|The following is from a Korean Heraldarticle on vegetarianism in Korea by reporter Park Min-young.
C.A.R.E Protesters Against Dog Meat.
Sizzling steaks made with soy beans and vegetable protein, Jjambbong made with vegetable spices infusion instead of chicken gravy, Bulgogi made from wheat protein processed with nuts …
These are foods that can scarcely be imagined without meat, yet meatless versions filled the table at a vegetarian restaurant in Insa-dong, downtown Seoul, last weekend during a regular Sunday lunch gathering of the Korea Vegetarian Union.
How do they taste? Just like meat but softer, tastier and simpler.
“I used to love meat too, but these are pretty good, aren’t they? I became a vegetarian three years ago, and ever since, people tell me I look younger, and I am more relaxed,” said 30-year-old Go Eun-mi, who runs an organic food store, while enjoying her dish of Vege Bulgogi covered rice. “I was one of the people who thought meat was essential for health. But when I visited India and met the large vegetarian population, I figured out that it was nonsense.”
Jang Byung-jin, another member, became a vegetarian seven years ago. Having seen bloody excrement after eating chicken one day, he became certain that meat is not something people should eat.
“Everyday I feel like flying. I feel healthier than ever, like I can do anything one can do using their body,” Jang said. Leaving the restaurant, the vigorous 27-year-old bought some vegetarian meat and ramen to take home.
Isolated but increasing
There has always been interest on what we should eat, but “people are recently more interested in vegetarianism due to the string of food scares,” said Lee Won-bok, 40, president of the union.
“About 3,000 to 4,000 people used to visit our homepage, but since swine flu, the number of visitors shot up to around 7,000,” Lee said.
Vegetarian restaurants in Seoul these days are crowded with people during lunch and dinner time. Some of them are actually non-vegetarians taking an interest in vegetarian dishes, Lee said.
Buddhist temple food, which only uses natural ingredients and no meat, became so popular recently that temple cuisine cooking classes opened throughout the city.
Although health authorities have made it clear that the flu has nothing to do with pigs, many people seem tired of meat.
“The vegetarian diet is the best alternative to the risky meat. Not everyone would turn into vegetarians right away, but the preference for a vegetarian diet is definitely increasing,” Lee said.
It is actually a worldwide trend. It almost seems essential to be a vegetarian, or at least an animal lover to survive in Hollywood. The vegetarian diets of celebrities like Pamela Anderson, Reese Witherspoon, Maggie Q, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Christian Bale have received attention online.
Korean society, however, is not so warm toward vegetarians yet, says Lee.
“In the United States or Europe, no one minds when I say I’m a vegetarian. Most of the restaurants even have vegetarian dishes prepared for me. But here, people look at me like I’m an alien when I say that I’m a vegetarian, not that they even ask. They are like, ‘Why do you live like that?'” said Lee.
Industry insiders say although the number is rising, less than 2 percent of the Korean population is vegetarian, compared to 13 percent in England.
It is an ironic situation, considering how Korea used to be an agrarian society while the occidental countries were more into hunting.
“Korea used to be so poor and weak but made a rapid economic progress and was suddenly exposed to western culture, including meat. Seeing the steaks and hamburgers, we simply thought that eating meat meant eating well. But it really isn’t. Koreans should reconsider what well-being really means,” Lee said.
For vegetarians to exchange useful information and bond in such a vegetarian-unfriendly society, Lee founded the union in 2000. Now the union has more than 6,700 members and is still growing.
“It is currently a personal preference whether to be a vegetarian or not, but I think more vegetarians means a better world for animals, the environment and of course people. The ultimate goal of the union is to start a vegetarian movement in the society,” said Lee.
The truth about vegetarianism
In Korea, vegetarians are often regarded as someone undernourished. Lee said that is not true.
“One of our members sometimes brings her son, who just entered middle school, to our regular lunches. He is a vegetarian from birth, but unlike what people would think, he is totally healthy. In fact, he is already over 170 centimeters and his mother worries that he might be getting too tall,” Lee said.
“Precocious puberty, which became a big problem in our society, is caused by the Westernized diet, including eating too much meat. Changing to a vegetarian diet can help stop it.”
Some researchers agree that vegetarianism leads to good health.
Lee Gwang-jo, vice president of Korea Vegetarian Society, explained in his book “Our body wants vegetarian diet,” that vegetarian diet is good enough to provide all basic nutrients including proteins, carbohydrates, and fat.
“A man in his 20s, for example, needs 1440kcal of carbohydrate, 480kcal of protein and 480kcal of fat per day. They can all be taken in through vegetables without having to worry about cholesterol or saturated fat. Meat and eggs can be substituted with beans,” he wrote.
According to some Australian and Vietnamese researchers, vegetarians do not have to worry about bone density either. The researchers compared the bone health of 105 postmenopausal vegan Buddhist nuns and 105 non-vegetarian women, and there was no difference in bone density between them.
“Although vegans do indeed have lower protein and calcium intakes, their bone density is identical to that of people who eat a wide variety of foods, including animal protein,” said Prof. Tuan Nguyen of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. This study was published in the online edition of the journal Osteoporosis International.
Some research, however, still shows a worrying perspective.
According to the study published in Clinical Journal by researchers at Oxford University, the incidence of all cancers was lower among vegetarians than among meat eaters.
Colorectal cancer, however, was found more often among vegetarians.
The team, led by Professor Timothy J. Key, collected data from 52,700 people aged 20 to 89 since 1990 and divided them into three groups – meat eaters, fish eaters and vegetarians.
“We should note that vegetarians and fish eaters have low incidence ratios for cancer. But it is interesting that vegetarians have more possibility to have colorectal cancer. More research is needed to find out whether there is a correlation with meat preventing the cancer,” Key said.
Another study, published in the Journal of American Dietetic Association, suggests that despite its proven benefits, vegetarianism might mask an underlying eating disorder.
Through the research done with 2,516 teens and young adults, twice as many teens and young adults who had been vegetarians were discovered to have used unhealthy means such as diet pills, laxative and diuretics to induce vomiting to control their weight, compared with those who had never been vegetarians.
About 21 percent of teens who had been vegetarians said they used unhealthy weight-control behaviors, while 10 percent of teens who had never been vegetarians said they did.
Among young adults, 27 percent former vegetarians had used such measures while 16 percent current vegetarians and 15 percent of those who’d never been vegetarians did.
“The majority of adolescents and young adults today would benefit from improvements in dietary intake as vegetarians among the participants were generally less likely to be overweight,” said Ramona Robinson-O’Brien, the study’s lead researcher and an assistant professor at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota, United States.
“When guiding adolescent and young adult vegetarians in proper nutrition and meal planning, however, it is important to recognize the potential health benefits and risks associated with a vegetarian diet. It may be beneficial to investigate an individual’s motives for choosing a vegetarian diet,” she added.