October is World Vegetarian Month and there are many facts, historical and nutritional, that may be little known but of interest. By definition, a vegetarian is a person who decides to abstain from meat whether it be for health, religious, or moral reasons. The term “vegetarian” is believed to have come into existence in 1847, whereas prior to that, those who refrained from consuming meat were known as “Pythagorean.”1 There is no proof that the famous Greek mathematician and philosopher was vegetarian but many sources say he and his adherents followed a restrictive diet that did not include animal flesh.2
Some other historical figures who are known or purported to have been vegetarian include the esteemed artist and philosopher Leonardo da Vinci, feminist and author of Frankenstein Mary Shelley, the founding father of the United States Benjamin Franklin, and Indian activist and leader Mahatma Gandhi. Historians note that the Mahatma strayed from vegetarianism briefly but renewed his commitment when studying law in England, even though it required 10 to 12 miles of walking to find vegetarian restaurants!3
In North America, vegetarianism became a movement in 1850 and is attributed to William Alcott who helped start the American Vegetarian Society.4 He happens to be a relative of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. In current times, many celebrities are known to be vegetarians and the movement is growing as scientists continue researching the the health benefits of plant-based living.
Globally, India has the highest percentage of vegetarians when compared to other countries, with roughly 30 percent of the population adhering to a plant-based lifestyle.5 Generally acknowledged by nutritionists and dieticians to be a healthy way of eating and even a way to sustain weight loss, it is important to know that some vegetarian foods can be high in calories and fat. For example, if you cut out meat but replace it with lots of cheese and nuts you could end up consuming the same number of calories or even more. On the other hand, eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, soy and moderate amounts of nuts can help you maintain a healthy weight.6
Here are some important nutrients to keep in mind when eating a vegetarian diet: 7
• Protein—Protein is important for maintaining healthy muscles, skin, bones, and organs. Ovolacto vegetarians may have an easier time getting enough protein but vegans should be sure to eat enough soy products, meat substitutes, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
• Calcium—This mineral is important for building strong bones and teeth. Vegetarians who do not consume dairy products can find adequate calcium in leafy greens, broccoli, fortified soy milk, and fortified juices.
• Vitamin B12—The body uses this vitamin to produce red blood cells and it is mostly found in animal products. Vegans must include a B12 supplement, consume enriched cereals, or drink fortified soy milk.
• Iron—Iron is a crucial component of red blood cells and lack of iron can lead to anemia, or iron deficiency. Dried beans and peas, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, and dried fruit are good sources of iron. Be sure to combine the above foods with foods high in vitamin C (oranges, strawberries, hot peppers) because vitamin C aids in iron absorption.
• Zinc—This mineral is an essential component of enzymes and formation of proteins. Good sources of zinc include whole grains, soy products, nuts, and wheat germ.
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1, 4 https://nationaltoday.com/vegetarian-month/
2, 3, 5 https://www.britannica.com/list/8-of-historys-most-famous-vegetarians