Vegetarianism and Veganism
In Asia, vegetarianism has been a common dietary practice for thousands of years, based on cultural and religious principles. Among Western societies, an animal-based diet was rejected by Pythagoras in the 6th Century BCE, for nutritional and ethical reasons. In modern times, the Vegetarian Society was established in England in 1847, and the International Vegetarian Union was founded as a coordinating body for all national vegetarian societies. By the late 20th Century, many different variations of vegetarianism had developed and become popular as a result of ethical, health, environmental, and altruistic concerns.
In broad terms, vegetarianism applies to a diet derived mainly from non-animal sources. Some people identifying themselves as vegetarians will eat some foods derived from animals, like milk products, eggs, and honey. Veganism, on the other hand, rejects eating all animals and animal-derived foods. Vegans also reject all forms of animal exploitation, including all animal-derived products (medicines, cosmetics, clothing), and the use of animals for labor, sport, education, testing, research, entertainment, and confinement in zoos.
VARIETIES OF VEGETARIANISM
Lacto vegetarianism — No meat or fish; eats dairy products.
Ovo-lacto vegetarianism — No meat or fish; eats egg and dairy products.
Although not really vegetarians, some people limit their consumption of animals for a variety of reasons. For example, many people avoid red meat for health reasons but still eat fish and poultry. Those people disturbed mainly by the treatment of animals in the factory farming industry might eat meat raised under so-called “humane conditions.”
Among Jews, Christians, and Moslems, a minority practice a vegetarian diet as envisioned in the Book of Genesis, where human beings are characterized as originally vegetarians.
Jewish vegetarians cite the principles of kindness and compassion toward animals (tsa'ar ba'alei hayim) and avoidance of destruction of nature (bal tashhit). A growing number recognize that today, when animal suffering is unavoidable on intensively confined factory farms and in mechanized high-speed slaughterhouses, traditional Jewish values demand a reexamination of Kosher standards, including slaughter practices. See Judaism and Animals: Vegetarianism.
Christian vegetarians, like the Benedictines, Carthusians, Seventh-day Adventists, and Trappists, recognize Biblical prophecies of universal vegetarianism and therefore encourage a non-animal diet. They also question the concept and meaning of dominion. Christian vegetarians see in the New Testament support for the idea that after the sacrifice of the final lamb to atone for Man’s sins, vegetarianism as described in the Bible is preferred. See Christianity and Animals: Vegetarianism.
Moslem vegetarians, particularly Shi'ite Moslems and Sufi mystics, see vegetarianism as the Islamic ideal, based on several rulings about practicing kindness to animals. See Islam and Animals: Section Three.
Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism all teach a strong respect for life with a resolve not to exploit or disturb living and evolving nature itself.
Buddhist vegetarians follow a central tenet that prohibits killing for food. There are regional differences: Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese Buddhists do not eat meat; many Japanese and Koreans allow it. Buddhists in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Tibet are not required to be vegetarians, although it is strongly encouraged.
Hindu and Jain vegetarians do not eat meat, eggs, and animal byproducts, and they avoid anything gained at the expense of animal suffering. They do eat milk and dairy products, considering them to be freely given, without exploitation, and they will wear leather made from cows who die of natural causes. Jains, separately, consider the suffering caused to plants, and they avoid destroying some root vegetables. In some regions, like Gujarat, Hindus are strict in their practice, but in other coastal and native areas of India, some eat locally caught fish.
Taoist vegetarians follow the principle of "simple eating," which is essentially vegetarian in rejecting all meat, milk, and eggs, although it allows shellfish.
Baha'i vegetarians follow a meat-free diet, although it is not required.
Rastafarian vegetarians focus on the purity of natural foods and will not eat anything that has been artificially preserved or altered. They do not eat meat; however, they do eat fish.
ALTRUISTIC AND ETHICAL INFLUENCES
Raising animals for food on a commercially viable scale involves the transformation of living beings into industrial commodities. They are housed in smaller and smaller controlled spaces to the extreme point of confining them in crates the size of their bodies (chickens, pigs, rabbits, veal calves) for their entire lives. Raised with mechanized feeding systems, and slaughtered and butchered often while still conscious, farm animals experience nothing but unrelieved misery and suffering. Vegetarians desire to eliminate animal suffering entirely.
Advocates for animal rights support the concept that animals are entitled to pursue their own lives on their own terms — as inherent rights. This is a recognition that non-human animals are sentient beings who experience pleasure and pain, have an awareness of their own past and their own future, can communicate and use language creatively, have intelligence, establish emotional bonds, display altruism, and use tools to solve problems. The study of animal behavior and intelligence (ethology), especially in natural situations (cognitive ethology), substantiates parallels to human characteristics. Oscar Heinroth, Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch, along with modern ethologists like Dian Fossey, Desmond Morris, Jane Goodall, and Marc Bekoff have thoroughly demonstrated the unique individuality of non-human animals and their deserved right to possess themselves and be free of their exploitation for human purposes of food, testing, entertainment, and clothing.
