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The Fitties Blog

Pythagoras + Vegetables: The History of the Vegetarian Diet

April 04, 2023 | Supplements and Nutrition

What do vegetables and Pythagoras have in common?  No, this isn’t the start of a ‘dad joke’. It’s in fact, a legitimate connection between two seemingly unrelated things. Here’s the ‘punchline’: they both became part of a movement. That’s right, vegetables were incorporated into what was originally called a ‘Pythagorean diet’, which was a totally meatless way of eating.

While best known for his mathematical theorem, Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher was apparently also, the founding father of a modern vegetarian diet. Pythagoras and his vegetarian followers practiced a meat-free lifestyle due to religious, moral and ethical reasons, believing that all living things had souls thus rendering animals off-limits at the table. He also believed beans to be in the same category and they therefore too, were considered a big no-no on a plate. 

Vegetarianism has, in all likelihood, been around far longer than ancient Greek times, before Pythagoras and his theorem, way, way back.  Vegetarianism isn’t relegated either, to Pythagoras followers and spans across the globe throughout several cultures. Many anthropologists have come to the consensus that early humans were probably originally vegetarians and maybe out of simplicity and the greater ease with which vegetables could be gathered. It’s easier to pick veggies than it is to hunt an animal because, well, vegetables stay put. In any event, the fact remains, our ancestors were quite probably vegetarians. 

Pythagoras’ followers and fellow vegetarians continued to live the lifestyle he had established, though, after his death they included beans on their menu.  This paved the way into the mid to late 1800s where a group of people with the same beliefs and principles, founded the Vegetarian Society in England. You see, a vegetarian diet was thought to promote a sense of self-control and temperance, both virtues that were believed to be lacking in those who regularly consumed a carnivorous diet.

This was the status quo and continued to be so until vegetarianism moved into modern American life in the 1960s when it gathered steam.  Many people who began indulging in vegetarianism, did so for moral and ethical reasons; animal rights issues and the treatment of animals.  Now, while the definition of vegetarianism is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “a the theory or practice of living on a vegetarian diet”, further defined as a diet “not containing meat: consisting wholly of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and sometimes eggs or dairy products”, the application and practice of the lifestyle is less well defined. 

There are many subcategories that fall under the heading “vegetarian”. There are those people who call themselves ovolactarians (also known as lacto-ovo vegetarians) which means that they include eggs and dairy products in their diet, but refrain from eating meat or meat derived products. Lactarians abstain from the consumption of eggs and meat or meat derived products, but will consume dairy as part of their diet.  There is also a relatively newer subcategory that’s made its way into a mainstream vegetarian diet and it consists of people who consume fish and still consider themselves to be vegetarian. They are called pescatarian. Lastly, vegans are one of the most stringent subcategories within the vegetarian lifestyle movement rejecting the consumption or use of any and all animal based or derived products, including the toiletries they use and even the clothing they wear. 

People often ask, “why become a vegetarian?”. This is something very personal and dependent upon the individual who chooses to partake in the lifestyle.  Perhaps for some it’s for religious reasons and for others it could be a set of principles they hold fast to. There are those as well who adopt the diet purely for the health benefits. According to an article on the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing website, “approximately six to eight million adults in the United States eat no meat, fish or poultry [and] (…) about two million are vegans”.

There has been a general shift in society, particularly as far as the studies and research goes, where vegetarianism is concerned. This shift has seen a change in the focus of research, in that, traditionally, studies homed in on all the ways in which a vegetarian diet was insufficient in nutrients and minerals.  Now, research is emerging that touts the health benefits of adopting a plant-based lifestyle as they have purportedly found that vegetarian diets nutritionally sound and additionally, they can potentially help reduce the risk of the development of chronic illnesses.

Not only is it suggested that a plant-based lifestyle seems to be healthier all-around, it could also help to bring the rising cost of healthcare down, by aiding in the prevention of certain diseases. A healthy plant-based diet has the goal of increasing nutrient intake, which means, maximizing nutrient dense, non-animal food products, whilst simultaneously reducing the intake of processed foods and fats. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet lies in planning.  Yes, a vegetarian diet needs to be well-planned in order for the vegetarian to reap the benefits.  Technically speaking, soda, French fries and candy can all be ‘vegetarian’, but they aren’t going to provide anything of nutritive value. You’ll probably get very sick on a diet based off of foods like that, so planning a plant-based diet rich in nutrients and high in fiber, is going to take effort a first. 

Is it worth it?

That depends, again, on your personal stance on many issues and the reason for wanting to adopt a meat-free lifestyle.  There are studies which suggest that eliminating meat from a diet makes for a healthier individual regardless of the way it is measured (often this is done by looking at the statistics surrounding incidence of heart disease, cancer and death). It’s believed that a predominance of plant foods in a diet is largely a contributing factor in the increased health that studies seem to find in vegetarian diets. While still a topic of debate, the effect that plant-based diets seem to have on mortality rate is controversial, though some large-scale epidemiological studies demonstrate links between a vegetarian diet and all-cause mortality and cardiovascular diseases, other studies on the other hand show no such correlation.  This doesn’t negate the general interventional and epidemiological studies findings in the last ten years or so, many of which suggest plant-based eating leads to overall health benefits in relation to obesity related illnesses, type 2 diabetes and chronic inflammation.

Is it 100% accurate to say meat-based diets are inherently unhealthy?

In recent years, studies suggesting the consumption of red meat has seen an increased risk of dying prematurely, go up by about 13%, while consuming an extra serving daily, of processed meats, increased that risk by 20%, have come out. They’ve given us pause for thought. Are they accurate?  Even more recently, a Japanese study that was conducted with some 51,000 participants who were followed for 16 years, found no connection between the moderate consumption of meat (no more than 3 oz per day) and premature death. So, what gives? The numbers. Thank you, Pythagoras, but no need for your theorem here.  When you put the numbers into perspective you need to look at the relative risks against the absolute risks, before deciding whether or not you feel a meat free diet is healthier. The increased risk of premature death may lie in the saturated fat and cholesterol content, as well as the potential for the formation of cancer-causing compounds to be consumed after cooking meats at high temperatures, rather than the meat itself being inherently unhealthy. It could be, the method of cooking that contributes largely to the unhealthy ‘sticker’ meat has be slapped with lately and this would make sense with American lifestyle being a global magnate of sorts, for processed and convenience foods.

As mentioned before, just because a diet is free of meat, doesn’t make it healthy. Just as you would want to avoid processed meats and unhealthy fats and cooking methods, you need to apply those same standards to plant-based foods. It can be easy to turn a vegetarian diet into one that’s not as healthful as it could or should be, by consuming too many processed carbs, breads and convenience foods.  An easy way to avoid over-consumption of nutrient deficient, overly processed plant-based foods, is to prepare it from scratch. Opting for fresh ingredients over those that are easy, will always prove to be a healthy choice. 

Whether for cost-effective, low-risk medical interventions, or for moral, ethical or religious reasons, opting for a vegetarian diet has its benefits. After all, our ancestors (yes, while primitive) somehow managed to adapt to this way of life, even if for the sake of ease and convenience to start. A broad link between primitive humans and us? Maybe, but the modern-day data is out there and it suggests that our ever-increasing access to unhealthy processed meat-based foods is driving up the risks of development of chronic and preventable diseases.  If we can reduce those risks by adjusting what we consume, why not? After all, Pythagoras ate his greens, so naturally, we’ll assume there must be something to this whole ‘eat your veggies’ thing.

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