Current Vegetarian Eating Patterns and Practices

Until about 40 years ago, in Western countries virtually all of the common vegetarian eating patterns involved avoidance of animal flesh (meat and poultry); categorization of vegetarian patterns was relatively straightforward and consisted simply of differentiating between those who ate no animal foods at all (vegan vegetarians), those who also consumed milk and milk products (lacto vegetarians), and those who ate eggs as well (lacto-ovo vegetarians). This simple categorization scheme broke down in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of greater exposure to the cuisines of other cultures, new Eastern religions and philosophical systems with a vegetarian tradition, and other influences, which led to the emergence of new patterns of vegetarianism.

Today, myriad vegetarian eating patterns exist, and they cannot be easily described by focusing on a single dimension, such as animal food intake.

Meatless and vegetarian eating patterns and life styles are growing in popularity today. They continue to be fostered by a greater availability and variety of meat alternatives and analogs for animal products. There is also a good deal of favorable publicity about phytochemicals with supposedly beneficial health effects. At the same time, concerns about the healthfulness of animal foods have been triggered by publicity on the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) epidemic in the UK, a later epidemic of hoof and mouth disease in cattle, and most recently an epidemic of SARS spread from animals to people. Worries about saturated fat/ trans fat coronary artery disease links, dietary fat and cancers, food safety, and other factors probably also contributed to the increased prevalence of vegetarian eating.

At the same time, vegetarian eating patterns are much more heterogeneous today than in the past. The availability and variety of plant foods, as well as commercially available and tasty meat analogs has greatly increased. Fortified foods today include soy milks fortified with vitamins B12 and D and a highly bioavailable form of calcium, and highly fortified breakfast cereals. These foods and nutrient-containing dietary supplements make it easier for vegans and vegetarians to obtain nutrients that would otherwise be low or lacking.

Conformity to Nutritional Recommendations

Well-planned vegetarian diets have nutritional profiles that are in line with recent expert recommendations. A well-planned vegetarian diet pattern, if sustained throughout adulthood, may reduce risks of coronary artery and other chronic degenerative diseases associated with excessive weight. Generally, vegetarian diets tend to be low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, magnesium, potassium, folic acid, and antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins C and E. They also tend to be relatively low in energy. Thus, the diet-related risks for a number of chronic degenerative diseases associated with intakes of these nutrients may be decreased on vegetarian diets. Some risks are clearly lower; for example, vegetarians generally tend to have lower weight for height than do nonvegetarians. Constipation tends to be less of a problem in this group, perhaps due in part to the higher intake of dietary fiber.

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