In 1992, Switzerland passed legislation recognizing animals as beings not things. In 2002, the German Bundestag granted animals rights when it obligated the state to formally respect and protect the dignity of human beings and animals.
Morals and Ethics
Ethical vegetarians believe that killing a sentient animal for food is wrong (animals do not want to die and are given no choice), just as killing humans to eat is wrong. Utilitarian philosophers (Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer) argue that the suffering of all sentient animals should be taken into consideration when making ethical decisions, and therefore vegetarianism is the necessary ethical choice. Other philosophers (Tom Regan, Gray Francione) believe that sentient animals are capable of valuing their own lives and that they have the inherent right to possess their own flesh, concluding that it is unethical to treat them as property, or as a commodity.
A vegetarian diet offers numerous major health benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, and phytochemicals. Many studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Organic animal products, although they eliminate the danger of antibiotics and other drugs fed to farm animals and also of some of the toxins to which they are exposed, nevertheless carry many of the same health risks as any other animal product.
An animal-based diet, on the other hand, exposes the consumer to harmful toxins, chemicals, bacteria, viruses, and parasites that easily enter the food chain under intensive farming conditions. Mad Cow disease and Avian Flu are just two examples of life-threatening disease passed through our food supply. Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria are potential threats in most poultry. Giardiasis, Listeriosis, Toxoplasmosis, and Yersiniosis are diseases caused by organisms commonly found in beef and pork, as are E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. Vibrio infection is often transmitted by shellfish. Cryptosporidiosis and the caliciviral infections are frequently spread by sick food-handlers. See Contaminated Food.
At current levels, with its industrial scale, animal agriculture is unsustainable and is changing ecosystems faster than they can adapt. The overuse of water to serve the needs of factory farming, the tanning industry, and textile mills is depleting accessible underground aquifers, destroying existing lakes and rivers, and drying up wetlands worldwide. Pollution from the waste and manure of farm animals, slaughterhouses, and tanneries has had an irreversible effect in many countries, contaminating farmland and poisoning wells and groundwater. Gases like methane from animal waste on factory farms, as well as associated toxic chemicals and pesticides, have seriously damaged air quality.
Animal protein production demands 8-10 times the amount of fossil fuel energy than plant production, just as it requires greater land use devoted to producing feed for these animals. With the quick expansion of intensively confined, feedlot animal farming systems right now, as in Brazil and China, deforestation of rainforests and other critical ecosystems will have a global impact. Overfishing has destroyed breeding grounds and altered traditional migration paths, to the extent that fish populations are at the point of collapse.
The Hindu god Indra cast an infinite web across the heavens, and at every juncture, he placed a brilliant jewel. Each jewel reflected every other jewel, and in turn, in each reflected jewel all other reflections were duplicated, infinitely. The great Vietnamese Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh relates this allegory of Indra’s Net as a teaching about dynamic interrelatedness: that all phenomena are interdependent. The moral is that compassionate and constructive action produces a beneficial ripple effect that reverberates throughout the universe. By the same token, when you disturb a single strand, everything else is damaged in a cascade of destruction. The teaching is that all sentient beings are to be cherished equally without regard to difference, drawing together all human and non-human creatures in a great web of life.
The philosopher Peter Singer writes, in The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, "The sphere of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation, race, and now to all human beings. The process should be extended...to include all beings of whatever species." Altruists, using this definition, respond to the interconnectedness of all life, and can express their compassion for animals by leaving them alone. They acknowledge the decimated wildlife, the dying forests, the failing water resources, the economically enslaved and politically disenfranchised people, and the mercilessly exploited animals. They recognize that the failings in the world are all related, and that one way to take effective action is to follow a vegetarian diet.
While avoiding some of the highest risks (fat and cholesterol from meat, cheese, and eggs), vegetarians must pay attention to a balanced diet to avoid the few potential nutrient deficiencies of a plant-based lifestyle. A varied vegan diet should present no special problems, but it is essential to be sure to include sufficient vitamin B12, as well as and iodine, iron, and protein, calcium, and Omega-3 fatty acids. A very simple approach should include fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts, soy products, and a multivitamin that includes vitamin B12.
