Vegetarianism is a dietary practice excluding most or all body parts of any animal and products derived from them (e.g. lard, tallow, gelatin, cochineal) from one's diet. Most contemporary vegetarian diets include some honey as well as milk and other dairy products, and some include eggs.
Varieties of vegetarianism
Different practices of vegetarianism include:
Strict vegetarians avoid the consumption of all animal products (e.g. eggs, milk and cheese.) Today, strict vegetarians are commonly called vegans, though some reserve this term for those who additionally avoid usage of all kinds of animal products (e.g. leather), not just food.
Ovo-lacto vegetarianism. This practice eschews the eating of all meat, yet allows the consumption of animal products such as eggs and milk. Ovo-lacto vegetarians who are such for ethical reasons may additionally refuse to eat cheese made with animal-based enzymes, or eggs produced by factory farms.
Lacto vegetarianism refers to the practice of eschewing all meat, yet allowing the consumption of milk and its derivatives, like cheese, butter or yoghurt. Similarly ovo-vegetarians presumably only eat eggs in addition to their otherwise strictly vegetarian regimen.
Pesco vegetarianism refers to the increasingly common practice of occasionally including some seafood, primarily fish, in one's diet. This is the diet practiced, with occasional supplementation of dairy products, by the integrated medicine practitioner Andrew Weil, M.D. and advocated by his books Eating Well for Optimum Health. This greatly resembles the dietary practices of Catholics on Fridays during Lent (and, more traditionally, on all Fridays). This is not generally considered true vegetarianism.
In the United States, vegetarianism is usually synonymous with ovo-lacto vegetarianism; and will sometimes be assumed to tolerate some meat, for instance, chicken (or "at least" fish). It is also possible to order a vegetarian meal and be served meat. In the UK, due to its sizeable Hindu minority, vegetarianism often refers to the Hindu practice described below.
Hindus of certain castes are forbidden from consuming anything gained at the expense of an animal's suffering: e.g. meat, eggs, animal byproducts such as rennet and gelatin (including gelatin capsules) and honey. The milk of cows, buffalo and goats as well as dairy products (other than cheese containing rennet) are acceptable, as milk is given willingly. Leather from cows who have died of natural causes is acceptable. (Note: The diet of the orthodox Hindu also excludes alcohol, as well as "overly-stimulating" foods such as onions and garlic.)
All dietary rules listed for Hindus apply to Jains, in addition to which Jains must take into account any suffering caused to plants and suksma jiva (Sanskrit: subtle lifeforms; refers to what would later be termed "microorganisms") by their dietary choices. They are forbidden from eating most root vegetables (e.g. potatoes) and deem many other vegetables acceptable only when harvested during certain times of the year.
Jews, Christians and Moslems are all left with the biblical ideal of the "Garden of Eden" diet, which from all appearances is strictly vegan (cf. Gen. 1:29, 9:2-4; Is. 11:6-9). However, only minorities within these populations actually practice and advocate such strict diets, since the same book of the Bible, Genesis, later gives permission to Noah's descendants to consume animal flesh, but not without great suffering simultaneously administered to all creatures: "The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea" (Gen. 9:2). Suffice to say, the Judaeo-Christian God's permission for humankind to eat meat was not an unmixed or otherwise "unqualified" blessing. It was a concession, with penalties--not the least of which was, most probably, a dramatically decreased life expectancy (see Gen. 6:3). (Noah's great-grandfather, Methuselah, is famously reported as having lived an amazing 969 years, prior to the dawn of God-authorized human meat-eating.)
In Chinese societies, "simple eating" (?? su4shi2) refers to a particular restricted diet associated with Taoist monks, and sometimes practiced by members of the general population during Taoist festivals. It is referred to by the English word "vegetarian;" however, though it rejects meat, eggs and milk, this diet does include oysters and oyster products.
Fructarians (more commonly called "fruitarians") eat only fruit, nuts, seeds and other plant matter that can be gathered without harming the plant. Thus a fructarian will eat beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and the like, but will refuse to eat potatoes or spinach.
The following is not generally considered vegetarianism:
Some people choose to avoid certain types of meat for many of the same reasons that others choose vegetarianism -- health, ethical beliefs, and so forth. For example, some people will not eat "red meat" (mammal meat -- beef, lamb, pork, etc.) while still consuming poultry and seafood. Others might feel that the suffering of animals in factory farm conditions is the main consequence they want to avoid, so they might eat animals raised under humane conditions or hunted in the wild. This is not considered true vegetarianism, but may be called semi-vegetarianism or Pesco/Pollo vegetarianism (see above). Many vegetarian advocates, however, like to make "vegetarianism" as broad and all-encompassing as possible.
