutritionists usually consider margarine to be a wise choice over butter since it helps to lower intake of saturated fat, although it does not help to lower total fat intake at all.


Margarine is made from liquid vegetable oils that have been hydrogenated. The addition of hydrogen turns a liquid oil into a solid fat -- and also increases the amount of saturated fat in a product. Scientists have known for some time that hydrogenation also produces fats known as "trans fatty acids." This means that the structure of the fat molecule is rearranged slightly so that it looks a little different from naturally occurring saturated fats. A Dutch study suggested that consumption of these trans fatty acids may raise levels of LDL-cholesterol (that's the "bad" cholesterol) and lower levels of HDL-cholesterol (or "good" cholesterol) in your bloodstream. They concluded that there is no advantage to using margarine over more saturated fats like butter. One problem with the study, however, was that the subjects consumed diets that were much higher in trans-fatty acids than most Americans consume. There are a number of margarines on the market that are lower in trans-fatty acids than the product used in the study.


An important consideration is that about 75 percent of the trans-fatty acids consumed by Americans come, not from margarine, but from commercial baked goods, snack foods, and fast foods. Eliminating these foods from your diet will make the most significant dent in your intake of trans-fatty acids.


Finally, while vegetable fats are a better choice in your diet than animal fats, the key to healthful eating is to reduce all fats. Build your diet around whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. Try fruit spreads on breads instead of fats. And on the rare occasions when you cook with added fats, use vegetable oils such as olive oil.