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Vegetarianism and Body Chemistry: A Research Report

By Dr. Paul C. Eck and Dr. Larry Wilson




Vegetarianism, as a way of life, is definitely on the rise, with more books and articles published on the subject with each passing year. Many of the articles refer to the superior health of the vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists, as well as to the humanitarian or spiritual advantages of vegetarianism. However, my research forces me to conclude that caution is warranted regarding vegetarian diets. This article discusses why people are attracted to vegetarianism, biochemical changes that occur on vegetarian diets, and when vegetarian diets are appropriate.

Before discussing specifics, a working definition of vegetarianism is needed. For convenience, we will define a vegetarian as a person who eats animal protein less than 3 times a week, or more definitively, as a person who has developed an aversion to meat protein, particularly red meat protein. This is an arbitrary definition, but will serve our purpose for this article.

Several research conclusions have emerged regarding vegetarian diets:

  • Specific, measurable changes in body chemistry, most notably adrenal gland insufficiency and exhaustion, are critical factors today in converting more and more Americans to a vegetarian lifestyle. That is, body chemistry can determine one’s food preferences.

  • Copper-toxic mothers are bearing children who, due to copper toxicity, have impaired adrenal glands from the time of birth.

  • Vegetarianism can be both a cause and a result of deviant changes in body chemistry.

  • Many vegetarians don't feel well, or they feel better for a while, but in time experience a relapse of increased fatigue, digestive problems, food allergies, mental depression, premenstrual tension, migraine headaches, and numerous other distressing symptoms and metabolic dysfunctions.

What can account for the conflicting reports on vegetarianism, and when is the elimination of meat protein a wise health choice? The purpose of this article is not to be pro- or anti-vegetarian, but to present the facts uncovered in clinical practice. A major problem with many of the recent books on vegetarianism is that they are based on romantic or humanitarian concepts, or animal analogies, which cannot be rigorously applied to human beings living in the 1990's. Nutrition is a complex subject and much harm can be done to one's health by assuming that nutrition is a simplistic science.

This article is a report resulting from statistical research data provided by Analytical Research Labs, where several thousand vegetarian mineral profiles have been carefully analyzed. The measured tissue mineral patterns correlated with both physical and emotional symptoms commonly associated with vegetarianism.

Also see Vegetarianism: Is It The Right Choice?

The Biochemistry of Vegetarianism

Vegetarian Mineral Profiles

In analyzing thousands of mineral profiles of vegetarians, several distinct tissue mineral patterns emerge. By understanding these mineral patterns, much can be learned about the effects of vegetarian diets, and which mineral patterns cause people to prefer the vegetarian way of eating. Tissue mineral patterns seen in vegetarians are listed below, from the most common to the least common:

  • Slow Oxidation Rate, defined as elevated hair calcium and magnesium levels in relation to the sodium and potassium levels.

  • Adrenal Insufficiency, defined as a hair sodium level less than 10 mg% and potassium level less than 3 mg%.

  • Elevated Copper Level, defined as a hair copper greater than 4.0 mg% or a zinc/copper ratio less than 5/1.

  • Low Zinc Level, defined as a hair zinc level less than 12 mg%.

  • Low Phosphorus Level, defined as a hair phosphorus level less than 12 mg%.

  • Four Low Electrolytes, defined as a hair calcium less than 40 mg%, magnesium less than 6 mg%, sodium less than 25 mg% and potassium less than 10 mg%.

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  • Adrenal Burnout, indicated by a hair sodium-to-potassium ratio less than 2.3/1.

Let us explore each of these tissue mineral patterns in relation to vegetarianism.

Slow Oxidation and Vegetarianism

Dr. George Watson defined slow oxidation in his book, Nutrition and Your Mind, as a state in which the body metabolizes or burns food at a slower-than-normal rate. The principal cause of slow oxidation is a decreased ability of the body to produce sufficient energy to adequately cope with stress. This is associated with exhaustion of both the adrenal and thyroid glands. In other words, the individual suffers from adrenal insufficiency and hypothyroid-induced energy depletion.

Individuals suffering from adrenal insufficiency suffer from impaired utilization of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Is it any wonder that fats and proteins in the diet are shunned? Gluconeogenesis (the conversion of amino and fatty acids to glucose) is impaired. One of the effects of decreased gluconeogenesis is a marked increase in glycogen (stored sugar) in the liver cells.

