Healthy Benefits of a Vegan, Vegetarian or Flexitarian Diet
Whether by celebrity endorsements or a down economy, one thing is for certain: Vegetarian lifestyles are on the rise.
Meatless Mondays, a movement fostered by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future, is doing more than reducing consumption of meat on one day of the week. Since its beginnings in 2003, Meatless Mondays has effectively broadened the conversation about veganism, vegetarianism and various degrees of meat avoidance.
But just what exactly is it that motivates people to eschew animal products? And how might it affect hair health if they do -- remembering that hair is mostly composed of keratin, a protein.
The idea of a conscious avoidance of meat products goes back several millennia, with faith traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism -- and more recently the Seventh-day Adventists -- creating a strong cultural and spiritual embrace of the practice. But several contemporary indicators say it is on the rise for various reasons. Some say it is the down economy, in combination with celebrities embracing a meatless lifestyle, that is pushing trends further and further in favor of veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism.
Consider some of vegetarianism’s most prominent proponents: former president Bill Clinton found vegetarianism in response to a heart attack (and he is egged on, pun intended, by daughter Chelsea). Former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson is newly slim and professes to be veganism too. Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, Portia de Rossi, are the more strict vegans (explained below). Surprisingly, the Dalai Lama is part of the more lax group known as flexitarians.
Below we dissect the differences between these three approaches to food. Each offers, in varying degrees, several reasons for adopting that specific approach.
Eating with a purpose, even in restaurants
Personal health is found to largely benefit when one reduces his or her consumption of animal flesh. This leverages the fact that reduced intake of saturated fats can benefit cardiovascular health and is associated with lower incidences of cancer.
Some reduce or eliminate meat from their diet for earth-health reasons: a pound of protein from a cow requires 7 pounds of plant-based protein from its feed -- and that doesn’t count the water and petroleum resources necessary to raise cattle. So a meal composed of vegetables and grains is fare that taxes natural resources to a much lesser degree. Members of a subgroup of this are individuals who are also animal rights supporters, uncomfortable with the concept of killing something for food or nonfood purposes (such as fur and leather coats).
And still other people don’t eat meat (including fish and chicken for some, but not all) simply because the taste does not appeal to them. None of these populations is necessarily exclusive, either. Two or more motivators toward vegetable-based diets can be at work among individual adherents, such as the person who follows a vegetable-only diet for both spiritual and health reasons.
Meat consumption is down also because of economics. The recession that began in 2008 has driven reduced meat consumption, says the American Meat Institute (AMI). In 2009, in the wake of the previous year’s financial crisis, 51 percent of survey respondents in an AMI study said that they had reduced their meat purchasing in response to the economy. The study also found that even as meals-made-at-home were on the rise, the average number of meals made per week that included a meat item went from 4.2 to 3.9, a 7 percent decrease, reflecting a similar trend in animal production reported by HedgersEdge.com, which tracks market-wide agribusiness numbers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the response of chicken and hog farmers and cattle ranchers has been to cut back production capacity, the first time there was such a drop since 1973. All numbers say this is a trend of some import.
Regardless of whether meat consumption is up or down, food marketers smell an opportunity. At least one large restaurant chain, Moe’s Southwest Grill, is seeing the future in vegetarian or flexitarian consumers. President Paul Damico says the 426-unit chain, based in Atlanta, is promoting vegetarian selections within a broader concept of being an eco-friendly dining establishment. Damico told Business News Daily that the company is doing this to appeal to younger people, teenagers and preadolescents, who have a pronounced environmental sensibility and who can influence other family members to patronize the chain.
Vegan, Vegetarian, Flexitarian
“As a restaurant with a variety of vegetarian offerings, Moe’s is a proud supporter of the Meatless Monday campaign,” says Damico. Which brings us to a discussion of the different degrees of going meat free.
- Vegan: Vegans embrace a complete animal-friendly lifestyle, where food is just the beginning. Aside from not eating anything that ever had a face (i.e., animals, including fish) or its byproducts, a vegan will not wear leather, fur and even natural silk (produced by silkworms, of course). Veganism often means advocating for animal-related causes, such as opposing the use of animals for biological testing purposes, a philosophy that has changed much of how cosmetics research is conducted.
- Vegetarian: Vegetarianism is mostly about what the individual will not eat, which includes meats, animal by-products, fish and shellfish, poultry, and sometimes the avoidance of eggs and dairy products as well. A vegetarian will approach this religiously, where there are few if any exceptions to this exclusion.
- Flexitarian: This is where Meatless Mondays plays a role. And it may be a “gateway drug” to a deeper commitment to vegetarianism. Flexitarians are people (this writer included) who appreciate the meaning and benefits of veganism and vegetarianism. But to us, it’s more about degree than absolutes. We might never make meat at home but be open to a hamburger at a summer barbecue. Some of us adopt the dietary philosophy of all things in moderation, believing that the nutrients in animal flesh are beneficial to health (but in much lower quantities and frequency found elsewhere in our carnivorous culture). For others, it’s just that single day of sacrifice, avoiding meat (probably) because the people we eat with do.
The secret is out: Less meat makes you feel better
In all cases the individual will by default eat more fruits, vegetables and grains. This is not only good for cardiovascular health, but also it can positively reduce rates of cancer, improve the quality of one’s skin and provide the degree of nutrition that is essential to good hair health as well. While it bears noting that animal protein is beneficial to hair health, Vegetarian Times magazine advises that a vegan, in particular, should be certain to get a full complement of essential fatty acids (including omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in avocadoes and flax seed oil), zinc (from beans, seeds, nuts and wheat germ) and vitamin B12 (from fermented soy products and nutritional yeast, including those found in whole grain breads).
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