Vegetarianism, in essence, is the voluntary abstinence of a person from eating meat products. Vegetarianism has been shown to have tremendous health benefits as a practice, and is often employed as a more ethical and sustainable diet than carnivorous diets. It is a preferable lifestyle compared to being carnivorous or omnivorous, as it also means taking a stand against animal slaughter.
There are many different facets of vegetarianism, but the activity itself has been found in many cultures throughout human history. In Western cultures, in particular, it is finding significant support, as more and more people in America and other countries choose to eat only vegetables (and optionally dairy products). There are many different kinds of vegetarianism; in essence, many people fall along a spectrum of vegetarianism that extends from semi-vegetarian (infrequent eating of meat) to pescetarian (eating only fish, seafood and vegetables) to full vegetarian. Other types of vegetarianism that exist are, ovo vegetarianism (eating eggs, but no dairy products, and vice versa to laco vegetarianism). Veganism is one particularly popular type of vegetarianism, in which milk, honey, eggs and all other animal products are strictly avoided. Raw veganism focuses strictly on uncooked fruits and vegetables. These types of vegetarianism, in particular, emphasize a prohibition on processed foods, other products that use animal ingredients. Figure 1 denotes the difference in servings one requires in order to get proper nutrition, based on these alternative types of vegetarianism:
(Dept. of Nutrition, 2008)
The practice of vegetarianism itself has many health benefits. For instance, due to the restriction of foods to vegetables and fruits, wiser and more selective food choices are made overall, thus increasing the nutrient intake. Fruits and vegetables add color to the plate, are rich in fiber and less expensive than meat. Vegetarianism has been shown to dramatically decrease rates of death from ischaemic heart disease by as much as 30 per cent (Key et al. 516). Those who participate in vegetarian diets also have lower saturated fat levels, as well as lower cholesterol, high blood pressure and more. Statistically, there are a significant number of conditions and diseases that are less likely to occur in vegetarians than in carnivores: heart disease, hypertension, renal disease, diabetes and more are found in fewer incidences among those who are vegetarian (White and Frank 465). Women who have become vegetarians have had significantly fewer incidences of gall stone development (Pixley et al. 12). Therefore a vegetarian diet brings with it good health and many benefits.
The particular makeup of a vegetarian diet leads to an intake of rich nutrients and minerals in those who follow it. Vegetarians, on the whole, consume fewer calories in food energy than omnivores, due to the smaller levels of fat and protein that are taken in their overall diet (White and Frank, 466). Vegetarians have been shown to have substantially adequate vitamin intake for most essential vitamins, including riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamins A, C and E (466). However, some potential deficits for vegetarian diets include levels of iron and zinc, which are typically provided through meat, but, these can also be acquired through some vegetarian food sources and supplements. So as far as nutrients are concerned, a vegetarian diet has a good rating.
Besides health reasons, there are those who become vegetarians for moral or ethical reasons also. Modern vegetarianism, as it is understood, is thought of as a means of achieving hypothesized nutritional superiority (Worsley and Skrzypiec 151). In essence, people believe that it is more ethical and nutritional to become a vegetarian. Animal cruelty is perpetuated by the prevalence of carnivorism in the human diet. In order to meet this demand, the food industry has started performing dubious practices including corralling of chickens, cows and pigs into inhumane environments and conditions. Many vegetarians feel that the means of production for meat is bad and unethical, and as a result do not engage in that part of the supply cycle in buying meat. Furthermore, many believe that this meat production is also bad for the environment, due to the changing of land to accommodate large populations of animals (Worsley and Skrzypiec 163). Animal slaughter causes environment pollution and waste, thus leading many to stick with their vegetarian diet.
The moral center of vegetarianism may stem from the utilitarian perspective; there is a huge connection between the two philosophies (Singer 325). According to the utilitarian philosophy, all actions must be taken to achieve the greatest level of happiness, emphasizing actions taken towards things of the greatest use, or utility. Animals are given moral standing through the principle of utilitarianism; "no being should have its interests disregarded or discounted merely because it is not human" (Singer 329). Even if one does not subscribe to the idea that animals should be treated with the same care and respect that is afforded to people, there is a practical reason for wanting to stop animal cruelty. Many vegetarians believe animals, as sentient beings, which do not deserve to be killed if there is a way to avoid it. The ethics surrounding eating meat, and of killing to acquire food for survival (bioethics), often inspire vegetarians, as they object either to the act itself, or how the meat industry produces meat in an inhumane way. Furthermore, they believe that not contributing to the meat market and meat industry, will help the environment, provide greater support for one's health, and make a political statement toward more human practices for animals (Worsley and Skrzypiec 163).
Of course, there are aesthetic reasons for taking up the vegetarian lifestyle as well. Many people believe that, due to the lower fat and protein intake that a vegetarian diet has, they will be able to lose weight and stay thin in a better way, thus improving their appearance (Worsley and Skrzypiec 166). This attitude, while not necessarily tied to any specific health or ethical concern, is still a chief guiding reason for adopting this lifestyle.
Counterarguments for the vegetarian lifestyle are many, and some of them carry valid points. For example, it can be quite dangerous to engage in a fully vegetarian diet without figuring out alternative means for acquiring proteins and vital nutrients which are not present in a vegetarian diet alone. Many human beings get their protein and fatty acids (needed nutrients for human health) from meats. Traditional concerns about the vegetarian diet include the possible inadequacy of the intake of protein and eight essential amino acids. However, according to research, vegetarians typically receive adequate protein through the eating of grains, nuts, legumes and other protein-rich vegetarian foods (White and Frank 466).
Furthermore, it is stated that it would be quite difficult for vegetarianism to make the mark on the meat industry that its community desires. Meat consumption in the United States, for example, is still extremely high, as Figure 2 below illustrates:
(Vegan Outreach, 2012).
However, given these figures, it is easy to see that the need for stricter and less meat-centric diets is strongly recommended. If for no other reason than at least to get meat consumption down to maintain sustainable numbers for land animals that are normally raised and slaughtered for food. Furthermore, since 2008 there have been 1.1 billion fewer land animals slaughtered for meat, due to the spread of vegetarianism and its increased awareness (Vegan Outreach, 2012). Towards that end, it is possible to foster better practices in meat production and consumption through the acquisition of a vegetarian lifestyle.
In conclusion, vegetarianism is a viable and extremely beneficial diet, both for human health and ethical reasons. Those who engage in vegetarian diets consume less fat and calories, while also having reduced saturated fat and cholesterol levels, accumulating to an overall better level of health than that experienced by omnivores. Furthermore, the actualization of a vegetarian lifestyle is seen as a greater moral imperative, keeping in mind the welfare of those animals that are slaughtered and mistreated to provide meat products to humans. Despite the concerns that vegetarians lack proper protein, vegetarians can still get all the proper nutrition they require, while still maintaining ethical practices in cultivating and selecting their food.
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