What is a vegetarian?
Vegetarians are people who abstain from eating all animal flesh including meat, poultry, fish and other sea animals. An ovo-vegetarian includes eggs, a lacto-vegetarian includes dairy products, and an ovo-lacto vegetarian includes both eggs and dairy products. A total vegetarian (vegan) consumes no animal products at all.
Why would someone choose to be a vegetarian?
Vegetarians have existed throughout history and come from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds. People adopt a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons including concerns about personal health, animals, and the environment. Some people may also be drawn to vegetarianism because of religious and spiritual beliefs or economic considerations.
I'm concerned about my health. How could a vegetarian diet benefit me?
A number of widely respected health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the World Health Organization - as well as many physicians and health practitioners - recommend reducing the consumption of animal protein and saturated fat (which are abundant in meat), and cholesterol (found only in meat and other animal products). Although illness and disease can be caused by many factors, several health problems have been positively linked to a diet high in animal products. Among these are cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke (which are the leading causes of death for both men and women in the United States), diabetes, and certain cancers.
What about lean meat?
Any reduction in saturated fat intake is of some benefit, but population studies show that completely eliminating meat and animal products reaps the greatest health benefits. Although different meats have varying amounts of fat, they all contain about the same amount of cholesterol. In addition, diets high in animal protein are associated with high blood cholesterol, thereby raising the risk of heart disease.
But aren't chicken, turkey and fish healthful?
All animal products contain considerably more concentrated levels of pesticide residue than either vegetables or grains. Like red meat, poultry and fish contain no beneficial carbohydrates, fiber, or phytochemicals.
While poultry and fish have somewhat less saturated fat than beef and pork, they are still high in animal protein and cholesterol. These foods pose additional health risks. Contaminated chicken is a major source of Salmonella bacteria, which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections. The United States Department of Agriculture has acknowledged that a significant percentage of all poultry is contaminated with Salmonella, Campylobacter, or Staphylococcus bacteria. Salmonella bacteria are also commonly found in eggs, even those with undamaged shells.
Fish contain substantially more heavy metals (such as lead, mercury, and cadmium) and industrial pollutants (such PCBs, DDT and dioxins) than land animals. Because fish dine on other fish, those that are caught for food show significant toxic buildup. Shellfish also contain high levels of toxins because of their feeding habits. Toxic chemicals in fish may accumulate to several thousand times the levels present in the surrounding water. Farm-raised fish aren't the answer because these fish often become ill from their overcrowded conditions and are given antibiotics, which are passed along to those who eat them. They also may be given toxic feed; farm-raised fish can contain as much as or more toxins than wild fish. The FDA warns pregnant women against eating too much fish due to risks of birth defects from mercury.
I've heard that certain foods and nutrition supplements can protect your health. Can't I just eat more of these, rather than cutting out meat?
While fruits and vegetables have many health-protective qualities, there is no single 'miracle food' or supplement that can prevent illness or death from diseases that have complex and long-term causes. Eating a whole-foods vegetarian diet and adopting health-promoting lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and stress reduction, are a more comprehensive and effective way to promote health.
Where will I get protein if I don't eat meat? Isn't it complicated to make sure you're getting enough of the various amino acids?
Getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet is easy as long as you eat a varied diet of unrefined foods that include enough calories to meet your energy needs. When caloric intake is adequate, protein deficiency is virtually nonexistent. This is because protein is so abundant in the food supply. The foods that form the foundation of a vegetarian diet - beans, grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds - are all rich in protein.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are found in all plant foods, including the nine essential amino acids humans must obtain from food. Concentrated sources of plant protein include peas, beans, lentils, soy products (tofu, tempeh, and meat analogs), and nuts. Contrary to what many people believe, vegetarians do not need to carefully combine foods to meet their protein needs, and no particular meal planning approach is required. Just consume enough calories to maintain your ideal weight and include a variety of plant foods in your diet.
Where do vegetarians get vitamins and minerals?
Most vitamins and minerals are abundant in plant foods, but some people may wonder about specific nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Here is some general information; more in-depth details can be found in books on vegetarian nutrition at your local library or book store.
