Welcome everyone to this episode in the series in which we will explore vegetarianism, veganism and other dietary choices. We will distinguish between many of the common terms used in relation to dietary choices people make and some of the reasons behind those choices. There is no doubt that more and more people are now vegetarian or vegan and the research shows that many more are considering these choices. I am delighted to have Lisa with me today to explore this topic.
Hello everybody, firstly let us explain the two main terms and distinguish between them.
Vegetarianism is the practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat (red meat, poultry, seafood, and the flesh of any other animal), and may also involve abstaining from by-products of animal slaughter such as leather. The term Veganism was coined in the UK in 1944 and is defined as “the doctrine that people should live without exploiting animals”. Veganism is based on the understanding that animals have feelings and like people also have rights. Vegetarians do not kill animals to provide food whereas vegans go further and do not exploit animals for food. The most commonly quoted difference between vegetarian and vegan is that vegans do not eat dairy products and eggs. They refrain from eating these as they feel that the farming practices involved in the production of these are unnecessarily cruel and exploitative of animals. The opposites are non-vegetarian or non-vegan.
The words vegetarian and vegan can be used as both nouns and adjectives – so you can say something like “I am a vegetarian” or “this is vegetarian food” and similarly with vegan. We often hear people say “I am thinking of going vegetarian or vegan” which is not quite correct English but is acceptable. A common slang word for vegetarian is ‘veggie’ and this can refer to the food – a ‘veggie’ burger for instance; or to the person – so we can say ‘he has gone veggie’! A third term that’s also popular is a Whole Food Plant Based diet. Whole foods are plant foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible, before being consumed. Examples of whole foods include whole grains, tubers, legumes, fruits and vegetables. The term a vegetarian lifestyle is a loose term that covers all sorts of purchasing decisions associated with choosing to stop eating meat or to use products derived from animals like wool or leather. Such decisions could include purchasing plant based alternatives for cosmetics and detergents, clothing, shoes, and even furniture.
There are many other dietary choices which people make and some of the associated terms are worth explaining here. Many people consider reducing their meat in-take gradually over time and are sometimes referred to a semi-vegetarian or part-time vegetarian. Another word used is flexitarian – referring to having a flexible approach to eating meat. The period of time spent changing diet varies greatly and some people never declare themselves as what is referred to as strict vegetarians or vegans. Those vegetarians who eat dairy produce are called lacto-vegetarians, and those who eat eggs are ovo-vegetarians. There are many people who don’t eat meat but who eat fish and these are referred to as pescatarians or pesco-vegetarians.
A raw-food diet refers to the practice of eating only raw or unprocessed food. The belief is that cooking food destroys much of the nutritional value of raw food and so a raw-food diet comprises of food that is not heated above 40 degrees Celsius (or about 100 degrees Fahrenheit). This diet typically includes fruits, nuts, seeds, sprouted seeds etc and it may include fermented dairy products such as yogurt and kefir. Some raw-food diets also include eating meat and fish – often fermented or preserved in some manner – so these raw-food diets are neither vegetarian or vegan.
Let us look at some of the reasons people choose to go vegetarian or vegan.
Ethical vegetarians. Many people object to eating meat because animals feel pain – that is they are sentient beings. Sentience is the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjectively. The concept is central to the philosophy of animal rights because sentience is necessary for the ability to suffer, and thus is held to confer certain rights. In parts of India a vegetarian diet has been practiced for thousands of years closely connected to the attitude of non-violence towards animals (in Sanskrit ahimsa) as promoted by religious groups and philosophers. For many people choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet is based on personal ethics. Ethical vegetarians and vegans believe that killing an animal, like killing a human, can only be justified in extreme circumstances. Consuming a living creature for its enjoyable taste, convenience, or nutrition value is not considered a sufficient cause for killing it. These ethical motivations are also important for the animal rights movement.
Another primary motive for many people moving to a ‘meat-less’ diet are the concerns over associated health issues. There are several issues involved here. One is around the use of antibiotics and the long-term negative affects this can have on our health. Globally, half of all antibiotics are now used in animal agriculture both to prevent disease and to increase weight gain in the animals. This rate increases to over 70% of antibiotics used in the EU and over 80% used in the US. There are concerns about the over-use of antibiotics in animals and the loss of effectiveness of these drugs in human medicine.
Another health issue is the fear or threat of diseases from the industrial like farming practices affecting human health. The well publicised cases of what is commonly called ‘mad cow disease’ – especially in the UK – are an example of genuine concerns that people have about eating meat. These are referred to by an unusual term Zoonotic diseases or zoonoses. Zoonoses are infectious diseases of animals (usually vertebrates) that can naturally be transmitted to humans – like avian flu for example.
The health concerns about farming practices are linked to the whole issue of industrial food production and the additives and chemicals involved. Many vegetarians and vegans tend to avoid overly processed foods in their diets and eat a lot of what are called wholefoods. It should be said that a vegetarian or vegan diet is not necessarily organic which refers to a method of production that avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. However, many vegetarians and vegans choose to eat organic food for the related health issues and concerns associated with overly processed foods.
On the other side of the coin, some people have concerns about whether or not a vegetarian or vegan diet can provide the human body with the full complement of nutrtional requirements for all stages of life. For example, are such diets suitable for pregnant women, for young infants or adolescents? Those promoting vegetarianism would point to the communities which have been vegetarian for many generations as a counter argument to these concerns. Also, there is the fact that we can quite easily now take supplements where there are concerns about a particular issue such as the lack of vitamin B12 in a diet. Interestingly, the some US Dieticians state that vegetarian and vegan diets are effective in the treatment of diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some types of cancer.
Environmental vegetarianism or veganism is based on the concern that the production of meat and animal products for mass consumption is environmentally unsustainable. Many reports point to the fact that livestock production is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide. Currently 80% of agricultural land is used for animal agriculture. A vegan agriculture system would allow us to return much of the pastures and grazing land back to more natural habitats and thus support other species.
Industrial animal agriculture is a large source of greenhouse gases and to seriously fight climate change we need to reduce these practices. A 2006 Oxford study showed how if the world went vegetarian we could reduce food-related emissions by up to 60%. And if everyone turned vegan? A huge 70%. A 2015 study, The Lifestyle Carbon Dividend, calculated that by going vegan and reforesting 40% of the current grazing land we could reverse climate change through capturing the carbon currently in the atmosphere.
There can be economic benefits to adopting a plant based diet as it is generally much cheaper to buy vegetables instead of meat. Other people have concerns about the labour conditions in the industrial type farming and livestock processing sectors. More recently there has been a trend in celebrities turning to a meat free diet and publicising their concerns which has led to a huge rise in the numbers changing their diets also. What has been traditionally seen as very minority and radical dietary choices are quickly becoming far more mainstream and acceptable.
That concludes this episode in the series which I hope you have found enjoyable and informative. My thanks to Lisa for her help with this episode and to you for listening. I do hope you will join us for other episodes in the series.