Although some supermarket packaging may depict idyllic family farms as the source of your food, modern agriculture is anything but small-scale and sustainable. Instead, modern farms utilize industrial concepts to produce as much food with as few resources as possible. Particularly when raising meat and other animal-based products, this approach can have serious consequences for the environment. The manure from the thousands of animals crowded onto these modern farms pollute waterways and the air (see References 1, p 41). Going vegetarian is one choice for people who don't want to support these practices.
A Healthy Choice
A vegetarian diet can easily meet the nutritional needs of most people, according to the position statement on vegetarian diets by the American Dietetic Association. The ADA's research concludes that vegetarianism can be a healthy choice for infants, children, adolescents, athletes and pregnant and lactating women, and vegetarian diets can also have health benefits. To get the most from a vegetarian diet, you should consume a variety of plant-based foods, focusing on beans, whole grains and an assortment of green vegetables to ensure adequate intake of essential proteins, vitamins and minerals. (See References 2)
Ingredients to Avoid
Processed foods often contain ingredients derived from animal-based sources or ingredients processed using animal products, such as cattle bone char used to whiten cane sugar. As a vegetarian, you need to decide which --- if any --- of these products you are comfortable consuming and learn to look out for them on ingredients labels. Common animal-derived ingredients include gelatin, keratin, carmine and lard. (See References 3) When dining out, watch for meat-based stocks and fats used for flavoring purposes.
The rising popularity of vegetarian food has resulted in myriad vegetarian-processed foods designed to resemble meat in both taste and texture. Soy-based products like textured vegetable protein (TVP) and tempeh have a meat-like texture and absorb sauces, making them a good substitute for ground meat in recipes such as chili, bolognese sauce and seasoned taco filling. Mycoprotein or quorn, derived from a fungus, is used to produce foods that taste and feel like poultry. (See References 4, p 393) While meat substitutes can allow you to enjoy favorite meat-based foods, avoid relying too heavily on processed foods, which require more energy resources to process, transport and store than fresh foods (see References 5, p 118).
Go Veg, Go Green?
Vegetarian diets are not necessarily eco-friendly. Dining only on processed foods or fruits and vegetables produced thousands of miles from where you live may not have the same impact on the environment that factory farmed meat does, but it can use more energy than meat produced locally on a small-scale sustainable farm. When making vegetarian food choices, select minimally processed foods grown locally and using sustainable methods that avoid the overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. (See References 5, 6)
- Union of Concerned Scientists: CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations; Doug Gurian-Sherman; April 2008
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association: Eat Right: Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; Winston J. Craig, Ann Reed Mangels; 2009
- Vegetarian Resource Group: Vegetarian Journal's Guide to Food Ingredients; Jeanne Yacoubou; 2010
- "Food Preparation and Cooking"; Rowland Foote, et al.; Nelson Thornes; 1996
- "The Omnivore's Dilemma"; Michael Pollan; Penguin Press; 2006
- "The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability"; Lierre Keith; PM Press; 2009
First published in 2000, Dawn Walls-Thumma has served as an editor for "Bartleby" and "Antithesis Common" literary magazines. Walls-Thumma writes about education, gardening and sustainable living. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and writing from University of Maryland and is a graduate student in humanities at American Public University.
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