In our modern Western culture it seems that a new fad diet is being released every few weeks. Many of these diets are geared toward weight loss or other aesthetic benefits but vegetarianism is different – it is simply a healthy way of life. In simple terms, a vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat but in reality it is much more complex.
People become vegetarian for a variety of different reasons, both medical/dietary and political/environmental. If you have ever considering becoming a vegetarian, take the time to learn about what this kind of lifestyle entails as well as the associated benefits and challenges. Once you have fully educated yourself on the ups and downs of being a vegetarian you will be able to make an informed decision as to whether it is the right lifestyle for you.
Why do People Switch?
The reasons people switch to a vegetarian diet can be divided into three main categories: environmental/political, personal health and ethics. In terms of environmental/political concerns, many vegetarians are also advocates for the responsible use of natural resources. Producing meat-based foods uses up anywhere between 22 and 75 calories of fossil fuel per 1 calorie of meat protein while it only takes 1 calorie of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of soybeans.
On a similar note, it takes as much as 15 times more water to produce animal protein than plant protein and thousands of acres of forest are being destroyed every year to make room for raising livestock. Though these reasons may not be the primary reason why many vegetarians make the switch, they are often a contributing factor.
Personal health and ethics are two of the most common reasons why people switch to a vegetarian diet. Studies have shown that vegetarian diets are much lower in unhealthy fats and cholesterol than traditional meat-based diets. A vegetarian diet is also more likely to be nutrient-rich, providing the body with the vitamins and minerals that cannot often be derived from animal sources.
Thinking about the healthy things that plant foods contain is just as important as the things they do not contain. Meat from livestock is often exposed to drugs like antibiotics, sterols and growth hormones which can be harmful to humans if ingested.
Animal foods may also contain pathogenic microorganisms, worms and other parasites that could be passed on through human consumption. In addition to preventing exposure to these dangers, a vegetarian diet has also been linked to reduced risk for serious diseases like cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Many people make the switch to a vegetarian diet as a means of protesting factory farming and the cruel treatment of livestock by the meat industry. Individuals who follow a vegetarian diet often express a love for animals and a respect for sentient life. Some individuals who ascribe to a nonviolent way of life become vegetarian as a protest against the violence of animal slaughter.
Other people may adopt a less specific ethical attitude toward vegetarianism, simply believing that a vegetarian diet is a more natural diet and that it feels “right” to them in a way eating meat never did.
Variations on Vegetarian Diets
When you hear the term “vegetarian” you probably think of a person who doesn’t eat meat. While this may be true, there is actually a great deal more to vegetarianism than you might think – in fact, there are six different kinds of vegetarianism.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: Consumes dairy, eggs, vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and seeds. Does not eat red meat, poultry or fish.
Lacto-vegetarian: Consumes dairy, vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and seeds. Does not eat red meat, poultry, pork or fish.
Ovo-vegetarian: Consumes eggs, vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and seeds. Does not eat red meat, poultry, pork or fish.
Pesco-vegetarian: Consumes seafood, eggs, dairy, vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and seeds. Does not eat red meat, poultry or pork.
Pollo-vegetarian: Consumes poultry, eggs, dairy, vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and seeds. Does not eat red meat, pork or seafood.
Semi-vegetarian: Consumes eggs, dairy, vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and seeds. On occasion, consumes red meat, pork, poultry and seafood.
Vegan: Consumes vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds. Does not consume eggs, dairy, red meat, poultry, pork, seafood or animal byproducts.
Fruitarian: Consumes raw fruit, grains and nuts. Rarely consumes processed or cooked foods. Does not consume red meat, poultry, pork, seafood, eggs, dairy or parts of a plant that result in the death of the plant.
There are many health benefits that have been associated with vegetarian diets. In fact, individuals suffering from chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes are often recommended for a plant-based diet in order to improve or reverse their symptoms. Below you will find an explanation of some of the most significant health benefits a vegetarian diet has to offer:
Improved Cardiovascular Health: Heart disease is the number one killer of women and it has been linked to meat consumption. Meat products are often high in saturated fat which contributes to elevated LDL levels and increased risk for coronary heart disease.
Cancer Prevention: While vegetarianism cannot be considered a “cure” for cancer, following a vegetarian diet has been linked to reduced risk for several different types of cancer. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer found that women who ate red meat had a higher risk for developing breast cancer than women who did not. Consumption of meat has also been linked to gastric, pancreatic, prostate and colon cancers.
Healthy Weight Maintenance: A vegetarian diet is naturally lower in calories than the traditional meat-based diet simply because plant-based foods have fewer calories than meat-based foods. Plant foods are nutrient rich and high in fiber which helps keep you full and less likely to snack during the day. A study conducted by Imperial College London found that individuals who ate 250 grams of meat per day gained more weight over a five year period than individuals who did not, even if overall calorie intake was the same.
Increased Longevity: Studies have shown that following a vegetarian diet as opposed to the traditional American diet can extend your life by as much as 13 years. According to Michael F. Roizen, MD, individuals who consume saturated fats from animal sources are likely to have shorter lives and to experience disability at the end of their lives.
Decreased Risk for Food-Borne Illness: According to the CDC, food-borne illnesses account for over 75 million illnesses each year and as many as 5,000 deaths in the United States alone. The FDA states that meat-based foods are often linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness.
Challenges of Vegetarianism
While a vegetarian diet is typically high in fiber and other valuable nutrients, vegetarians sometimes struggle to achieve their recommended daily dosage of certain vitamins and minerals. Complete proteins, for example, can only come from eggs, milk and soy.
In order to get enough protein, vegetarians must consume a variety of foods containing incomplete proteins. Vitamin B-12, a vitamin essential for healthy blood cell formation, is only found in animal foods.
Vegetarians who consume eggs or dairy products generally do not have a problem getting enough Vitamin B-12 but individuals who do not consume any animal foods may need to take supplements. The same is true to Vitamin D – this vitamin is helpful in absorbing calcium which is essential for the healthy growth of bones and teeth.
Vitamin D can only be gotten from egg yolks, milk, liver and sun exposure. Vegetarians who eat no animal products at all can only achieve their recommended dosage of Vitamin D from supplements and sun exposure.
It is also important to note that a vegetarian diet is not, by definition, healthy. Like any diet, it is essential that you take in a balance of nutrients to nourish your body.
Just because many vegetarians primarily eat fruits and vegetables that doesn’t mean that there aren’t unhealthy vegetarian options out there. Many vegetarians struggle with overindulgence in carbohydrates which, if cooked in butter or fried, can be very unhealthy.
In order for a vegetarian diet to be healthy it should contain complex carbohydrates like bread and rice; moderate consumption of dairy and soy products; low consumption of fats, sugar and salt; and regular consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Being healthy as a vegetarian requires a great deal of thought and planning to ensure that your daily nutritional needs are met.
Making the Switch
Now that you have familiarized yourself with the basics of the vegetarian lifestyle and have educated yourself on some of its benefits and challenges you should be equipped to make the decision for yourself. Is becoming a vegetarian the right choice for you? If so, what type of vegetarian diet will you follow?
Remember that just because you make the switch to a vegetarian diet does not necessarily mean you are switching to a healthier diet. It is up to you to make sure that you provide your body with a balance of healthy nutrients on a daily basis. If you do, however, you will find that the vegetarian lifestyle is both enjoyable and beneficial.