Many millions of people have considered going vegetarian at some point in their life, and millions have. (Hundreds of millions including those who do so as part of their religion.) As climate change, fisheries collapse, desertification, and other crises become less ignorable, many of us will have to consider eating less meat, if not forgoing many animal products entirely.
In my experience, there are four reasons that people go veg:
- Personal Health
- Weight Loss
- Planetary Health
- Compassion for Animals
There is a fifth reason that may remove the choice for many: Economic. Meat and animal products may simply become too costly.
What is Vegetarian?
It used to mean no animal products whatsoever, but now vegetarian generally means no meat. There are lacto-vegetarians who eat dairy products but not eggs, lacto-ovo vegetarians (eggs and dairy), and even some wishful thinkers who call themselves pesco-vegetarians, meaning they consider fish a vegetable.
People who eat no animal products are now called vegan, and there are even sub-divisions here: Strict vegans eat no honey, don’t wear leather, and closely read labels to ensure no animal components like glycerine, which is commonly made from animal fat.
The various categories of veg*n (the common shorthand for all types of vegetarian and vegan) are, in my view, unimportant. Strict vegans will disagree, and this is why I am no longer a member of vegetarian groups; I had enough of militant vegans. I remember some who would not even sit at the same table as someone eating food containing dairy. Many of them celebrate their vegan ‘birthday,’ the day they went vegan, much like born-again Christians celebrating their ‘rebirth.’
An increasingly popular trend is raw food, which usually means uncooked plus vegan.
This was my initial reason for going vegan. About 15 years ago, when I was about 30, I had some mild health issues – chronic runny nose, upset stomach, not feeling great much of the time – and decided to look into changing my diet. I read two books and they convinced me; I went vegan. I lost 15 pounds very quickly – which I did not need to lose. I was 5’11″ and 165 pounds (180 cm/75 kg) and dropped to 150 pounds (68 kg); pretty skinny.
Much of that was due to the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing and don’t like preparing food, so I wasn’t eating much and what I did eat was low-calorie compared to my previous, meat-based diet. There are a lot more calories in a cheeseburger than in brown rice and veggies. I also cut out all junk food: no snack foods like chips or chocolate bars.
Over time, I figured out what to eat and how to make it, and gained the weight back; 75 kg seems to be my ‘design weight’ if I am eating properly. I feel healthiest and look reasonable, although still get comments that I am “too thin” and look unhealthy. I am now a slightly portly 190 pounds (85 kg) and not happy about that. Part of that is due to less exercise, part to eating junk food again (I still don’t like preparing food), and part to adding high-calorie foods like dairy and eggs back into my diet. I also stopped eating five-to-six small meals each day and went back to three large meals, and starting drinking alcohol.
People with certain health conditions sometimes drop animal products on the advice of their doctor. Dr. Dean Ornish has made a solid reputation by helping people with diabetes and cancer get better by going vegan, as has Dr. Neal Barnard. A big part of this, I am sure, is eliminating sugary junk foods containing all manner of artificial additives.
If this is your only reason, it is a bad reason to go veg, but common among teenage girls who are worried about their weight. Because their primary concern is weight loss, not health, they often eat very poorly and are not particularly healthy. The same could be said about people on the Atkins diet or many other unbalanced diets.
Not much doubt here: eating meat has a far greater impact on the Earth – especially the way we raise meat. Feedlots are environmental disasters, and cutting down the rainforest to grow soy for cattle feed is just stupid. It is much more efficient to grow plants and feed them directly to people than to feed the plants to animals that we then eat. Of course, we have managed to turn even that upside down by doing things like flying apples from New Zealand to Canada – and they are the same price as locally-grown. (Subsidies, anyone?)
In theory, raising animals could be climate neutral, as they graze and poop in fields, but in practice that is not the way we do things. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that 18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock – more than the entire transportation sector. A more recent, but not yet peer-reviewed study, claims the amount is 51%! Whatever the amount, it is large and causing a problem – and global. American feedlots and Brazilian farmers clearcutting rainforest both contribute.
This problem is only going to get worse as both developing and developed countries continue to up their consumption of animal products. As I did more research about climate, this has become my primary reason for remaining vegetarian. Choices about what we eat may soon be taken out of our hands by reality. To seriously address climate change, we simply cannot eat as much meat as we have. There is not enough planet to feed all the animals we want to eat.
Compassion for Animals
Many people ultimately stop eating animals because they feel compassion for them – especially in the conditions we currently subject animals to. While I do think that animals should be raised and treated humanely, this reason has never captured me – although I do not disparage it. Humans have been eating animals forever, and in the past becoming vegetarian would have been suicide. Without refrigeration and food preservation techniques, a cow on the hoof was food in the bank, and certainly necessary in areas with cold winters.
Today’s compassionate veg*ns choose not to eat meat because today we can, so they argue why keep and kill animals if not necessary? It’s a fair point, and I certainly don’t want to harm animals, but this is not my reason and I do not judge those who eat animals…provided those animals have been raised in humane conditions. Unfortunately, free-range, organic, hormone and antibiotic-free animal products are quite expensive and rare.
Future Reason to Go Veg: Economic
Meat and dairy farmers are very heavily subsidised, and the time may be coming that we simply can no longer afford these subsidies. As the economy continues to decline, so do government revenues and the ability to subsidise everyone from farmers to banksters, and I’m betting that farm subsidies will be cut before the banksters take a pay cut. Power before peasants. This will raise the price of animal products significantly, resulting in decreased consumption.
If you’re considering whether you should reduce your intake of animal products, or even thinking about going all-veg in some way, the books below were very helpful for me. Some are a little strident, like Diet for a New America, for example, but it is solidly backed by science – and common sense. As the author points out, if drinking milk is the cure for osteoporosis, why is the incidence so high in countries where the most milk is consumed and low in other places?
I would start with Diet for a New America and then move on to The Food Revolution by Robbins and the previously mentioned Dr. Dean Ornish, who has solid credentials and a well-established reputation for saving people with serious health problems like diabetes and cancer. A cookbook or two are also a good idea, so you don’t do what I did and eat nothing but brown rice and broccoli for the first few weeks. I would also highly recommend going to local vegetarian potlucks; you’ll experience some delicious veggie food and get great ideas for your own meals.
The China Study is a damning indictment of our current industrial food production techniques, and is based on a large and scientifically valid study. It “…conclusively demonstrates the link between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.” The cookbook shown is one of my favourites. There are no fancy photos, which would be nice, but most of the recipes I have tried have been great. Burnin’ Butt Burritos are a family favourite – and I’m the only vegetarian. So are the Creamy Curried Veggies.
Finally, don’t worry about what type of vegetarian you are, or even if you are. Vegetarianism has become a religion for some. Simply reducing your meat consumption will improve your health, reduce your impact on the planet, and save many animals a life of misery.