Lentis/Vegan and Vegetarian Diets: Nutritional and Social Values

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While the highest prevalence of vegetarianism remains in countries where the motivations are primarily culturally or religiously based, both veganism and vegetarianism are rising in popularity in the US. From 2014 to 2017, US consumers identifying as vegan grew from 1% to 6%.[1] An increase in vegan options in restaurants and grocery stores has made going vegan or vegetarian more feasible than in the past. Pop-culture, with many public figures adopting vegan or vegetarian diets, the rise of veganism and vegetarianism in the media, and the abundance of published scientific research on nutrition have attributed to an increase veganism and vegetarianism in the US.[2]

Vegetarian Diet[edit | edit source]

A vegetarian is a person who does not consume meat, including poultry, red meat, fish, or the flesh of any other animal. There are many types, or levels, of vegetarianism.

  • Ovo-vegetarian: excludes meat, fish, poultry, and dairy, but includes eggs.
  • Ovo-lacto vegetarian: excludes meat, fish, and poultry, but includes dairy and eggs.
  • Pescatarian: excludes meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs, but includes fish.
  • Fruitarian: predominantly consists of raw fruit; about 75% of diet.
  • Pollotarian: excludes meat from mammals and fish, but includes poultry.[3]
  • Pollo-pescetarian: excludes meat from mammals, but includes poultry and fish.[3]
  • Semi-vegetarian: primarily plant-based but includes meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs on occasion or in small quantities. Semi-vegetarians may also be called flexitarians.
  • Plant-based: animal products do not form a large proportion of the diet.

Vegan Diet[edit | edit source]

A vegan is a person who does not consume or use animal products, including meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs, as well as any by-product of animals or product tested on animals.

Historical Background[edit | edit source]

The term "Vegetarianism" was first mentioned in 500 BCE by a famous mathematician, Pythagoras. He believes that humans should be benevolent toward animals and saw that this type of diet can produce health advantages. This idea spread out the entire Roman Empire from the 3th to 6th centuries. Later on, many religious groups such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism practice and adapt this diet to their lifestyle. In November 1944, the term "Vegan" was then introduced by Donald Watson (the founder of the Vegan Society), which is a diet derived from vegetarianism, to differentiate people that follow the same diet as Vegetarian but do not eat dairy and eggs. [4]

Misconceptions[edit | edit source]

Vegetarianism vs. Veganism[edit | edit source]

The more commonly known difference between vegetarianism and veganism regards food choices. The base of vegetarianism is the exclusion of meat consumption, and there are different levels of vegetarianism with varying degrees of restriction. Veganism prohibits the consumption of any food produced by animals, including honey, lard, and gelatin. A less commonly known difference regards lifestyle choices. In addition to not consuming any food produced by animals, vegans do not consume or use any by-product, including honey, lard, gelatin, and certain fabrics, or product tested on animals, including certain cosmetics.[5] Vegans often advocate for animal rights, the environment, and certified vegan products, companies, and organizations.[5]

Fad Diet[edit | edit source]

A fad diet is a diet that is popular for a time, without being a standard dietary recommendation, often promising unreasonably fast weight loss or nonsensical health improvements. Many people adopt these diets for reasons not backed by facts, as a dieting tactic, or because of social perceptions. Pop culture and social media has greatly influenced this, as many celebrities endorse various diets and products and put vegetarianism and veganism in an appealing light. However, it is not likely that those pursuing vegetarianism or veganism for these reasons will maintain it long term. It has been shown than 69% of fad diets fail and 65% of people who lose weight on a fad diet gain it all back.[6] Other fad diets include the Paleolithic, Whole30, gluten-free, and Ketogenic diets.

