An Overview of Vegetarianism
Although vegetarianism was once considered eccentric, it has now become a widely accepted dietary choice. Vegans are the strictest vegetarians, as they avoid eating or using any products derived from animals, such as honey, milk, or leather. Several related categories exist, including people who eat seafood but no other meat, known as pescetarians or people who eat chicken as well, sometimes called pollotarians.
Health benefits associated with vegetarianism have been widely researched and accepted by most major medical organizations, including the American Dietetic Association and the American Heart Association. Eating a plant-based diet can be beneficial for maintaining an ideal weight, can help prevent diabetes and heart disease, and provides the necessary fiber to help fend off colon diseases and cancer. A study of 8,000 deaths found that vegetarians had a 76 percent lower chance of dying from a heart attack than meat eaters. In addition, vegetarians are less likely to smoke and generally practice a healthy diet, eating less saturated fat and fewer carbohydrates. Vegetarian children are less likely to consume fast food, soda, fried foods, and ice cream than non-vegetarian children. A 30 year comparison of vegetarians and non-vegetarians found that vegetarians had higher IQs, regardless of social status. For these reasons, Americans have been urged to eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Although vegetarianism has many advantages, it can be difficult for vegetarians to consume enough protein, and a strict vegetarian diet may lack essential amino acids. Nor do most vegetables supply as much vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and other nutrients as meat and dairy products. Children and teenagers are most at risk for developing anemia and other health problems from a strict vegetarian diet. Critics of vegetarianism also point to the dangers caused by reliance on nutritional supplements, as opposed to obtaining the nutrients from natural sources.
Recalls of contaminated meat and food borne outbreaks involving E. coli and Listeria bacteria, as well as the high levels of mercury found in tuna, swordfish, and other seafood provide some people with the motivation to shift to a plant-based diet. Less commonly, cases of food poisoning have been linked to contaminated vegetables.
Apart from the issue of health benefits and risks, many take up vegetarianism as an ethical choice. For them, vegetarianism is a way to take a stand on issues such as the morality of killing animals for food, and the cruel treatment of animals on factory farms. Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) advocate vegetarianism by publicizing such treatment.
Environmental issues play a large role in ethical vegetarianism. The fishing industry has destroyed undersea ecosystems during trawling operations and endangered some species by overfishing. Significant amounts of Amazon rainforest have been cut down to provide grazing land for cattle. The carbon produced from burning trees, the nitrous oxide in manure, and the high levels of methane produced during a cow's digestive process is believed to contribute to global warming. The United Nations reports that livestock farming is one of the top three contributors to environmental pollution and degradation. Vegetarianism may also reduce an individual's carbon footprint. Eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a hamburger can save up to 280 gallons of water, 2.5 pounds of carbon, and 50 square feet of land.
Debates over vegetarianism sometimes involve religious communities. Many Christians believe that God provided the animal kingdom as food for humans, while some vegetarian Christians, including many Seventh-Day Adventists, believe that killing animals for food runs counter to a human's responsibility to respect all living creatures. Followers of Jain Dharma, many Hindus, and some Buddhists also practice non-violence to animals.
Understanding the Discussion
Factory Farms: Large agribusiness operations that supply much of the world's meat but treat animals as commodities, with little concern for animal welfare.
Ovo-lacto Vegetarian: A vegetarian who consumes eggs and dairy products.
Vegetarian: A person who does not eat meat, fish, or poultry, instead relying on foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grain products, seeds and nuts.
Vegan: A vegetarian who also refrains from eating eggs, dairy products and other animal products. Vegans also abstain from using clothing and other products made from wool, leather, and silk and other animal ingredients, such as lanolin or down.