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The Oxford Companion to the Body

Colin Blakemore,

Sheila Jennett


diets exclude all meat, poultry, and fish and are based on plant foods. Most vegetarians include dairy products and eggs in their diet; this type of diet is sometimes described as lacto-ovo-vegetarian whereas vegetarians who exclude all animal foods from their diet are termed vegans.

There are three major reasons for which people choose a vegetarian diet. The first is aversion to the slaughter of animals; this view is not logically compatible with the consumption of dairy products or eggs, because the production of these foods inevitably involves the slaughter of calves, cows, and chicks (see vegan). The second major reason for choosing a vegetarian diet is for more efficient land use, because a hectare of good farmland can produce much more plant food than animal food. The third reason is health, because most of the meat consumed in Western societies is rich in saturated fat and this increases the concentration of cholesterol in the blood and therefore the risk of developing ischaemic heart disease.

Well planned vegetarian diets are adequate for normal growth and health. Some Hindus in India have, for religious reasons, followed vegetarian diets for many generations and their diet is clearly adequate for maintaining a viable population. In Western countries the number of vegetarians has increased greatly since the 1960s. Nutritional studies have shown that on average the diets of these people are nutritionally adequate and are closer to current recommendations for maintaining health than average non-vegetarian diets. Epidemiological studies have shown that vegetarians have significantly lower mortality from ischaemic heart disease than comparable non-vegetarians, and are less likely to be obese, but have not established differences in mortality rates from other causes of death.

The proportion of the population who are vegetarian is still rising in many Western countries, and has probably been accelerated by health issues such as the link between ‘mad cow disease’ (bovine spongiform encephalopathy — BSE) and new variant Creutzfeld–Jacob disease in humans. Future trends in the dietary preferences of populations are difficult to predict, but there is no doubt that a move towards a ‘semi-vegetarian’ diet low in animal products would allow more people to be fed from less land and could have substantial ecological benefits.

Tim Key


Thorogood, M. (1995). The epidemiology of vegetarianism and health. Nutrition Research Reviews, 8, 179–92.Find this resource:

    See also diets; health foods; vegan.