Vegetarian and Vegan diets are always healthier[edit | edit source]

Though it is true that vegetarian and vegan diets are beneficial to the human body and may potentially help prevent many medical issues such as diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, etc, many believe that such diets are always healthier than regular diets. However, experts explain that this may be a misconception. One of the examples is that if one eats excessive amounts of potato chip, they are still classified as vegan/vegetarians, but this can still cause serious health problems to consumers as potato chip consists of a large amount of sodium. [7] Another study had been conducted to look at vegetarian black bean burgers and the typical McDonald's burger, which came to discover that the fast food burger had less sodium at 0.75 g in comparison to the vegetarian burger, which had an average of 0.89 g of sodium. [8]

Lack of essential nutrition

Many believe that vegetarian and vegan diets are not sustainable and inappropriate for pregnancy, childhood, and athletics. [9] It is believed to have a lesser amount of protein, B12, iron, calcium, etc compared to the regular diet. [10] Therefore, it does not provide enough nutrients and energy to the human body. However, many experts have studied that there are still many protein sources with good amount of nutrients for vegan and vegetarian diets such as tofu, seitan, lentils, beans, green peas, quinoa, etc. [11] Another source of protein, B12, and necessary nutrients can be replace by supplements, like free free Omega 3s. [12]

Stereotypes[edit | edit source]

Vegetarians and vegans are often stereotyped as ascetics, faddists, sentimentalists, or hostile extremists.[13]

  • Ascetic: pursues a restrictive diet to practice self-discipline and abstention in order to have more control of their life and lifestyle choices.
  • Faddist: follows current trends and fads because they are what is new, popular, or “cool” at the time.
  • Sentimentalist: base actions and reactions on emotions, rather than logic or reason.
  • Hostile extremist: hold extreme or fanatical beliefs, particularly regarding political or religious views, and typically participate in protests or rallies. This stereotype could also be seen as a “hippie”.

Motivations for Vegetarianism and Veganism[edit | edit source]

Personal Preference[edit | edit source]

Sensory Food Aversion: dislike for taste, texture, appearance, smell, or temperature of a food. The food aversion for vegetarianism and veganism is against meat or other food from animals.

Environment[edit | edit source]

One motivation for veganism/vegetarianism is to optimize natural resource use and prevent negative environmental impacts through the direct consumption of resources, rather than using the resources for animal agriculture.

Producing animal products consumes a large number of natural resources (food, land, and freshwater) without much efficiency. Meat and dairy production provides just 18% of calories and 37% of the protein in agricultural products.[14] However, 60% of the world’s grain is fed to farmed animals, and it can take 10 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. Meanwhile, the same amount of grain can meet the daily caloric needs of up to 6 people. It takes 75% less land to feed someone on a plant-based diet than it does to feed a meat-eater since the crops are consumed directly instead of being used to feed animals. Producing 1 pound of beef requires more than 2400 gallons of water, while 1 pound of tofu requires 244 gallons and 1 pound of wheat requires 155 gallons.[15]

In addition, producing animal products emits significant greenhouse gasses and pollution. Meat and dairy production produces 56-58% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. A major of human-caused methane emissions come from animal agriculture, with 32% from livestock digestion and waste. In a year, a single cow can belch out 220 pounds of methane, and 500 million tons of manure is produced by animals on US farms. Animal waste is most often stored in waste lagoons and then sprayed on fields, which pollutes nearby air with toxins and pathogens. In addition, runoff from factory farms and livestock grazing is one of the leading causes of pollution in our rivers and lakes, with an estimated 80% of marine pollution coming from land. A research study published in PLOS climate found that if animal agriculture were phased out over 15 years, greenhouse gas emissions could stabilize for 30 years and offset 68% of carbon dioxide emissions through the remainder of this century. This reduction in methane and nitrous oxide, along with slower carbon dioxide accumulation, would provide half of the net emission reductions necessary to limit warming to 2°C.[16]

