Vegetarian Diet - Myths and Facts

Vegetarianism and veganism are ways of diet when people don't eat certain animal produce. Vegetarians or vegans do not eat any products during the production of which any animals were killed. Simply said: vegetarians are those who do not eat meat. Veganism is a more rigid form of vegetarianism. In vegan diet, all products of animal origin are off limits, including honey, eggs and dairy products. Some vegans also refuse to wear clothes or accessories of animal origin, e.g. wool or leather.

Vegetarianism and veganism are considered lifestyles. Followers of this lifestyle also deal with other issues in terms of diet; e.g. they don't drink alcohol or do drugs, they refuse to use cosmetics tested on animals, they do not go to circuses with animals and they generally do not participate in activities associated with limiting animal rights and freedom.

There are many rumours and myths about vegans and vegetarians; some are the result of poor awareness or fear of the unknown. But we could also learn a thing or two from them and make things easier on our metabolism which is often burdened by stress and fitful intake of not very suitable or low-quality foods. But is diet without animal products healthy? And what can we substitute them with?

Origins of Vegetarianism

We could look for the root of the word vegetarian in Latin vegetabilis which means vegetal, or in the verb vegetare which means to grow and develop; or even in the word vegetus, which can be translated as fresh and full of life.

Vegetarianism is not only a fad of recent years as some people may think; it originated already in Ancient Greece and India. Even Eden is described as a garden full of fruits in the Old Testament.

Types of Vegetarianism

Nowadays everyone knows that the main and common thing of vegetarians is that they do not eat meat in any form. But few people know that vegetarians classify into further groups according to food they ingest:

  • Lactoovovegetarians – their only animal produce is milk and dairy products, eggs and honey
  • Lactovegetarians – their only animal produce is milk and dairy products
  • Ovovegetarians – their only animal produce is honey and eggs; they do not eat milk and dairy products

Other categories are considered more rigid forms of meatless diet and they include:

  • Vegans – vegans only eat vegetal-based food, but they permit thermal processing
  • Vitarians – they eat the same as vegans, but without thermal processing
  • Fruitarians – they only eat fruits that were taken from a plant "without harm" (fruits, some kinds of vegetables and nuts)

Meatless Diet As a Symbol

Refusing to eat animal produce is not only a type of diet but also a lifestyle and philosophy that has a wider influence on the person and their surroundings. Meatless diet is a protest against mass killing of animals in inhumane conditions. People devoted to vegetarianism and its branches often try to be a good example for their surroundings and show others that meat and animal produce are not a necessary part of the diet and we can live without them. The look at the cycle of artificial breeding of animals who spend their short lives locked up in cots or cages and lacking movement and quality food is more than frustrating. Of course, we are talking about animals from industrial stocks who do not experience full lives and therefore their meat is also of poorer quality.

But why do we hang on meat and dairy products so much? Recent history may give us some answers to that question. At the time of wars, even the basic foods were unavailable and meat in general was perceived as a guaranteed source of energy and strength and as a symbol of wealth in history. Thanks to the gene transfer, a piece of information related to fear of hunger could have been planted in us.

Vegans and vegetarians sometimes go even further; apart from not eating meat, they also refuse to use cosmetics tested on animals, some clothing materials such as leather, wool or silk; they do not go to circuses featuring animals and boycott other institutions associated with tarnishing animal rights. They are often non-smokers. Their basic philosophy could be described as follows: If you want to change the world, begin with yourself.

Myths and Facts on Vegetarian Diet

Meat and dairy products are considered main sources of calcium and proteins that human body needs to survive. However, there are some scientific studies claiming that human metabolism is not designed to digest meat because the anatomic structure of our digestive system and teeth is more similar to herbivores. It is not always necessary to use chemical dietary supplements when refraining from meat in your diet; we find natural form of most substances necessary for our body to work in plant parts.

Vegetarianism is on the thin line between acceptance and judgement in the society; the reasons for judgement being some cases when transitioning to vegetal diet caused health problems or even death. These cases occur mainly for two reasons:

  • People think they become vegetarians when they start eating only side dishes and stop eating meat. If a person is used to eating mainly in fast food restaurants and their diet consists largely of fast sugar (candy), French fries and similar foods and their lifestyle is not perfect (smoking, alcohol, lack of movement), not eating meat will not save them. These pseudo-vegetarians are sometimes called "doughnut vegetarians".
  • A person suffering from a metabolic disease masks their thinness and refusing food for vegetarian attitude. That does not shine positive light on vegetarians because it gives birth to the assumption that this dietary regime disturbs the mind.

That said, vegetarianism is not recommended to those who do not wish to change their lifestyle and only stop eating meat because it is hip at the moment.

What About Children of Vegetarians? Is It Alright That They Don't Get Meat?

