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September 7, 2011

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Chuck out the meat bring on the greens

AS China gets richer, its diet gets meatier - and unhealthier, say many experts - and some people are saying good-bye to animal protein and planting the green standard. Linda Schilling reports.

Chucking meat is not only a choice of greenies and animal welfare activists. More and more well-known figures, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Faye Wong, Gwyneth Paltrow and even former US President Bill Clinton have pledged themselves to a meat-free diet.

Many doctors these days are recommending eating significantly less meat, especially red meat and fatty meat, and significantly more vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains. Oily fish is especially recommended for its protein and nutrition.

Clinton's recent eschewal of meat is linked to its cholesterol that can damage the cardiovascular system. After years of struggling with heart disease and undergoing quadruple bypass surgery - and continuing to struggle with diet - he decided to cut out all animal products, like meat (including pork and chicken), as well as milk, eggs and cheese.

Meat is a major source of protein for the human body and its amino acids are the building blocks of protein. For years, many people have sworn by meaty diets.

"A healthy diet is not defined by the presence or absence of meat. A healthy diet is one that provides all nutrients necessary for functioning and optimal health. You can do this without eating meat, but you may have to supplement or work harder to get certain key nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and omega-3 oils, depending on how strict your diet is," explains Ellen Swabey, a British nutritional therapist and expert on maternal nutrition for Bumps & Babes, an organization focusing on pregnancy and parenting in Shanghai.

Plant proteins

Many people, especially in countries like China where rising wealth means more meat, may be surprised that high-quality protein comes in vegetable form, such as beans, grains, legumes and pulses (like lentils). But the meatier diet in China is also reflected in higher rates of cardiovascular illness.

"Plant proteins have different amino acid structures and are easier to digest than meat, the vitamins and minerals are easier to absorb and assimilate in our cells, thus providing the best benefits to health, energy and vitality," explains Kimberly Ashton, an Australian health coach and nutrition consultant now working in Shanghai.

"Animal protein is digested much slower and today a lot of meat and meat products are loaded with chemicals, hormones and antibiotics, unless it's quality organic meat," she says.

"When eat meat, you get all the essential amino acids, but when you eat vegetables you need to eat more than one kind," says American Margaret Keefe, a registered dietician and chief representative at

Vegetarians have various subgroups, such as the ovo vegetarians, lacto vegetarians, fruitarians and pescatarians.

Ovo vegetarians, for example, eat eggs, while lacto vegetarians don't eat eggs but do eat dairy products. Fruitarians only eat parts of plants, especially the fruit, so the plants are unharmed. Pescetarians eat seafood. Some vegetarians eat eggs. None eats pork, chicken, beef, lamb or game.

The pescetarian diet (seafood, plants) addresses the animal protein issue for skeptics who are doubtful about the adequacy of plant protein alone.

Seafood generally is rich in zinc, which is important for immunity, and iodine for thyroid function.

Oily, cold-water fish are especially nutritious since they rich in protein, vitamin D and two important omega-3 essential fatty acids (EPA and DHA). Vitamin D is important in immunity and needed for calcium absorption.

EPA is a source of anti-inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins that modulate the immune response; and DHA is important for brain and nerve function.

"All of this makes fish harder to miss than meat," says Swabey, the nutritional therapist.

Vegan lifestyle

Strictest of all are the vegans for whom eating right is not simply a diet but a lifestyle and way to care for the planet. Not only do they not eat meat, dairy and honey, but they also don't use animal products, such as leather, wool, sometimes silk.

"If one chooses to be vegan, there are potential risks of a lack of Vitamin B12, calcium, omega-3, iron, zinc and iodine. But with a well-planned vegan lifestyle and conscious efforts to know good sources of vitamins and minerals in foods, risks can be minimized," says Ashton, who founded

Swabey elaborates. Besides supplementing vitamin B12, vegans must take in enough iron. "Non-haem iron, meaning not from an animal source, is less absorbable than haem iron, so it's important to consume vitamin C, for example freshly squeezed orange juice, along with non-meat sources of iron, to boost absorption.

Vegetarian sources of iron include tofu, pulses, beans, chickpeas, lentils, seeds, broccoli, eggs and fortified foods, Swabey adds.

Many studies and reports urge significantly reduced intake of meat (and make that meat lean). Beside the cholesterol heart-disease links, which are proved, there is a consistent association between red and processed meats and a risk of colorectal cancer, according to Marjorie McCullough, ScD, strategic director of nutritional epidemiology with the American Cancer Institute.

Scientists have hypothesized that the nitrates in processed meats are a possible culprit, as are the chemicals formed when red meat is cooked at high temperatures. Other scientists suspect that haem, the pigment that gives red meat its color, damages the cells in the digestive system and the lining of the colon.

A link between high meat consumption and a broad range of cancers - including prostate and pancreatic - is possible, but not entirely clear.

High-temperature cooking of any muscle meat, including red meat, poultry and fish, can generate compounds in food that may increase cancer risk. Those who cook meat are advised not to cook at very high temperatures, just high enough to kill bacteria. Avoid grilling and broiling if possible; otherwise meat should be grilled at medium-high heat and not charred; fat and charred meat should be cut off and not eaten. It's suggested to first cook in an oven, and then finish carefully on a grill.

But meat consumption in China is going up, up up.

Lua Wilkinson, an American taking part in a US Fulbright Program at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, is studying nutrition and writing a blog, "The China Nutrition Project." She holds a master's degree in anthropology and is a registered dietician in the US.

Fifty years ago, the average consumption of meat in China was 3 kilograms/person/year, she says.

By 1985 it was up to 20kg, and now, it's up above 60kg (compare that to, say, Canada, at 88kg).

"Now, this obviously is going to change the global food supply chain, as China has one-sixth of the world's population, so a change in meat consumption this drastic is bound to make an impact."

Where to find vegetarian food across Shanghai

The idea of meat-free nutrition is not a new concept - Buddhists traditionally abstain from meat. Many Buddhist temples have restaurants serving vegetarian fare at a cost of around 10 yuan (US$1.56) per person, but they are only open for lunch.

Jade Buddha Temple

Address: 999 Jiangning Rd

Longhua Temple

Address: 2853 Longhua Road

There are also meatless eateries. Prices range between 100 and 300 yuan for two.


Address: 445 Nanjing Rd W.

Vegetarian Lifestyle

Address: 258 Fengxian Rd

Shanghai Vegetarian Club

It is primarily a dining club providing information and resources to vegetarians. It is launching a new website this week (, only in English.


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