A decrease in cortisol secretion makes it difficult for the individual to maintain normal serum glucose concentration because he cannot synthesize significant quantities of glucose by gluconeogenesis. The result often is chronic hypoglycemia.

Furthermore, cortisol deficiency reduces the mobilization of both proteins and fats from the tissues, thereby depressing other metabolic functions of the body.

One of the cardinal characteristics of a slow oxidation rate is a relative inability to properly metabolize fat, particularly animal fats. There is a deficiency of essential nutrients in the energy production system. This causes an inability to properly metabolize fats in the Krebs cycle.

In view of the above information, I have proposed that many individuals today are obligatory vegetarians. That is, their food choice is biologically dictated. They feel better on a low-fat diet, and thus on less red meat. In confirmation of this view, we have observed that as an individual's metabolic rate increases through corrective lifestyle changes (mainly nutritional), an increased desire for animal protein develops!

Adrenal Insufficiency — very low sodium and potassium levels

An overwhelming number of vegetarian mineral analysis profiles reveal extremely low sodium and potassium levels. This particular mineral pattern is indicative of significant underactivity of the adrenal glands. It is known that the secretion of the adrenal hormones, aldosterone and cortisol, play a critical role in maintaining optimal levels of sodium and potassium in body tissues.

Adrenal insufficiency and a more extreme condition, adrenal burnout, have reached epidemic proportions. Vegetarianism has increased proportionately. To understand vegetarianism, one must understand and consider the multiple causes of adrenal burnout. A person in burnout will be very attracted to vegetarianism as a lifestyle.

Causes of adrenal burnout are many. They include depleted soil, refined foods, junk-food diets, air and water pollution, toxic metals and other types of physical and emotional stressors.

Two principal reasons why vegetarianism is associated with adrenal exhaustion are:

  • Vegetarianism may be the result of underactive adrenal glands. As adrenal function declines for any reason, one's ability to properly metabolize and utilize dietary protein and fats proportionally declines.

    Normal or adequate adrenal activity is necessary to activate many liver functions.

    Sluggish adrenal gland activity is frequently associated with sluggish liver activity, interfering with the livers' many digestive functions. Dietary fat requires a longer time to process or digest. If digestion is sluggish or impaired, the ingestion of fats and meat protein will tend to produce a feeling of 'heaviness' and abdominal distension.

  • Vegetarianism may be a secondary cause of exhausted adrenal glands. This can occur because:

    • Many vegetarians, especially those who are copper toxic, do not eat well, do not combine proteins properly, and may be anorectic as this is associated with copper imbalance.

    • Even on the most carefully planned diets, vegetarian diets often are deficient in specific nutrients such as zinc, thiamine, niacin, carnitine and taurine which are found mainly in animal protein. Over a period of time, these nutrient deficiencies can significantly contribute to further adrenal exhaustion.

    • Reduced protein intake, especially animal protein, can, over a period of time, result in protein starvation. This will affect the adrenals and all body tissues.

We find that restoration of adrenal gland activity is essential for these individuals to regain and maintain health. Unfortunately, vegetarian diets, especially a strict vegetarian diet, are usually deficient in vital nutrients necessary to restore optimal adrenal activity. However, if one needs a vegetarian diet, increasing one's protein intake has been proven to be beneficial.

Elevated Copper Level, Low Zinc/copper Ratio and Vegetarianism

An elevated tissue copper level, as determined by tissue mineral analysis, is related to vegetarianism in several ways. Copper toxicity can be a cause or a result of vegetarianism. Vegetarian proteins such as beans, seeds and nuts are relatively higher in copper and lower in zinc, than are animal proteins.

Excessive tissue copper, particularly in the brain, is a frequent cause of spaciness, detachment, and a dimming of awareness, which many philosophical vegetarians mistake for increased 'spirituality' resulting from the elimination of meat protein from their diet.

Conversely, an elevated tissue copper level can also cause a person to become a vegetarian. Exhaustion of the adrenal glands results in an increased storage of copper in the liver which results in impaired liver function. One's ability to derive adequate energy levels from fat, protein and complex carbohydrates is impaired and one's rate of metabolism (energy production) is slowed. Is it any wonder that such a person feels much better on a low-fat, low protein, high carbohydrate, vegetarian regimen?

