Not long ago, rumors of Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow¡¯s diet caused a bit of a stir in Korea. Much to everyone's surprise here, it was revealed that the famously slender movie star's new favorite food was the Korean dish bibimbap. Paltrow, a vegetarian, had recently given birth to her second child, and her personal chef prepared for her the mix of bean sprouts, tofu and some not-so-spicy kimchi. The dish is well-known for helping new mothers lose weight while still providing much needed nutrients.
Vegetarians seem to have a special air about them, inspiring an impression of a chic and leisurely lifestyle. But beyond that image, medical research provides some surprising facts about vegetarianism. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, a vegetarian diet is 97 percent effective in preventing blood vessel blockage. Many other studies show that an all-veggie diet can remarkably reduce the risk of cancer.
But is living on vegetables really as healthy as some people claim it to be? What about pregnant women -- can a vegetarian diet provide the proper nutrition the baby needs? To answer these questions, the Chosun Ilbo examined some myths about vegetarianism.
¡ß Can a vegetarian diet provide enough protein?
The most obvious question is whether veggies can supply enough of the protein we need, and it's an issue that medical experts say bears careful consideration. Dr. Kim Cho-il of the Korean Health Industry Development Institute(KHIDI) said that lacto-ovo vegetarians, who allow themselves to eat milk and eggs, should have little problem taking in enough protein, but he advised against pursuing total vegetarianism. ¡°It's not recommended that pregnant women try to eat only vegetables," he said. "It's very important that pregnant women monitor their nutrition levels, because neglecting to do so can have possibly fatal effects on the baby," he added.
While it is commonly believed that children need animal protein to grow, some vegetarians say that isn't true. The Life and Environment Saving Vegetarian Group (www.veg.or.kr) claims that it is possible to take in the recommended amount of protein through vegetables. They point out that a bowl of rice contains 7 to 10 grams of protein and 100 grams of beans has 35 to 41 grams of protein. That's almost twice the amount of protein (21 grams) in 100 grams of beef. Even the essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized in the body, they claim, can be supplied by eating grains and vegetables like lettuce, strawberries, rice, barley, wheat, and beans. But Dr. Kim said that animal protein is different from vegetable protein in its amino acid composition. ¡°In fact, animal protein is better than vegetable protein,¡± he said.
¡ß What about Vitamin B12 and Omega-3 fatty acid?
What puts vegetarians at a disadvantage is the fact that vitamin B12, which is essential in developing brain cells and synthesizing protein, can only be found in meat. According to Park Hye-kyung, a director of nutritional evaluation at the Korea Food & Drug Administration, for pregnant women in particular, it is important to consume nutrients such as vitamin B12, A, and D, iron and folic acid to prevent anemia. These can best be supplied by eating meat. Omega-3 fatty acid, found in fish, cannot be supplied by a pure vegetarian diet.
In response, vegetarians argue that those nutrients can be taken through alternative foods and health supplements. The Vegetarian Society in Britain claims that a study found that vitamin B12 is contained in soybean milk or rice milk. Furthermore, other nutrients can be supplied through multi-vitamin pills or synthetic omega-3 fatty acid supplements. But Dr. Kim from the KHIDI said that it is easier and more desirable to get these nutrients through food rather than supplements.
¡ß Is a vegetarian diet good for skin problems?
Some people have suggested that too much meat and fast food can cause skin problems like atopy. Others claim that poor-quality fat is another cause. But experts say that a vegetarian diet is not necessarily the solution to the affliction. Home economics Prof. Jeong Sun-hwa of Korea University said, ¡°Atopy has little to do with whether a person is vegetarian or not. Rather, many studies showed that it is an allergy to an environment, chemical, or a specific food.¡±
¡ß Vegetarianism gives rise to new trends?
The idea of chic vegetarians has given rise to some new food trends in Korea. For example, only recently have vegetables like broccoli and asparagus become popular in Korea. Now, with more people eating them, their prices have gone down and they can be found in more supermarkets than ever before. Among the new popular vegetables is sprouts, which are used in a variety of dishes from salads and bibimbap.
Also climbing in popularity are meat substitutes. Vegefood, which specializes in soy-based meat substitutes, has seen its sales grow over 100 percent in recent years. ¡°Vegetarian meat is popular with housewives because it tastes similar to real meat and children like it,¡± a company staffer said.