“Mongolia: the least vegan place in the world?” That query, from an internet discussion board, is the headline for an amusing and interesting story from this country of 3 million people. Like New Zealand, its human population is vastly out-numbered by its livestock: roughly 12 to 1. Although it is largely Buddhist, Mongolian’s eat meat with gusto. Wrote a reporter from The Economist: “Three kinds of meat top the chart—mutton, beef and goat. Potatoes make a decent showing, above camel meat but below horse meat. Carrots, cabbage and onions all feature, but only as statistical afterthoughts.”
In the UB Post, a Mongolian newspaper, B. Khash-Erdene wrote in an article titled “Is A Vegetarian Diet Suitable for Mongolia?” The story caught my eye because it is often illuminating to read an article about a familiar issue from a different cultural context.
The Mongolian nomadic culture and animal husbandry has helped Mongols survive through many centuries. Since the Mongol lands are hard and brittle, it was difficult to sustain plantation without modern technology and chemical fertilizers. Hence the main source for food and sustenance has always been largely based on meat and dairy products.
It is believed by the Mongolian elderly and conservatives that Mongolian dishes must contain foods with higher calories and vitamins due to the cold, dry and windy climate and that meat and dairy products are suitable for this. Meat is not only the most suitable staple to the Mongolian diet, but also, historically, the most available. Although this is the case, in recent years, especially since the revolution in 1990, foreign trade and open information sources such as the internet and TV have prompted many to reflect on their lifestyles – in this case, what they put into their bodies.
Vegetarianism and Veganism is a growing trend in the world at large. One hears all sorts of famous people from athletes to movie starts transferring to the “no meat” lifestyle for all sorts of different reasons. Some do so for weight control, as they associate meat intake with weight gain. Some have religious reasons, others start feeling strongly about cruelty to animals while some take the spiritual angle—believing that if one wants to live in peace and happiness, then one can’t eat meat, fish, fowl or eggs.
The whole issue of whether the vegetarian lifestyle is healthier than meat eaters is a subject of much debate. One side argues that a vegetarian diet is healthier than eating meat. The other side conjectures that a vegetarian diet lacks the necessary nutrients. Both sides have valid arguments and there is no definitive answer.
Professors at the School Food Engineering and Biotechnology of Mongolian University of Science and Technology were generous with their knowledge and advice when asked about whether the vegetarian diet was truly healthier than meat consuming diets. Professor Oyuntsetseg said, “Several studies show that regular fruit and vegetable consumption reduces the risk of coronary artery disease which is the third most likely causes of death for Mongolians.” She explained that Vegetarians also have lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and Type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians.
She explained that in one study, it was noted that the risk of most cancers was 20 to 50 per cent lower for those with a high consumption of whole grains as compared to those with a low consumption. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. This seems to point that vegetarian diet would greatly benefit Mongols as it seems to eliminate the causes for the most common disease that are the causes for death such as stroke, stomach and liver cancer.
Despite the benefits of vegetarian diets, vegetarians and vegans are at risk of several nutritional deficiencies like those of vitamin B12, iron and calcium. Meat, eggs, and dairy are good sources of these nutrients. Vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in animal food. Iron is especially a concern for vegetarian women in the reproductive age, who are at risk of deficiency due to menstrual losses. Iron and vitamin B12 are essential for formation of red blood cells, maintenance of good hemoglobin levels and proper functioning of the central nervous system.
Dr James LaValle, founding Director of the LaValle Metabolic Institute, one of the largest integrative medicine practices in the U.S. stated, “I do want to acknowledge that meat consumption is less healthy today than in the past. Fats in meats store pesticides and other toxins that occur in the environment. However, I do not feel a massive shift to vegetarian diets would improve our health statistics, especially in the 25 percent or so of the population who are insulin resistant.” Dr LaValle’s recommended “whole and unprocessed plant foods for their lowered health risks. Eat more vegetables and salads, and some fruit and beans, but limit grains and starchy foods to tolerance.”
… the awareness of health and a balanced diet is becoming more important to Mongolians. With this awareness more and more people are aspiring to find a new healthier diet and there is no doubt that vegetarian and vegan diets are among them. Following this new trend more and more vegetarian and vegan restaurants are popping up in Mongolia. The first vegetarian restaurant, Ananda’s Café, opened in 2006. Today there are over 25 vegetarian restaurants in Ulaanbaatar. Every year, more and more vegan and vegetarian restaurants are opening throughout Mongolia.
One of the 130 Loving Hut Restaurants throughout the world, 25 are in Mongolia, specifically with 15 in Ulaanbaatar. There are currently an estimated 2,500 vegans in Mongolia. It is unsure how many vegetarians are in Mongolia. As a vegan for five years and a correspondent of the UB Post, Undraa explains that the Loving Hut’s Association’s biggest goal for Mongolians is to not only eat vegan but to also live vegan and organic. “In Mongolia, we have so much land, yet most of our fruits and vegetables are coming from China. We should plant our own vegetables in our own soil… In fact, right now, many of our association members are planting sea-buckthorn seeds…”
The exaggerated claims and studies that promote vegetarianism such as “vegetarians are more intelligent than non vegetarians” seemed to have been made by people who are largely vegetarian. Whether no meat consumption and purely plant-based diet will give you more energy and health is yet to be sufficiently proven in my opinion. And frankly from my own experience with vegetarians and meat eaters, I do not see that much difference between them. For the moment, I see vegetarianism and veganism as a lifestyle and choice. I for one will not give up meat for claims yet to be proven and I do not see anything wrong with eating “dead animal flesh” as they say.
I do not live to eat but eat to live. Does this justify human’s killing animals? I think yes, because it is the way of the nature. While it would be vulgar to label ourselves predators, we have to acknowledge that we are carnivores. It would be close to impossible to make it through the harsh winters of Mongolia in the rural areas without meat. Farmers and herders rely on meat as their mandatory food source not just because it is tasty but because it is a necessity for them. And it is difficult to picture a Mongolian traditional dish without it, so I guess it is part of our heritage and culture. As one of the hardcore meat-eating Mongols, I cannot imagine living without meat. But obviously we can survive without it if we choose to. Right now in Mongolia, the meat cost is high. It might even be economically wise to become a vegetarian or even cut back on it. One thing we can be sure of is we cannot force everyone not to eat meat because it is a necessity for some. But those of us who have a choice are free to decide.