Vitamin B12 is essential for proper function of the nervous system and all cell growth. B12 is a by-product of bacterial action and is produced in the soil as well as in the intestines of animals. Our need for vitamin B12 is minuscule - only about 2 micrograms per day - and humans store the vitamin in the body over long periods of time.
Because B12 is not readily available in plant foods, health professionals recommend that vegans either consume B12 fortified foods or take B12 supplements on a regular basis. Many breakfast cereals, meat analogs, and milk alternatives are fortified with vitamin B12 from non-animal sources. These foods are readily available and are excellent sources of B12 (check the labels). Certain brands of nutritional yeast, which can be sprinkled on prepared foods or added to recipes, are also excellent B12 sources.
Most documented cases of B12 deficiency are caused by the inability of a person to properly absorb or process the vitamin, as opposed to an incomplete diet. As such, B12 deficiency is found in both non-vegetarians and vegetarians. Older people have an increased risk of B12 deficiencies because B12 is absorbed less efficiently as we age.
Symptoms of B12 deficiency may be subtle to severe, ranging from neurological problems to memory impairment, and these symptoms may be irreversible. Thus, vegans (who don't consume dairy products and eggs, which contain B12) are strongly encouraged to include a daily reliable source of vitamin B12.
Iron can be readily obtained from dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, dried fruits (such as apricots, prunes and raisins), cooked dried peas and beans, whole grains, hot cereal, sea vegetables, enriched pasta, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, soy milk, nuts, seeds, blackstrap molasses, and many other plant foods.
Dairy products are low in iron and may inhibit iron absorption. Other foods that can reduce iron absorption include coffee and teas, which contain tannin, and foods that are very high in fiber, like isolated wheat bran. Vitamin C and organic acids in fruits and vegetables enhance iron absorption.
Calcium plays an important role in bone health, nerve, and muscle functions, blood clotting, enzyme activities, and more. Recently much attention has focused on osteoporosis, a degenerative, crippling bone disease. It is believed to be caused by a number of factors: Insufficient calcium consumption, too much protein (especially animal proteins), not enough weight-bearing exercise, inadequate vitamin D, among others. A plant-based diet may provide protection against osteoporosis.
Calcium is abundant in dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cooked dried beans, soy products, blackstrap molasses, certain nuts and seeds, dried fruit, and fortified beverages such as soy milk, rice milk and orange juice. Calcium found in some of these and other plant foods is actually better absorbed than calcium from cow's milk. Those who are concerned about calcium intake can also take supplements.
Vitamin D acts as both a hormone and a vitamin, and is related to calcium metabolism and other important bodily processes. Deficiency can lead to rickets (soft bones and skeletal deformities) in children and, in adults, osteomalacia (skeletal as well as muscular weakness). Our bodies are designed to obtain vitamin D through exposure to sunlight, but because so much of our work and leisure are spent indoors, many health professionals recommend that everyone take a vitamin D supplement. People who have dark skin, who live in areas where summers are short or are cloudy or smoggy, older people, and those who suspect they don't get enough sunlight are especially susceptible to vitamin D deficiency and should include a reliable dietary source of vitamin D or take a supplement. Many brands of nondairy beverages are fortified with vitamin D, as are some breakfast cereals.
If I switch to a vegetarian diet, will I have to eat more dairy products and eggs?
At one time it was thought that people needed to increase their consumption of dairy products and eggs when they eliminated meat from their diet. This has since proved to be a fallacy, and it is now acknowledged that increased consumption of these foods is both unnecessary and potentially unhealthful.
A vegetarian diet may be OK for adults, but is it safe for children?
A well-planned vegetarian diet provides ample nutrition for children and may actually offer protection from a number of diet-related diseases. A healthy vegetarian diet for children is centered around a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods including fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, and legumes. Children have high caloric needs and small stomachs, so five to six small meals per day are preferable to three larger ones. Higher-fat plant foods such as tofu, avocado, nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters are nutrient-rich choices that should be a regular part of the diet for growing vegetarian children.
