There are many reasons for dieting. Some people want to lose weight, and others need to restrict foods because of allergies or other illnesses. Some plans help dieters lose a quick 10 pounds for an upcoming event, and others become more of a lifestyle.
One common lifestyle plan is vegetarianism. Researchers say that early hominids actually had to evolve into eating meat because of climate changes that limited plant food supplies. Farther along the timeline, the vegetarian diet was consciously practiced around 2,400 years ago. According to documentation, eating vegetarian was said to purify the body in Mediterranean cultures and was practiced in connection with humane animal treatment in India and Asia. The Vegetarian Society was formed in the United Kingdom in 1847. More people over the past century have chosen this dietary path, many for the same reasons as the original vegetarians, though environmental and economic issues now enter the picture as well.
There is more to the vegetarian diet than "rabbit food," and there are different degrees of the practice. Vegetables (from Latin "vegetus" meaning "lively") and fruits are the foundation for the diet, and true vegetarians do not consume any animal or fish products.
A must-have for a vegetarian diet, kale contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to help lower cholesterol. It provides iron, magnesium, Vitamin B6, calcium, 5 percent of the recommended daily allowance of protein, 9 percent of the daily potassium recommendation and a whopping 133 percent of Vitamin A and 134 percent of Vitamin C recommendations. (Pictured, from Bertram Farm/Ohio Valley Farmers’ Market.)
Vegans are at the strictest level. They eat nothing that is made with milk or other dairy products, eat nothing that has come into contact with any animal-based foods (even honey) and use no leather, silk, wool or other products made with any parts of animals.
Nutrition has traditionally been a concern with the vegan diet. Scaling down food choices limits the sources of B vitamins, calcium, iron, Omega 3 fatty acids, protein and Vitamin D. Vegans should make sure to eat lots of leafy greens, beans and nuts to increase these levels. Combining proteins will help keep a balance of amino acids for processing. Fortified foods like cereals keep vitamin and mineral levels adequate, too. Soy and soy-based products contain many of the above-mentioned nutrients. However, vegetarians should keep in mind that more than 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified.
Lacto-vegetarians eat a vegetarian diet and add dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt, while ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but no dairy products.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy, and many vegetarians in the Western world practice the diet in this form. While purists might argue that eggs and dairy are animal products, they are not meat and do assist with valuable nutritional aspects of the vegetarian diet.
A variation of the vegan diet is the raw food diet. Not only do raw food practitioners eat only fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, but they do not cook their food in temperatures over 104 degrees. Because they want to retain the "life energy" of the plant, foods are eaten raw, fermented or dehydrated in low temperatures. Cooking is killing to raw vegans, but even the Mayo Clinic has found that some cooking may be beneficial in, say, tomatoes (increasing the bioavailability of lycopene) and spinach (releasing more iron and calcium.)
Boiling vegetables is not good because any nutrients leach into the water at such high temperatures and render most food soggy and tasteless. Stir frying or steaming, however, provides a short burst of heat that keeps vegetables firm and flavorful, but releases nutrients from cell walls and breaks down certain plant chemicals that keep the human body from absorbing those nutrients.
Other concerns identified with the raw diet include getting enough calories every day and finding enough variety in raw plant foods to satisfy the body's taste buds and vitamin needs.
Michael Iafrate of Wheeling says he has been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for about 13 years but goes light on the dairy. He notices more people eating less meat, even if they do not go entirely vegetarian. When he made the switch, Iafrate remembers his "energy levels seemed higher and [he] generally felt better," but admits he wasn't a healthy eater in the first place.
"Going vegetarian forced me into a much healthier and more diverse diet than I had before," he says, adding that some of the challenges in the Ohio Valley included finding enough variety on menus and in grocery stores, as well as others' perceptions of the vegetarian lifestyle. "But that has been changing. ... People are becoming more conscious of the ethics of what they eat in general these days, whether it's around the issues of eating meat or trying to eat locally."
And there lies what sets the vegetarian diet apart from other programs: philosophy. As mentioned, even ancient Indians and Asians were concerned about killing and the ethical treatment of animals. It is still why many vegetarians choose plant-based diets. Iafrate cites "animal rights reasons, rooted in a spirit of nonviolence."
"As a Catholic," he notes, "I learned a lot in high school and college from 'eastern' religions which in some ways emphasize more than 'western' religions the unity and sacredness of all life, including animals."
Today factory/industrialized farming is not only a model for animal cruelty and human greed, but, according to a United Nations report, is one of the top three contributors (at 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions) to land degradation, air and water pollution and climate change. Most of the animals raised on these farms are kept with thousands of other animals, usually in buildings, fed a diet of hormones, antibiotics and cheap feed and then slaughtered, suffering. The products are sold to the public in grocery stores (meat, canned foods, frozen foods, pet foods) and restaurants.
As far as human health, many, many studies show that a vegetarian diet decreases the risk for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease and dementia/Alzheimer's disease. Vegetarians in general have lower body mass indexes (BMI), a measure of body fat.
If one is considering becoming a vegetarian, Iafrate suggests, "Try to connect with other vegetarians. It's more fun and educational in community. Don't overdo fake meats. Enjoy the way your diet opens up to new things." Visiting the farmers' market will insure the freshest produce and support the local economy. Many of the farmers also have ideas and tips for using their products.
Diets are not "one size fits all." Genetics, lifestyle, medical issues and time are all factors in determining the best fit for the purpose. The common denominator is a desire to become healthier, and any effort put toward that end will be beneficial.