Proteins (Amino Acids)
Supply amino acids to the body. When protein is broken down by digestion, the result is all the known amino acids. The ten essential amino acids are isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, trytophan, valine, and, for children, arginine and histidine. Important for protein synthesis, amino acids are the building blocks of the body. Besides building cells and repairing tissue, they form antibodies to combat invading bacteria and viruses. Amino acids are part of the enzyme and hormonal system, they build nucleoproteins (RNA and DNA), carry oxygen throughout the body, and participate in muscle activity. A varied diet easily meets the protein needs of vegetarians for providing energy, maintaining weight, and supplying amino acids. Good sources of proteins are: lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, soybeans and tofu, seitan, and tempeh. Corn, greens, peas, potatoes, and whole-grain pasta can add to protein intake.
Calcium (Chemical element: Ca, 20)
Needed for strong bones, nerve and muscle function, and blood clotting. Calcium requirements for those on plant-based diets may be somewhat lower than requirements for those eating a diet with meat-based protein because the digestion of animal protein leads to loss of calcium from the bones. Good calcium sources are collard greens, broccoli, kale, turnip greens, tofu prepared with calcium, and fortified soy milk.
Fatty acids (Omega-3)
Important for brain and eye function, as well as for the cellular transport of valuable nutrients. The three fatty acids are ALA (linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Fatty acids are found in soy, walnuts, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, canola oil, and green leafy vegetables.
Iodine (Chemical element: I, 53)
Prevents diseases of the thyroid, and is related to mental retardation and dwarfism in children. Most foods do not contain iodine, but the addition of small amounts of iodine to table salt in the form of sodium iodide, potassium iodide, or potassium iodate (resulting in a product known as iodized salt) provides a sufficient quantity.
Iron (Chemical element: Fe, 26)
Prevents iron deficiency anemia. The body requires iron to produce red blood cells. Good iron sources are dried beans, spinach, chard, beet greens, blackstrap molasses, bulgur wheat, prune juice, and dried fruit. To increase the amount of iron absorbed at a meal, eat food containing vitamin C, such as citrus fruit or juices, tomato, broccoli, cereals, pulses (peas, beans, lentils), or fiber.
Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin)
Clinical deficiency of vitamin B12 develops over a period of time. The risk factors are: anemia, nervous system damage, heart disease, preeclampsia (hypertension) during pregnancy, neural tube defects in babies, loss of energy, tingling, numbness, reduced sensitivity to pain or pressure, blurred vision, abnormal gait, sore tongue, poor memory, confusion, hallucinations, and personality changes. Vitamin B12 usually comes from bacterial microorganisms in animal products, therefore vegetarians must be particularly aware of vitamin B12 in their diets. For optimal health, the only reliable source is in fortified foods and vitamin supplements. Some brands of cereal, nutritional yeast, soy milk and other soy products are fortified with B12 and are good non-animal sources. Vitamin supplements containing B12 are available in vegetarian formulations and will completely satisfy dietary balance without causing suffering to any sentient being or causing environmental damage.
MAKING A CHANGE
Millions of Asians take a vegetarian lifestyle for granted and find it repugnant to kill and eat animals. Most Westerners who become vegetarian make a conscious decision to alter their lifestyle. For some it is a struggle; for many it is a simple but fundamental shift. Whatever the reason, if you are considering becoming a vegetarian, you may want to take an incremental approach by first cutting out only those foods that are most disturbing to you. For example, many people eliminate veal or dairy products — that alone will have a significant impact on your overall health and on animal exploitation.
Reliable information is easy to locate, and you can further educate yourself by consulting a medical doctor or nutritionist.
Langley, Gill. Vegan Nutrition: a Survey of Research. The Vegan Society, 1988.
Robbins, John. Diet for a New America. H.J. Kramer, 1998.
Robbins, John and Dean Ornish, MD, The Food Revolution. Conari Press, 2001.
Stepaniak, J, MS, Ed. Being Vegan: Living with Conscience, Conviction, and Compassion. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Stepaniak, J., MS Ed. and Melina Vesanto MS, RD. Raising Vegetarian Children. McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Stepaniak, J, MS, Ed. The Vegan Sourcebook, 2nd Edition. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Walsh, Stephen. Plant Based Nutrition and Health. The Vegan Society, 2003.
Amercan Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada. "Vegetarian Diets." 2003.
Havala, Suzanne, MS, RD. "Seniors Guide to Good Nutrition." The Vegetarian Resource Group.
Mangels, Reed, PhD, RD. "Protein in the Vegan Diet." The Vegetarian Resource Group.
Mangels, Reed, PhD, RD. "Vitamin B12 in the Vegan Diet." The Vegetarian Resource Group.
Messina, Virginia, MPH, RD, Melina Vesanto, MS, RD, and Ann Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, FADA.
"A New Food Guide for North American Vegetarians." Originally published in Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, Vol. 64, No. 2 (2003).
The Vegan Society:
The Vegetarian Resource Group:
International Vegetarian Union: