This is the first of a regular column on well being. Val Staples lives in Durham and is in the physicians assistant program at Duke University.


Eight years ago I decided to become a vegetarian. This decision corresponded roughly with a hazily conceptual political activism and very clearly with an infatuation with a male vegetarian. Since then, my friend has emigrated to Canada, my political expressions undergo periodic shifts and relocations, and concern for my diet has moved from the realm of “proof of lifestyle” to a central place in my efforts toward well being.

Trying to figure out why I eat what I eat when I eat it, and how it all becomes manifest as self, is confusing, not to mention a mouthful. Nutrition is a major concern, obviously. But I also choose and prepare food based on aesthetics, sensual gratification, social needs, emotional substitution, political and economic considerations, spiritual states, physical cravings, life rhythms, specific imbalances (food as medicine) and so on. Inertia and habit play a significant role too.

I still eat very little meat, and only on festive or social occasions when I am away from home. There are several reasons for this — opposition to killing animals for food (although I wear leather shoes and clothing); a desire to eat “low on the food chain,” and thus insure efficient use of food resources; and belief that animal fats are harmful to blood vessels and hearts. Also, organically raised meat is scarce, and the conditions under which commercial animals are raised, and the fatteners / fortifiers / antibiotics / pesticide residues they carry seem distinctly unhealthy to me.

Some of my friends believe vegetarianism reduces aggression. However, for me, eating is an implicitly violent activity, and best recognized as such. Despite my frequent wonder at the intricate structures and variety of form and color in nature, I consume my food (although when I was fat, I was in danger of being consumed by food).

Considerable work has recently been done evaluating the components and nutritional adequacy of vegetable protein. Research indicates there are eight essential amino acids which the body cannot synthesize and must be supplied by diet. Although these are all present in vegetables, they are present in varying amounts, and their metabolic availability is limited by the amino acid present in smallest amount. Therefore, in order to equalize amino acids and maximize available protein, complementary use of foods is suggested. Without becoming compulsive about it, the following general combinations produce well-balanced protein:

1 part legumes and 2 parts milk
2 parts legumes and 3 parts seeds
1 part legumes and 3 parts whole grains
1 part milk and 1 part seeds
1 part milk and 1 part peanuts

Translated into food dishes, peanut butter on whole grain bread, rice and beans, and spiced lentils with sunflower seeds would meet these criteria. (See references at the end of this article for more ideas.)

Along with protein, the use and abuse of sugar in the American diet has received much attention. I believe sugar is a flavoring or a treat, to be used with discretion, rather than a nutrient or energy source. Many school systems are realizing this, and replacing vending machine “junk foods” with fruits, nuts and juices. A heavy sugar intake may actually diminish one’s energy, by causing a rebound hypoglycemia, or abnormally low blood sugar. If the body is challenged by a sudden large sugar intake, over-secretion of insulin may occur, resulting in an abrupt clearing of sugar from the blood. After an initial “rush” of energy, one may become irritable, tremorous, and mentally sluggish. Although protein cannot provide an equivalent sugar high, it is a more sustained steady support.

I have other objections to heavy use of sugars (although I realize the body eventually converts all starches and carbohydrates to sugar). Most sweeteners have negligible nutrient value, with the exception of unfiltered honey, blackstrap molasses and maple syrup, which have some vitamins and minerals. Sugar is one (possibly the) major source of tooth decay. Growing sugar as a cash crop diverts large amounts of land from true food production. However, having said all this, and despite a relatively low sugar intake, I would sorely miss Breyer’s ice cream were it off the market. Situational ethics applies to diet also.

Another area of concern for me is preserving the vitamin and mineral content of food and obtaining adequate amounts of these nutrients. For years, practitioners of Western medicine insisted that deficiencies of these elements are most uncommon with the “modern American diet.” However, increasing attention is paid to deficiencies more subtle than fully developed, pellagra, beriberi or scurvy. It is finally recognized that stripping multiple nutrients in processing white flour and enriching the product with only a few of the total is nutritionally unsound. Some vitamin and mineral needs, food sources, and actions are noted in the accompanying food chart.

Vitamin and mineral loss occurs in several ways, including soil depletion, food processing, storage, preparation and cooking. Many nutrients are processed out of white flour, white rice and commercially canned goods. Peeling vegetables like carrots and potatoes removes much of the vitamins and minerals. Almost all vitamins are partially destroyed by cooking; vitamins A, C and E are lost by combining with oxygen (ie., exposing cut surfaces to air). Vitamins are destroyed by enzymes at room temperature; these same enzymes are inhibited by chilling. Soaking vegetables leaches nutrients. Boiling vegetables and discarding the water also discards much of the food value. Alternative cooking methods may be used (steaming, stir fry, baking, broiling) or the cooking liquid saved for soup stock or bread dough. I believe many vegetables are best eaten raw, particularly at this time of year when they can be gathered young and tender.