However, some plant-based foodstuffs have a bigger environmental footprint than others. Dr. Joseph Poore, who studies agricultural sustainability at Oxford, states: “Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy—these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment…but it’s essential to be mindful about everything we consume." For instance, an Italian study found two vegans who exclusively ate fruit had a considerably higher environmental impact than many meat-eaters. They particularly ate watermelons and cantaloupes. Their case illustrates that certain fruits and vegetables can have a larger environmental impact than others due to water and land usage, agricultural practices, or the transport and packing process.[17]

Avocados take large amounts of water to produce. A single tree in the summer needs up to 46 gallons daily in the summer—which can be as much as a cow. Commercial avocados crops are grown in areas with dry summer months, such as California, Chile, Mexico, and southern Spain. The large amounts of water required put huge pressure on the local environment. Their highly delicate flesh and rapid ripening also mean that much of the fruit imported to Europe and the US are flown there by air, producing 2.2 kg of CO2 for 1 kg of avocados imported, which is the same as the emissions of tuna.[17]

Mushrooms are commonly used as meat substitutes. However, they have a surprising impact of  3 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of mushroom. Most of the emissions come from the energy needed to keep rooms where mushrooms are cultivated at a warm temperature. Compared to farmed meat, mushroom emissions are less than the “greenest” farmed meat (chicken, which emits 4.1 kg of CO2/kg). However, mushroom emissions are the same as saltwater fish (3 kg of CO2/kg) and more than tuna (2.2kg of CO2/kg).[17]

Tree nut milk is a common alternative to traditional dairy milk. However, cashew nuts, almonds, and walnuts are some of the most water-intensive large-scale crops and consume 412 gallons of fresh water for every pound of shelled nuts that we purchase. Almonds in particular need large amounts of water, pesticide, and fertilizer, which makes their environmental impact disproportionately large. The average almond grown in the US state requires 1230 gallons of water per pound which is 5 times more than tofu and more than half required for a pound of beef. In addition, almonds emit about 2.3 kg of CO2 for 1 kg, which is more than the emissions of tuna.[17]

Without carefully considering all the factors involved in producing food, such as transportation and agricultural practices, a vegan/vegetarian diet can have unintended consequences. To reap the environmental benefits of veganism/vegetarianism, individuals need to be conscious of what they choose to replace meat with, and how it was grown.

Ethics[edit | edit source]

Many choose these diets because of their passion for preventing animal cruelty, not wanting animals to be harmed or killed.[18] These people often belong to organized groups such as PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the largest animal rights organization in the world.

A vast majority of the animals in the food supply chain are concentrated in animal feeding operations (CAFO), colloquially known as factory farms.[19] Animals are treated without regard for their physical or mental wellbeing. Animals are routinely subjected to tight confinement, mutilations, and inhumane treatment. As consumers demand cheap animal products on larger and larger scales, factory farming emerged as a way to cut costs and increase output. Although invented in America, factory farming has become increasingly popular across the world. 90 percent of meat worldwide is produced by factory farms, and 99% of meat in America. Some species are more likely to be in factory farms than others, about 70 percent of cows are in factory farms, but almost all chickens (over 99.9%) are grown and slaughtered in factory farms.[20]

Common procedures that are administered without the requirement of Anesthesia or Pain Relief include:[21]

  • Tail Docking
  • Dehorning
  • Hot-Iron Branding
  • Castration
  • Debeaking

Selective breeding over generations and unnatural physical activity (i.e. standing in a restrictive cage) lead to muscle damage or discomfort.[22] Some animals are slaughtered developmentally early because they’ve grown most of their full capacity. A chicken can be slaughtered as young as 6 weeks old. Larger animals are allowed to live longer, pigs are slaughtered as early as 6 months, although pigs are not considered “adults” until 6 years, and have a life expectancy of 15-20 years.[23] A pig’s loss of life is especially tragic considering their intelligence and capacity for emotion. Pigs are considered the fifth-most intelligent animals, with an intelligence comparable to a 3 year old child, making pigs about as intelligent as elephants and dolphins and more intelligent than dogs.[24]

