Humans as Herbivores

Vegetarians are more mainstream than ever, but does the rest of society really understand what goes into a plant-only lifestyle? A stroll down the local supermarket aisles these days paints an ironic picture. Organic cookie dough, soy milk and veggie burgers are nonchalantly placed next to the sliced turkey, jumbo-sized eggs and boneless chicken breasts. There seems to be no distinction as shoppers float around, picking up the pesticide-free asparagus as casually as if it were a loaf of bread.

That’s because the foods that were previously reserved for the smaller, more intimate hippy shops have exploded into a $2.8 billion industry, according to projections by the Vegetarian Resource Group. And the VRG’s estimated 48.2 million adults who say they maintain a meatless diet are eating it up.

Gina Hill, an assistant professor for the department of nutritional sciences, said the trend of vegetarianism seems to be on the rise.

“There is a definite market out there,” Hill said. “If you look at what grocery stores or restaurants have to offer, there are more products available to vegetarians, like meat analogs.”

James Johnston, an employee at Fort Worth’s only vegan restaurant, Spiral Diner, said the spread of vegetarianism can be attributed to word of mouth.

“It’s simply a matter of mathematics,” Johnston said. “More people are becoming vegetarian and vegan and they’re telling more people about it.

“But it’s still an anomaly why a vegan restaurant can survive in Fort Worth,” Johnston said.

Spiral Diner employee Lindsey Alcey said she thinks the restaurant has seen a steady influx of patrons in the past year of its five-year existence because “it’s trendy to be healthy and to care about the environment.”

What non-meat-eaters eat

But what defines a vegetarian? Experts say it could be as simple as occasionally forgoing a pepperoni pizza for a mushroom one. Vegetarian is an umbrella term for anyone who does not eat meat, but under it exists several levels.

Total vegetarians maintain the strictest diet by omitting animal foods such as fish, eggs, dairy products and honey. Vegans are total vegetarians who avoid all animal products such as leather, wool and silk.

Lacto-vegetarians include dairy products in their diet, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products. Pesco-vegetarians add on fish, and pollo-vegetarians eat poultry as well.

The last level of vegetarianism, the flexitarian, suits the casual meat-avoider. Aptly named, the flexitarian still eats meat but makes an attempt to follow a vegetarian diet.

Healthy plant munching

Now the next question: Is being a vegetarian healthy? Hill said the vegetarian diet can be extremely healthy as long as it’s appropriately planned.

Excluding meat from one’s diet eliminates all sorts of nutrients, Hill said, including protein, iron, vitamins C, B-12 and D, riboflavin, omega fatty acids, iodine, zinc and calcium.

“They’re called danger nutrients for vegetarians,” Hill said. “But if a diet is well-planned and thought out, those aren’t problematic.”

Hill said the daily intake of supplements or nutrient-fortified foods will solve a vegetarian’s nutrition woes fairly easily, but that it’s important for a vegetarian to watch when and how much minerals they’re getting.

“It can’t be a haphazard approach because those nutrient needs will most likely not be met,” Hill said.

The average vegetarian needs 1.8 times the amount of iron of a meat eater, Hill said. That’s because the iron in vegetables is not absorbed as well as the iron in animal sources.

Iron-fortified foods aren’t hard to find. Hill said cereals are usually a good place to start, and some foods are also fortified with vitamin C or B-12 for a double health whammy.

The one nutrient Hill said vegetarians should watch out for is phytic acid, a source of combined iron usually found in unrefined grains. A vegetarian might think they’re getting enough iron through phytic acid, but combined irons are deceptively not well-absorbed by the body, Hill said.

The green in vegetarianism

There are several different reasons people choose to be a vegetarian, one of the most prominent being health reasons.

The health benefits of a correct vegetarian lifestyle are vast, Hill said. Among them are a lower Body Mass Index (a person’s height-to-weight ratio) and lower risks for diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

But, the risks of nutrient deficiencies with vegetarianism are just as real as the advantages. Hill said iron deficiency anemia is a looming threat to all vegetarians.

“It’s not necessarily something that happens to you in 30 years,” Hill said of nutrient deficiency diseases. “It’s real and it’s now.”

Lack of B-12, which is only found in substantial amounts in animal products, can actually increase heart disease, and osteoporosis will affect the non-dairy vegetarians who don’t get enough calcium in their diets, Hill said.

Environmental concern is also a prevalent reason for vegetarians.

Environmental vegetarians argue that raising livestock wastes significant amounts of water, land and energy. According to the Whole Earth Vegetarian Catalogue, it takes 3 to 15 times more water to produce animal protein than plant protein. And the 78 calories of fossil fuel it takes to produce one calorie of beef can be compared to the one calorie of fossil fuel per one calorie of soybeans.

The reasons for eating green continue with animal rights activists, who often use vegetarianism as a way to protest the mistreatment and slaughter of animals for food.

Allison Hough, a junior biology and criminal justice major, has been a vegetarian for the past two years. She said her desire to forgo meat stems from a distaste for the way meat is processed.

“Cutting a cow in half and hanging it upside down is disgusting,” Hough said, who also stopped drinking milk because of the chemicals she said she discovered are in it, citing cow puss as a major one.

Hough said she makes up for her lack of meat and dairy by drinking soy milk, taking iron pills, and eating beans and flax seeds.

“Honestly, I probably don’t get enough protein,” Hough said. “It’s hard to remember to take my supplements.”

Vegetarians: they’re everywhere

With the wealth of information of vegetarianism on the internet, it’s impossible not to find pages of plant-friendly recipes, reviews of vegetarian restaurants and even lists of famous vegetarians. Who knew Leonardo DiCaprio and Bob Marley had something in common?