People choose a vegetarian lifestyle for many reasons, including health, religious beliefs, concerns about animal welfare, or in connection with the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock, or the desire to eat in such a way as to avoid excessive use of environmental resources. In some cases, the reason for becoming a vegetarian is that people cannot afford to eat meat because of economic reasons. Becoming a vegetarian has become even more affordable and attractive due to the year-round availability of fresh food, the emergence of vegetarian restaurants, and the growing popularity of vegetable diets in the west.
According to the Harris Interactive survey, about six to eight million adults in the United States do not eat meat, fish or poultry. A few more million refused red meat, but still eat chicken or fish. About two million became vegans, that is, they extracted not only animal flesh from their diet, but also products that were obtained from animals, such as milk, cheese, eggs, and gelatin.
Vegetarianism research has usually focused mainly on potential nutritional deficiencies and its harm, but in recent years the pendulum has swung to the other side, and studies confirm the health benefits of a meat-free diet. Nowadays, plant-based food has been recognized as not only sufficient for nutrition, but also a means of reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. The American Dietetic Association argues that properly planned vegetarian diets are healthy, nutritious, and can be beneficial to health, providing prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
The main provisions of proper nutrition for vegetarianism
The most important thing is to plan a vegetarian diet properly. If you do not follow the recommendations on nutrition, fat consumption and weight control, then vegetarianism will bring little benefit. Since the diet, which consists in eating carbonated sweet waters, cheese pizza and sweets, technically will also be "vegetarian." But for health it is important to make sure that the daily diet consists of a wide selection of vegetables, various fruits and whole grains. It is also important to replace saturated fats and trans fats with good fats, such as nuts, olive and canola oil. And you should always keep in mind that eating too many calories, even from nutritious, low-fat, vegetable foods, still leads to weight gain.
Therefore, it is also important to practice control over the portion, read food labels and engage in regular physical activity.
A gradual change in diet is recommended. Sudden dietary changes can affect the digestive system of some people. Changes in the intestinal microbiome can lead to temporary abdominal distension, for example. Gradually replacing meat with vegetables, fruits, legumes, such as beans, lentils and whole grains, can reduce this effect.
The American Dietetic Association gives these tips for people who want to stop eating meat:
- choose whole grains such as whole wheat bread, wild or brown rice, and whole grains;
- provide a varied diet with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts;
- consume a moderate amount of eggs and dairy products, if they are not excluded too;
- provide a regular source of vitamin B12;
- consume enough vitamin D, especially if the exposure to sunlight is low;
- reduce the intake of sugars and foods high in fat, especially trans fats.
Variants of vegetarianism
Strictly speaking, vegetarians exclude meat, poultry and seafood from their diet. But people with many different dietary patterns call themselves vegetarians, including:
- vegans (vegetarians): exclude from the diet meat, poultry, fish, as well as all the products that were obtained from animals, including dairy products, eggs, and even gelatin;
- lacto-ovo vegetarians: exclude meat, poultry and fish, but consumes dairy products and eggs;
- lacto-vegetarians: exclude fish, seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, and use only dairy products in their diet;
- ovo vegetarians: do not eat poultry, dairy products, poultry and fish, but eat eggs;
- partial vegetarians: avoid meat, but can eat fish (sand vegetarians) or poultry (polo vegetarians).
Benefit for health
Compared to people who eat meat, vegetarians tend to consume less cholesterol and very harmful saturated fats, and more vitamins E and C, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) such like carotenoids and flavonoids. As a result, they are likely to have a lower overall level of low density lipoproteins (harmful) and cholesterol, low blood pressure and body mass index (BMI), and all these factors are associated with longevity and reduced risk for many chronic diseases.
But there is still not enough data to say exactly how a vegetarian diet affects long-term health. It is difficult to separate the influence of vegetarianism from other healthy lifestyle methods that vegetarians are more likely to follow, such as not smoking, not drinking excessively and performing adequate physical exercise.
