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[[Category:Fad diets]]
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Revision as of 06:42, 23 March 2008

A retreat from the reality of possessing canine teeth...or an embrace of the wonder of molars?

Vegetarianism is a food diet (and sometimes lifestyle) that requires the user to restrict food consumption to primarily or only 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 and is closely associated with a number of forms of quackery.

Types of vegetarianism

Vegetarian diets can be broken down in several ways, the most common being by allowed foods and reasons for vegetarianism.

Vegetarian diets by foods allowed

  • Flexitarian -- A primarily vegetable diet with some animal products (usually dairy and fish and/or poultry, but often no red meat) 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)
  • 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. Mostly a lifestyle choice rather than influenced by health reasons.
  • 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.

Vegetarian diets by reason

  • 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.
  • 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 primarially the wealthy, not support factory farming, etc.
  • 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.
  • Affectation -- Borne of a tedious combination of misplaced sympathy for a variety of cute, but tasty, critters, and an overweening desire to be seen as compassionate and caring. Resolve often disintegrates upon the proferring of a kitten sandwich.
  • Distaste -- Some people just don't like meat.

Religious vegetarianism

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 Lenten abstinence restrictions in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity; 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 vegitarianism, 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 White's teachings on food).

There is considerable debate over the allowability 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.

Medical vegetarianism

Vegetarianism is sometimes engaged in for medical reasons, especially in situations where meat is not well-tolerated by the patient or where the patient's cholesterol levels might be particularly high.

However, medical vegetarianism is far more 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 altie 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 sizeable 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").

Ethical vegetarianism

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. 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 industries than a boycott of animal consumption.

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 recent 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."[1]

DfaSP 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, DfaSP has proven to be highly influential as a seminal work on ecological vegetarianism.

Opposition to Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism in the 21st century is largely mainstream in Hindu and Buddhist countries, as well as in much of the Westernized world, but is still looked on 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. [2]

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, a certain amount of nutritional due diligence can eliminate that problem with very little trouble. Don't listen to propagandists on either side; educate yourself and make your own decisions.

See also


  2. 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.