Vegetarianism is the practice of a diet that excludes meat of any kind, including fish (and other sea animals) and poultry. There are several variants of this type of diet, as is the case of veganism, which also excludes eggs and any animal byproducts from the diet, like dairy products and honey, and rejects animal products in general, as part of a larger practice of abstaining from the use of animals for any purpose (e.g. leather, fur, glue and gelatin from horse bones, etc.), often out of support for animal rights.
Some people call themselves semi-vegetarian or lacto-vegetarian, if their diet includes some animals products or byproducts but not others, although the Vegetarian Society, which initiated popular usage of the term “vegetarian” as early as 1847, points out that the consumption of fish or poultry is not vegetarian. In any case, there are many reasons why to choose to become a vegetarian, even if you need a temporary “variation” from strict vegetarianism as a transitional step toward becoming a full time vegetarian.
Health Reasons to Become a Vegetarian
While religious and ethical beliefs, as well as economic factors have a lot to do with the profusion of vegetarians in countries like India and Thailand, more and more people, particularly in developed countries, have given up and continue to give up meat and other animal products for health reasons. This has to do with scientific reports around the world showing that a vegetarian diet can considerably reduce the high cholesterol associated with heart disease. Likewise, research done over the past twenty years strongly suggests that there is a link between eating meat and cancer of the colon, rectum, prostate, breast and uterus, which is very rare amongst cultures who eat little or no meat.
One reason given by biologists and nutritionists for such serious imbalances is that the human intestinal tract is not suited for digesting meat. Animals that eat flesh have short intestines to pass rapidly the decaying and toxin-producing meat out of their body. Plant-eaters have intestines at least six times the length of their body, because plant foods decay more slowly than meat. The human body has the long intestinal tract of a herbivore, so the toxins produced during digestion (and by any undigested meat) can overload the system, especially the kidneys, and lead to gout, arthritis, rheumatism, and other diseases, including cancer.
Plus, the meat industry adds nitrites and other preservatives to keep the decaying meat a bright red color, and even before being slaughtered livestock are fed enormous amounts of chemicals such as tranquilizers, hormones, antibiotics, and many others (Gary and Steven Null mention 2,700 drugs given to livestock in their book Poisons in Your Body). Although these drugs will still be present in the meat when you eat it, the law does not require that they be listed on the package.
We humans need protein. Yes, it is a fact that protein constitutes the building blocks of our tissues. But animal flesh is not the only source of protein available to us. Dairy products, grains, beans, and nuts are all concentrated sources of protein. Cheese, peanuts, and lentils, for instance, contain more protein per ounce than hamburger, pork, or steak. Animal protein requires much energy to digest and transforms into energy quickly, making it readily available for you although it also gets quickly consumed.
Vegetable protein does not use as much energy to digest and transforms into longer lasting energy. In excess, animal protein will more likely reduce your body’s overall energy because of the energy it takes to digest. Studies show that vegetarians are able to perform any physical activity 2 to 3 times longer than non-vegetarians, and that they recover from fatigue 2 to 3 times faster as well. Fish may be considered somewhat “cleaner” than read meat or poultry, but nowadays you need to be careful, as many types of fish have unhealthy amounts of mercury, as well as other contaminants like PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT.
The American Dietetic Association notes that most of mankind for most of human history has lived on vegetarian or quasi-vegetarian diets. Obviously, the advent of refrigeration and the modern 20th-century consumer society significantly changed people’s diet in industrialized countries. Furthermore, the slaughter of animals and meat consumption has become excessive, leading to serious imbalances and disease.
And yet, this seems to be slowly changing, as more and more people are becoming concerned about their health and more conscientious about what they put into their bodies. We are finally making the connection between diet and health that Ayurveda has stated for thousands of years, and taking more responsibility for our own well being instead of just blindly following the mainstream behavior.
Spiritual Reasons to Become a Vegetarian
In most Eastern cultures, vegetarianism is also imbued with the ethical principles of spiritual traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism, which follow ahimsa (non-violence) and metta (universal love). Love and non-violence refer not just to humans but to all living beings, because we cannot find peace within ourselves if we are not willing to respect nature and be at peace with the world around us. The slaughter of animals is violent and there is no such thing as “humane animal slaughter.” It is written in the Vedas that, “Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures.”
Indian spiritual teachers have promoted vegetarianism as an integral part of the spiritual path for thousands of years, not only because not killing animals is part of ahimsa, or non-violence, as a general precept, but also because participating in the wholesale slaughter of animals, or killing animals as a form of entertainment or sport creates karma.
Since the aim of a yogic spiritual path is Liberation, partaking in the slaughter of animals means promoting our own suffering (by supporting the suffering of others) and binding us to the world. Yet now that yoga has become so popular in the West, we see yoga and meditation retreats where meat is served, which goes completely against the principles of true yoga, as it condones a worldly and desire-based mind frame, as opposed to a liberating path of inner peace and self-awareness.
According to Ayurveda and yoga, nature consists of three subtle qualities (or gunas) known as sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva is purity, right action, and spiritual purpose. Rajas is the principle of movement, change, and excitability. Tamas is inertia, darkness, and confusion. From rajas comes the false idea that the external world is real, which makes us lose track of the world within and seek happiness outside of ourselves. Rajas creates desire, ambition, mental activity, and emotional upsets. From tamas comes the ignorance that veils our true nature and weakens our power of discrimination.
Sattva gives clarity, concentration, love, and devotion. Sattva as a state of balance is responsible for health and healing. The energy in meat is rajasic and tamasic, so it promotes that type of mind frame, while a vegetarian diet promotes a sattvic mind, which is more peaceful and clear. Think about a tiger as opposed to a deer, a cow or an elephant, and choose what type of energy would you rather have.