Harvard health publications say that vegetarians are more likely to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL) than meat eaters. This means that diets that exclude meat can reduce the risk of heart disease.
The American Heart Association reports that vegetarian diets reduce the risk of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease, because plant-based diets tend to have cholesterol, saturated fat, and total fat much lower.
A study conducted in 2016 in "Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition" confirms that vegetarian diets help protect against heart damage and death from cardiovascular diseases. This is due, at least in part, to the effect of vegan diets on blood pressure.
In another study, in which 65,000 people participated in the Oxford cohort of the European Advanced Cancer and Nutrition Study (EPIC-Oxford), researchers found a 19% lower risk of death from heart disease among vegetarians. Nevertheless, there were few deaths in both groups, so the observed differences may have been caused by chance.
A 2016 study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition says that a vegetarian diet protects you against cancer by reducing the overall incidence of cancer by 8 percent. Researchers who conducted this study found that cutting out all animal-based products (a vegan diet) reduces the risk of developing cancer by 15 percent. Reducing the risk of developing diabetes is another advantage of a vegetarian diet.
A study in 2014 in the field of cardiovascular diagnosis and therapy says that vegetarian diets significantly improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.
A vegetarian diet helps in weight loss and helps reduce blood sugar levels. It should be borne in mind that vegetarian diets with high amounts of sugar, refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, saturated fats and high calories, will not have a positive effect on blood sugar levels.
Many people do not want to try a vegetarian diet, especially one that does not include calcium-rich dairy products, because they are concerned about the risk of osteoporosis. Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume at least the same amount of calcium as meat eaters, but vegans usually consume less. In the EPIC-Oxford study, 75% of vegans received less than the recommended daily amount of calcium, and vegans generally had relatively high fracture rates. But vegans who consumed at least 525 milligrams of calcium per day were not particularly vulnerable to fractures. Some vegetables can supply calcium, including broccoli, Chinese cabbage, kale, and cabbage (spinach and Swiss chard, which also contain calcium, are not a good choice, because along with calcium, they include oxalates in their composition, but they are somewhat complicate calcium absorption by the body.)
There are many benefits to becoming a vegetarian. Despite this, only 5 percent of Americans consider themselves to be vegetarian, according to a 2014 review in Nutrients. Simple dietary changes can add years to a person’s life.
Animal and environment welfare
Avoiding meat benefits the animals and, perhaps, the environment. Accepting a vegetarian diet means that no animal will be harmed to put food on the dining table. For some people, this simple fact gives peace of mind.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says that most farm animals in the United States are raised in poor conditions, which is unacceptable for many consumers. Such conditions include (but are not limited to) keeping in small crowded cells, enclosed spaces, abuse of antibiotics, and mistreatment by workers.
One study, published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition in 2015, found that plant-based diets could save almost $ 750 a year by providing more vegetables, whole grains and fruits.
Vegetarianism for children
Parents of vegetarian children should ensure that their diet contains all the essential nutrients. Figures show that 3 percent of Americans aged 8 to 18 are vegetarians.
Anyone who decides to become a vegetarian should train themselves to get all the essential nutrients.
Parents of a vegetarian child should make sure that their child does not just drop the meat from his diet, but receives all the necessary nutrients in other ways.
Vegetarianism in history
The earliest records of vegetarianism date back to the 6th century BC. in India, Greece and the Greek civilization in southern Italy, and this is due to the desire not to harm the animals.
The early traces of vegetarianism in Europe disappeared with the introduction of Christianity into the Roman Empire. Many orders of monks in medieval Europe either banned or restricted meat consumption as a gesture of personal sacrifice or abstinence, but they ate fish.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, vegetarianism appeared in Western society. As research continues to support the benefits of a vegetarian diet, more people may become vegetarians in the future.
If a vegetarian diet is properly planned, then it is suitable at any stage of life and for all people, even during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adult life, as well as for athletes.
As with any diet, a vegetarian diet should be part of an overall healthy lifestyle, which includes exercise and eliminates bad habits, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.