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What is a Vegetarian?

Updated on March 11, 2011

Vegetarianism is the practice of abstaining from flesh foods or from all foods of animal origin.

Those who forgo all animal foods are called vegans, while those who eat eggs and dairy products are sometimes referred to as lacto-ovovegetarians.

Vegetarianism has been practiced for centuries for diverse kinds of reasons. Because of a belief in reincarnation, several ancient religions, including notably Buddhism and Jainism, stress the kinship of man and other animals and accordingly forbid killing, although not always meat eating. Vegetarianism for this reason is still common in India and Southeast Asia.

One of the earliest historical persons associated with vegetarianism was the 6th century B.C. Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who urged abstention from meat as well as from beans and certain other foods. Similar dietary rules were advocated in the 5th century B.C. by Empedocles, another Greek philosopher. In the case of both Pythagoras and Empedocles, abstention from meat may have been related to their belief in the transmigration of souls.

During the long reign of the Roman Empire, various pagan, Jewish, and Christian ascetic sects opposed meat eating as a costly and cruel luxury. For centuries after the fall of the empire, vegetarianism for ascetic reasons in Europe was largely confined to religious orders such as the Cistercians. Even today the rule of the Trappists, a strict Cistercian order, forbids the eating of meat, fish, and eggs except by the sick. Vegetarian Movements. By the 18th century interest in vegetarianism for economic, ethical, and nutritional reasons began to develop. Among the more prominent 18th century advocates of vegetarianism were Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire.

A fonnal vegetarian movement was born in Manchester, England, in 1809, when members of the Bible Christian Church pledged to abstain from alcohol and flesh. In 1847 this sect organized a vegetarian society apart from the church. About the same time, the movement was spreading in other Western countries. Vegetarian societies were founded in the United States in 1850, in Germany in 1867, and in France in 1899.

Because only a few of the millions of vegetarians in the United States are members of vegetarian organizations, the exact extent of the movement is unknown. The American Vegetarian Union, founded in 1949, and the American Vegan Society, founded in 1960, are both affiliated with the International Vegetarian Union, founded in Northern Ireland in 1908.

Adequacy of Vegetarian Diets

It is quite possible, although somewhat difficult, for vegans to obtain all essential nutrients for health. The vegan must take care to include in his diet a proper balance of whole-grain cereals, legumes, nuts and nutlike seeds, and a wide variety of other vegetables and fruis. Variety ensures adequate intake of the more difficult to obtain vitamins (folic acid, B12) and minerals (calcium, iron). Lacto-ovo-vegetarians have no more difficulty in planning an adequate diet than do meat eaters, since eggs and dairy products can provide ample protein, calcium, and B vitamins. The adequacy of the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet gained considerable recognition as a result of the Allied blockade of Germany and Denmark in 1917-1918.

During the blockade, when the Danes were forced to subsist on grain, vegetables, fruits, and dairy foods, they showed both improved health and lower death rates. Similar health benefits appear to have occurred in Norway during World War II, when the Allied blockade drastically curtailed meat imports.

Physical Efficiency of Meatless Diets

H. Schouteden at the University of Belgium conducted tests of the human hand, comparing endurance, strength, and quickness of recovery from fatigue in vegetarians (flesh abstainers) and meat eaters. His findings, published in 1904, indicated that the vegetarians were substantially superior in all three characteristics. These findings stimulated Irving Fisher, an economist at Yale University, to conduct endurance tests comparing athletes accustomed to normal high-protein diets athletes accustomed to meatless low-protein diets, and sedentary persons accustomed to meatless, low protein diets. The tests were to hold the arms horizontally as long as possible, leg raising from a prone face-up position, and deep knee bending.

The results, published in 1907, indicated that the vegetarians had far greater endurance than the meat eaters. Similar tests by J. H. Kellogg at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, published in 1909, confirmed Fisher's findings.

No further scientific studies appear to have been made to confirm or refute these somewhat surprising findings.

The Chemical Analysis of Foods

After about 1900 the chemical analysis of ·foods together with nutritional studies of the importance of various compounds began to provide a scientific basis for nutrition. The essential amino acids were determined, vitamins were isolated, and the importance of iron and other "minerals" was recognized. These findings cast a new light on all types of diets, including vegetarian diets, by changing the emphasis from particular types of foodstuffs to particular nutrients.

For example, nearly all types of vegetable protein, with the notable exception of that from soybeans, were found deficient in certain essential amino acids. This deficiency is often made up in vegetarian diets by combining foods whose proteins supplement each other, &uch as corn and beans or certain other combinations of cereals with legumes.

The biological availability of iron, calcium, zinc, and phosphorus was found to vary widely in different foods. A major factor in this variation was found to be phytic acid, which combines with these minerals to form insoluble salts, called phytates, which are not absorbed by the body.

Since phytic acid is present in large amounts in whole-grain cereals, anemia and other mineral deficiency disorders are common in many regions where the diet is primarily vegetarian and contains a high proportion of such cereals.

On the other hand, vegetarian diets were found to be low in both saturated fats and cholesterol.

In view of the possible connection between these substances and heart disease, many physicians believe that vegetarian diets may lower the incidence of heart disease.


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