What is the vegetarian diet? What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?
A short history of vegetarianism
The earliest records of vegetarianism come from the 6th century B.C., in India, Greece and the Greek civilization in Southern Italy. In all these cases vegetarianism was closely linked to a desire not to harm animals. In India this peace towards animals was called ahimsa and was a common lifestyle among religious people and philosophers.
The conversion to Christianity of the Roman Empire virtually eliminated all traces of vegetarianism from Europe. Many orders of monks in medieval Europe either banned or limited meat consumption as a gesture of personal sacrifice or abstinence - however, none of them shunned fish. It was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that vegetarianism started to get a foothold again in Western society.
The Vegetarian Society was formed in England in 1847; equivalent societies soon followed in Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries. During the 20th century vegetarianism caught on swiftly throughout Western society. People´s motivations were for ethical, environmental, or economic reasons - and sometimes a combination or two or three reasons. Approximately 70% of the world´s lacto-vegetarians are in India, it is estimated. Approximately 20% to 42% of India´s population is vegetarian.
The term vegetarian generally means a person who does not consume animal products; this includes land and sea animals. Most vegetarians generally do consume eggs and dairy products (milk products).
Somebody who does not consume any animal protein at all, not even eggs, dairy, or honey, is a vegan. Some people call themselves vegetarians, but they consume fish.
According to the National Library of Medicine1, if you follow a vegetarian diet you should be able to get all the nutrients you need. However, you need to be careful that you eat a wide variety of foods to make sure you meet your nutritional requirements.
The four main types of vegetarians are:
•Lacto-vegetarians - they consume dairy products, but no eggs. Most do consume honey.
•Ovo-vegetarians - they consume eggs, but no dairy. Most do consume honey.
•Lacto-ovovegetarians - they consume eggs and dairy. Most do consume honey.
•Vegans - only consume plant-based foods (no dairy, eggs or honey)
, vegetarian refers only to people who do not consume protein of animal origin (not even fish or seafood), with the exception of eggs, dairy and honey - Lacto-ovovegetarians.
Virtually all vegetarian and/or vegan societies and associations do not accept the term "semi-vegetarian", in the same way a doctor will not accept the term "a bit pregnant".
Scientists from Italy and Japan reported in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry that vegans and vegetarians have a higher risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency compared to people who consume animal-based products. They showed that the human body is unable to use the plant-based form of the vitamin.2
What are the benefits of being a vegetarian?
Until a few years ago, the benefits of vegetarianism were more anecdotal than clinically proven. However, over the last couple of decades several studies have indicated that a person who adopts a vegetarian diet will:
•Have a lower body weight - one study carried out by Cancer Research UK, found that those who continue eating meat will carry on putting on more weight over a five year period, compared to those who switched over to vegetarianism. The study found that vegans put on even less weight as they get older, compared to vegetarians and meat eaters. The study looked at 22,000 meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans.3
•Have better cholesterol levels - scientists at the University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital demonstrated that a vegetarian diet made up of specific plant foods can lower cholesterol as effectively as a drug treatment. The study, published in the July 23 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, compared a diet of known cholesterol-lowering, vegetarian foods to a standard cholesterol-reducing drug called lovastatin.4
The diet reduced levels of LDL - the 'bad' cholesterol known to cause clogging in coronary arteries - in participants by almost 29%, compared to a 30.9% decrease in the lovastatin participants. The diet consisted of a combination of nuts (almonds), soy proteins, viscous fiber (high-fiber) foods such as oats and barley and a special margarine with plant sterols (found in leafy green vegetables and vegetable oils).
•Live longer - several studies have shown that vegetarians have a much lower risk of becoming obese, developing diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. All these conditions and diseases reduce one´s life expectancy (see the list of related articles below).
•Have a lower risk of developing cancer - several studies have shown a reduced risk of developing many different types of cancer among vegetarians, compared to meat eaters. A recent study carried out by UK researchers, working on the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Oxford (EPIC-Oxford) found that vegetarians had a significantly lower overall risk of developing cancer, compared to meat eaters.5
The study also found, however, that vegetarians have a higher risk of developing cancer of the colon.
•Have a lower risk of developing several diseases - see the list of related articles below. In them are mentioned several diseases and conditions that a meat eater is more likely to develop, compared to a vegetarian.
An article published in Food Technology in October 2012 informed that plant-based diets either reduce or completely eliminate people's genetic propensity to developing long-term diseases, including diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.6
Vegetarian food is generally lower in fat, especially saturated fats, and much higher in fiber, than animal based foods. However, a vegetarian, like a meat eater, has to watch his/her intake of calories, snack foods, refined carbohydrates, whole milk dairy products, and non-meat junk foods.