Optimal copper metabolism depends upon adequate production of ceruloplasmin. Ceruloplasmin is the main copper binding protein in the body. It allows copper to be transported and used in the body. Ceruloplasmin synthesis depends upon adequate adrenal and liver activity. Impaired adrenal glands will cause copper to become unavailable and to accumulate in body tissues.

Low Zinc and Vegetarianism

Zinc is found most abundantly in animal proteins, especially beef. Due to an antagonism between the minerals zinc and copper, excessive copper will displace zinc in enzymes which are zinc dependent. In this way, a zinc deficiency can be a result of following a strict vegetarian diet.

Vegetarian diets, of necessity, place a great value on the eating of grains, which are high in both fiber and phytate. The respected text, Trace Elements in Human Health and Disease, Vol. 1, by A. Prasad, discusses the effect of grains upon zinc:

"Starch, wheat proteins, and fiber, the major components of whole-meals, remove considerable amounts of zinc. Binding of zinc by the fiber of wheat is particularly important, because in contrast to other components, fiber is not degraded by the digestive secretions. As a result, zinc and other metals remain attached to it and in this state are transported into the large intestine from which absorption does not occur. Ultimately, they are lost in the feces. Only that zinc which is transported to the cell, whether as an enzyme cofactor or bound to a membrane or other metabolically active form, is of any significant value to the body. Considerable zinc is not absorbed, or if absorbed is not efficiently utilized by the body and is quickly excreted..."

Phytates are organic phosphorus compounds, which bind zinc, calcium and magnesium in the intestines, rendering these essential nutrients bio-unavailable, thus worsening a vegetarian's copper-induced zinc deficiency.

A zinc deficiency, whether due to stress, ingestion of junk food, or inheritance of a zinc deficiency from birth due to a zinc-deficient parent can also be a cause for adopting a vegetarian diet. Because zinc is required for certain pancreatic digestive enzymes, e.g., carboxypeptidase A and B, a zinc deficiency will result in a digestive enzyme deficiency. This may cause a reduced ability to digest animal proteins and fats.

Low Tissue Phosphorus Level

A low tissue phosphorus level, as determined from a tissue mineral analysis, is an excellent indicator of inadequate protein metabolism, or inadequate protein ingestion, or both. Reasons why a low phosphorus level is often a result of vegetarianism are as follows:

  • Many vegetarians eat inadequate amounts of protein, or poor-quality protein.
  • Vegetarians with low sodium and potassium levels (adrenal insufficiency) suffer from varying degrees of gastric hydrochloric acid deficiency. The result is impaired protein digestion and utilization.
  • A low zinc level or zinc deficiency, so characteristic of vegetarian diets, can result in a low phosphorus level because zinc is required for an enzyme intimately involved in protein synthesis - RNA transferase.
  • An excess of unbound (ionic) copper, due to diminished ceruloplasmin synthesis, will cause a dissolution of sulfide-sulfide bonds of proteins, thus contributing to poor protein utilization.

As with the other mineral patterns, a low tissue phosphorus level may also be a contributing cause of vegetarianism. Inadequate protein metabolism from other causes may contribute to one's inability to properly metabolize fats and animal proteins.

Also, inadequate protein intake or metabolism may cause fatigue and contribute to thyroid and adrenal insufficiency. This can cause an attraction to vegetarianism.

Four Low Electrolytes and Vegetarianism

A four low electrolyte pattern (a low calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium level) is frequently associated with one type of adrenal exhaustion. Individuals with this particular mineral pattern may be attracted to vegetarianism because of an impaired ability to digest animal proteins.

Vegetarian diets can also cause a four-low-electrolyte pattern because a deficiency of nutrients (particularly zinc) in animal protein contributes to exhaustion of the adrenal glands.

Low Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio

A low sodium/potassium ratio is commonly noted in vegetarians, particularly those who are copper-toxic. Again, such a ratio can be a cause or a result of a strict adherence to a vegetarian diet.

A low sodium/potassium ratio, as determined from a tissue mineral analysis, represents a trend for many metabolic dysfunctions including liver dysfunction, adrenal exhaustion, digestive disturbances, allergies, migraine headaches, premenstrual syndrome, infections and impaired fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism.

