Vegetarianism, belief in and practice of eating foods obtained exclusively from the vegetable kingdom, and hence of abstaining from meat and other animal foods. Non-vegetable food is usually considered by vegetarians to include fowl and fish, but practice varies.
Vegetarianism is an ancient custom. It has long existed among certain Hindu and Buddhist sects that consider all animal life sacred, and it was advocated zealously by numerous philosophers and writers of ancient Greece and Rome. In the Roman Catholic Church, it has been practiced monastically by Trappists since 1666, and among Protestants more recently by Seventh-Day Adventists.
As an active Western movement, it originated in 1809 near Manchester, among members of the Bible Christian Church. In 1847 the Vegetarian Society, a non-religious organization, was founded. The movement spread to continental Europe and the United States (1850), and, in 1908, the International Vegetarian Union was founded. Today the union holds congresses every two years in different countries.
Although vegetarianism originated as a religious or ethical practice, it has also gained acceptance among many for aesthetic, nutritional, and economic reasons. Humanitarian vegetarians refuse meat because they believe that the killing of animals is unnecessary or cruel, or that such a practice can conceivably lead to a disregard for human life; the trades that the slaughter of animals supports, such as butchering, are considered degrading.
People who adhere to vegetarianism for health reasons believe that meat is harmful to the human body and that a purely vegetable diet is more nutritious. Some vegetarians reject meat eating because of the poor conditions in which livestock may be kept. Others argue that eating meat is a waste of precious resources when there are
so many people in the world who are starving (meat is much more expensive to produce than grain). Because a meatless diet might result in a protein deficiency, vegetarians need to satisfy their protein needs with corn and seeds of legumes.
The strictness of diet also varies among vegetarians. Purist vegetarians, known as vegans, reject all foods that are derived from animals, including dairy products such as eggs, milk, cheese, and butter. Other vegetarians abstain only from foods whose production involves the destruction of living animals. Moderate practitioners allow themselves to eat foods that can be obtained without what they believe to be unnecessary suffering or pain, for example, net-caught fish. Most vegetarians, preferring food in its most natural state, oppose the use of both agricultural chemicals and of food processing or canning.
“Vegetarianism,” Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.