If parents are practising vegetarians who only refrain from eating meat and they are able to get the necessary nutrients otherwise, there should be no problem. However, if parents are fond of more rigid vegan forms of diet and force children the same, they could cause health complications that could reflect in their children's development. It is always necessary to consult a physician about such diet decisions.

Are Vegetarians in Danger of Losing Weight and Energy?

When transitioning to vegetarian diet, weight loss is experienced mainly by obese people. But it is not a rule for vegetarians to be skinny stick-figure people. There are vegetarian sportsmen who look far from malnourished. A person may experience loss of energy mainly at the beginning of their journey when the body responds to the lightened diet by detoxification and that may go differently in each person. Similarly as in fasting, some people get energized right away and other people feel tired, but only for the first several days.

Veganism

A person needs a really strong motive to become vegan. Vegans only eat vegetal diet and they refuse to wear products made from animals. They usually state that industrial processing pollutes the environment with its waste as their reason. Vegan diet may seem a little complicated, mainly for those only starting with it. Instead of milk, vegans use alternatives from soy, rice, oats, corn and almonds and although it may seem weird, you will not be able to tell flavoured soy milk from cow milk. Instead of meat, they use tofu and soy meat; you can substitute eggs with bananas when baking, etc. Nowadays, shops with healthy foods are richly stocked with various foods and most of them will be a pleasant surprise in terms of taste for you.

In the diet ladder, vegans are still pretty much on the top of the norm, whereas fruitarians who eat only things removed from plants gently or naturally are not taken well in general opinion. It is worth mentioning that everyone should find a lifestyle that suits them and not force it on anybody. Becoming a vegan or a fruitarian only because you guess it's the right thing to do or because your partner is one only leads to mental trouble because your body will be frustrated and stressed. However, if you are in harmony with the principles and you feel that you found what you have been looking for, this lifestyle may help you. It is important to provide the body with all the nutrients and necessary substances.

Examples of Substances and Foods in Vegetarian Diet

Substances

Recommended Daily Dose

Suitable Foods

Proteins

45 - 55 g

lentils, peas, beans, oatmeal, broccoli, spinach, soy products, wheat flour, pumpkin and sesame seeds, hard cheese, cottage cheese, ...

Calcium

800 mg

basil, sesame seeds, sprouts, almonds, raisins, soybeans, lentils, spinach, peas, ...

Iron

men: 12 mg women: 18 mg

pumpkin and sesame seeds, poppy seeds, oats, lentils, beans, tofu, ...

Magnesium

350 mg

pumpkin and sesame seeds, poppy seeds, soybeans, peanuts roasted, millet, oats, spinach, ...

Sodium

2 - 3 g

smoked cheese, bread, beans, lettuce, broccoli, apples, ...

Zinc

15 mg

poppy seeds, lentils, brazil nuts, soybeans, wheat sprouts, ...

Vitamin B12

3 mg

milk, dairy products, eggs, foods supplemented with vitamin B12

Vitamin B3

12 - 25 mg

eggs, milk, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, peanuts

Vitamín B6

2 mg

potatoes, bananas, yeast, sprouting wheat, leafy vegetables

Vitamín C

50 - 100 g

vegetables (potatoes,...), fruits (citrus fruits)

Vitamín E

10 - 20 mg

vegetable oils, nuts, whole grains, egg yolk, green leafy vegetables, peaches, soybeans, ...

The Vitamin B12 Issue

Together with folic acid, vitamin B12 is important for production of blood cells and for nervous system functioning. Vitamin B12 can be found in plants only in a very small amount, so it is recommended to people who do not eat eggs and dairy products to seek other foods rich in this vitamin (soy milk, cereals). In vegetarians and vegans, increased intake of folic acid may mask symptoms of B12 insufficiency. The lack of vitamin B12 may gradually lead to neurological problems and severe anaemia. That is why you need to pay close attention to your intake of enriched foods or eat eggs and dairy products regularly as most vegetarians do.

Vegetarianism as Alternative Diet

People keep making up and trying various types of diets and so further forms based on vegetarianism have developed, although they share little with the original philosophy. We may classify them into three categories:

  • Semivegetarians – they do eat animal products apart from red meat (beef, venison...)
  • Pulovegetarians – they only eat chicken meat
  • Pescovegetarians – they mostly seek fish (similarly as in the Mediterranean diet)

Another type only refrains from eating dairy products and milk which some people do voluntarily when they think it may help them lose the excess weight; other people stick to this diet for health reasons because they are either lactose-intolerant or they are allergic to another component of milk. Dairy products keep raising question marks on whether they are helpful or harmful and that is why you try them on your own and see how they work with you. Each organism has a different level of food tolerance so some people may love something other people dislike.

In case you pick your own diet, you should become rigid observes watch whether the diet brings you happiness or frustration. If you find yourself at a loss, it is always better to consult an expert.


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