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International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition—Report Three


This morning, the plenary speaker was Claus Leitzmann from Germany—his title was “Vegetarian Diets: Past Present and Future.” He did a nice timeline on vegetarians in history. The first documented vegetarians were followers of Orpheus in the sixth century B.C. Soon after, Pythagorus became the first ethical vegetarian and vegetarianism was connected to his name for millenia in the West. Other famous vegetarians include Plutarch, Leonardo Da Vinci, Voltaire, Jean Jaques Rousseau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Gustav von Struwe, Sylvester Graham, John Harvey Kellogg, George Bernard Shaw (who was treated by Kellogg) and Albert Einstein. He quoted Einstein saying  “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”  One of the first vegetarian societies was founded in the U.K. in 1847. They were responsible for discarding the term Pythagorean lifestyle in favor of vegetarian diet. The first American Vegetarian society started in 1850, shortly before the Adventists came along. Early vegetarian research had to do with exploring the risk of deficiencies. Now it has shifted to the benefits for chronic disease and the environment. He suggested that in the future, reasons for approaching vegetarianism will be that 1) people no longer want animals to suffer and be killed just to satisfy their taste buds, 2) no longer want their planet to be destroyed by their choices of foods 3) No longer want to suffer from preventable nutrition-caused diseases and 4)  want to live sustainably and at peace. All of these are consequences of transforming plant foods into animal products for food.

I’ll have to say that our speakers today were moving through their material at a significant rate of speed so that some of the material that I wanted to get from their slides remains irretrievably on those slides. Two of the major subjects talked about in symposia were The Role of Soy in Health and Disease and Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Are They All Created Equal?  I did manage to get some points of interest from the several speakers that presented those topics.

Mark Messina presented the issues of soy and women’s health. One active collection of phytochemical in soybeans is isoflavones, one of which is genistein. It is sometimes called a phytoestrogen because of its possible effect on hot flashes, but there are anumber of functions that estrogen performs, which soy does not. The preferred name is SERMs (Selective Estrogen Receptor Modifiers). You can get approximately 25 mg of isoflavones in one serving of a soy product. The big question about soy for women is that it might have a cancer producing impact and many oncologists tell their breast cancer patients not to eat it. At the last vegetarian congress, Dr. Messina suggested that soy was safe for all except to exercise caution for women with breast cancer. This year, he withdrew that caution. Both the American Institute of Cancer and the American Cancer Society came out in 2012 stating that soy was safe for breast cancer patients. There is not enough data yet to actually promote it as a treatment modality, but women should be allowed to eat it if they wish. He also talked about the Early Soy Hypothesis stating that although more data should still be collected that there was enough to recommend that all young women should eat at least one serving of soy per day in order to reduce future risk of breast cancer. The speaker who followed, Howard Hodis, M.D., spent quite a lot of time carefully explaining why Hormone Replacement Therapy is beneficial for heart health in women just past menopause (about a 30% reduction in mortality), but not for women who are 15-plus years past menopause and might already have disease in their arteries. This is known as the timing hypothesis. The Women’s Health Initiative study that led so many women to stop their HRT was done on women over 66 and the results do not seem to apply to younger post-menopausal women. The same effects seem to apply to soy. The closer to menopause the women were when starting to use soy, the better outcomes they seem to have. The final speaker in the symposium on soy was Raymond Bergen from Feinberg School of Medicine and his topic was soy and prostate cancer. One in six men get prostate cancer, but death from cancer depends on whether it metastasizes or not. In mice, genistein inhibits metastasis and a pilot study in human subjects showed that genistein can interfere with the metastatic cascade of reactions. He also reported that men in China have a cancer rate of 1.6, Chinese-American men 80.4 and European Americans 159.9 per 100,000 men.

The discussions of omega three fatty acids today seemed to revolve around two questions—do vegetarians get enough? And is the plant source of omega three, ALA, as beneficial as the longer-chained marine omega threes, EPA and DHA? There seems to be no question that vegetarians, and particularly vegans, have lower levels of omega three fatty acids, but as speaker William Harris from South Dakota said, that doesn’t prove that they are deficient. They certainly seem to have beneficial heart status even without the omega threes and if they got enough earlier in life to meet their brain and nervous system requirements, that doesn’t go away easily. He did reinforce that adequate amounts during pregnancy and breast feeding are important, and suggested various potential solutions for plant sources for vegetarians. One such source is a product called neuromins, which is DHA from microalgae. He did have a a humorous ending to his talk. He showed a picture of a carnivorous plant being fed a small fish and suggested that if we ate pescivorous plants that were fed on fish, we could get omega threes and still be eating plants. Sujatha Rajaram from LLU recommended that half an ounce of either walnuts or flax seed would give the proper amount of plant based ALA.

There was a delightful older man from the U.K. who did a 10 minute talk on plant-based salicylates in the short oral presentation during lunch. They used to be used for pain management until someone mixed it with vinegar and the resulting precipitant was asprin. He says that stress to the plants increases the salicylates and the cossetted plant grown today have very little salicylate. I signed up for further information—I have a class that I could use that in. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Bharat Aggarwal, a researcher at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He describes cancer as a disease, preventable with major lifestyle change. Cancers are mediated by tobacco (30%), diet (35%), obesity (14-20%), infections (18%), pollution (7%) and genes (5%).The research money is going into genes right now. He is immersed in finding ways to reduce chronic inflammation and thus reduce cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. The master switch for inflammation is a cell called NFkappaB and it controls over 500 genes. To switch it off, he recommends ‘farmaceuticals’—herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, etc. He talked quite a bit about the properties of spices, especially turmeric. There have been a lot of pre-clinical studies, but more needs to be done with humans. In the meantime spices and herbs taste good and it’s no burden to eat them.

We ended our day with the customary banquet, held at the San Bernadino Hilton. I got to sit at the same table with Bert Connell—former teacher—and both of us were at the first International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition. It was held at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C. in 1987. We had different memories of how many attended that first meeting, and he says he doesn’t have the records anymore. We both do remember, however, that Fred Rogers of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood fame attended. He was a vegetarian himself and was attracted for that reason. Later in the evening, Bert and I were two of the ten people in the room who had attended all six of the congresses.  We and the others were called up to the platform to pose for pictures. Tomorrow is the final day, which is probably a good thing. The brain can only absorb what the seat can endure.

—Vicki Saunders [pictured], M.S., is an instructor of nutrition at Pacific Union College and is the past-president of the Seventh-day Adventist Dietetic Association.

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