Vegetarianism is a diet (and sometimes lifestyle) wherein a person restricts food consumption to primarily or solely not-meat, or sometimes even non-animal, sources. Vegetarianism has been central to a great many fad diets over the years, as well as numerous religious and ethical dietary principles. While not woo in and of itself, vegetarianism has long been considered an eccentricity (or at the least non-normative, as vegetarians are a minority) and is closely associated with a number of forms of quackery. It is becoming increasingly associated with the environmentalist movement. Nevertheless, science has demonstrated that a well-planned and supplemented vegetarian diet can replace an omnivorous diet, and even prevent some health issues.
Types of vegetarianism
Vegetarian diets can be broken down in several ways, the most common being by allowed foods and reasons for vegetarianism.
“”Two legs good! Four legs bad!
|—George Orwell, Animal Farm|
- Flexitarian — A primarily vegetable diet with some animal products (usually dairy and fish and/or poultry ("fins and feathers"), but often no red meat) allowed. Flexitarians may choose to eat meat if they are satisfied with the health and life-quality of the animal killed, or when the meat is particularly delicious. The most common variant is pescatarian referring to eating only fish, as many view fish as being "lesser" and not having the same fears, hopes and dreams as mammals or birds; this is a misconception on fish, however, as fish are vastly cognitively underestimated. Furthermore, virtually every fish in the ocean is a carnivore, so it's all fair game. This is frequently considered not truly vegetarian.
- Freegan — No meat or other animal products allowed, unless they are given away or saved from being thrown away. The primary motivation here seems to be to not support the meat industry financially. Often part of a broader lifestyle of trying to live "free" by mooching or salvaging wherever possible.
Vegetarian diets by foods allowed
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian — A primarily vegetable diet with only dairy and eggs allowed (i.e. products that do not require the death of an animal).
- Lacto vegetarian — Dairy is allowed, but not eggs (because of chick culling i.e. slaughter of non-egg-laying chicks in the egg industry).
- Vegan — No animal products consumed or allowed at all, including animal products used in clothing. Typically extends to things like honey as well, since it comes from bees.
- Fruitarian — A subset of veganism allowing only fruit (i.e. that which can be eaten without damaging the plant).
There are other classifications, though these are the most widely recognized.
Less well known (and not vegetarian)
- Capratarian — DFTT
Vegetarian diets by reason
People become vegetarian for many different reasons, sometimes a combination of these below:
- Affection — Born of a combination of sympathy for a variety of cute, but tasty, critters, and an overweening desire to be seen as compassionate and caring. Resolve sometimes disintegrates upon the proffering of a kitten sandwich.
- Distaste — Some people just don't like the taste of meat.
- Ethical — Ethical vegetarians do not eat meat due to the desire to not destroy animal life, not damage the environment, not promote use of land for primarily the wealthy, not support factory farming, etc.
- Hatred — Some people really, really hate vegetables and want all of them to die.
- Love — Some people just really like vegetables, and only want to eat them. Actually,
no onevery few people like vegetables that much.
- Medical — Either on doctor's orders because they cannot tolerate meat or as part of some sort of alt-med diet.
- Religious — Some religions require partial or total vegetarian diets for some or all of their believers. There is more to be said below.
- Subsistence — Vegetarian by default for the most part, subsistence vegetarians generally cannot afford or cannot obtain meat. Such diets are common in poverty-stricken areas of the world, and according to some futurists and science fiction writers, may be the normal state of existence for any future off-world human colonists. Generally, even poor people will access some animal products at some point, but they will be limited to a few special times of the year or only some animal products such as the occasional egg.
Many religions impose dietary restrictions on some or all of their believers, the most notable forms in the west being Kashrut in Judaism, Halal in Islam, and Lent abstinent restrictions in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity; the strictest of the "Abrahamic" restrictions is in Oriental Orthodox Christianity (chiefly the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches), where during the extensive fasting season (they go way, way beyond Lent), the Oriental Orthodox are supposed to be vegan (although in one of the world's greatest pleasant surprises, this resulted in the creation of falafel, which people will eat even if they don't have to). Some more modern Christian sects (Seventh-day Adventism in particular), otherwise divorced from Catholic or Orthodox restrictions, prescribe flexitarian or vegetarian diets for their followers as well. In eastern religions, Hinduism traditionally prescribes different diets for different castes, with the highest castes (as well as many adherents of the Jain faith) required to eat very strict vegetarian diets that often exclude even root vegetables such as onions.
