October 1 marks World Vegetarian Day and the start of Vegetarian Awareness Month. This month aims to encourage non-veggies to give vegetarianism a go, celebrating the vegetarian diet and advocating for all things green. Many of the reasons people choose to go veggie are centred around values of sustainability, animal welfare and overall making healthier choices which minimise their environmental impact. If you've been thinking about giving the vegetarian lifestyle a go but you're unsure what the benefits are, we are here to help! This comprehensive guide will cover all the pros of a veggie-based lifestyle, as well as provide you with some tips and tricks to help get you started.
What is vegetarianism?
Let's start with the basics. A vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat or fish, and sometimes other animal products that are a direct product of animal slaughter. This means that most vegetarian also avoid gelatine, rennet, lard, isinglass, caviar, suet, animal fat, carmine and other animal-derived ingredients. Unlike vegans, vegetarians usually do eat dairy and eggs. People choose to be vegetarian for many reasons but these typically fall under moral, religious or health reasons. Vegetarianism is more than a diet for many people, and extends into the rest of their life. Many vegetarians won't use cosmetics that have been tested on animals or visit attractions that exploit animals such as zoos and aquariums.
What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Studies have shown that vegetarian diets are a healthier way to eat, with far fewer reported cases of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes than meat-eaters. Specifically those with high blood pressure are recommended to eat a predominantly vegetarian diet - this is because studies show fewer cases of elevated blood pressure in those following a vegetarian diet. It has even been suggested that there is a lower overall risk of cancer for those following a vegetarian diet, although more research is ongoing.
A varied, whole-food vegetarian diet contains less saturated fat and more folate, fibre and antioxidants (including vitamin C, E and carotenoids) than that of a typical meat-eater. Also, most vegetarians are likely to find it much easier to consume their recommended five-a-day of fruits and vegetables, often exceeding it. Eating more plant-based foods rich in phytonutrients may help protect against age-related conditions including conditions such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
A vegetarian diet has also been linked to better gut health, better bowel health, more stable blood sugar levels, more energy, improved heart health, lower cholesterol, better sleep and so much more.
What are the environmental benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Livestock farming is easily one of the most environmentally damaging industries on our planet. There are a number of malpractices that often go alongside the farming of meat, amongst these are the mass deforestation and habitat destruction that occurs to clear areas of land for cattle grazing, and the pollution caused by intensive livestock farming.
Food production contributes to global warming, with over 58% of CO2 food emissions coming directly from the production of animal products. Livestock rearing contributes to global warming in a few different ways. Firstly, through the methane gas that the animals themselves produce. Secondly, through the deforestation due to the need to expand pastures. The environmental impact of meat production is significant, and the problem is only getting worse. A vegetarian diet require far less natural resources, resulting in significantly reduced environmental impact.
There is often a misconception that a vegetarian lifestyle is more damaging to the environment due to the impact of farming soy. Soy is an incredibly versatile ingredient that is used in virtually everything we eat, however it is also incredibly water-intensive to grow and require a lot of land. Many people believe that vegetarians and vegans eat the majority of the soy that is grown globally, however this simply isn't true. In fact, soy-based livestock feeds account for nearly 80% of the world’s total soybean crop. Growing soy on this vast scale causes mass deforestation, loss of wild habitats and uses vast amounts of energy, water and chemicals to produce it. By reducing the amount of meat we eat, we are able to reduce the amount of livestock feed that needs to be grown, thus reducing the impact on the environment.
Reducing the demand for soy is crucial to prevent further destruction of the world's precious ecosystems. And how do experts recommend we do so? By feeding soy directly to humans! Researchers have found that if humans got more protein directly from soy rather than by eating soy-fed animals, we would reduce land conversion by 94%, and be able to feed far more people globally. In fact, "producing protein from chickens requires three times as much land as protein from soybeans. Pork needs nine times, beef 32 times" says journalist George Monbiot.
What are the animal welfare benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Animal welfare is a key consideration for most vegetarians, ensuring no animal suffers or is killed due to their dietary choices. Obviously vegetarians generally disagree with the concept of killing animals for food, but there are also lots of issues surrounding animal welfare and meat production that fall outside of the act of slaughter. In intensive farming conditions, animals are treated very poorly, with minimal space to move around, no opportunities to display their natural behaviours and instincts and often suffering from extremely poor health due to said conditions.
By not eating meat and other animal products, vegetarians reduce the demand for these products which reduces the amount of animals killed over time. Currently, over 92 billion land animals are bred, reared and slaughtered for food globally each year. It is estimated that half of the food produced globally each year is wasted, meaning many animals lose their lives completely in vain. In fact, over 10% of edible meat never even makes it onto supermarket shelves. This over-production of meat creates a culture where animals lives are viewed as meaningless as well as creating completely unnecessary emissions and water usage.
How can I eat a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet?
The short answer is - easily! There are a few key areas that are really important to maintaining a healthy vegetarian diet. These include;
- Eating protein sources such as eggs, dairy or fortified plant alternatives, soya, pulses, beans, nuts and seeds
- Eat a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
- Include wholegrain versions of bread, rice or pasta
- Choose cold-pressed, unsaturated oils, where possible, and nuts and seeds including flax, chia and walnuts as these are a great source of omega-3
- Include mineral-rich foods such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, leafy greens, fortified cereals and plant milks as well as wholegrains
If you need more advice on maintaining a healthy vegetarian diet, Human Society International has some great tips here.
Where can I find delicious vegetarian recipes?
There are hundreds of thousands of delicious, nutritious vegetarian recipes just waiting for you to discover! Many different cultures and religious groups have been eating vegetarian meals for centuries, so you will have no shortage of enticing meal inspiration. We also have some incredible veggie recipes right here on our journal. Explore the world with your tastebuds through our 'Traditional Tastes' series of yummy, global recipes. From Ghanaian Red Red stew to Zimbabwean Dovi to Ugandan Matoke, there are so many delicious, veggie-packed recipes for you to enjoy. We also highly recommend Meera Sodha's best-selling recipe books.
What if I am not ready to become a vegetarian?
That's okay! If you were raised eating meat, the idea of making such a huge lifestyle change can be very difficult. If you have the desire to become a vegetarian, we recommend taking it one step at a time and try not to put too much pressure on yourself. If you don't feel ready to make the leap but would like to cut down on your meat consumption, swapping out just one meal a week can make a huge difference to your health, the environment and of course, the animals. Any change you make towards vegetarianism is a positive one, and we wish you every success on your journey.