Ethic and Economic Reasons for Vegetarianism
Buddhists and Hindus are not the only ones who have promoted vegetarianism, or understood that peace on earth starts with peace in our hearts. Great thinkers of all times have shared this view and have become vegetarians. A few examples are: Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Clement of Alexandria, Plutarch, King Asoka, Leonardo da Vinci, Montaigne, Akbar, John Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, Emanuel Swedenbourg, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Jean Jacques Rousear, Lamartine, Percy B. Shelley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Schweitzer, and Albert Einstein.
Of them, Pythagoras is worth quoting when he said, “Oh, my fellow men, do not defile your bodies with sinful foods… The earth affords a lavish supply of riches of innocent foods, and offers you banquets that involve no bloodshed or slaughter, only beasts satisfy their hunger with flesh, and not even all of those, because horses, cattle, and sheep live on grass… Those that kill animals to eat their flesh tend to massacre their own.”
Ethic and spiritual reasons are both powerful and empowering if you want to become a vegetarian. The suffering of animals is energy that permeates their flesh and therefore becomes part of the meat that you consume. Every time you eat meat you partake in that suffering. This is why cultures like the Native Americans, who had to eat meat to survive, worshiped the Earth and the animals they ate, offering their respect and deep gratitude to them, and never took them for granted like the meat industry and meat eaters nowadays do.
It is very convenient to have a piece of meat brought to a table for consumption without even thinking about the animal that piece of flesh was taken from—and how—but many people would surely take up vegetarianism if they visited a slaughterhouse, or if they themselves had to kill the animals they ate.
It is worth mentioning that there are economic and ecologic reasons to become a vegetarian as well. Meat feeds few at the expense of many. Affluent countries use their own grains and those of poor countries to feed livestock. It is estimated that 1/3 of Africa’s peanut crop, a highly protein rich food, ends up in the bellies of cattle and poultry in Western Europe. Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimated that bringing down meat production by only 10% would release enough grain to feed 60 million people!
Furthermore, the meat industry degrades the environment by polluting rivers and streams with the runoff and sewage of slaughtering plants. Did you know that it takes 60 pounds of water to grow one pound of wheat, while it takes from 2,500 to 6,000 pounds of water to produce one pound of meat? Vegetarians help to restore ecological balance simply by not supporting the polluting meat industry.
A Balanced Vegetarian Diet
With all the meat alternatives available to us nowadays, and more and more restaurants and health food stores catering to “veggies” throughout the world, there is simply no excuse for not becoming a vegetarian for all the reasons mentioned above, and many more you can surely find on your own. Yet a well balanced diet and a strong digestive fire (agni) are important to maintain good health and prevent disease, no matter what type of diet you choose.
Ayurveda states that proper food combining should be followed and your diet must be planned according to your individual constitution. In general terms, though, you need to integrate into your diet: complex carbs (whole grains), an abundant variety of organic fruits and vegetables of various colors and tastes, healthy fats from clarified butter (ghee), avocados, seeds and nuts, and high quality oils (olive, sunflower, flaxseed, etc.), and protein from legumes, grains, nuts and organic dairy products.
Although these should be your main sources of protein, you can always complement them (and add variety to your diet) with almond, rice, hemp and organic soy products. Just make sure the soy products you get are organic, as mainstream soy is a high pesticide and GMO crop. As a vegetarian, you also need to keep an eye on good sources of Vitamin B12, which can be found in certain seaweeds like spirulina and nori, dairy products, goat’s milk, nutritional yeast and yeast extract. Of course, a good quality B12 supplement can also be taken, as well as vegetarian products that have been fortified with B12.
The Vegetarian Society in the UK has a useful list of Meat Alternatives, as well as other information relating to vegetarianism, nutritional facts for vegetarians, an more. There are many vegetarian associations in the US as well, you can do a search online to find one near you, and browse their different web sites to get more information, support, and inspiration.
Soy or No Soy? That Is the Question
I have seen many articles out there trying to defame soy and soy products, even amongst vegetarians and yoga students, with biased and unsupported statements that are spreading unsubstantiated “facts” about soy being unsafe. These articles apparently started with Sally Fallon’s and Mary G. Enig’s “Tragedy and Hype,” which went as far as comparing soy to asbestos! You just have to make sure you eat organic soy products, as most conventional soy in the US is genetically modified.
I don’t know who these women were supporting, or if the meat and milk industry were behind the article (although it would not be surprising), but we strongly recommend you do your own research on the issue, and read the following articles written by John Robbins, author of Diet For A New America, May All Be Fed, and The Food Revolution. Robbins responds to each of Fallon’s and Enig’s statements with clear, unbiased arguments.
A word of caution. Authors praising the benefits of soy often recommend soy milk over cow’s milk, but this may not be the best choice for everyone. Raw cow’s and goat’s milk have many nutritional and health benefits, and Hindus have venerated the cow and consumed milk for thousands of years. Let’s not forget that certain highly evolved yogis lived to be over 100 years old on mainly milk, fruits, and nuts.
Vegetarian Diet Checklist
• Organic whole grains and cereals.
• A wide variety of organic vegetables and fruit.
• Varied organic sources of vegetable protein: legumes, dairy products, nuts and seeds, organic soy products, and rice, almond, and hemp products.
• Healthy fats from high quality oils: avocado, sunflower, safflower, sesame, flax seed, and ghee (clarified butter).
• Good sources of Vitamin B12: seaweed, nori, spirulina, free range eggs, dairy products, nutritional yeast, and B12 fortified veggie products.
© 2009 Yol Swan. All rights reserved. This was originally published for BlueLotusAyurveda.com. No reproduction allowed without written permission from the author.