Religious vegetarianism sometimes spills over into medical vegetarianism, with significant representatives including Georges Ohsawa's macrobiotic diet (derived from Buddhism and Taoism) and John Harvey Kellogg's Battle Creek diet (derived from Seventh-Day Adventism and Ellen G. White's teachings on food).
There is considerable debate over the permissibility of vegetarianism in some religions, particularly Islam (where it is said "that which is permitted cannot be forbidden," implying to some that a vegetarian diet is sinful) and some Christian denominations. While some authorities find it disrespectful of God's bounty, others (particularly strict adherents to kosher or halal diets) consider it the only acceptable way to eat in a situation filled with gentile food of unknown status.
Vegetarianism is sometimes engaged in for medical reasons, especially in situations where meat is not well-tolerated by the patient, or where the patient is trying to lower his or her cholesterol. Cutting out red meat in particular is known to reduce chances of cardiovascular disease, obesity and bowel cancer. Vegetarianism also, obviously, eliminates the risk of contracting meat-borne illnesses such as mad cow disease.
However, medical vegetarianism is too often the province of quacks. Many alternative medicine practitioners have recommended vegetarian diets for many of their patients; Martin Gardner discussed the matter at some length in chapter 18 of his seminal Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. A great deal of propaganda goes along with alternate vegetarianism; Gardner wrote of some vegetarian activists of the 1950s talking about the phantom threat of "necrones" (a never-defined alleged property of meat), while others have selectively interpreted features of the omnivorously-adapted human digestive system to support the idea that humans are really meant to be plant-eaters.
A subset of medical vegetarianism is raw foodism, the idea that raw foods are healthier for the human body due to the presence of more active enzymes. In practice, these enzymes, having evolved to work in a plant environment, do little or nothing in the human body, and are also destroyed in the digestion process. In addition, raw foodism tends to be ignorant of the fact that cooking and other forms of processing actually destroys significant amounts of toxins (real toxins, not the imaginary ones invented by alties) such as cyanogens in manioc, as well as protease inhibitors and lectins in legumes, along with reducing some complex proteins and polysaccharides to more digestible forms. A sizable number of raw foodists are also "juicers", consumers of large quantities of fresh vegetable juice. A major guru in this area is Jay Kordich, aka "Jay the Juiceman."
Note that raw foodism is a modern phenomenon; raw food would not be popular in the days before farmers discovered how to make raw vegetables taste like anything other than a mouthful of disgusting. The older folks might remember when broccoli was nasty-tasting. That bitter taste? That's your taste buds detecting the alkaloid poisons, but we've recently bred less poisonous plants that can be enjoyed raw without causing nausea. Also note that such plants would not have been possible to breed in ancient times; plants needed their poisons to prevent them from being devoured by insects and other pests, and it's only possible now thanks to either genetic engineering or pesticides, and that includes "organic" foods as well.
The ethical school of vegetarianism largely comes from two viewpoints, one that raising and eating animals for food is inherently cruel, and another that it is wasteful and taxing on the environment.
Cruelty and animal rights
The former view is taken by many animal rights groups (most notably PETA) and argues essentially that animals have an inherent right not to be eaten, and therefore humans should not consume animal products except possibly in a dire emergency. Still other vegetarians feel that eating animals is not necessarily wrong, but the ways most animals are raised, treated during their lives, and killed are not acceptable. It then becomes more of a boycott of the meat industry in particular than a boycott of animal consumption in general.
