Vegetarian diets in perspective

Vegetarianism isn’t anything new. It was practiced in ancient Babylon and Egypt, as early as about 3000 BC. Some ancient philosophers such as Pythagoras or Plato were vegetarians. Because of that, vegetarians at that time were called Pythagoreans. According to the Bible, a vegan diet was given to human kind at creation and was practiced until the flood, in a period of about 1600 years. According to one source, a vegetarian diet was relatively common among the first Christians among both church leaders and lay people.

In the new era, the vegetarian movement got its roots in the 1800s in England when William Cowherd, a charismatic defender of vegetarianism and a pastor of the Bible Christian Church, called upon church members to give up eating meat. Pastor Cowherd was known for his statement, “if meat was given to us to eat, God would have created it in more edible form, such as a ripe fruit.” In 1847, Pastor Cowherd, along with other vegetarian supporters, created the first formal vegetarian organization called the Vegetarian Society. About the same time, other pioneers of vegetarianism began their work. They included individuals such as Sylvester Graham, pastor of the Presbyterian Church and Joseph Bates and Ellen White – co-founders of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Several years later, vegetarianism got a huge boost when a famous American physician – John Harvey Kellogg, creator of commonly consumed products such as corn flakes, granola, peanut butter, soy burgers, etc. began his work.

Today, the need to consider becoming a vegetarian or even a vegan is greater than at any time in history. This is not only because of the rapid spread of chronic health diseases, a result of among other things, a diet rich in animal fat, protein and refined foods. Perhaps even more importantly, the animal agriculture is one of the main culprits in the environmental contamination of our lakes, rivers, soil and air. Furthermore, millions of acres of forests and jungle are being cut down and converted into farm land where products such as corn, soybeans or wheat are being grown for animal feed. Farming in these new places further contributes to environmental contamination and global warming.

For reasons described in the previous paragraph, everyone, not just people who care for their own health, should adopt vegetarianism. Physicians and other health care professionals should recommend it for all of their patients. Anyone, for whom issues such as the environment, ecology and our planet are dear, should consider adopting and promoting the vegetarian lifestyle for ecological reasons.

In spite of the progress made in terms of the impact of vegetarianism on human health, many hold onto old myths and assumptions. Many physicians and other healthcare professionals are not aware of the health benefits of vegetarianism. Many still believe that vegetarianism is associated with nutrient deficiencies that include protein. Studies have shown that nutrient deficiencies is a problem for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. However, protein deficiency is not a concern for either. Vegetarians are at a higher risk of vitamin B12 and iron, while non-vegetarians have a higher risk of inadequate intake of fiber and folate. In case of vitamin B12, a deficiency can be easily prevented or corrected with either dietary manipulations or by using a supplement. Also, keep in mind that in the vast majority of countries in the 21st century, nutritional deficiencies do not constitute the main cause of mortality or morbidity. Chronic health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes or obesity are the main causes of sickness, loss of productivity and death. These are the very same conditions vegetarian diets are effective in preventing and in some cases, treating. Furthermore, while people consuming traditional diets that include meats may not have as high of a risk for a deficiency of vitamin B12 or iron, many of them do not consume an adequate amount of critical nutrients such as dietary fiber or folate.