Vegetarian nutrition: past, present, future


Early human food cultures were plant-based. Major religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have recommended a vegetarian way of life since their conception. The recorded history of vegetarian nutrition started in the sixth century BC by followers of the Orphic mysteries. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras is considered the father of ethical vegetarianism. The Pythagorean way of life was followed by a number of important personalities and influenced vegetarian nutrition until the 19th century. In Europe, vegetarian nutrition more or less disappeared during the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance era and in the Age of Enlightenment, various personalities practiced vegetarianism. The first vegetarian society was started in England in 1847. The International Vegetarian Society was founded in 1908 and the first vegan society began in 1944. Prominent vegetarians during this time included Sylvester Graham, John Harvey Kellogg, and Maximilian Bircher-Benner. A paradigm shift occurred at the turn of the 21st century. The former prejudices that vegetarianism leads to malnutrition were replaced by scientific evidence showing that vegetarian nutrition reduces the risk of most contemporary diseases. Today, vegetarian nutrition has a growing international following and is increasingly accepted. The main reasons for this trend are health concerns and ethical, ecologic, and social issues. The future of vegetarian nutrition is promising because sustainable nutrition is crucial for the well-being of humankind. An increasing number of people do not want animals to suffer nor do they want climate change; they want to avoid preventable diseases and to secure a livable future for generations to come.


Alex’s Notes: How did Vegetarianism and all its forms get started? Humans are omnivores by nature, this is anatomical fact, and it was the consumption of meat and animal products that allowed our brains and bodies to evolve into what they are today. But this doesn’t dismiss the importance of plants, which have some of the most important compounds for our health – from phytochemicals to fiber. Even so, it was only with the advent of agriculture that human diets became increasingly plant-centered (particularly with grains). China relied on wheat, soy, and rice; Egypt loved wheat and barley; and Central America civilizations depended on potatoes and corn.

So when did vegetarianism begin? We don’t really know. Many major religions include certain rules with regard to what to eat and drink and rules towards how to treat animals. Veganism probably started with Orphic mysteries, a religious group that banned animal sacrifice and consumption of any animal-based product. Vegetarianism may have started in Greece by the philosopher Pythagoras, who influenced nutritional beliefs in Europe for nearly 1500 years up until the 19th century. Regardless, vegetarianism likely began from a humanitarianism standpoint rather than one of health, especially considering our evolutionary past.

In the last century, an increasing interest has risen on vegetarian diets for health. While many of the vegetarian arguments about animal welfare and ethics still resonate strong with many followers, an increasing amount of research has begun to focus on vegetarianism as a method to improve human health and wellbeing. Of course, this was spurred by the ever so reliable (please note the strong sarcasm here) epidemiological studies that showed the lowest rates of diet-related disease in vegetarian and plant-based diets compared to meat-eating diets. This didn’t happen suddenly however; it actually occurred in three paradigm shifts.

During the 1960s and 70s it was actually believed that vegetarian diets put individuals at an increased risk of developing nutrient deficiencies. Although it is known today that vegetarians must be much more anal about food intake or supplementation to ensure proper intake nutrients such as vitamin B12 and choline, the belief back then was based on faulty observations that the diets of poor countries with widespread malnutrition were plant-based. The fact that some vegetarians with medical issues came to the attention of the media and that some vegan children in Western societies were indeed malnourished only fostered the prejudice against vegetarianism.

Then in the 1980s and 90s, more faulty epidemiological evidence emerged that consistently showed protective effects of plant-based diets, while meat-based diets were detrimental. This isn’t that surprising when one considers that most meat intake was from processed foods, which are “no-duh” not healthy. So of course those who replaced sausages and hotdogs with a salad and apple were healthier, and being the smart scientific community we are, immediately take this to the extreme and think all meat is bad and vegetarianism is good.

This brings us to the turn of the century. We now had clinical evidence showing the benefits of antioxidants and phytochemicals, both of which are plentiful in plants, and some scientists foolishly suggested that meat even causes a phytochemical deficiency. Today, vegetarianism has an increasing global following, although still being a small minority in all countries except for India, where religious beliefs have roughly 1/3 the population being vegetarian.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being vegetarian. However, ignorance is a deadly sin. Today, many vegetarians are not fully aware of the health effects of their diets. Those who avoid meat for ethical, religious, or social reasons have greatly increased prevalence of nutrient deficiencies than those who are vegetarian for health reasons. They simply continue to eat their previous diet with the exception of meat or possibly other animal products, while the latter actively seek out how to properly prepare vegetarian meals. Moreover, many vegetarians aren’t aware that food is best eaten in its natural or minimally processed form. They eat excessive grains and processed snack foods in ignorant bliss because it doesn’t contain meat. Ultimately, the adequacy of a diet depends on the foods that are consumed and not on the diet itself. There is more than one way to satisfy nutritional requirements, and vegetarians need as much nutrition education as the rest of the population.


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