The overall health of the animals is often much worse in factory farms, including the accelerated spread of diseases due to crowded conditions. Poor health of the animals poses a greater possibility of foodborne illness and cross-species transmission. The low-level dosing of antibiotics given to the animals can be transferred to humans, increasing the likelihood of developing more antibiotic-resistant bacteria.[22] The unnatural food, stress, synthetic hormones, and general poor health of the animals also carries additional risks to the health of the humans consuming those animals.[25] According to the World Health Organization processed meat is classified as a Group 1 carcinogenic, a classification based on epidemiological studies showing processed meat increasing the risk of colorectal (colon) cancer.[26] An increased risk for some diseases has also been observed in the farmers and veterinarians that care for animals in the factory farms.[27]

Animal testing for products raise similar concerns about the safety and comfort of animals.[28] Antiquated animal tests don’t guarantee similar effects on humans, yet a lack of funding and interest means ethical methods are disadvantaged compared to standard practice.[29] Animal testing continues because companies are often required to test safety and efficacy with minimal risk to humans. Regulatory agencies are unwilling to give legitimacy to alternatives as there isn’t a precedent like with animal testing, creating a vicious cycle where no new tests are given approval, so tests have no history, so they aren’t given approval.[30]

Culture[edit | edit source]

Vegetarianism and veganism are deeply rooted in some cultures. Countries such as India, Israel, and Taiwan have the highest prevalence of cultures that promote a well-balanced vegetarian diet.[31] Cultures promoting these diets believe they encourage development of the intellect, increase capacity for mental labor, promote longevity, and align with their objection to animal cruelty.[32]

Religion[edit | edit source]

Religious values surrounding vegetarianism and veganism:

Religions that actively promote vegetarianism:[35]

  • Hinduism: follow dietary customs of self-control and purity of mind and spirit.
  • Jainism: avoid harm to animals and their life cycles.
  • Buddhism: support the concept of ahimsa, however some do eat fish or meat.[36]
  • Monks: consider meat to be a luxury, and giving into luxury items conflicts with their motto of simple living.[33]

Allergies[edit | edit source]

  • Alpha-gal Syndrome / Mammalian Meat Allergy (MMA): allergy to the galactose-α-1,3-galactose (Alpha-gal) sugar molecule that is found in most mammals. Alpha-gal is not found in fish, reptiles, or birds, but can be found in some products made from mammals. Acquiring Alpha-gal syndrome is associated with tick bites and Lyme Disease.
  • Poultry Allergy: the body triggers an immune reaction upon consumption of poultry.

Psychological Analyses[edit | edit source]

Health Perception[edit | edit source]

A key element of dieting is the effect on your body. Social benefits of dieting may be outweighed by personal requirements if a diet is perceived as unsatisfactory and therefore detrimental for one’s health.

Vegan and vegetarian diets vary widely, but empirical evidence supports satisfactory nutritional content and health benefits of the average diet in a study limited to well-educated vegetarians living in Western countries. The health of Western vegetarians is similar to that of comparable non-vegetarians.[37]

Challenges to healthy vegan diets include switching dieting patterns and protein sufficiency. New diet patterns take time to adjust to to ensure you are satisfying your needs. Participants in a study lost an average of 19 pounds over a 3-month trial. This may be a result of improved dieting, but should be considered on an individual level for potentials of unsatisfactory dieting, especially when given new limitations. Protein deficiency is a debated topic of plant-based diets. Amino acids may be obtained from plants at a similar level of breast milk. The best strategy to meet protein requirements is by mixing proteins, namely rice protein and pea protein.[38] Plant milk was also shown to be satisfactory for infant nutrition.[39]

Biochemical advantages are also reported of vegan and vegetarian diets. A vegan diet is shown to have lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol as well as a higher ratio of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) protein to LDL.[39] LDL is considered the “bad” cholesterol as high levels will build plaque on the walls of blood vessels, while HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol because it will absorb other cholesterol in the blood stream, lowering risk of heart disease and stroke.[40] Foods included in the vegetarian and vegan diet typically have a lower proportion of calories from fat, fewer overall calories, and more fiber, potassium, and vitamins. The health benefits of eating such foods include reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure.[41]

