Vegetarians' Sex Life
May Suffer If Diet
Is Incomplete
By Adam Pasick
NEW YORK - Vegetarians who don't carefully construct a balanced eating plan may find their meat-free diets have an unfortunate consequence: a low sex drive.
People choose not to eat meat for many reasons. The choice can be spurred by concern for animals or being drawn to the health benefits of forsaking saturated fat-laden steaks and hamburgers.
About 1 percent of the U.S. population never eats red meat, seafood or poultry, according to a 1997 Roper Poll, and as many as 30 percent regularly seek out vegetarians meals.
Experts agree that vegetarian diets can be extremely healthy, but warn that becoming a vegetarian is not as simple as cutting out meat. Careful attention should be paid to replacing the nutrients usually obtained from animal products.
Now, research shows the reasons for that go beyond general nutrition and into sexual health.
Key Nutrients Needed
"My primary concern about vegetarians and sex drive is zinc deficiency," said Ann Louise Gittleman, a nutritionist and author of Guess What Came to Dinner. "It's primarily in meat, dairy and shellfish," which many vegetarians don't consume. Even worse, common vegetarian foods like "whole grains and beans can interfere with the body's ability to absorb zinc," she said.
Without zinc, she said, the body struggles to produce testosterone " the key hormone that sparks sexual desire in both men and women. Warning symptoms, other than a decreased appetite for sex, include white spots on nails and stretch marks, she said.
Good sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds and pecans.
Testosterone Buster
But the sex drive of vegetarians may also be attacked from other dietary quarters. New research suggests that low levels of protein " which can plague vegetarians if they don't get enough foods like tofu or wheat gluten " boosts a body chemical that sucks up the hormone that puts us in the mood.
Low levels of protein are linked to high levels of sex-binding globulin, which locks up testosterone so the body can't use it, according to a study by Dr. Christopher Langcope of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
"Once the testosterone is bound, it's not available to the tissues," he said. Older vegetarians, especially men, take note: The effect may be especially pronounced in older men, whose testosterone levels drop over time under the best of circumstances.
"This is something that actually occurs as they age," Langcope said. "The bioavailable testosterone is decreased," which can also slash levels of red blood cells and bone density. He stressed that his findings did not deal specifically with vegetarians, but rather older men, so further study is needed.
Plenty of Protein
Vegetarian groups say that contrary to the opinion of the meat-eating public, they actually have little problem getting enough protein or most other nutrients in their diets " and they argue the doomsayers who predict libido-impaired vegetarians merely don't understand how complete their diet can be.
The lack of protein "has been focused on too much," said Doug Nelson of the Vegetarian Resource Group. "People think it will be very hard [to get enough protein], but that's not really the case." He said that in addition to beans, tofu and wheat gluten, vegetarians can get protein from "peanut butter, brown rice, any kind of nuts, soy milk, and even oatmeal."
"Nature provides every nutrient your body needs " without meat," said Maureen, a 24-year-old student from Brooklyn who's been a vegetarian for six years. "But it's all about access to the right foods: Society is omnivorous and doesn't always allow easy access to everything you need as a vegetarian, while meat eaters can usually find what they want."
"It's also about your personal decisions about what you consume," she added. "I think omega-3 fatty acids are important, so I eat fish, but a lot of vegetarians don't."
The most hard-to-find nutrient for those who go completely vegan (no meat, seafood or dairy products) is vitamin B-12. Found exclusively in animal products because it is produced by microorganisms that live in animals, a deficit in B-12 can cause "tiredness, breathlessness, listlessness, pallor and poor resistance to infection," according to the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom.
Sex drive may not be directly related to B-12, but tired, pale, out-of-breath vegetarians with the flu should perhaps be worried about their partner's lack of libido.
B-12 is easily available as a dietary supplement, and in Red Star nutritional yeast.


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