This ignores that most animals don't have dignified lives nor clean deaths in the wild. The wilderness is a cruel place, and generally speaking, death for a large mammal is rarely instantaneous. Animals which are smaller than their prey, such as wolves and other canids, often rely on causing injuries and bleeding the animal out. This often takes minutes to kill. Lions tend to be quicker, severing the spinal cord, but when faced with larger prey such as adolescent elephants it is once again a fairly slow and painful process. Vegetarians will easily counter, however, by stating that meat consumption is a choice we can control compared to the inevitable horrors in the wild, and unnecessary cruelty is the focus here, not necessarily removing all cruelty, depending on the vegetarian you ask.
The latter, ecologically-centered view is somewhat more complicated and was first codified in the 1970s by Frances Moore Lappé in her book Diet for a Small Planet, which argued that animal husbandry was a drain on the environment, and it made more environmental sense to put the food normally fed to animals on people's tables. A 2007 article in New Scientist reported that "a kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home." CNN reported a University of Chicago study which found that the production of enough meat for one individual produces 1.5 more tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year than caused by vegetarian or vegan sources of food. The study also reported that it takes eight times as much fossil fuel to produce animal protein than its plant equivalent.
Diet for a Small Planet also spent a great deal of effort trying to combat the perception that a vegetarian diet was nutrient and protein deficient, providing recipes and making numerous menus to demonstrate how to get complete proteins from a diet of foods often low in some amino acids. While the recipes were considered rather unpalatable and the emphasis on complete proteins found to be a bit anal-retentive, Diet for a Small Planet has proven to be highly influential as a seminal work on ecological vegetarianism.
Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the "United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change," encouraged people to have at least one meat-free day a week in order to combat global warming.
The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy encourages complete veganism due to climate change. It is critical of many environmental organizations that do not address the need to abstain from eating meat, claiming they don't want to risk losing meat-eating members.
Disease and Virology
The meat industry is indirectly responsible for numerous disease outbreaks throughout history. Literally half of the diseases we currently have only made the jump to humans around the time of the advent of agriculture and shepherding. Meat was less of an issue for hunter-gatherers, as the animals typically would not have much interaction with humans before being killed and consumed. Aside from the close contact with humans, enabling numerous opportunities for a virus to make the jump, the poor sanitation and high density of livestock made them ideal breeding grounds for disease. This is not merely a problem of the bygone past nor is it something that only happens in poor countries; in 2009, "swine flu" made the jump from hogs to humans in the US, and in 1996 UK, "Mad Cow" Disease made the jump from cattle to humans. No one is quite sure where Spanish Flu came from, but some theories believe it to have come from pig farms. So long as we continue the meat-raising practices we do, this problem is here to stay.
The extremely high density of animals, confined indoor space, and often poor sanitation of factory farms are a paradise for bacteria, to say nothing about the lack of genetic diversity of livestock. To prevent disease from wiping out all the livestock, farmers constantly feed their animals antibiotics. 80% of all antibiotics in the US are given to livestock, which results in antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. Removing antibiotics from factory farming would make it impossible, and we simply could not produce as much meat as we currently consume with less intensive practices. Eating meat every single day, let alone at every meal, might revert back to being something only for the richest members of society.
It is possible that a future-tech lab-grown meat might solve these problems entirely, and the cost has fallen rapidly in the past few years. It's currently around $30/lb for lab-grown meat and continues to fall, so it may be possible to see it at your local supermarket this decade. Even if it does become the norm, it's still unclear as to the sanitation requirements for vat-grown meat, as the non-meat parts of the cow contain things like "immune systems" to prevent the meat from being a giant feast for bacteria. Hopefully "grown in vats of nutrients and antibiotics" won't be the norm.
Opposition to vegetarianism
Long story short, many people enjoy eating meat and don't want to give it up, furthermore they don't like others pretending to be morally superior. There are Vegetarians and Vegans which view Vegetarianism and Veganism as something which makes them superior to regular omnivores. Whether or not they brought it on themselves, Vegetarians are treated similar to racial or ethnic minorities. There's political issues too; being Vegetarian often means being politically on the Left, even though your diet and your stance on abortion have nothing to do with one another. At least, one would hope...
