Picture: Floret Forest by Carl Warner
Vegetarian: A person who eats only side dishes.
- Gerald Lieberman
That quote pretty much sums up most people's attitude towards vegetarians, and that's assuming they even acknowledge the existence of vegetarians. Most of us live in very meat-centric societies where the vegetables are arranged as sides (or worse yet, garnishes) to the large hunk of meat in the middle of the plate. At least in the U.S., the plant-based diet really gets the short shrift. Most everyone loves eating meat, and the societal mindset is that meat is an essential part of the daily diet. The tide is starting to change somewhat, but being vegetarian is still far from being mainstream.
I chose to become vegetarian midway through college. Why swim against the current when everyone else continued to eat meat? Though I really loved eating meat back then, two things inspired me to try going vegetarian. First my mom did it, so I thought I'd try it too. Also, I was a little chunky at the time, and I perceived going vegetarian to be a good way to drop the weight. I didn't start off with noble causes. I have to admit I went vegetarian largely for vanity.
Despite my selfish initial reasons, becoming vegetarian was one of the best choices I've made in life. It wasn't an easy choice since I was pretty addicted to meat and was surrounded by avid meat eaters, but then life isn't supposed to be easy. Initially, I just gave up beef. Then I cut back to having chicken only 1-2 times a week. When I finally gave up chicken, I slowly cut back on eggs. Little by little, I've been cutting as many animal products out of my diet as practical (I still eat yogurt and a little cheese). During my vegetarian transformation, I noticed that my weight indeed dropped significantly and I felt a lot healthier.
Nowadays, I continue living a vegetarian lifestyle. My reasons have become more complex (though vanity is still one of them) as I have learned about the health, environmental, ethical and moral aspects of vegetarianism. I try not to proselytize to my meat eating family, friends, and acquaintances even though many of them keep trying to convince me to eat meat and sometimes lecture me on how I am nutritionally deficient. Admittedly, much of it is in jest, but I worry about the ones who honestly believe I'm committed to an unhealthy, un-American, and unnatural lifestyle. In an attempt to purge misconceptions and explain why I'm vegetarian, I put my spin on the arguments for eschewing meat and animal products.
Health & Nutrition
The beef industry has contributed to more American deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters, and all automobile accidents combined. If beef is your idea of "real food for real people" you'd better live real close to a real good hospital. -Neal Barnard
McDonalds announced it’s considering a more humane way of slaughtering its animals. You know they fatten them up and then kill them. You know the same thing they do to their customers, isn’t it? - Jay Leno
Despite what many people have been misled into believing, you can readily get all the nutrients you need from a plant-based diet. Meat has a higher density of nutrients which makes it easier to get your complete nutritional needs from meat, but eating vegetarian is by no means difficult. You just have to make sure to eat a well-planned and sufficiently varied diet to ensure you get all the essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. The average vegetarian gets nearly twice as much protein in their diet than is necessary to thrive. God only knows how much excess protein the average meat eater is getting. A full discussion of nutrition of vegetarian nutrition is well beyond the scope of this blog post, so I'll just link a few informative sites.
Studies have shown that diets high in meat lead to higher incidences of cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease. Vegetarians (the ones who know how to eat properly anyhow) usually live longer, healthier lives and get sick less often. A meat-centric diet, particularly when rich with high saturated fat red meat, doesn't do the body good.
Then there's the issue of eating low on the food chain for cleaner food. If you were awake in biology 101 (I don't blame you if you weren't. I thought it was a little dull myself and I majored in bio), you know that environmental pollutants concentrate the higher up on the food chain you eat. In today's world, there's a lot of environmental pollution to concentrate in those meat products. A good example of this would be mercury in fish. Also, most livestock is fed lots of corn laden with pesticides. Meat eaters would be well advised to at least consider eating higher quality meats (grass fed beef, organic and antibiotic free livestock, etc).
