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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Vegetarianism

The dietary practice of living solely on vegetables, fruits, grain or nuts, and the avoidance of eating the flesh of animals. The word is derived from the Latin vegetus which means, “whole, fresh, lively.” Under the generic term “vegetarian” we can identify a number of kinds or classifications. These are:

a. Vegans: who live solely on the products of the plant kingdom and reject the eating of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, such as cheese and yogurt.

b. Lacto-vegetarian: A vegan who takes milk and its derivatives.

c. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: as above but with the addition of eggs and egg products.

A small number of people identify themselves as “fruitarians” (eating only fruit) or “nutarians” (eating only nuts).

Vegetarianism has a long history, particularly in the East, where there is widespread belief about ahiˆs€ or non-injury, both in Hinduism and Buddhism. Vegetarianism was advocated since the Vedic period more than ten centuries before the common era. In the West, its practice goes back also to the ancient times. In Ancient Greece, the initiates of the Orphic mysteries (c. 5th century BCE) were required to be vegetarians. In the Republic, Plato, speaking through the character Socrates (who had been executed for impiety many years earlier), argued against eating animals. The Old Testament alludes to a similar tradition in Gen. 1:29 when it says: “Behold, I have given you every tree with seed in its fruit; this you shall have for food.” Early Christianity seems to have been familiar with the practice. Clement of Alexandria, who was a vegetarian, speaks of the apostle Matthew as living on vegetables and abstained from flesh food.

While vegetarianism is widely accepted in Hindu and Buddhist countries, at present it is relatively rare in Western and Islamic societies. However, the number of vegetarians in Western countries appears to be growing. A survey in England in 2001 revealed that about 6.5% of the population are vegetarians. Seven years before, it was estimated to be about 2%. Similar figures could be cited for the United States.

People adopt vegetarian diets for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Health
  2. Ethical
  3. Religious
  4. Environmental
  5. Ascetic
  6. Economic

Health. In 1997, the American Dietetic Association issued a position paper which states that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” It cited the positive correlation between vegetarian diet and the reduced risks from certain degenerative diseases such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, hypertension, and certain types of cancer, such as colon cancer. Vegetarian diets have also been used successfully in health programs that reverse coronary heart diseases.

These health correlations were also observed in several European countries such as Norway and Denmark during World War II when meat was scarce and the death rate from circulatory disease dropped dramatically from 1942 to 1944, only to rise again after the war when people started eating meat again.

Studies made about groups with the longest life spans, such as the Hunzas of Pakistan, Vilcambas of Ecuador, and Abkhasians in Russia, showed that they thrive on an almost completely vegetarian diet. They maintain an active life even after 90 years of age. A 12-year study of 34,192 people in California found that vegetarians on the average live 10 years longer than non-vegetarians. On the other hand, studies among groups that have the highest intake of flesh products, such as Eskimos, Laplanders, Greenlanders, and Kurgi tribes show a very low life expectancy rate of about 30-40 years.

Anatomical comparisons reveal that the physiological make-up of a human being is more suitable to a herbivorous diet than a meat-based diet. For example, human teeth are similar to those of herbivorous apes, designed to chew, as opposed to the sharp teeth of carnivorous animals such as lions, designed to tear flesh. Carnivores have short intestines with smooth walls that enable them to discharge eaten flesh quickly before they putrefy. Herbivores on the other hand, have very long intestines with puckered walls that are meant keep food longer. Humans have the longest intestinal tract in proportion to their body size of any animal on earth. The toxins of putrefied flesh is thus absorbed by the system when flesh is taken by herbivores.

Ethical. A second major reason for vegetarianism is the avoidance of injury and suffering to animals. All vertebrates, which include mammals, birds, and fish, have receptors that make them sensitive to pain. The intelligence of certain mammals appears to make them aware of the loss of their mates or companions that are about to be slaughtered, as was observed by Dr. Christian Barnaard among chimpanzees.

In addition to ahimsa or the non-killing of animals, many vegetarians deplore the manner with which animals are treated while in captivity and during slaughter. Young calves, for example, are kept in small cubicles that prevent them from moving so that their flesh, called “veal,” will be tender rather than muscular. The beaks of hens are clipped off to prevent them from pecking at each other. Male chicks are thrown into garbage bins to die because they cannot lay eggs. Some people are of the view that animals exist solely to satisfy human needs.