Vegetarian diets deficient in certain vital nutrients can contribute to adrenal exhaustion, as explained above. Conversely, a low sodium/potassium ratio can result in obligatory vegetarianism. In adrenal burnout, fat and protein digestion is impaired. Also, this particular metabolic imbalance invariably produces a craving for foods high in sugar, starch and copper - the vegetarian foods.

Nutritional Imbalances That Occur on Vegetarian Diets

Vegetarian diets can theoretically be nutritionally complete. However, they are generally deficient in zinc and B-complex vitamins. Even if dietary zinc and vitamin B-1 are present in adequate amounts, the excessive accumulation of copper in the tissues destroys vitamin B-1, B-6 and vitamin C. A zinc deficiency also results due to displacement of zinc from tissue binding sites. Copper also depresses potassium levels and glucocorticoid hormone secretion. This contributes to many metabolic dysfunctions and symptoms common to vegetarians.

The Return of Physical Symptoms.

While a person may feel better initially on a vegetarian regime, within a given time, depending largely on one's degree of adrenal insufficiency, one's temporary energy increase again begins to decline. This occurs because the initial cause of the adoption of a vegetarian lifestyle (adrenal insufficiency) has merely been palliated, not corrected. Physical symptoms which begin to return may include excessive craving for sweets, low blood pressure, loss of appetite, acne, intestinal gas, food allergies, and impaired digestion.

The Return of Emotional Symptoms.

Emotional symptoms may also return, usually concomitant with a return of physical symptoms. Emotional symptoms may include a return or worsening of mental depression, apathy, diminished sexual desire, spaciness, anxieties, mood swings, and a rigid personality pattern.

Tissue mineral analysis, when properly performed and interpreted, can help identify the tendencies for these conditions and trace their origins.

Various Aspects Of The Vegetarian Lifestyle From A Biochemical View

Night Owls And Insomnia

It is not uncommon for vegetarians to suffer from anxiety, especially those who are copper-toxic. Some vegetarians find they are anxious around people or driving their car—especially on freeways. Such responses are intimately associated with a zinc-deficiency-induced copper toxicity. This stimulates brain activity and can induce hypoglycemia, resulting in anxiety. Many copper-toxic individuals prefer evening and nighttime activities when the crowds have thinned out. When this condition becomes severe, agoraphobia results. This is a fear of open, public places or of situations where crowds are found.

Copper-toxic individuals often have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. By evening, they develop a burst of energy and feel quite well. This lifestyle pattern is a frequent manifestation of sluggish adrenal glands, which slow down excessively overnight resulting in excessive fatigue in the early morning hours. Throughout the day, the adrenal glands are stimulated by activity. By evening, they are functioning well enough to provide an increased level of energy to the individual.

Blotchy Skin

Many vegetarians, particularly those who are copper-toxic, experience extreme difficulty achieving a sun tan. A deficiency of bio-available copper causes a blotchy skin when exposed to the sun. Copper is intimately involved in melanin synthesis, the protein which is responsible for skin pigmentation.

The Phytate 'Kick'

Vegetarians often increase their intake of grains to offset a diminished or total restriction of meat protein intake. The phytates in the grains bind calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron and cause these vital minerals to be eliminated rather than be absorbed. A high-phytate diet may cause a temporary energy boost for two reasons:

  • Most vegetarians have an elevated tissue calcium level. Phytates bind some dietary calcium, and thus help lower tissue calcium. This may temporarily increase one’s energy.

  • Phytates also bind zinc. In the short term, lowering zinc can cause a temporary rise in the tissue sodium level, which will result in an energy boost.

Sugar Cravings

Vegetarians often crave sweets, especially chocolate. A deficiency of animal protein slows metabolism. Lowered adrenal activity results in hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Especially when one is fatigued, or before the menstrual period, hypoglycemia can become severe.

Dairy Cravings

Many vegetarians report that at certain times they develop a craving for dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt. Biochemically, these foods can serve several roles. Many vegetarians have biounavailable calcium. By providing available calcium, dairy products can serve to induce relaxation. Extra calcium may also reduce copper elimination, and thereby have a calming effect. L-tryptophan in milk may also induce relaxation. Also, if the sodium-to-potassium ratio is low, additional calcium will temporarily help to normalize this ratio.

Why the Attraction to Vegetarianism?

