By Daniel Walters
For more than 17 million Americans, the phrase "you are what you don't eat" might be accurate.
A study showed that 6 percent of Americans don't eat meat, according to a 2003 Harris Interactive poll sponsored by the Vegetarian Resource Group. In 1978, on the other hand, a Department of Agriculture survey reported 1.2 percent of people nationwide claimed to be vegetarian. Clearly, vegetarianism is growing. For some social groups, vegetarianism has reached "chic" status.
"It's definitely trendy right now," says Erika Prins, '07. She decided to become a vegetarian while researching an article for the Opinions section of The Whitworthian.
A National Restaurant Association study indicated that almost 20 percent of college students call themselves vegetarians. And one in four teens considers vegetarianism to be "cool," according to Teenage Research Unlimited, a marketing- research firm employed by a diverse group of 200 clients.
This is partly because of positive media portrayals of vegetarians. Dozens of stars featured in People magazine – including Paul McCartney, Orlando Bloom and Kiefer Sutherland – are vegetarians. Lisa, the 8-year-old vegetarian on the The Simpsons, is one of the few characters on the show who is not portrayed as greedy or stupid. Such media portrayals can subtly inspire individuals to investigate the issue more.
"Most people who are willing to be educated about what happens to animals end up going the vegetarian route," says Julie (Watts) Striker, '03.
Are you going to eat that? Why not?
Revulsion toward violence against animals is a theme throughout the vegetarian movement. Books detailing the slaughterhouse culture have inspired people to become vegetarian. Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, details the grisly facts behind the meat- packing industry: the use of cheap immigrant labor, cruelty to animals and disregard for food safety. Instead of looking at a hamburger and drooling over the juicy meat, potential consumers think of the pedigree of the burger and find their stomachs churning.
"I saw a big brown-eyed cow," says Beezer Cocking, '03, describing a visit to the county fair. "And I had just eaten a cheeseburger, and I felt horrible."
Striker also had concerns about the quality of life of the animals raised for slaughter. She is horrified by tales of calves kept in boxes for veal and cows pumped with hormones for meat.
"They've never had grass under their feet and never had sky above their heads," Striker says.
Prins read about what she describes as "gross" conditions animals are kept in, along with the low wages and lack of benefits for workers in the industry. Ultimately, however, she focused on stewardship. Prins believes it's very important to use the earth's limited resources wisely. Meat requires an enormous amount of time and resources to raise, feed, transport, slaughter, prepare, preserve and ship.
"Americans consume twice as much protein as they need," Prins says. "With so many countries starving, this seems irresponsible. Instead, we should increase demand for healthy products that are created in a way that doesn't harm the environment or subjugate people."
Since Prins enjoys the taste of meat, her vegetarian diet can be an occasional struggle.
"Every now and again, I wish I could have a nice big turkey dinner," Striker says. "The taste of tofurkey just isn't the same." She prefers vegetables to meat substitutes.
For others, the taste of meat itself provides an impetus to stop eating it. "I don't like it. It's not that healthy. I'm done eating it," Cocking says.
Prins says that, blessedly, her craving for meat subsided after a few weeks of vegetarianism.
A Field Guide to Vegetarians
Even the term vegetarian itself is a fluid concept. Not all vegetarians are created equal. In fact, not all people who call themselves vegetarians completely abstain from meat-eating. Pollo-vegetarians eat chicken. Pesco-vegetarians have no problem with eating fish. Once a vegetarian has decided to refuse to eat meat, other decisions must be made. Do they allow themselves to eat products of animals, like milk, eggs and dairy products? Vegans abstain from all three. According to studies conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group, between one-half and one-third of vegetarians are vegans.
There are even those stricter than vegans. Vegetarians in the "raw-foodism" sub-group won't eat anything cooked above 118 degrees. Fruitarians eat only fruit, and sproutarians eat predominantly sprouts.
Such radical diets, however, can carry inherent risks.
Some vegetarians may fail to get the nutrients they need, like protein and B-12, according to the American Dietetic Association. Vegans are especially vulnerable to these deficiencies. A lack of protein can cause bad skin, brittle hair, a leaky gut and low energy. B-12 deficiency can cause a litany of problems, including numbness in the hands, depression, memory loss, imbalance, weakness and dementia.
If vegetarians plan their meals wisely however, they may even receive a number of additional nutritional benefits.
Acts of Nutrition
Luta Garbat-Welch, '02, a specialist at the Kentucky Department of Health, switched to becoming a pesco-pollo vegetarian as a junior in college after seeing a doctor about stomach problems. Her doctor recommended that she avoid red meat because of the body's difficulty digesting it.
"Red meat, for the most part, carries more hormones and antibiotics," Garbat-Welch says.
Antibiotics, she says, aren't selective — they kill the good bacteria along with the bad. Red meat can also lead to a candida albica overdose, a problem associated with acne, eczema, allergies and digestive problems, Garbat-Welch says.