Food processing is any alteration made to food before consumption, such as increasing a product’s shelf life. On one hand, this may have benefit for plant heavy diets because processing will break down fibrous cell walls to expose calories for easy digestion.[38] However, criticism of processed foods and the amount at which they are consumed include unhealthy additives and stripped natural nutrients.[42] In a study of omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan diets, it was observed that the plant-based diets feature more ultra-processed foods. This is a result of the vegan and vegetarian dieters consuming a mix of healthy and unhealthy plant-based products. The presence of unhealthy plant-based foods might not be expected by all individuals, but some of the processed foods may include as much fat and sugars as processed meats.[43]

Unsurprisingly, trends in dieting behavior range from beneficial improvements to harmful practices. U.S. News reports on the trend of juice cleanses, calling them “hocus pocus”. Practices like these restrict nutritional intake, which inadvertently impacts long-term health.[44] Vegan and vegetarian diets typically do not follow this pattern. They are rather a category of dieting behavior that can be sustained over time without impacting the individual. This is critical for the arguments of environmental benefits, as without a sustainable diet, support for veganism and vegetarianism will be impacted.

Opinion of vegan and vegetarian diets is swayed by health media. In one instance, a baby was hospitalized due to malnutrition when being raised on a vegan diet.[45] The extent to which a vegan diet is a culprit in this case is debatable, but a constant of dieting is the ability of the dieter to recognize individual needs and accommodate for any needs they might have.

Weight Loss[edit | edit source]

People believe that more conscious eating will help with weight loss goals, although 65% of people who lose weight on a fad diet gain it all back after quitting the diet.[46] Most vegan food options contain lesser amount of cholesterol in comparison to animal-based foods. For example, eggs are high in cholesterol and saturated fats while most plant-based eggs are cholesterol free.[47]Similarly, plant-based mock meats are low-fat alternatives for the animal meat.

Labeling[edit | edit source]

Certification[edit | edit source]

  • Vegan Action: a registered trademark for products that do not contain animal products or byproducts, by an application.
  • The Vegan Society Trademark: third-party certification based on the society's international standards for vegan products.
  • Vegecert: a non-profit organization that offers third-party certification for vegetarian and vegan products.
  • American Vegetarian Association: certification categorized by vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based, with plant-based being synonymous with vegan.

Menu Options[edit | edit source]

Restaurants are beginning to add vegetarian and vegan options to their menus. Vegan options are often denoted with a small "V" next to the item, similar to the "GF" used in gluten-free labeling.[48]

"Dedicated" Restaurants[edit | edit source]

Dedicated restaurants are dedicated to serving vegan cuisine. In 1993, approximately 55 restaurants were certified vegan in the US. In 2019, there are over 485 vegan restaurants in the US. This does not include restaurants that have begun offering vegan options in addition to traditional menu options.[49] Happy Cow was created to connect vegan consumers with the best dedicated vegan restaurants in their area.

Affected Groups[edit | edit source]

Many social groups are affected by the vegetarian and vegan movement.

  • Meat Industry: has attempted to adjust to a shift in food consumption in the US, with meat suppliers such as Tyson and Perdue beginning to offer vegetarian and vegan alternatives to compete with the popular vegan vendor, Beyond Meat.[50]
  • Consumers: are choosing to change to a vegetarian or vegan diet, affecting the food choices they make.[2]
  • Environmental Activists: are in favor of adopting a vegetarian and vegan diet because of the negative effects the meat industry has on the environment.[51]
  • FDA: is responsible for regulating new vegetarian and vegan foods and products put on the market.
  • Livestock Farmers: is concerned with the rise of vegan and vegetarian diets because their career heavily relies on the meat industry. As a result, many farmers are switching their business models to be animal-free, focusing on animal-free, and growing vegetables. [52]

The Role of the Media[edit | edit source]

The media is a significant contributor to the rise of vegetarianism and veganism in the US.

