Why Do Some People Not Eat Meat?
Some religions forbid their followers to eat certain kinds of meat. Under the rules for Kosher food, Jews must not eat the flesh of pigs and other animals prohibited in the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Hindus are not permitted to eat beef because, in their religion, the cow is a sacred animal. The ancient Celts worshiped Epona, the horse goddess, and were, therefore, not allowed to eat horse flesh.
Until recently Roman Catholics were not supposed to eat meat on Fridays as a gesture of self-sacrifice on the day of the Crucifixion. Fish was substituted. Nowadays some other gesture is often made, such as giving money to charity. Vegetarians are people who do not eat meat, either for health reasons or on humanitarian grounds, believing that it is wrong to kill animals for food.
You’ve also heard that following a vegetarian diet is better for your health, and you’ve probably read a few magazine articles featuring a celeb or two who swore off meat and animal products and “magically” lost weight. So does ditching meat automatically equal weight loss? Will it really help you live longer and be healthier overall?
Vegetarian diets can be unhealthy if you’re not careful. First of all, what exactly constitutes “vegetarian”? There are two basic kinds of vegetarian diet: lacto-ovo and strict (vegan). Most vegetarians fall into the lacto-ovo category: They eat only non-animal products (fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, soy, etc.), but do eat animal byproducts, such as yogurt and eggs.
In terms of nutritional requirements, being a lacto-ovo vegetarian isn’t all that different from being a meat-eater, according to Katherine Tallmadge, RD, LD, past media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Vegans, however, don’t eat any animal products whatsoever — and as a result, “they must be very careful in their selection of foods so that they get all the nutrients they need,” says Tallmadge. (Potato chips are vegan, after all.)
That said, following a vegetarian diet “can be nutritionally superior to any other way of eating,” says Tallmadge. “It can be one of the healthiest ways to eat, because we know plant foods are loaded with nutrients to protect our health.”
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than meat eaters. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index, lower overall cancer rates and lower risk of chronic disease.
But if your co-worker who is a vegetarian eats greasy veggie burgers and fries every day for lunch, is he likely to be healthier than you, who always orders the grilled salmon? Definitely not! “A vegetarian diet doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss — especially if you eat out at restaurants often,” says Tallmadge. “A lot of times, the only vegetarian dishes on the menu are cheesy and fattening.” It can be hard to find restaurants serving soy burgers or beans and rice, and eating restaurant-size portions of pasta, rice, nuts and cheese could quickly add up to weight gain. According to Tallmadge, the desire to eat lighter meals that provide adequate protein is what makes many vegetarians change their minds and start eating fish.
The most important thing for vegetarians of all kinds to remember is to make sure they are getting key nutrients, including protein, fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B-12. According to Tallmadge, protein is essential for building muscle mass, amino function, fighting disease and healing, so make sure you’re getting protein in each meal throughout the day for optimum absorption. “In order to get essential amino acids and nutrients,” says Tallmadge, “vegans must eat soy protein — the only vegetable protein which is as complete as animal protein. Or they must mix beans with grains.”