Today, 1 October, is World Vegetarian Day and the first day of Vegetarian Awareness Month, during which vegetarians aim to raise awareness about their life style choices in an attempt to persuade people to eat a meat-free diet for 30 days, and to directly experience the benefits of being a vegetarian. But what is vegetarianism exactly?
Many people have a somewhat superficial understanding of the term vegetarian, believing that it means simply someone who doesn’t eat meat, including red meat, poultry, fish, crustacean, and shellfish; however, some vegetarians would probably be offended by such a sweeping definition.
If you invite a vegetarian round for dinner, you need to make sure you understand if he/she is: (according to the Vegetarian Society definitions) lacto-vegetarian, (a person who eats dairy products but not eggs), or ovo-lacto vegetarian (eggs and dairy products acceptable), or vegan, (those who follow a diet which excludes all animal products, dairy products, eggs and honey included).
So why would anyone chose to become vegetarian? Why consciously choose to exclude all these (often tasty) food types from one’s diet? Well, there are several good reasons to give-up a meat-based diet. Natural approaches to well being, food safety and environmental concerns, weight loss and weight maintenance, and animal welfare are some of the many reasons highlighted by vegetarians to explain their life style choice.
With the demand for meat continuously increasing as nations become wealthier, adopting a vegetarian diet, according to some experts, is not only good for peoples’ health but also for the planet due to the enormous amounts of energy that has been consumed to produce meats which also generates significant greenhouse gases.
Some experts claim that vegetarians and vegans may live up to 10 years longer than meat eaters, although this argument is still up for debate. Some of the positive arguments are however scientifically proven, such as a significant reduction of toxins and a decline in the risk of food poisoning and cardiovascular diseases. Also, following a meat-free diet increases the consumption of fiber, vitamins and mineral salts and antioxidants, all of which are important components for a healthy diet. However, other experts warn against the deficiencies that a rigid vegan diet could cause by eliminating proteins and essential amino acids.
In Egypt, vegetarianism is not a widespread phenomenon. Tarek, a 30-year-old semi-vegetarian, says, “The idea of eating less meat for health reasons is not very popular here in Egypt.” He goes on to explain, “It’s rare to find anyone in the media here advising people to be vegetarian for the sake of their health. My cousin is vegetarian, and my parents rarely find themselves craving meat or chicken, but none of them are like this for health reasons. They just don’t like eating meat.”
Hend, a 21 year-old student at the American University in Cairo, remains doubtful that vegetarianism will become a widespread phenomenon in Egypt or the Arab world; “We don’t really care about vegetarianism, it is a new culture, which asks people to pay attention to what they eat. I always assumed that this kind of diet was only for old people! Now, sure I realize eating vegetables is vital for our health. However I’m not vegetarian,” she adds with a chuckle.
Norhan, a 23-year-old, doesn’t know a great deal about World Vegetarian day, and is not vegetarian herself. “I think being vegetarian is healthy, and I wouldn’t mind my children following a meat-free diet. To me vegetarianism means not eating meat or fish, or eating them only rarely, but I’m not particularly informed about this topic.”
If vegetarianism is going to become more widespread there seems to be a consensus on the need to raise awareness about the concept and its benefits.World Vegetarian Day was introduced by the North American Vegetarian society (NAVS) in 1977, and was endorsed by the International Vegetarian Union the following year.