Millions of people throughout the world live on a vegetarian diet for ethical, economic or religious reasons and many argue that it has many important health benefits, as vegetarian food tends to be low in saturated fat and high in dietary fibre.
Grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits form the basis of a vegetarian diet. Most advocates eat both dairy products and eggs but others would prefer not to have anything that has been produced by an animal, while fruitarians believe only plant foods that can be harvested without killing the plant should be eaten.
Many foods that appear suitable for a vegetarian diet such as sweets and ice cream contain ingredients derived from animal products. Gelatine, for example, is made by boiling animal ligaments, tendons and bones and is present in such innocent treats as ice cream and, of course, jelly. Animal fats such as suet and lard are present in a wide range of foods, including biscuits, cakes, and margarines. Cheese is usually made with rennet that has been taken from the stomach lining of calves (a suitable alternative is made using a microbial source) while some food additives (E numbers) may originally have been derived from animal products.
Research studies suggest that people who severely restrict the amount of animals products they eat are less likely to be obese compared to the meat-eating population and experience a lower incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer. However, non-meat eaters are at greater risk of suffering from iron deficiency as the best sources are from animals, in particular red meat, liver and egg yolk. The alternative plant sources include: dried beans, spinach, enriched products, brewer's yeast and dried fruits.
There is evidence that more people are deliberately reducing the amount of meat they eat. In the last quarter of a century in the UK the consumption of animal products has fallen 25% and this appears to be trend that will continue.