Here we define some key components of vegetarianism and veganism, and then discuss some of the common reasons individuals choose these lifestyles. I recommend additional reading and exploration, as this is intended to be an overview, and opinions vary on some items.
Definitions of Veganism and Vegetarianism
Individuals who have adopted an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet (what’s often meant when someone simply says “vegetarian”) enjoy a vast array of foods except for body parts of formerly living creatures–animal flesh of any kind or gelatin (derived from bone). They still consume eggs and animal milk products. Because milk and eggs are not plant-based, the term “vegetarian” can be confusing.
While eliminating or even greatly reducing flesh consumption is a big step, the process of taking other products from animals also has a range of negative environmental, economic, public health, and animal rights (including human rights) impacts. Individuals who practice a strict or total vegetarian diet, often called a vegan diet, also choose to avoid animal-derived products including milk and eggs.*
Some who have adopted a vegan diet also avoid use of honey and certain brands of processed white sugar, the latter of which is sometimes strained through charred animal bone. Thus, our waffle party recipes utilize sweeteners such as raw sugar, blackstrap molasses, bananas, and agave nectar.
Veganism in its purest form includes a conscientious effort to eliminate products linked to animal consumption and cruelty in all areas of one’s life, not just those encompassing food.
Because we’ve drastically reduced our consumption of animal products, but no longer consistently strive to eliminate them completely, we simply refer to ourselves as conscious consumers. It’s all part of an ongoing process, and labels don’t always fit neatly.
Why Move to a More Plant-Based Lifestyle?
We changed our lifestyles after discovering information that we had previously never encountered, or had chosen to ignore. It includes research on public health and nutrition, a range of environmental concerns, economics and human rights, and rights of other animals. (See links below.)
These are just a few questions that motivated my own behavioral changes:
-Developing the ability to process and consume high-calorie, animal-based food sources, via using our intelligence to design hunting tools and cook, may have helped humans to survive a broader range of settings. However, a range of public health data (see resources below) suggests that our bodies are far from being fully evolved to accommodate the eating habits that most of us practice today. Have we gone overboard with our consumption of animal products?
-If we are indeed intended to drink milk regularly through adulthood, why don’t our mothers continue to lactate until we’re fully grown? Why are so many adults lactose intolerant? And, is the same food that’s consumed at the ultra-high growth rate infancy phase also sensible for an adult – let alone an adult of a separate species?*
The questions above are merely intended to provoke thought. Anyone interested in such a lifestyle change must ultimately do their own homework, but I suggest a few links and events as a starting point:
- The China Study, the largest human nutrition study ever conducted, provokes thinking about the impact of funding sources and politics upon nutritional research results and food guidelines. The film Forks Over Knives cites much of this research as well.
- Logical Environmental Reasoning for a Vegetarian Lifestyle, by Timothy B. Rutherford (Lierre Keith’s Vegetarian Myth, despite some flaws, offers some thought-provoking counterarguments to this)
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, information on the protein myth
- Cleveland Clinic Foundation cardiologist Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., MD, research on preventing heart attacks
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, information on vegetarian and vegan diets
- Farm Sanctuary and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, information on animal agriculture
- HumaneMyth.org, questioning how often animal products are really humane
- Brenda Davis, how to avoid common nutritional stumbling blocks when transitioning to vegetarianism or veganism. Dina Aronson, George Eisman, and Vesanto Melina are also vegans with formal training in diet and/or nutrition.
- ChooseVeg.com information on making the switch
- Godairyfree.org information source on dairy-free living
- “The Meatrix” (Educational cartoon on factory farming, environmental and public health impacts, and animal rights issues)
- “Meat Your Meat” (Video focused primarily on animal rights issues)
- Article on how concentrated animal farming adds to the threat of species jumping viruses
- If you’re in the U.S., the North American Vegetarian Society’s annual Summerfest (in Johnstown, PA for the last few years) draws experts from the fields of medicine, environmental issues, public health, philosophy and ethics, nutrition, psychology, spirituality, and others.
Even in light of compelling information, the pressure to maintain the status quo can be great, as eating is at the core of many social rituals. Exchanging food is how we often express love and friendship. So when we attempt to alter current societal norms in this area, it’s easy for others to misinterpret it as a rejection of their affection or a judgment of them. Additionally, many “food myths” continue to circulate, such as the belief that obtaining adequate protein from plant-based sources is not possible. Those who care about us may thus react out of fear and concern that we will harm ourselves. My own deeply-ingrained opinions and attitudes certainly didn’t change overnight.
Granted, there are a range of other diet and lifestyle actions we can also take to benefit the world, e.g., purchasing local, organic, and fair trade versions of products whenever possible. Regardless, reduction of animal product consumption remains a significant action one can take toward creating a healthy, sustainable, and just world. Again, it’s not about being or appearing perfect, but about doing what we can as we increase our awareness.
* Many vegetarians actually increase their intake of milk and eggs when they cut out meat due to continued misunderstanding surrounding protein needs–I did this for a while. The irony here is that a number of studies show negative health implications linked to regular dairy consumption. Consider that humans are the only animal to continue consuming milk following the natural early childhood breastfeeding period, and that at least half of adults are lactose intolerant by some estimates.