When one begins a vegetarian diet, one often experiences a feeling of both physical and emotional euphoria for a variety of reasons:

  • A reduction in fat, as a result of decreased meat intake, temporarily results in an increase in one's metabolic rate. This, in turn, results in a temporary energy increase.
  • A reduction in zinc intake, resulting from lower red meat consumption, minimizes many of the distressing symptoms related to the elimination of excess copper from various tissue storage sites, principally the liver and brain. Zinc, a noted copper antagonist, enhances the release of tissue bound copper.
  • An increase in dietary copper intake, by enhancing endorphin secretion, serves to lower one's awareness of distressing symptoms associated with adrenal insufficiency and copper toxicity. This can cause a euphoric feeling.
  • A diet high sugar and carbohydrates provides much needed 'instant energy', which may give rise to a euphoric feeling.
  • The high phytate (phosphorous) content of grains may result in a temporary energy boost. The high phosphorous content of grains substitutes for the high phosphorous content of meat protein.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Vegetarian Diets

There can be little doubt that a vegetarian lifestyle is advantageous to those suffering from an adrenal insufficiency problem and illnesses associated with this. If they are well-designed, vegetarian diets tend to be higher in fiber, lower in cholesterol, less taxing to digest, less expensive, and without hormones and antibiotics that are added to animal feed.

However, it is necessary to point out that most of these advantages can be obtained from meat-containing diets as well. Fiber can be obtained from vegetables and whole grains. Meat can be obtained that is hormone-free. Some of the most heavily sprayed foods are fruits and vegetables. Also, it is not universally true that vegetarian diets are easier to digest. Many individuals find vegetarian proteins, such as beans, more difficult to digest.

The Cholesterol Controversy

Concerning the cholesterol question, we have found that a high blood serum cholesterol level has more to do with a dysfunction of body chemistry (hypothyroidism in particular) than with one's diet. Eskimos, for example, eating a primitive diet, have low cholesterol levels as compared to our current medical standards. They also have an extremely low incidence of heart disease and even cancer when eating their native diet of almost exclusively meat protein and fats.

Vegetarians are proud to claim that they have a much lower cholesterol level than meat eaters. To a vegetarian, this is proof that a vegetarian diet is superior to a diet that includes flesh foods. However, a vegetarian's low serum cholesterol may be more the result of an adrenocortical insufficiency, with an accompanying inability to synthesize cholesterol, than the benefits of a vegetarian diet.

We have also noted some vegetarians, consuming little or no cholesterol in their food whatsoever, have excessively high blood serum cholesterol levels due principally to decreased thyroid activity (low rate of metabolism). A reduction in adrenal activity results in diminished levels of cholesterol synthesis in the liver. A reduction in thyroid function results in a failure to adequately convert cholesterol to steroid hormones.

The pro-vegetarian literature provides a romantic picture of the advantages of vegetarianism. However, Dr. Weston Price, D.D.S., in a worldwide search for the healthiest human populations, stated in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, that not a single totally vegetarian group could be found that was in excellent health. Many groups ate only small quantities of animal protein, but would actually stop their wars with neighboring tribes when the fishing or hunting season arrived, to obtain animal protein.

The Copper-Toxic Generation — Born a Vegetarian

A common misconception exists that only adults experience the symptoms that would attract them to vegetarianism. However, today many mothers with stress-induced zinc deficiencies, excess copper and other nutritional imbalances, are bearing children who are born in burnout or close to it.

As a result, many children dislike eating meat protein from the time they are babies. Having a baby who dislikes meat does not mean you have a very spiritual child. More likely, you have a child whose body chemistry has been impaired, perhaps from birth.


Vegetarianism exerts potent effects on one's body chemistry. For certain people, at certain times, vegetarianism is the best and possibly the only choice they have until they improve their health. However, a diet containing animal protein is more well-rounded and nutritionally complete. In our experience, full recovery of health for most people requires incorporating some animal protein into the diet, when it can be handled.

Many vegetarians are truly interested in living a healthier, longer life. It is heartbreaking to see many spend their life misinformed and fearful of eating certain foods. The fear itself has a negative effect upon health. Insights provided by modern biochemistry can help us gain a scientific appreciation of vegetarianism, and to know when it is an appropriate regimen for optimum health.

Copyright © 1987, 1997 - The Eck Institute of Applied Nutrition and Bioenergetics, Ltd.

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