A person's decision to become a vegetarian may be influenced by a combination of factors.
Religion: A majority of the world's vegetarians follow the practice for religious reasons. Many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and especially Jainism, teach that ideally life should always be valued and not willfully destroyed for unnecessary human gratification.
In the Bible, the Book of Genesis teaches that human beings were originally vegetarian, but that later, following the Deluge, God permitted people to eat meat as well. Many Judeo-Christian vegetarians interpret this to mean that God originally intended human beings to be vegetarians, and that people would do well to be vegetarians, even though meat-eating is permitted. Additionally, some Biblical prophecy suggests that in the Messianic age, there will be universal vegetarianism, even among normally carnivorous animals. (For example, Isaiah 11:7 says, "The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.")
Rabbinical Judaism discourages ascetic practices in general. With repsect to food, this teaching may be summarized by the Talmudic statement, "Man will have to account for everything he saw but did not eat." To Jewish vegetarians wishing to remain consistent with this teaching, vegetarianism is not a form of self-deprivation, because the vegetarian does not desire to eat meat and believes it is healthier not to eat meat.
In Christianity, Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans that although he himself ate meat, the choice to eat meat or abstain from meat should be a matter of personal conviction: "The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him." (Romans 14:3) Several Christian monastic groups have encouraged vegetarianism, including the Desert Fathers, Trappists, Benedictines, and Carthusians. Some Protestant groups, such as Seventh-Day Adventists, take a literal interpretation of the Biblical prophecies of universal vegarianism and encourage vegetarians as a perferred though not required lifestyle. In the nineteenth century, members of the Bible Christian sect established the first vegetarian groups in England and the United States.
Islam explicitly permits the eating of some kinds of meat. The hadith collection of al-Nasa'i recounts an episode wherein several of Mohammed's companions wish to practice various ascetic practices including sexual abstinence, vegetarianism, and extreme fasting, and Mohammed rebukes them all. Since in Islam, it is forbidden to forbid that which is permitted, a Mulsim may choose to be a vegetarian, but only as an aesthetic or ethical consideration and not as a religious duty.
Rastafarians generally follow a diet called "I-tal," which eschews the eating of food that has been artificially preserved, flavoured, or chemically altered in any way. Many Rastafarians consider it to also forbid the eating of meat.
Ethics: Except for a small minority in the world today for whom meat is a staple food (principally, members of nomadic hunting or herding societies such as Inuit and Sami), everyone is free to choose whether to eat meat or not. Since a person can live perfectly healthily on a vegetarian diet, for most people the only motivations for eating meat are the pleasure of eating it, convenience, and tradition. "Ethical vegetarians" consider these reasons to be to be insufficient justification for the suffering they perceive to be entailed in the production of meat. Vegetarianism of this sort is often associated with the animal rights movement, although not all ethical vegetarians subscribe to the notion of animal rights.
Environmental or ecological concerns: Particularly since the Industrial Revolution, machinery has enabled people to change their environment at a rate that, some argue, exceeds the ability of ecosystems to adapt. The use of large areas of land for livestock farming, and large-scale fishing in the oceans, have fundamentally affected animal and marine populations. Livestock production is also often linked to deforestation and theft of the land from indigenous tribal people. In both environmental and economic terms, many vegetarians argue that the "cost" of raising a kilogram of animal protein is many times the "cost" of growing a kilogram of vegetable protein.
Health: Statistics indicate that people on vegetarian diets have lower incidence of heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. The American Dietetic Association says, "Although nondietary factors, including physical activity and abstinence from smoking and alcohol, may play a role, [a meat-free, vegetarian] diet is clearly a contributing factor" in reducing both morbidity and mortality "rates from several chronic degenerative diseases than do nonvegetarians."
Researchers like Dean Ornish have had successful results treating heart disease patients with strictly vegetarian diet, exercise and stress reduction programs. There are also nutritional considerations which encourage diets emphasizing fruit, vegetables and cereals and minimising meat and fat intake.
Aesthetics: Some people intuitively find meat unappetizing, particularly when raw, and simply prefer to abstain from the consumption of animal flesh for aesthetic or emotional reasons.