Beginnings[edit | edit source]

As early as 1817, there were already prominence of media impact on vegetarianism and veganism. The first vegetarianism church, the American branch of Bible Christian Church, was founded this year. A pamphlet of a sermon was published and was called the Abstinence from the Flesh of Animals, which was the first instance of the tie between this new concept and religion, a powerful presence. [53]

One of the first skepticisms of meat consumption was in Upton Sinclair's early 1900's novel, The Jungle. The book was intended to expose the immigrant labor abuses and unjust working conditions of the meatpacking industry, but a latent effect of the work was disgust surrounding meat production, leading many to consider eradicating meat from their diets entirely.

Present Day[edit | edit source]

Vegetarianism and veganism are growing in popularity in the present day. The 2008 documentary Food Inc. revealed many of the environmental implications of the meat industry, prompting viewers to consider a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are many popular vegan and vegetarian Instagram accounts, one being Ella Woodward, a British food writer, who currently has 1.6 million followers and her own line of vegan products. There are many books on going vegetarian or vegan, many continuing clinical research on the benefits of a meat-free diet such as Neil Barnard's The Vegan Starter Kit. Another example who has a great impact on social media with 19.4 million followers on Twitter is Leonardo DiCaprio; he promoted veganism by convincing people to replace beef with plant-based Beyond Burger. [54]


Even though the role of media has been a huge advancement for the movement, one of the downsides is misinformation. An example is the aforementioned Ella Woodward had a controversy with the information that she was writing about. [55] Bias in choice of information shared is another limitation. With tailored ads and social media circles, only what is familiar would be accessible and thus consumers would not be exposed to new information. [56]

Vegan and Vegetarian Demographic[edit | edit source]

Gender[edit | edit source]

Study found that almost 80% of vegans in the United States are female and it can be due to several reasons such as [57]:

  • Females typically care more about their appearances and focus on self-improvement compared to men.
  • According to Trista Best [57], females are easier to store fat compared to men
  • They also pursue vegan/vegetarian diets not only for their physical health, but also their mental health as females are usually more in charge of their mental wellbeing and lifestyle.

Income[edit | edit source]

It is known that vegan and vegetarian diets can be expensive and sometimes more costly compared to regular diet. However, the statistic surpassingly shows that there are more lower income people pursuing vegan diet compared to the higher income one. For example, according to data reported from Huffington Post [58], 7% of people making under $50,000 are vegan. In contrast, only 2% of higher income people making more than $100,000 actually pursue veganism.

Age[edit | edit source]

According to the data shown in the article [58], most become vegan in the age range from 16 to 34 with more than 78%. The second place (< 15 years old) has 17% and the third place is from 35 to 44 with 6% going vegans. Although younger people tend to make less money compared to older adults, it seems to have a larger concentration, which is aligned with the data reported previously from the above "income" section. A reason for this drastic statistic can be mostly attributed to social media as the information is more accessible this way.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Future research regarding the nutritional and social values of vegetarianism and veganism should investigate the demographics, including gender, race, and household income, of those pursuing vegetarian and vegan diets. Socioeconomic implications of vegetarianism and veganism are of particular interest as these diets tend to be of higher cost. Trends across different countries, and the reasons why those trends may differ, should be evaluated to determine if this phenomenon can be generalized. This chapter has examined criticisms of vegetarians and vegans, but future researchers should consider criticisms of those who do eat meat, how meat producers deter people from vegetarianism and veganism, and if GMOs play a role. Although the health implications of veganism and vegetarianism have been deemed to be limited, more research should be done in other areas rather than just nutrient amount. There has been already research on the effects on bone strength and fracture rates[59], but other risks of the body should be studied further.

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