Aren't people physically designed to eat meat?
Humans can digest a wide variety of foods, and this ability to adapt undoubtedly contributed to our species' survival throughout history. Unlike most species, humans have a choice about what they eat. Our selections, however, have more to do with tradition, culture, economics, politics and availability than with physical limitations. Scientists disagree on specific points regarding anatomy, physiology, and the most appropriate diet for humans. However, the consumption of animal products has been linked to a number of serious health problems, while a plant-based diet has been shown to provide considerable health-supporting and protective benefits. The ability to eat an omnivorous diet may have had survival value in the past, but it is now clear that meat-eating can threaten human health.
I am concerned about the environment. How would becoming a vegetarian help?
The production of meat has a more significant negative impact on the environment than probably any other industry. In the last 300 years, over half the trees in the United States have been cut down in exchange for immense fields of corn, soybeans, oats, grass and hay, which are primarily used to feed livestock. In addition, the vast majority of land currently used to raise cattle in the U.S. are the public rangelands in the west. Livestock grazing in these areas has been the major cause of soil erosion and desertification, the process by which an area becomes a desert. Overgrazing of cattle and sheep herds in the western rangelands has contributed to the elimination of more plant species in the United States than any other cause.
The demand for cheap beef has driven the scope of environmental destruction to the Central American rainforests where ranching has contributed to deforestation, species extinction, and more loss of biodiversity than any other activity in this part of the world. The tropical rainforests provide a substantial part of the Earth's oxygen, house the majority of the planet's land vegetation, and are home to more species of plant and animal life than anywhere else on Earth. With every acre destroyed, more species are threatened with extinction and carbon dioxide pollution increases, adding to the global warming problem. At the same time, the atmosphere is robbed of oxygen that would have been generated by that vegetation.
Animal agriculture guzzles huge amounts of water, particularly for irrigation used to grow feed crops. In addition, fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide and livestock waste runoffs all severely pollute our nations waterways. Animal excrement and fertilizer have been blamed for a large percentage of the nitrogen and phosphorus released into U.S. rivers. Furthermore, the millions of tons of non-recycled waste produced by livestock each year - which is substantially more concentrated than domestic raw sewage - generally ends up untreated in both surface and ground water. By simply changing our food choices, we can have a significant positive impact on our environmental future.
Weren't animals put here for food?
Animals have their own lives and destinies separate from human needs. Judeo-Christian doctrine states that humans have 'dominion' over animals, but many religious teachings interpret 'dominion' not as 'domination' but rather benevolent stewardship. This implies a loving guardianship toward other species, which does not include harming or killing them. Many of the world's major religions embrace vegetarianism as an active expression of spiritual compassion for all creation. Furthermore, having compassion for animals doesn't contradict the teachings of any of the major religions.
Why should we be concerned about animals when there's so much human suffering?
Compassion and concern can be directed to animals without diminishing efforts to help humans. Much human suffering is directly linked to animal consumption, including heart disease, pollution, water scarcity and starvation. As we extend compassion to animals - and take steps to ensure their well-being - we also are making strides towards improvements for humans.
Aren't there more pressing animal concerns than meat production?
There are numerous matters involving animals that many people are concerned about - including companion animals (such as cats and dogs), endangered species, animals trapped for their fur, zoo and circus animals, and those used in laboratory experiments, among others. These are important issues, but they do not preclude concern about animals raised for slaughter.
Almost 10 times as many animals die for human consumption than for all other causes combined. In the United States alone, about 10 billion animals are killed each year to be turned into meat. This translates into about 34 animals per person that are needlessly killed each year to appease the human appetite.
Aren't farm animals raised humanely?
Conditions on factory farms and at slaughterhouses are deplorable. Most farm animals live in cramped, filthy quarters that do not allow for even the most basic needs such as fresh air, sunshine, sanitary conditions, unrestrained movement, natural mating, suckling offspring, or developing normal social behaviors.