Religious. Many religions require abstention from meat eating, although it might be honored more in the breach than the observance. Buddhists, Jains, and Seventh Day Adventists are encouraged to be vegetarians. Many theosophists become vegetarians for reasons of compassion.

Environmental. Breeding animals for human consumption produces detrimental effects on natural resources and the environment.

Water. One of the diminishing resources of mankind is underground fresh water. It has been said that war in the future will be waged on the issue of water. The production of animal food consumes inordinately large amounts of water compared to producing vegetables. The University of California estimated that it takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, compared to only 23 gallons to produce a pound of lettuce or tomatoes. One pound of pork needs 1,630 gallons of water, while a pound of wheat requires only 25 gallons.

Waste. Livestock production generates a massive amount of waste in the form of manure which gets mixed with underground water used for households. It also kills fish in inland waters. Livestock is also the cause of 15 to 20 percent of methane emitted to the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

Rainforest Depletion. Cattle grazing for hamburger production is the single largest cause of the depletion of rainforest in Central and South America. Vast tracts of land are needed for cattle to roam, and forests are cleared for this purpose. The production of plant-based food requires much less agricultural land than producing meat. Such clearing and burning also releases carbon gas that contributes to global warming.

Ascetic. In the past, abstaining from meat eating was considered a mode of self-denial and the high cost of meat eating was frowned on as extravagance; this practice still persists to some extent among Roman Catholics who are urged to avoid eating “animal flesh” on Fridays — although fish is recommended as a substitute, which vegetarians consider a form of animal flesh.

Economic. The ratio between animal and vegetable food production per given area of land has been mentioned above under environmental considerations. This has also economic consequences. Millions of people are suffering from malnutrition or dying of starvation and the more prosperous countries pour billions of dollars of aid into these countries. If the feeds given to livestock, such as corn and grain, were made available to feed people, it would eliminate hunger in the world. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. An acre of land devoted to vegetable crops could produce 20 times more food than if it were devoted to producing beef.

NUTRITIONAL CONCERNS. A frequently asked question is whether a vegetarian diet can provide adequate protein. In the 1997 position statement, The American Dietetic Association declared that: “Plant sources of protein alone can provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids if a variety of plant foods are consumed and energy needs are met.” The estimates of experts regarding the protein needs of people vary from 2.5 to 8 percent of total calorie intake, a range that is less than actual consumption of an average individual. The World Health Organization has established that 32 grams of protein a day is needed for a 160 pound person, or equal to about 4.5% of total calorie intake. Frances Moore Lappe in her revised edition of Diet for a Small Planet estimated that a balanced vegetarian diet without milk and eggs can supply about 57 grams of protein per day.

Nutritionists suggest however that vegetarians, particularly vegans, should take dietary supplements for Vitamin B12, D, iron, calcium, zinc and linoleic acid. While these are found in vegetable sources, the diet may not be balanced enough to meet minimum needs. Well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets are also suitable for all age groups, including during pregnancy and lactation.

Fears that vegetarians will have lower energy or endurance levels do not seem to be borne out by evidence. A number of Olympic champions were vegetarians, such as swimmer Murray Rose, who won multiple gold medals in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games, and had been a vegetarian since two years old; Edwin Moses, famous in track and field was also a vegetarian. Other record holders and outstanding athletes who were vegetarians are Paavo Nurmi (distance running). Pierro Verot (endurance skiing), Hank Aaron (baseball), Billy Jean King (tennis); Dave Scott (triathlon), B. J. Armstrong (basketball), Andreas Cahling (body building), Estelle Gray (cross country cycling) and a long list of others.

Many famous historical personages were also known to be vegetarians, such as George Bernard Shaw, Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Leonardo da Vinci, and Thomas Edison.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bargen, Richard. The Vegetarian’s Self-defense Manual. (TPH Wheaton, Quest Books, 1979).

Lappee, Frances Moore. Diet for a Small Planet.

McKenzie, J. C., “Profile on Vegans,” in Plant Foods Human Nutrition. (1971).

Robbins, John. Diet for a New America. “Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Deitetic Association. Vol. 97.11 (1997).

P.S.H./V.H.C.

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