It is not long ago that vegetarians were figures of fun, commonly
characterized as cranks, but there is a growing awareness that a vegetarian
diet can have beneficial effects on health.
At times, it seems that there are almost as many reasons for adopting a
vegetarian diet as there are vegetarians. Some, of course, simply dislike
the taste or appearance of meat; other people's motives may be spiritual,
social, ecological, economic, ethical, emotional or medical.
WHY NOT EAT MEAT ?
For some people, a vegetarian
diet is a matter of religious or cultural beliefs. For others it's a
question of making a more efficient use of limited natural resources; animal
husbandry is a profligate use of land compared with raising crops.
Some people, especially in developing countries, are vegetarians because
that's all they can afford. In the developed world, most vegetarians avoid
meat because they are distressed by the idea of animals being slaughtered to
provide it, or by the way the animals are treated while alive. Finally,
there are those who have given up meat, fish and poultry on the grounds that
a vegetarian diet is physically healthier.
LACTO, OVO AND VEGAN
There are several subtle shades
of vegetarianism. Some vegetarians are not strictly vegetarian at all, but
will occasionally eat fish or fowl. Those who don't eat flesh, but happily
tuck into eggs and dairy produce, are known as 'lacto-ovo' (literally
'Lacto' vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs, on the grounds that
eggs are embryos and therefore flesh. They might also avoid cheese made in
the traditional way using animal rennet, which is taken from the stomach
lining of calves.
Strictest of all are vegans, who avoid all animal products, not only for
food but for clothing, and may also avoid honey and yeast.
VEGETARIANISM AND HEALTH
A properly balanced vegetarian
diet can have health advantages. Because vegetables tend to be bulkier and
lower in calories than meat products, vegetarians in general, and vegans in
particular, are much less susceptible to obesity than omnivores (people who
eat a wide range of plant and animal foods). Vegetarians also eat much more
fibre, guarding against constipation and intestinal diseases.
Other conditions improved or even cured in some cases by a vegetarian
diet include infantile eczema, childhood asthma, acne and, in adults,
hypertension (high blood pressure), blood clots, diabetes, circulatory
problems, angina and migraine.
HELPING THE HEART
The greatest health benefit of a vegetarian diet, though, is the avoidance
or alleviation of a number of heart diseases, which are closely connected,
statistically at least, with diets rich-in fats and particularly in
'saturated' fats (those with a high concentration of hydrogen atoms).
Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products.
The connection can be seen in primitive vegetarian communities, where
heart disease is virtually unknown, and also in vital statistics from
Europe. Scandinavians eat a high proportion of animal fat, and have a
correspondingly high incidence of heart disease. People in southern Italy
who eat a good deal of vegetable oils, but little in the way of animal fat,
have the lowest incidence.
STRIKING A BALANCE
Whatever their reason for giving up meat, the great majority of vegetarians
tend to be more conscious about getting a healthy, balanced diet than
omnivores. Planning a sensible vegetarian diet requires thought and care,
especially to get the right balance of proteins. Plenty of plant foods are
high in protein - cereals, nuts, mushrooms, potatoes and oil seeds for
instance - but sometimes it is not the right protein.
All proteins are made up of combinations of chemicals called amino acids.
While animal proteins usually contain all the amino acids required by
humans, the majority of plant proteins are simpler, 'incomplete' structures,
made up of just a few amino acids.
However, you can get a high quality complete protein by combining certain
plant foods. For example, most cereals and pulses (beans, peas and lentils)
complement each other. Simple meals such as beans on toast or rice and
lentils contain protein as high in quality as red meats.
A vegetarian diet may also be lacking in important nutrients, notably
iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, all of which are plentiful in
Though iron is present in many vegetables, it is often more difficult to
absorb than iron from animal sources, though the body will eventually adapt
by making more efficient use of what's available. Eating foods which are
rich in vitamin C helps this process.
Calcium is freely available in milk and eggs, but obtaining sufficient
supplies can be difficult for vegans. Pregnant and lactating vegans may be
prescribed a calcium supplement.
Diets with a lot of cereal fibre can make it more difficult to absorb
calcium, iron and zinc, but this is likely to have little effect unless
these particular minerals are already in short supply.
Vitamin D, particularly important for the proper growth of the bones in
children, is largely absent in plant foods, though it is plentiful in milk
and dairy products. However, people can make this vitamin by the action of
sunlight on the skin.
Vitamin D deficiency can occur in children reared on a vegan diet if they
are not exposed to enough sunlight, and they may need a food supplement in
the winter. An alternative is to use a vegetable margarine fortified with
A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to serious, though fortunately rare,
conditions, including spinal ataxia (causing poor balance, stooped posture
and loss of sensation in the legs) and megaloblastic anaemia (a deficiency
in the blood).
Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods or micro-organisms. Vegetarians
get all they need from dairy products, but the only natural source for
vegans is vegetables old enough to have a growth of mould on them.
Fortunately, the vitamin is generally available in tablet form.
If you decide to switch to a vegetarian diet, try to do so slowly and
carefully. Any sudden, radical change to your diet can be a shock to the
system. Always consult your doctor, or a dietitian, before you significantly
alter the amount or type of food that you eat.
Becoming vegetarian may have unexpected effects unless you make the
change gradually. You may find that the extra fibre you eat in a vegetarian
diet will leave you feeling uncomfortably bloated at first, and you may lack
energy for a while until your body adjusts.