For example, laying hens are typically housed in bare wire cages stacked several rows deep in huge, stifling warehouses. Four to five birds are crammed into each cage making it impossible for them to walk, stretch their wings or roost. Excrement drops onto the birds below creating a cesspool of squalor and a choking stench that damages the hens' delicate lungs. These crowded conditions lead to stress-related fighting, pecking cannibalism, illness and disease, including the development of harmful pathogens, such as salmonella, that infect both the chicken and her eggs. At the slaughterhouse, the chickens are either boiled alive or bled to death while fully conscious.
Similar harsh treatment is pervasive among all farm animals. Hence, the rearing of animals for food can never be considered humane.
Will a vegetarian diet be more expensive?
In general, it costs less to buy plant protein than the equivalent amount of animal protein. Beans and grains are among the least expensive foods available and form the basis of most traditional diets around the world. Your actual grocery bills will be the direct result of the food choices you make. For instance, some vegetarian 'convenience' foods cost more than their meat- or dairy-based counterparts. Relying heavily on these foods could drive up the total food bill. Health professionals urge ALL people to eat an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and if you are not already doing so, you may find you produce costs will be higher when you switch to a healthier diet.
In addition, price is not the only factor to consider. There are a number of hidden costs in a meat-centered diet. Among them are medical expenses for people suffering from diet-related diseases and the growing hazards of food-borne illnesses. Everyone's tax dollars are used by the government to subsidize animal agriculture, which also takes its toll on our environment. Hidden in the cost of meat and dairy products is the cost of cleaning up extensive water, air and land pollution.
Don't people tire of eating only salad and vegetables?
There is a common misconception that a vegetarians have a limited array of food choices. Just the opposite is true. Vegetarians commonly eat a wider variety of foods than most meat eaters. A vegetarian diet offers a whole new world of culinary delights.
Won't vegetarian foods take longer to prepare?
Most cooking requires planning and preparation. There are many shortcuts, however, that are easy to learn and helpful when time is at a premium. For instance, canned beans are great when you don't have time to soak and cook dried beans. Quick-cooking pasta, couscous and cracked grains can make dinner on harried nights a snap. Baked potatoes cook with little attention and make a satisfying main dish topped with steamed vegetables or vegetarian gravy. Many old favorites such as spaghetti with tomato sauce, stir-fried vegetables and rice, bean burritos, salads, and soup are familiar dishes that don't take much time or effort to prepare. Natural food stores and most supermarkets stock a wide assortment of vegetarian convenience foods, including veggie burgers and dogs that take a mere minutes to cook, as well as enough other choices to satisfy the most discriminating palate.
Is it hard to shop for vegetarian foods?
It doesn't have to be. All the staples of a vegetarian diet can be found right on the shelves of regular supermarkets. More vegetarian products can be found in the gourmet, specialty, ethnic, and health food sections. And don't forget to check the frozen food aisle for frozen vegetables, heat-and-serve side dishes, and vegetarian entrees. Natural food stores and food co-ops, found in most areas, offer a variety of vegetarian options, as do many ethnic grocery stores and mail order companies.
What about eating out?
No problem! Consumer demand has fostered the expansion of vegetarian alternatives among restaurants and airlines. Additionally, most ethnic restaurants offer meatless options. When in doubt, ask the wait staff. Most chefs will be happy to adjust ingredients or create something special that isn't listed on the menu.
How do I get started?
Begin by assessing your current diet. Make meat-free versions of foods you already enjoy, such as meatless chili or vegetable pizza. Look through vegetarian cookbooks, peruse the shelves of your local supermarket or natural food store, or scan vegetarian or ethnic restaurant menus for ideas. Some people make a gradual switch to vegetarianism; others jump in with both feet.
New vegetarians are often excited about the information they are learning and the changes they are making and want to share their experiences. Often their family and friends are supportive - but sometimes they are not. If this happens, don't let it discourage you. Be cheerful about your new adventure and remember to let others come to their own dietary conclusions.
A vegetarian diet is fun, healthful and exciting, and the culinary possibilities are endless. Know that you are embarking on a compassionate, health-supporting and environmentally sound way of eating - so enjoy the experience!