Vegetarianism in the 21st century is largely mainstream in Hindu and Buddhist countries (even if meat consumption is on the rise), but in much of the Westernized world is still looked at as somewhat odd and closely associated in many minds with a politically liberal mindset. Furthermore, many advocates of a vegetarian diet lean towards fundamentalism (nutritional and often political) and often invoke discredited nutritional arguments based on spiritualism, vitalism, and other altie principles, turning off non-vegetarians who perceive such people to be arrogant and overbearing.
Many restaurants do not make any special effort to cater to vegetarian customers, sometimes even using animal-derived products such as chicken stock to cook otherwise vegetarian dishes.
For some strange reason, some people who eat meat take it upon themselves to argue that vegetarians should eat meat, too. Typically, these people will try to argue that a vegetarian diet is somehow nutritionally lacking; while that certainly can be the case for a naive or overly strict vegetarian diet that does not include supplementation, for most people (allergies to vegetarian sources of nutrients can of course be an issue), a certain amount of nutritional due diligence can eliminate that problem with very little trouble. While the health and environmental benefits of vegetarianism are debatable, arguments of this sort (or indeed any proper arguments) are often ignored in favour of "eating meat is natural", "other animals eat other animals", "what about the rights of plants?", "Hitler was a vegetarian", etc.
Vegetarianism around the world
Vegetarianism (often for religious reasons, especially for the upper Hindu castes in India and many Buddhists) is mainstream in much of Asia, particularly in Hindu and Buddhist countries. India is one of several countries with strict product labeling laws allowing shoppers to easily find vegetarian products on store shelves, and many Buddhist monks live by a very strict vegetarian diet (the macrobiotic diet is based loosely on Japanese vegetarian cuisine, which has roots in Buddhism). Jainists eat a strict vegetarian diet based on the belief that virtually all harm to living things is unacceptable; whether this extends to fruitarianism depends on the individual believer.
Muslims around the world are divided on the permissibility of vegetarian diets; while many feel that a vegetarian diet is inherently halal, others feel that if God did not forbid eating something in the Qur'an, humanity may not forbid it either and that vegetarianism is, therefore, an insult to God.
The United States Armed Forces Recipe Service includes a selection of recipes to cater to vegetarian soldiers.
Vegetarianism and veganism are popular in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Vienna has two wholly vegan supermarkets, several vegan restaurants (including the odd 'Swing Kitchen' which seeks to replicate an American burger bar except that it is vegan) and a chain of vegan ice cream parlours.
"Pure" vegetarianism not possible
As there are insects and insect fragments, or rodent hairs in most vegetables, fruits and grains, no vegetarian can entirely avoid consuming animal products. For example, these are the levels of various animal products permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an acknowledgment that a certain level of this stuff is unavoidable:
|Allspice, ground:||Average of 30 or more insect fragments per 10 grams|
|Bay (laurel) leaves:||Average of 5% or more pieces by weight are insect-infested|
|Broccoli, frozen:||Average of 60 or more aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams|
|Ground capsicum:||Average of more than 50 insect fragments per 25 grams, average of more than 6 rodent hairs per 25 grams|
|Chocolate:||Any 1 subsample of 100 grams contains 90 or more insect fragments (or average of 60 across 6 samples)|
|Cornmeal:||Average of 1 or more whole insects (or equivalent) per 50 grams|
|Raisins, golden:||10 or more whole or equivalent insects and 35 Drosophila eggs per 8 oz|
|Wheat:||Average of 9 mg or more rodent excreta pellets and/or pellet fragments per kilogram|
Few vegetarians lose much sleep over this, since most do not classify feces or hair as "animals", although it is pretty disgusting. Vegans might be a different matter, depending on their stance regarding eating insects, but even most vegans are unlikely to hold themselves at fault for unintentionally consuming fragments of animal matter. After all, no one can avoid accidentally ingesting dead tissues from the tongue, mouth, throat, and sinuses in a subtle and unavoidable form of what can strictly be considered self-cannibalism. Furthermore, "none" being impossible does not mean that "less" and "more" are somehow equivalent.
