People become vegetarians – that is, they give up eating meat – for a variety of reasons, most commonly nutritional and moral. There is little doubt that a balanced diet containing only plant foods will keep you as healthy if not healthier than if your diet in-cludes a regular intake of meat. In particular, vegetarians are more likely to be slimmer than meat eaters. Also, because they carry on average almost a third less body fat, vegetarians are less likely to suffer from gout, gallstones, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other complaints associated with obesity. There is even evidence that suggests a link between meat-eating and certain forms of cancer.
In the Western World vegetarianism has had a strong moral element since it originated in England in the nineteenth century. Initially it became involved with the Nonconformists’ campaign against drinking alcohol. The Vegetarian Society, founded in 1847, later severed the religious link and embarked on a moral crusade against the raising and slaughter of animals for food. Modern vegetarianism derives much of its force from what it sees as the moral objection to meat-eating.
The vegetarian movement has grown steadily during the twentieth century. In the past 25 years in Europe and North America it has been given added impetus on the nutritional side by the rise of the health-food industry and on the moral side by growing public interest in ecology, especially man’s impact on nature. Today there are two main categories of vegetarians. Most vegetarians are, strictly speaking, lacto-vege-tarians: although they will not eat flesh, fish or fowl, they allow consumption of dairy products such as milk, cheese and butter (all of which are derived from animals) as well as plant foods. Some merely refuse to eat red meat, but readily consume fish and poultry. Veganism is a more restrictive category. Vegans abhor what they perceive to be exploitation of animals, so they prohibit the use of any food of animal origin, whether or not such food involves the slaughter of the animals in question. All vegans therefore exclude dairy products from their diet, while the more radical also prohibit food such as honey. The good health and longevity enjoyed by many lacto-vegetarians and vegans are proof enough that neither meat nor dairy produce is essential to the human diet. The correct combination of vegetable food can theoretically supply all the carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals and virtually all the vitamins that are necessary for a balanced diet. Until recently some dieticians opposed vegetarianism on the ground that it failed to provide certain essential amino acids present in some proteins. In fact, this deficiency can be avoided if a selection from certain nuts, soya beans, dried peas, lentils, whole grains and (for lacto-vegetarians) cheese is included in the diet.
A more complicated situation may arise because of a deficiency of certain vitamins in carelessly planned vegetarian diets. For vegans especially, vitamins B2 and B12 pose problems. Adequate quantities of B2 for nutritional purposes occur naturally only in dairy products, particularly milk. Lack of B2 is a fairly trivial matter, giving rise to minor skin complaints. In contrast, a deficiency of B,2 is extremely serious because red blood cells cannot be produced, causing numbness of the limbs, diarrhoea, and general weakness. Vegans are especially vulnerable because, although Bi: is abundant in milk, cheese and eggs, it is present only in inadequate concentrations in plants. Fortunately vegans can get around the problem by taking supplements of the vitamin derived from bac-teria – a source acceptable to vegans. Interestingly, some vegans do not suffer from Bu deficiency even though they omit to use such supplements. It is be-lieved that such individuals are able to produce and absorb the vitamin in their gut. Vitamin D is essential for continuing good health because it helps the body to absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are necessary for developing and main- taining healthy bones and teeth. A deficiency of this vitamin, preventing the uptake of calcium, may lead to rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults, two serious conditions that interfere with the formation of bone tissue. Deficiency of vitamin D (which occurs in large quantities in dairy products) is found mainly among vegans. Our bodies are also able to manufacture the vitamin in the skin through direct exposure to sunlight; but for vegans the most conven-ient source is vitamin supplements.
The moral case for vegetarianism, although open to argument, is at least plausible; the nutritional case is unquestionably well-founded. There is also a third case: economic. The main economic argument centres on the way man goes about producing food. In Western Europe a meat-eater consumes on average one cow, seven bullocks, 36 sheep, 36 pigs, and 550 chickens during his lifetime. Some vegetarians consider the raising of dairy and beef cattle as a somewhat wasteful method of using the prime agricultural land that the cattle farmer turns into pasture. It takes about 10kg of vegetable protein to produce 1kg of meat protein; and yet four times as much agricultural land in Europe is devoted to feeding food animals than is devoted to raising crops for direct human consumption. If the proportions could be reversed, and if the arable land released could be turned over to the great cereal crops, the problem of feeding the hungry peoples in many parts of the world could theoretically be eased. It is probably easier to compile and adopt a meat-free slimming diet than one that maintains the traditional 30 per cent of animal fats, and it is sometimes the motivation to lose weight that converts people to vegetarianism. Rich in vitamins and minerals, and low in calories, most vegetables and fruit make an excellent basis for a weight-reducing diet. The high content of cellulose, acting as fibre or roughage, is an additional bonus towards good health (and mitigates against the constipation that commonly affects slimmers). Peas, beans, lentils and other pulses have a high protein content in relation to their calorific value, and so vegetarians who want to slim should have no difficulty in devising a low-calorie diet. They will have more of a problem with trying a low-carbohydrate diet, however, because of the inevitably high carbohydrate content of such vegetarian foods as nuts, cereals and many vegetables.