Vegetarianism 101

So what is a vegetarian anyway?

The phrase “vegetarian” is often misrepresented by those who do not quite understand it. Although there’s proof that vegetarianism goes back as far as the 8th century B.C. — before the mid-1800’s non-meat eaters were often known as “Pythagoreans” or adherents of the “Pythagorean System,” after the ancient Greek “vegetarian” Pythagoras — the actual name and definition was established in September of 1840 by a reformed British politician named Joseph Brotherton and others at the initial meeting of the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom. (Another interesting fact: Brotherton’s wife Martha is credited to have written the first vegetarian cookbook, A New System of Vegetable Cookery, in 1812.) In 1908, the International Vegetarian Union was formed to unite similar organizations within Europe and later the world. It still is going strong – most of the facts for this post come from their website; a fantastic resource for information, articles and recipes from around the globe.

The original definition of “vegetarian” was “with or without eggs or dairy products,” and that classification is still used by the Vegetarian Society today. However, it is an umbrella term. As vegetarians’ dietary restrictions evolved – due to ethical, health or religious beliefs – so has some people’s classification of “meat”. For example, within the kosher law (which can be very complicated) only certain warm blooded animals are restricted and fish (with the exception of shellfish) is not considered meat at all and can be served with dairy. The idea that fish is not meat is quite common, but not within vegetarian guidelines. Slaughter by-products, such as gelatin, lard and animal rennet, are also avoided within the vegetarian diet.

With that in mind, here are the different types of vegetarians. Take note that all terms are always in reference to diet only. There are vegetarians who wear leather and may or may not use non-food animal by-products, but are at the very least the first description below:

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: Is defined as an individual who does not eat meat, poultry, fish or slaughter animal by-products, yet consumes eggs and milk products. Latco and ovo come from the Latin words for milk and egg respectively. This is the most common type of vegetarian in most Western countries.

Ovo Vegetarian: Same as above with the elimination of milk products.

Lacto Vegetarian: Same as above with the elimination of eggs.

Vegan: Excludes all animal products including eggs and milk products as well as non-slaughter animal derivative products such as honey. True veganism extends diet restriction with the elimination for use of all animal by-products including clothing (such as wool and silk) household items (beeswax, bone china and down) cosmetic ingredients and more. The actual term “vegan” was defined in 1944 by Donald and Dorothy Watson who founded the British Vegan Society on November 1st of that year. The American Vegan Society was established in 1960.

Recently other definitions have been added to the mix. Almost-vegetarian and Pseudo-vegetarian have been used to describe someone who avoids meat from warm-blooded mammals (beef, pork, lamb, etc) and poultry, but still regularly eats fish. However, by true vegetarian standards they are not. They are called Pescetarians, a term combining the Italian word for fish (pesce) and vegetarian. Raw Foodism, a diet based on uncooked vegetables, fruits, nuts and other food not heated over 104 degrees, can be either vegetarian or not as some who follow it eat sushi, sashimi and other raw meats. Fruitarians take veganism a step further as they will only eat fruits, nuts and other foods that can be harvested without killing the plant. For example, apples and nuts are acceptable as they are picked off a tree; carrots are not as the entire plant is consumed. Certain foods which are considered vegetables such as eggplant, tomatoes and peppers are included as they also are grown from the plant.

Macrobiotics is based on eating unprocessed foods like grains, beans, nuts and other raw foods with restrictions on refined products, sugar, additives and chemicals including pharmaceutics. The basics of this diet often cross into vegetarianism, as a lot of the food and philosophy are the same, but as plenty of vegetarians have no problem eating sweets, macrobiotics allow fish and poultry on occasion.

The terms carnivore and herbivore have been used as well, but they do not relate to humans. Carnivores (which include animals such as tigers, lions and like) eat mainly flesh while herbivores (deer, cows and various reptiles) graze solely on plants.

To complicate this more, certain foods are restricted due to religious beliefs – for instance some Buddhists avoid onions and garlic – yet in some Eastern cultures it is completely acceptable to eat cats and dogs.

This post is intended to be a starting point for the uninitiated to understand the basics. For more detailed information, check in with some of the sites located in my links section or consult with your favorite search engine. And, watch for more “educational” based posts in the future.