The Myth of Protein Deficiency
The very first marketed dietary supplement was a protein supplement, Liebig's Extract of Meat, which was introduced in the 1860s. Today, many marketers tout the protein content of the foods and supplements they promote. The protein content of meat, dairy products, fish and eggs is used as a selling point, even though people who eat no animal foods at all are not at risk for protein deficiency.
By the early 20th century, it was obvious to nutrition researchers that protein deficiency was not a problem for human beings who were eating enough food to get enough calories. As William Maddock Bayliss explained in 1917, "Take care of the calories and the protein will take care of itself." This conclusion was reinforced by the mid 1950s, when a research effort led by William Cummings Rose finished identifying all of the essential amino acids and quantified the human nutritional requirements for each one. Rose's team found that any of the common staple foods (e.g., corn, wheat, sweet potatoes) provided enough of all of the essential amino acids for human nutrition. None of the plant-based foods tested provided an "incomplete" protein, nor was there any need to eat a combination of complementary foods in order to get enough protein or enough of all of the essential amino acids. Thus, it is practically impossible even to design a diet that would fail to provide enough protein if it provides enough calories. Nevertheless, many people involved in nutrition policy during the 1960s and 1970s became convinced that the world was facing a "protein crisis" — that malnourished children were suffering from protein deficiency, as opposed to a general shortage of food. The result was the "Great Protein Fiasco," in which scarce food budgets in poor nations were wasted on high-protein manufactured food mixtures, as opposed to simply providing cheap, readily available local foodstuffs to malnourished children.
The false notion that human beings need to worry about protein deficiency was reinforced in the 1970s by a bestselling book: Diet for a Small Planet, by France Moore Lappé. Lappé's goal in writing the book was to encourage people to shift to a plant-based diet for environmental reasons. Because of the laws of thermodynamics, it is far more efficient for human beings to eat a plant-based diet than an animal-based diet. Unfortunately, Lappé extrapolated data on the dietary protein requirements of rats to human nutrition. As a result, she gave advice on how to combine different foodstuffs with complementary amino acid profiles, to provide a "higher-quality" protein. Yet human beings grow much more slowly than rats do and thus have much lower protein requirements. Thus, there is no need to use food combinations to ensure adequate intake of protein or amino acids. Lappé corrected her error in a later edition of her book.
Human beings do need to eat food that contains protein. In particular, there are eight amino acids that are considered to be essential for human adults (nine for babies), which means that human beings must get those amino acids ready-made in their food. Yet proteins, including the essential amino acids, are also easily obtained from plant sources. As long as you eat enough of any practical plant-based diet to get enough calories, you will easily meet your protein requirements. Unfortunately, the specter of protein deficiency has been used to promote the consumption of the foods that are major contributors to the major causes of death and disability in the United States and other Western industrialized nations, and now increasingly in Asia and Africa.
- Matt Bittman. Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler . New York Times. 2008 January 27.
- Particularly not this guy.
- Savage, Marshall. The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps. 1992.
- Wikipedia on the health risks of red meat. (It may be Wikipedia, but all research is cited).
- how wolves hunt
- Daniele Fanelli. Meat is murder on the environment. New Scientist, issue 2613. 2007 July 18.
- Rachel Oliver. All About: Food and fossil fuels. EcoSolutions. CNN. 2008 March 17.
- Mohit Joshi. One meat free day can help tackle climate change: Pachauri. TopNews.in. 2008 September 7.
- Origins of major human infections, NIH
- Origin of Swine Flu
- Mad cow disease and blood supply, National Geographic
- Spanish Flu from pig farms
- Antibiotics and factory farms, Vox
- The antibiotic resistance crisis, NIH
- Lab-grown meat 5 years away, Futurism
- Why do people hate vegans, Guardian
- Much-cited examples of overbearing and/or condescending advocacy include Lappé, PETA, PBS personality Christina Pirello, and cookbook author Laurel Robertson, the latter two of whom love the woo.
- Information Sheet. The Vegetarian Society. 2008 February 13.
- Defect Levels Handbook. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2011 November 9.