More about vegetarianism

Veggie burgers taste like sawdust!

How many times have you heard something like this at a barbeque, restaurant or just in general? I have been a vegetarian since I was 12, and usually the first thing I’m asked when someone finds out I’m a vegetarian is “why?” I find this interesting because I have never in my life asked someone “why” they eat meat—but maybe I should start! How many people base their food choices on what they are familiar with, what is easy and what is common? It’s time we start taking a closer look at why we eat what we eat. ​
Although vegetarianism is becoming more common these days, over 90% of Americans still consume meat, and the United States tops the world in the amount of meat eaten at over 222 pounds per person per year! Also to clarify, in this article, vegetarian simply means no meat–and yes that includes fish because fish is an animal (I’ve never seen a plant that grows fish.) Vegans do not eat any animal products including dairy and eggs, and there are other plant-based diets, where meals are based on primarily plant sources with various sources of protein. Here, I am going to focus on vegetarianism because it’s what I’m familiar with.

Cultural and traditional values aside, the strongest driver of meat consumption is household income. For example, in the last 30 years China’s consumption of meat has quadrupled as household incomes have risen. If incomes rise worldwide, so will the ability to consume meat which will have even more profound effects on the environment. Let’s look at some of the issues related to eating meat, especially in the United States.

Health Effects

What about protein?

is the most common question I get asked about a vegetarian diet. Let’s look at the facts— American men eat on average about 100g/day—almost twice the recommended daily allowance (46 g/day for women, 56 g/day for men). In fact in 2016, for the first time federal guidelines stated that teenage boys and men should reduce protein consumption from all sources, despite these guidelines being influenced by the meat, egg and dairy industries. Even athletes can thrive on vegetarian diets—Venus Williams is actually a vegan for health reasons, and she is quite the elite athlete! And so is Fauja Singh, the 108 year-old who was running marathons until 102! is the most common question I get asked about a vegetarian diet. Let’s look at the facts— American men eat on average about 100g/day—almost twice the recommended daily allowance (46 g/day for women, 56 g/day for men). In fact in 2016, for the first time federal guidelines stated that teenage boys and men should reduce protein consumption from all sources, despite these guidelines being influenced by the meat, egg and dairy industries. Even athletes can thrive on vegetarian diets—Venus Williams is actually a vegan for health reasons, and she is quite the elite athlete! And so is Fauja Singh, the 108 year-old who was running marathons until 102!
Vegetarian and vegan diets can provide complete protein (including all the amino acids) by mixing protein sources—such as combining tofu, nuts, lentils, beans and certain vegetables. Vegetarians who eat dairy can also use cheese and yogurt which are protein-packed. See below for links to foods that are high in protein.

Obesity:

There is no question that Americans consume too many calories in general. Over one third of American adults are obese, and life expectancy is shortened by 3 years in moderate obesity and 10 years in severe obesity. These increased deaths are due largely to heart disease, strokes and cancer. 1 in 3 heart and attack and stroke deaths and 1 in 12 cancer deaths in the US are due to being overweight or obese. Given that most healthy Americans get far more protein than necessary, and that meat also contains high amounts of fat, cholesterol and salt, which are also detrimental to health, switching out meat for plant-based foods could help millions of Americans live longer and in better health.

Other nutrients:

Vitamin B12 is necessary for red blood cell production and is mostly found in meat and dairy. Many cereals and milk alternatives are fortified with this, and vegans should pay special attention to this vitamin. Interesting fact, all B12, including animal sources and supplements, comes from bacteria (ewww!). Iron is also needed for red blood cells, and good vegetarian sources include tofu, lentils, whole grains, leafy greens , nuts and—wait for it—dark chocolate! Iron from plants is better absorbed when eaten with Vitamin C (which can be found in tomatoes and citrus fruits), for example like in a spinach and orange salad.
It’s also important to note that many micronutrients and antioxidants can only be found in plants and is thought to be one of the factors in decreased cancer rates among vegetarians and vegans.
Now have I convinced you yet to be vegetarian? If not, let’s move on to our next issue which has been in the spotlight a lot lately—the environment!

The World is turning into an oven!

According to a lot of environmentalists, an environmental Armageddon is not far off if we continue with our current patterns, including eating and producing meat. Now jokes about cow farts aside, not eating meat is one of the single most effective ways we help the environment, and here’s why:
Globally, 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is due to cattle ranching. The rain forests are home to ) unknown numbers of plant and animal species, 20% of the world’s fresh water and store carbon dioxide which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Estimates are that this deforestation contributes to 10-15% of of global carbon dioxide emissions.
41% of land in the contiguous U.S. is used for feeding animals—this is land that is not used to farm food for people to eat. And despite federal recommendations for Americans to increase fruit and vegetables in their diets, billions of subsidies (our tax dollars) go towards animal-feed crops, while farmers who grow fruits and vegetables for people get very few subsidies. This artificially reduces the price of meat and dairy in a very anti-capitalistic way!
Raising livestock also uses up a lot of water—1kg of beef, or 8 hamburgers, uses 15,000 liters of water. Raising livestock also uses millions of pounds of pesticides and billions of pounds of nitrogen fertilizer which ends up in our land and water and as greenhouse gas emissions.
And finally, for those who think eating seafood doesn’t have an environmental impact, it does. Current fishing practices are damaging to marine animals like sharks, dolphins and sea turtles and causing extinction of some ocean species. Most fish is imported, and overfishing of the oceans takes food away from those who depend on it for survival. The Somali pirates started with fisherman who wanted to protect their waters from pollution and overfishing by foreigners—Who’s the captain now?

Cruelty to animals

This is obvious and also a moral argument, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it. The vast majority of animals are housed in crowded, unsanitary and inhumane conditions. Yes, some providers claim to “ethically source” meat but this is rare. And unless you are stranded on an island or have other limitations which prevent you from other food sources, there is no reason to unnecessarily kill animals. My guess is that if everyone had to hunt, kill and skin their own meat there would be a lot more vegetarians out there! It is interesting that we idolize our cats and dogs (myself included), yet think nothing of eating a chicken, cow, goat or lamb. Anyone who thinks these animals don’t have feelings or a right to live has not seen enough cute animal videos (see links to super cute animal videos!)

Okay, okay I’m almost done,

Well maybe I haven’t convinced you to be a vegetarian, but I hope I made you think about food choices a little bit more. Even making one day a week or one meal a day free of meat can have an impact, and a “flexetarian” diet is becoming even more popular. This is a plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat and may be a viable option for many a reader. And finally, for some easy to make and delicious meal ideas check out my recipe link (all tried, true and endorsement-free!)

Safe and healthy eating!

Land Use in the United States
(Merril 2018)

Scroll to top