Diets

"You are what you eat", goes a famous saying. And if that is truly the case, then a lot of Americans would appear to be unhealthy, chemically treated, commercially raised slabs of animal flesh. And while that is not a particularly pleasant thought, it is nonetheless an description of the typical American omnivore who survives on the consumption of Big Macs and steak fajitas.

But there are individuals who do not follow this American norm and have altered their diets so that they do not consume any meat. These people are vegetarians, and they are the new breed of healthy Americans who refuse to poison themselves with fats, cholesterol, and the other harmful additives that come from meat. And while once thought to be a movement that would never gain much momentum, it has nonetheless moved itself to the forefront of Americans' healthy diets.

The word vegetarian, used to describe the diets of people who do not consume animal flesh, was not used until around the mid-1800s. The concept of vegetarianism, however, dates back much further. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, considered by many to be the father of vegetarianism, encouraged a non-meat diet among his followers as a diet that was the most natural and healthful (Messina 3).

A vegetarian diet excludes the consumption of meat, and can be exercised by people for a number of reasons. The largest majority of individuals chose vegetarianism for health related reasons. For example, someone with an ulcer might be prescribed a strict diet of vegetables in order to promote the healing process. Or someone with a dangerously high level of cholesterol might be advised to follow a vegetarian diet to lower his or her fat and cholesterol intake.

The immorality of consuming animal flesh is another argument touted by a smaller group of vegetarians. R.G. Frey describes this moral argument for vegetarianism and the effect that meat eating might have on the character of humans:

Some people have come to believe and fear that, in the suffering and killing which occurs in commercial farming, we demean ourselves, coarsen our sensitivities, dull our feelings of sympathy with our fellow creatures, and so begin the descent down the slippery slope of torture and death, to a point where it becomes easier for us to contemplate and carry out the torture and killing of human beings. (20)

This moral argument for vegetarianism is also noted by John Robbins who states that "the suffering these animals undergo has become so extreme that to partake of food from these creatures is to partake unknowingly of the abject misery that has been their lives"(14).

But whatever the reasons behind a person's choice to be a vegetarian, it is important to understand the different diets that individual vegetarians can choose. In the widest sense of the word, a vegetarian diet is a diet that is made up of grains, vegetables and fruit, but does not include any animal flesh, such as fish, pork, poultry, or beef. But beyond these standards, there are many variations of diet that occur within the world of vegetarianism.

The first, and most prominent, category of vegetarianism is a lacto-ovo vegetarian. Mark Messina describes a lact-ovo diet as "...a vegetarian diet (that) includes dairy products and eggs but no animal flesh"(7). This means that there is consumption of animal byproducts, such as milk, eggs, or honey, but there is no consumption of animal flesh. Another variation is the lacto-vegetarian diet that allows the consumption of milk and other milk products, but does not include the consumption of eggs. And like all vegetarians, these two groups do not consume fish, poultry, or meat (Messina 7).

Another category that vegetarians can fall into are vegans. The vegan diet is by far the most strict of all the vegetarian diets. According to Mark Messina, "Vegans avoid meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs. There are many other foods that may not be acceptable to many vegans, however. Foods that involve animal processing to any degree are often avoided"(11). This means that vegans can consume no foods containing animal byproducts, such as milk, eggs, or honey. Being a vegan often dictates an "animal friendly" lifestyle that, aside from not eating anything that came from an animal, also abstains from buying or using products that were tested on animals or are made from animal hairs or skin, such as leather shoes or belts (Messina 11).

A common misconception of vegetarians is that they are all