You Are What You Eat You are what you eat, goes a famous saying. And if that is truly the case, then a lot of Americans would appear to be unhealthy, chemically treated, commercially raised slabs of animal flesh. And while that is not a particularly pleasant thought, it is nonetheless an description of the typical American omnivore who survives on the consumption of Big Macs and steak fajitas. But there are individuals who do not follow this American norm and have altered their diets so that they do not consume any meat. These people are vegetarians, and they are the new breed of healthy Americans who refuse to poison themselves with fats, cholesterol, and the other harmful additives that come from meat.
And while once thought to be a movement that would never gain much momentum, it has nonetheless moved itself to the forefront of Americans healthy diets. The word vegetarian, used to describe the diets of people who do not consume animal flesh, was not used until around the mid-1800s. The concept of vegetarianism, however, dates back much further. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, considered by many to be the father of vegetarianism, encouraged a non-meat diet among his followers as a diet that was the most natural and healthful (Messina 3). A vegetarian diet excludes the consumption of meat, and can be exercised by people for a number of reasons.
The largest majority of individuals chose vegetarianism for health related reasons. For example, someone with an ulcer might be prescribed a strict diet of vegetables in order to promote the healing process. Or someone with a dangerously high level of cholesterol might be advised to follow a vegetarian diet to lower his or her fat and cholesterol intake. The immorality of consuming animal flesh is another argument touted by a smaller group of vegetarians. R.G.
Frey describes this moral argument for vegetarianism and the effect that meat eating might have on the character of humans: Some people have come to believe and fear that, in the suffering and killing which occurs in commercial farming, we demean ourselves, coarsen our sensitivities, dull our feelings of sympathy with our fellow creatures, and so begin the descent down the slippery slope of torture and death, to a point where it becomes easier for us to contemplate and carry out the torture and killing of human beings. (20) This moral argument for vegetarianism is also noted by John Robbins who states that the suffering these animals undergo has become so extreme that to partake of food from these creatures is to partake unknowingly of the abject misery that has been their lives(14). But whatever the reasons behind a persons choice to be a vegetarian, it is important to understand the different diets that individual vegetarians can choose. In the widest sense of the word, a vegetarian diet is a diet that is made up of grains, vegetables and fruit, but does not include any animal flesh, such as fish, pork, poultry, or beef. But beyond these standards, there are many variations of diet that occur within the world of vegetarianism. The first, and most prominent, category of vegetarianism is a lacto-ovo vegetarian.
Mark Messina describes a lact-ovo diet as ..a vegetarian diet (that) includes dairy products and eggs but no animal flesh(7). This means that there is consumption of animal byproducts, such as milk, eggs, or honey, but there is no consumption of animal flesh. Another variation is the lacto-vegetarian diet that allows the consumption of milk and other milk products, but does not include the consumption of eggs. And like all vegetarians, these two groups do not consume fish, poultry, or meat (Messina 7). Another category that vegetarians can fall into are vegans. The vegan diet is by far the most strict of all the vegetarian diets.
According to Mark Messina, Vegans avoid meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs. There are many other foods that may not be acceptable to many vegans, however. Foods that involve animal processing to any degree are often avoided(11). This means that vegans can consume no foods containing animal byproducts, such as milk, eggs, or honey. Being a vegan often dictates an animal friendly lifestyle that, aside from not eating anything that came from an animal, also abstains from buying or using products that were tested on animals or are made from animal hairs or skin, such as leather shoes or belts (Messina 11). A common misconception of vegetarians is that they are all a bunch of skinny, malnourished idealists who live on plants and soy milk.
And another, related common misconception is that a diet of meat is a diet that builds strength. Professor Irving Fisher of Yale designed a series of tests in which he compared the strength and stamina of meat-eaters against vegetarians, with three groups of individuals represented: meat-eating athletes, vegetarian athletes, and sedentary vegetarians. His studies showed that the average score of the two vegetarian groups was over double the average score of the meat eaters, even though half of the vegetarians were sedentary people and all of the meat-eaters were athletes. Fisher concluded that: …the difference in endurance between the flesh-eaters and the abstainers (was due) entirely to the difference in their diet..There is strong evidence that a .. non-flesh .. diet is conducive to endurance.(206) A comparable study was done in 1968 by a Danish group of researchers that tested a group of men on a variety of diets, using a stationary bicycle to measure their strength and endurance.
The group fed their test subjects a diet that was comprised of mixed amounts of vegetables and meats for a period of time before testing the men on the stationary bicycle. The average time that they could pedal before muscle failure was 114 minutes. The very same group of subjects was then fed a diet that was comprised of only meat, eggs, and milk for an equal amount of time, and then re-tested them on the bikes. On this diet, their pedaling time before muscle failure dropped dramatically to an average of only 57 minutes. That same group of men was again fed a diet that this time was comprised entirely of grains, vegetables, and fruits before once again testing them on the bikes.
The lack of animal byproducts didnt seem to hamper their performance, as many people would have thought, and the men were able to pedal an average of 167 minutes before muscle failure (Robbins 156). But vegetarians are still often criticized by people who feel that vegetarians do not get enough minerals and vitamins as a result of their limited diet. But vegetarian food is among some of the healthiest foods available to mankind, and while there is no easy way to determine the extent to which a vegetarian diet can influence the health of those that follow its guidelines, the evidence is very indicative that it may be an important contributing factor. Registered dietitian Johanna Dwyer, of Tufts University Medical School and the New England Medical Center Hospital, Boston, summarizes these benefits: .. data are strong that vegetarians are at lesser risk for obesity, atonic [reduced muscle tone] constipation, lung cancer, and alcoholism.
Evidence is good that risks for hypertension, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes, and gallstones are lower. Data are only fair to poor that risks of breast cancer, diverticular disease of the colon, colonic cancer, calcium kidney stones, osteporosis, dental erosion, and dental caries are lower among vegetarians.( …