What is put into food bothers me as much as what is left out. It is next to impossible to eliminate all additives and chemical residues, but I try to avoid what I can in the way of preservatives, dyes, bleaches, texturizers, artificial flavoring, etc. Organically raised, unprocessed grains, nuts, cheeses, fruit juices and grain products (pasta, cereals) are readily available locally or by mail. Fresh produce is more difficult to obtain unless one has the land, time and storage capabilities to “grow your own.” Given these limitations, I still try to be sensitive to foreign substances in food. I think many cancers are environmental diseases. Colon cancer I believe is related to food toxins and lack of bulk and fiber in the diet. Lack of the above substances predisposes to constipation, thus allowing prolonged contact between toxins and the mucosal lining of the bowel. I would propose a new set of additives, such as bran, wheat germ, soy grits, powdered (not instant) skim milk, and so on.

I am aware that all this may seem overly conceptual and rigid — that one could spend all day balancing proteins, chasing vitamins, trying to prepare foods which are pleasing and nutritionally balanced, and generating a lot of anxiety over less than ideal outcomes. I sorely remember the times I’ve barreled headlong into heal-all dietary programs, totally ignoring the fact that needs are highly individualistic, they change from day to day, and that half the time I’m unaware of my needs, having blunted consciousness of my cycles and rhythms, expansions and contractions. So I’ve decided that flexibility, a sense of humor and trust in the wisdom of my own organism work best for me.

I have largely bypassed in this article the spiritual significance food and eating have for me, for lack of an adequate vocabulary to translate heart feelings into head talk. The sustenance of food seems to me a quiet reflection of the givenness of the universe. We share a place in nature, and, even while harvesting food, are enriched by awareness of the spirit and energy we consume. The transformation of food into self is a peculiar bridge which is for me somehow expressed in the following poem by Rilke:

the evening folds about itself the dark
garments the old trees hold out to it.
You watch: and the lands are borne from you,
one soaring heavenward, and one falling;

and leave you here, not wholly either’s,
not quite so darkened as the silent houses,
not quite so surely summoning the eternal
as that which each night becomes star and rises;

and leave you (inscrutably to unravel)
your life: the fearful, ripening and enormous
being that — bounded by everything, or boundless —
for a moment becomes stone, for a moment stars.


Nutrient Common Sources Actions
Vitamin A leafy green vegetables skin, vision
  yellow fruits & vegetables resistance to infection
Vitamin B complex Whole complex found in:  
thiamine cereals nerve function, energy
riboflavin wheat germ longevity; skin & eyes
pyridoxine brown rice nerve soother; blood, skin
folic acid beans anti-anemia
inositol nuts blood vessels, hair
biotin raisins growth, energy, mental health
cholin leafy greens fat digestion, liver, gall, nerves
niacin yeast circulation, soft tissues
Vitamin B 12 milk, milk products (wheat germ, Brewer’s yeast?) anti-anemia, nerve function
Vitamin C citrus fruit, rose hips, parsley, kale, tomato maintains connective tissue, resistance to infection
Vitamin D milk, milk products, sunshine bones and teeth, growth in children
Vitamin E wheat germ, egg yolk, alfalfa sprouts, soy oil, leafy green vegetables reproductive organs, heart muscles, skin, tissue repair
Vitamin K leafy greens, acidophilus blood clotting
Calcium milk, milk products, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kelp, dulse, figs, dates teeth, bones, endurance, vitality
Chlorine milk, milk products digestive aid, disinfectant
Flourine cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, milk and milk products teeth and bones, antiseptic
Iodine fish, cabbage, garlic, potato, dulse, kelp thyroid gland, nervous function
Iron spinach, molasses, raisins, wheat germ, potato skin anti-anemia
Magnesium citrus, peanuts, whole grain nerve function
Manganese leafy greens, nuts, honey, grain brain & nerve function
Phosphorous onions, beans, whole grains, nuts brain; bone, hair, teeth
Potassium apple, cabbage, celery, honey, dandelions, parsley, leafy greens muscular function, heart regularity, blood, liver, spleen
Silicon Barley, rice, oats, cucumber, spinach hair, teeth, nails, antiseptic
Sulphur beans, bran, kale, mustard green, onion skin, hair, nails, stimulates bile, liver

These are some books which have been enjoyable and informative for me.

Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé. Ballantine, 1974. Thorough discussion of vegetable protein and complementary proteins.

Cooking with Conscience, Alice Benjamin. Vineyard Books, 1975. Recipes based on Lappé’s protein theories.

Tassajara Cooking, Edward Espe Brown. Shambhala, 1973. No nutrition theory but a wonderful, loving approach to food and its preparation; based on whole grains, vegetables and letting foods discover each other and speak for themselves.

Foods, Facts and Fallacies, Carlton Fredericks and Herbert Bailey. Arco, 1974. Particularly useful information on actions and sources of vitamins and minerals, and signs of imbalance related to these nutrients.

Let’s Cook It Right, Adele Davis. Harcourt Brace, 1970. Becoming a standard reference for the selection and preparation of healthy food; substantial amount of nutrition theory.

Uncle John’s Original Bread Book, John Braue. Pyramid Press, 1972. My favorite bread book despite a few intrusions of white flour; mostly good varied recipes for whole grain breads with clear instructions.

Basic Book of Organic Gardening, Robert Rodale, ed. Ballantine, 1972. Particularly useful information on composting materials and methods.