Eliminating meat – a food often bulging with fat – can also be a powerful diet strategy. Cocking says she lost more than 30 pounds when she became a vegetarian.
"I don't like salad," Cocking says. "I like candy; that's about it."
That doesn't leave many options at the campus dining hall.
"I ate a lot of rice." Cocking adds.
Hinduism and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, along with some other religions, discourage eating meat. The founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen White, believed that the human body was God's temple and should not be abused. This meant no tobacco, no alcohol and no red meat.
Hindus, meanwhile, are committed to nonviolence. One book of Hindu scriptures, the Tirrukural says, "Even at the risk of your own self, refrain from acts that cause the harmless, pain of their lives." Since animals have been slaughtered in a state of fear, many Hindus feel that consuming the meat is wrong and performs himsa, or violence.
Some Christians have similar feelings about eating meat. Richelle Reid, '05, says that is Christians' duty to care for creation and not just take dominion over it.
"Meat for consumption doesn't really enter into the picture until [the story of] Noah in the book of Genesis, as part of what seems to be God's covenant with a fallen humanity." Reid says.
Though not a vegetarian, Reid tries to consume food and use products with a minimal impact on the environment. Reid points to organizations such as Restoring Eden, a group of Christians dedicated to protecting the environment.
"For me, it's about energy conservation, soil preservation, and protecting our air, water and land for future generations." Reid says.
She feels she has a spiritual impetus to preserve the earth.
"God's original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians," she says.
As a Christian, Striker says her faith inspires her to maintain a low impact on the environment. She doesn't use pesticides. And she doesn't eat meat.
"God created them as creatures," she says of animals; "not as machines to give us food."
Green with Trendy
In the past, vegetarians often met
with resistance to their food choices. Cocking grew up on a farm. When she became a vegetarian, her parents were less than thrilled.
"To this day my dad thinks I'm weird," Cocking says. "Whenever I'd get sick he'd say, 'What you need is a big ol' piece of meat.'"
Though Striker's parents are both vegetarians, few in her surrounding state were. Sometimes she felt she was the only vegetarian in North Dakota.
Cocking's Whitworth friends were amused by the revelation that she was a vegetarian. Since Cocking was bold, aggressive, played softball and threw the javelin, her vegetarianism surprised her friends.
"You look like you'd be a huge meat eater," her friends would say. "You'd eat a whole cow!"
Prins says some of her friends feel threatened or judged by her dietary choices. "My vegetarianism offends more people than anything else about me," Prins says.
When she explains the reasoning behind her vegetarianism, she believes others feel she's shoving her views down their throats.
In most cases, Striker says, debates between vegetarians and meat eaters tend to be light hearted and silly. Most of the arguments she hears against vegetarianism tend to be of the "If God didn't intend us to eat animals, then why are they made out of meat?" variety.
Some vegetarians try to avoid conflict by eating meat at social occasions or when they're in another country.
"I grew up in Africa, so I'm sensitive to cultural expectation," says Garbat-Welch. "Being hospitable is more important."
It's Easy Being Green
It's much easier to be a vegetarian today than it was 20 years ago, Garbat-Welch says.
"Today, there are more resources available to a vegetarian," Garbat-Welch says. "There are vegetarian cookbooks and online sites where you can find substitutions."
Vegetarianism's cultural acceptance can be seen on grocery shelves, as well. Soymilk, tofu and Boca Burgers can be found right next to the eggnog, bacon and beef. There are often entire aisles devoted to "healthy foods," such as organic fruits, meat from free-range cattle and vegetarian substitutes. Occasionally, entire stores specialize in organic or vegetarian foods. Striker says that most restaurants now have three or four vegetarian items on the menu. In fact, Americans consume 20 percent more vegetables than they did in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"You could be vegetarian and the people you live with might never even notice," says Striker.
Vegetarianism is also no longer associated only with political liberals. Rod Dreher, op-ed columnist for the Dallas Morning News and for the conservative National Review, even coined a phrase for the vegetarians at the other end of the political spectrum: "Crunchy Cons," conservatives who eat organic or vegetarian foods and try to leave a minimal impact on the environment. Vegetarianism has gone from radical to mainstream.
"People see people who are vegetarians whose health is still good and who are not falling down sick," Cocking says. Since people are seeing no ill effects in their friends who convert to vegetarianism, she says, more people are becoming vegetarians.
Even at Whitworth, Sodexo Food Services has continually strived to improve the once-dismal vegetarian section. Jim O'Brien, the general manager of Sodexo, is himself a vegetarian. In 2005, Sodexo brought together a group of students to discuss options to make the vegetarian section better. Where only rice and chopped carrots once were, the vegetarian section now carries such foodstuffs as hummus, pita bread, grits and couscous. Prins says she was glad to see Sodexo respond to demands for a broader range of vegetarian and vegan options. She makes an effort to take advantage of these offerings, for both health and moral reasons.
"You can have a negative or positive impact on nature," Prins says. "I try to have a positive one."