Also, consider this: meat actually rots in your intestines before it's digested. While we humans (I hope we're all human) are omnivores and can eat meat, it doesn't necessarily mean we should. Our digestive tracts are better optimized for a plant based diet. I'll make some concessions to this line of reasoning for people who do extremely physically demanding things where the nutrient dense meat makes more sense, like with hardcore bodybuilders or people that do consistently do very strenuous physical labor. However, the vast majority of people can't justify a meat-centric diet based on their level of physical activity. Bill Pearl (former Mr. Universe) and Carl Lewis (U.S. Olympic multiple gold medalist) were both elite athletes and both vegetarian. Most meat eaters (despite what their egos might tell them) come no where close to the same level of physical activity as a competitive athlete.
Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet. - Albert Einstein
Meat production has huge environmental impacts. It takes a lot of resources and results in significant environmental pollution. Most of the agriculture in the U.S. is actually devoted to growing corn, soy, and other grains as livestock feed. Those crops require a lot of fertilizer and pesticides, both of which are usually synthesized from petroleum. Large amounts of water are required to grow the crops, which is particularly appalling in a time when large portions of the country have water shortages. Then the fertilizers and pesticides used on the crops run off into our water supply, polluting our limited pool of potable water. And that's just the consequences of the feed production.
Industrialized meat production typically involves packing the largest number of animals into as small amount of space as possible. Just think of how much excrement you produce and how pleasant your sh... ahem... waste products are. Multiply that up by several thousand animals in a factory farm, and consider that large animals like cattle will outpoop a human by quite a bit. It's no surprise that concentrated livestock growing results in large lagoons of excrement which really stink and are rather unpopular with communities living nearby. With that much waste from animals fed pesticide laden feed and doped up on antibiotics, it's nearly impossible to prevent leeching of unwanted chemicals in the environment and the water supply. Add to the fact that the waste lagoons are often not sufficiently well managed, and you get unpleasantries such as waste runoffs during heavy rains. I don't know about you, but streams of poo flowing through the environment around my community doesn't seem like a particularly good thing.
Remember those antibiotics I mentioned a few sentences ago? Because the livestock animals are packed in unnaturally cramped and unsanitary quarters, they have to be pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from dying off from disease. Basic genetics and microbiology tells us that high antibiotic levels will favor bacteria resistant to the antibiotics. You may have heard of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the news. You can thank antibiotic pollution from factory farming for contributing to that problem.
To make matters worse, the issues I just described are just considering the domestic problems with factory farming. We have quite an appetite for meat in this country, and cheap meat at that. Consequently, we have to import meat from other (poorer) countries. That's wasted oil shipping livestock from other countries. Even more disturbing is that in order to grow cattle overseas, rainforests are often cut down for farmland to grow the grain necessary to feed the cattle. Cheap beef for the U.S. comes at the cost of rainforest destruction.
You'd think from the number of times I've heard "what can you eat?" that meat is the only food in the world. The truth of the matter is that the culinary possibilities with a vegetarian diet are far more varied than a meat-based diet. Meat has a pretty distinct and strong flavor, which precludes a lot of culinary possibilities simply because the meat flavor would overpower everything else in the dish. If you need to ask what a vegetarian eats, just check out Michael Bluejay's website for a small sampling of what a vegetarian eats. It's not that vegetarians are eating a limited and unnatural diet. More likely, it's meat-centric thinking that is skewing people's views and limiting their perception of all the culinary possibilities.
Vociferous defenders of carnivorous eating often argue that eating meat is natural and that meat is really tasty. Neither of those statements has any inherent truth; eating meat is both an acquired behavior and taste. Poet Douglas Dunn once humorously said if you give a child an apple and a chicken, he would naturally play with the chicken and eat the apple--while a cat, presented with the same choices, would eat the chicken and play with the apple. I've known plenty of people who haven't liked certain types of meat. There is no intrinsic quality of meat that makes it any tastier than any other food. It's all meat industry propaganda and social conditioning that makes the taste for meat so prevalent.
Ethical & Moral
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. - Gandhi
The eating of meat is not particularly ethical by most standards. It's pretty rare for someone to starve to death (especially in the developed world) from not eating meat. But people do starve to death every day all over the world. Malnutrition and lack of food is still an unsolved issue in the developing world, and eating meat doesn't help matters. The grain used for livestock feed could feed up to 5 times as many people as the meat produced from the livestock. With cattle, it can take 16 pounds of grain protein to generate 1 pound of beef protein. Growing meat to feed people has a really poor nutritional efficiency. Compounding matters is that grain grown in other countries is often used for or exported as livestock feed instead of being used to feed the poor and malnutritioned locals.
Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds theirs. -Leonardo da Vinci
Then there's the whole issue of animal suffering. Factory farmed animals just don't live pleasant lives. From birth to death, factory farmed animals are brutally mistreated. The list of atrocities is far too long to list, but I'll just give a few examples. Chickens have their beaks cauterized (while fully conscious and unanesthetized) so that they can't peck at each other while being jammed into overcrowded cages. Quite a few of them die from the traumatic shock of the process. Animals farmed for meat are usually slaughtered in pretty gruesome ways. Chickens are hung upside down (often still conscious) and mass killed with a spinning saw blade. Cows are killed by having electrodes shot into their brains or are tasered (electrically incapacitated) to have their throats slit. The measures taken to knock them out don't always work, so they are often conscious while they are being killed and skinned.
You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Fewer people would eat meat so enthusiastically if they were to witness the horrors of a slaughterhouse. I'll wager that most people would even get queasy with the thought of a "humanely" butchered animal. There's a fundamental disconnect of people from their food. People have no understanding of where their food comes from and absolutely no respect for the sacrifice of a living thing to provide that meat entree on their plates.
Then there's the human cost to the meat industry. Meat packing is one of the nation's most dangerous yet lowest paid jobs. Combine fast production lines, lots of sharp objects, numerous power tools, heavy livestock carcasses, and lots of low paid illegal immigrant workers crammed into close working quarters, and you've got conditions ripe for a multitude of accidents and injuries. Of course, because of the high percentage of illegal immigrants in the meat-packing workforce, there is little to no political voice to spur any real change.
Spiritual & Religious
The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion. -Buddha
I don't claim to be a devout Buddhist, but I do firmly believe in respecting all living things. Eating meat when it is largely unnecessary goes against my deeply rooted personal beliefs. A meat-centric diet causes a great deal of environmental and social harm, and results in unnecessary suffering for man and animal alike. Continuing to eat meat without need in light of that knowledge can only arise from selfish desires and flawed rationalizations.
Living in a predominantly Christian nation, it's not unusual for me to hear the argument that God gave man dominion over animals as justification for eating meat: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:28). How this is supposed to rationalize eating meat baffles me. The only thing that passage tells me is that God made man stewards of the Earth. Jesus preached a message of love and compassion. There's nothing compassionate about factory farming. Eating meat causes significant human suffering, adds to world hunger problems, and shows no love for your fellow man. Finally, factory farming is bad for the environment; it essentially defiles the very creation man was commanded to oversee.
Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight. ... Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering. -Rev. Andrew Linzey
Lastly, there are economic reasons for being vegetarian. It's usually pretty cheap to eat as a vegetarian. A lot of meat eaters I run into usually disagree with that assessment, and to be fair, they are partially correct. It is actually easier and cheaper to not be vegetarian in the U.S. But that requires buying lower quality meats and lots of rather unhealthy food items. So, I will qualify my statement a little more precisely: a proper well-planned diet is cheaper when it's largely vegetarian as opposed to meat heavy.
There's also the fact that meat in the U.S. is highly subsidized. The federal government gives enormous subsidies for growing corn (which is ultimately fed to livestock). As a result, the price of meat is artificially lower than it should be. Taxes are the only reason meat-based diets are so affordable, and consequently why people are able to overindulge in animal products to the detriment of their own health. Furthermore, factory farming of meat largely gets a free pass on the vast amount of pollution it dumps into the environment. If companies were fined for their pollution of our waterways, the cost of meat would be vastly different. In essence, we're paying for meat directly in taxes and in indirect health and environmental costs.
So, there you have it. My long-winded and many faceted reasons for being vegetarian. I've spent a long time thinking about my reasons for being vegetarian and think I have researched them pretty carefully. I'm honestly not trying to proselytize, but it is a subject I feel strongly about, so it's difficult for me to totally eliminate the proselytizing tone. My goal was to simply present my personal reasons for being vegetarian and hopefully sparking some thoughtful reflection for anyone who cares to read my post.