Vegetarianism is not a modern-day designer weight loss diet conceived by some doctor, scientist, or entrepreneur like “Atkins,” “Zone,” etc; rather, it is a “diet” in the more literal sense of the word: the food and drink that a person or animal regularly consumes.
In the following text I provide an overview of vegetarianism, and a list of its frequently cited pros and cons.
An Overview of Vegetarianism
Simply put, a vegetarian diet is a plant-based diet that may or may not include dairy products and or eggs. People choose vegetarian fare for myriad reasons. From as far back as we have historical record of the diet (sixth century BCE) to present, many have taken to vegetarianism for the obvious reason that it promotes nonviolence toward animals. Others are vegetarians for health, cultural, religious, political, and or economic reasons.
Vegetarianism comes in a variety of flavors:
- Buddhist Vegetarianism: excludes animal products and vegetables in the allium family (onions, leeks, scallions, shallots, and garlic)
- Fruitarianism: includes only fruit, nuts, and seeds
- Jain Vegetarianism: excludes eggs, honey, and root vegetables
- Lacto Vegetarianism: includes dairy but not eggs
- Ovo Vegetarianism: includes eggs but not dairy
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarianism: includes dairy and eggs
- Macrobiotic: consists of mostly whole grains, beans, and many vegetables; nightshades are generally not included; fish is sometimes included
- Veganism: excludes all animal products and honey, may also exclude use of products tested on animals
- Raw Vegetarianism / Veganism: includes only fresh and uncooked vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds; vegetables can only be cooked to certain temperatures
In addition to the myriad types of “true” vegetarian diets, there is a subgroup of semi-vegetarian diets:
- Pescetarianism: includes fish and certain other seafood
- Pollotariansim: includes poultry
- Pollo-Pescetarianism: includes poultry and fish
Frequently Cited Pros and Cons of Vegetarianism
Vegetarianism is often controversial. Advocates and derogators frequently go at it like congressional politicians. Following, are a few among many of the oft cited pros and cons of vegetarianism.
- The American Dietetic Association states that “well-planned” vegetarian diets are healthy and potentially beneficial. In a position paper they state,
“… appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.”
- The industrial raising of meat animals is a huge contributor to the world’s greenhouse gases; vegetarianism is a great antidote. The New York Times article “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler” states the following:
“Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.”
- The FDA estimates that US livestock are given millions of pounds of antibiotics per year. This creates adaptations of antibiotic resistance that are transferable to humans via meat and dairy consumption. When bacteria become resistant to drugs, many common diseases become difficult to treat. Accordingly, the FDA is trying to lesson the use of antibiotics in agriculture. One large component of this effort is the creation of a draft guidance entitled “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals” that they opened for public comment. Clearly, vegetarianism sidesteps this issue.
- There are a number of peer-reviewed studies that suggest vegetarians live longer than meat eaters. A study posted on the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition website entitled “Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans?” states the following:
“… Prospective cohort data from adults in North America and Europe raise the possibility that a lifestyle pattern that includes a very low meat intake is associated with greater longevity.”
- Vitamin B-12, essential for the healthy functioning of the brain and nervous system, only comes from animal sources.
- Protein, essential for tissue development and repair, is vastly more abundant in animal food sources.
- Cutting out animal based fare drastically diminishes one’s food selection. While there are a number of faux meat products, it is often still difficult for vegetarians to find a profusion of menu stuffs at restaurants and social gatherings.
At the end of the day, both proponents and detractors of vegetarianism raise compelling points. I do not anticipate the herbivore / omnivore debate to subside any time soon. In my opinion, you can make both vegetarian and meat-inclusive diets healthy or unhealthy. I believe one of the primary keys to making either of them healthy is meticulous attention to choosing quality foods. To this end, I give a nod to vegetarianism. I think it is easier to source quality produce—it is often less expensive too—than it is grass-fed, antibiotic-free, meats.