a brief history of vegetarian and veganism

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VS-0009 Quinoa, avocado and spinach salad

National Vegetarian Week 2019 runs between 13-19 May and will highlight to the wider public the benefi ts and pleasures of a meat-free diet. Here, we trace the history of vegetarian and veganism.

For anyone thinking that vegetarianism in a new phenomenon, it may come as some surprise that eating a plant-based diet found favour with some of the great figures of the classical world.

We all recognise the name Pythagoras, the ancient Ionian Greek philosopher, from secondary school maths classes; although he was more well known for his contributions to mathematics, Pythagoras was an independent thinker, the first to admit women to his intellectual circle on equal terms and to argue that the world was a sphere. One of his other, less celebrated teachings, stated that animals should be treated as kindred and therefore abstained from eating meat. These theories mirrored, in part, the traditions of civilisations such as the Babylonians and ancient Egyptians. Certain religious groups, such as the ancient Egyptians, believed in karma and reincarnation and practised the ideology thateating animal flesh and the wearing of animal derived clothing was sacrilege.

Pythagoras, and the ancient Greeks, not only championed vegetarianism because of its avoidance of animal cruelty, but Pythagoras also identified health benefits. Other notable Ancient Greek that came after Pythagoras favoured a vegetarian diet. These included Theophrastus, pupil of Aristotle and successor to him as head of the Lyceum at Athens. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle himself.

Many religions have a philosophy where abstinence from meat is central. Hinduism, Brahinanism, Zoroasterianism and Jainism encouraged vegetarianism and is mentioned in ancient verses of the ‘Upanishads’ and also mentioned in ‘Rig Veda’ — the most sacred of ancient Hindu texts. Vegetarianism has always been central to Buddhism, which enshrines compassion to all living creatures. The Indian king Asoka converted to Buddhism having been shocked by the horrors of battle. On return, all animal sacrifices were ended as his kingdom became vegetarian.

Between the Middle Ages and modern times, the Renaissance period saw famine and disease where crops failed and food was short. Meat was largely a scarce and expensive luxury for the rich, so new food sources from Europe, such as potatoes, caulifl ower and maize were more abundant. The introduction of these new sources also had a benefi cial effect on health, helping to prevent such things as skin diseases which were then widespread.

Despite the writings of such luminaries as Italian Luigi Cornaro, (who after a hedonistic early life, turned to a primarily vegetarian diet after the age of 40, helping him live to the age of 100) Thomas More and Leonardo Da Vinci, all of whom wrote with some passion on the plight of animals; meat eating was still the most popular food source for all classes.

The mid-19th and early 20th Century, saw the largest growth in those practising a vegetarian diet. Sometimes born out of necessity than by design, advocates such as Reverend William Cowherd, who was one of the philosophical forerunners of the Vegetarian Society, promoted vegetarianism as a form of temperance.

In 1908, The International Vegetarian Union, a union of the national societies, was founded. Its focus on nutritional, ethical, and more recently, environmental and economic concerns helped vegetarianism become more conscientious and increased the numbers of those practising.

Throughout the early 20th century public health was generally poor with high infant mortality and widespread poverty. With World War II making resources limited the nation was asked to ‘Dig for Victory’. As communities lived off the land, a near vegetarian diet sustained the population and improved the nations health. At this time there were 100,000 vegetarians in the UK.


As the worlds population began to consider how the way we live our lives has an affect on the Earth, vegetarianism was promoted as part of the process of change. With recent Horsemeat and Bovine CJD scares the past twenty years has seen a major increas in those choosing a vegetarian diet. In 1989 a poll indicated that three per cent of the UK’s population was vegetarian. A more recent poll put it at 5.7 per cent. This means there are now over three million vegetarians in the UK today.


The term veganism was first coined by Donald Watson a former member of the Vegetarian Society and founder of the Vegan Society.

As a child, Watson spent time on his Uncle George’s farm. The slaughtering of a pig on the farm horrifi ed Watson; he said his view of farm life changed from idyllic to a death row for animals. Watson began to reassess his practice of eating meat. He became a vegetarian in 1924 at the age of fourteen, making a New Year’s resolution to never again eat meat. He gave up dairy products approximately 18 years later, having decided the production of milk-related products was also unethical.

Veganism describes the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, and rejects the commodity status of animals.

A well-planned vegan diet can contain all the nutrients that our bodies need. Some research has linked vegan diets with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

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