Pragmatic considerations Modern-day, industrially produced meat is laced with chemicals, such as growth hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, food-coloring, and pesticides. Moreover, the meat of pen-raised animals (such as feedlot-fattened cows and pigs and farmed salmon) have much higher levels of fat and less nutritional value than the meat of their corresponding free-range or wild bretheren. Hence, many people are vegetarians not for ethical or aesthetic reasons but simply because meat nowadays has much less nutritional value than it once had while plants have just somewhat less.
Choosing not to eat meat for one or more of the above-mentioned reasons must be seen as a rational choice. Likewise, choosing to eat meat is a rational choice, although there may be reasons not to do so. No diet is necessarily unnatural. Human beings have been omnivores since time immemorial; we have the teeth (incisors and molars) and the digestive systems of creatures who eat both meat and plants. Nearly all the higher primates to whom we are related are omnivores, except the gorilla. In the past, many people ate meat infrequently, because often it wasn't available or affordable. Strict vegetarianism is something comparatively new in human history, that is to say, in evolutionary terms. Although the phenomenon isn't entirely well understood, it is possible that some people may fail to thrive on strict vegetarian diets.
There is a risk that Vitamin B12 deficiency can result from veganism. While just about all animal based foods contain useful quantities of B12, no readily available plant based source does (except the not universally available Indonesian fermented soy product tempeh). However, a range of foods have the vitamin added, including breakfast cereals, soft drinks, soy milk, Marmite, Vegemite and others. B12 supplements such as vitamin pills are often prepared from abattoir waste and are thus unsuitable for vegetarians, although there are an increasing number of brands that contain no animal products. B12 is stored in the body for many months, so B12 deficiency symptoms do not appear immediately on embarking on a pure vegan diet, but can eventually be severe. However this deficiency is rarely seen in Western vegans, since the problem is well-known.
Some important nutrients (amino acids, fats, vitamins A, D, K and E) are present in good quantities in meat, but with minimal attention a vegetarian diet with plenty of all of these can be designed. The American Dietetic Association states: "Plant sources of protein alone can provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids if a variety of plant foods are consumed and energy needs are met." It is more common to find instances of scurvy and other consequences of vitamin C deficiency in people who subsist purely on a diet of fast food. However, it is important for vegetarians and vegans to be conscious of their intake of protein, B12, and other nutrients. Like any diet, one that eschews animal products needs to be balanced and include a variety of foods.
One issue raised by choosing vegetarianism to avoid the suffering of animals is that agricultural cultivation of plant foods also harms animals. Run-off from fields harms aquatic life by polluting waterways with sediments, nutrients, and chemicals. Automatic farm machines kill small animals unintentionally, while cutting down trees takes away habitat for other animals. Pesticides kill beneficial and harmful insects alike. However, it should be noted that vegetarian diets require less agricultural resources than meat based diets. Thus, in populations where most of the meat consumed does not come from grazing animals a vegetarian diet will in fact reduce the suffering caused by agriculture because less plants overall will be necessary to sustain the diet.
Vegetarians (except fructarians) also kill plants in order to survive. Even though a vegetarian might contend that plants do not have the same sensory mechanisms to feel pain, some people feel that it is a worthwhile philosophical question. Even if plants are sentient, however, a vegetarian could argue that it is acceptable to consume the plant because otherwise the vegetarian would not be able to survive. This argument is similar to the argument that it is acceptable to kill animals if it is necessary for survival (for example, barring modern importation of foods, the Inuit live in a climate where consuming fish is necessary in order to get enough calories to survive). Also, vegetarians point out that eating animals uses a lot more plants than eating plants does, as animals are very inefficient at converting plants into flesh.
While vegetarianism is commonly defined strictly on the basis of dietary intake, many religiously, ethically or environmentally motivated vegetarians (in common with animal rights and Green movements) try to minimise the harm done to animals in all aspects of their lives.
Many religiously motivated vegetarians consider the avoidance of skin contact with products made from body parts (e.g. leather, tallow soap) an integral part of their definition of vegetarianism. Others consider leather made from the skin of animals who died of natural causes acceptable. While for many Hindus it is impractical, there are those who shy away completely from the use of leather articles made from cowhide. Some state and cities in India have even banned cow-slaughter in places of pilgrimage or whole regions based on the sentiments of some Hindus.
Many health-motivated vegetarians are also associated with the organic food movement and/or are concerned about the use of genetically modified organisms in food production.
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