There are many motivations that drive people to adopt a vegetarian diet, but the chief ones are health issues,
religious preferences, concern for the well-being of animals, and concern for the environment. Many people also
cite cultural, ethical, aesthetic, economic, and taste preference reasons for choosing to be a vegetarian.
The levels of vegetarianism
There are varying levels of vegetarianism:
- a vegan excludes all animal derived products, including honey and gelatin.
- a strict vegetarian eats no animal products, including dairy
- a lacto-ovo vegetarian adds milk and egg products to the diet
- a semi-vegetarian adds occasional animal sources of food
- a pesci-vegetarian (or pescetarian) is a kind of semi-vegetarian who restricts the non vegetarian foods to
fish (and not poultry)
The history of vegetarianism is long but not uninterrupted. In the 6th century BCE, the ancient Greek
civilization in Greece and in southern Italy chose nonviolence toward animals on religious and philosophical
grounds, and adopted a vegetarian diet. But the practice disappeared, and vegetarianism did not reemerge as a
common dietary choice until the 19th century. Vegetarianism is on the rise in contemporary America, largely
because of nutritional, ethical, and environmental concerns. Still, recent surveys put the number of true
vegetarians at less than three percent of the U.S. population.
Although some may fear the nutritional hazards of a vegetarian diet, the fact is that vegetarians enjoy greater
longevity, better health, and lower risks of cancer and certain chronic diseases. According to the American
Dietetic Association (ADA), "Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of
saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium,
potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals.".
There is a concern that vegetarian diets may not provide sufficient or complete protein. This concern arises
because no single vegetarian source of protein provides every essential amino acid (the building blocks of
proteins). By contrast, animal sources of protein, such as beef, fish, poultry, dairy do provide all essential
amino acids. The good news is that this concern is largely overstated. The actual protein requirement of an
adult is easily met and usually exceeded by a vegetarian diet, as long as the diet includes a variety of different
sources of protein. In particular, the vegetarian diet should include servings from the legume family (such as
peas, chickpeas, soy beans, and lentils). For growing children whose dietary habits may be less consistent, it
is important that if they wish to be vegetarian, their diet include every day either legumes or dairy products (non
fat milk and cheese are great sources of complete protein).
The reality is that the amount of protein in the traditional non vegetarian diet is two or three times the daily
requirement. The problem is that most sources of animal protein — such as red meat — carry
with them large amounts of saturated fat. So people who have large amounts of animal protein in their diets are
taking in a harmful level of saturated fat. One of the key advantages in a vegetarian diet is a dramatic reduction
in the amount of harmful saturated fat.
A second concern is that vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) is not found in any vegetarian food. Fortunately, the
body stores B12 for long periods of time, so any deficiency occurs only with complete deprivation for long
periods. All that is required to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency is to include some dairy in your diet, or take a
vitamin B12 supplement.