Personal and Environmental Benefits of Vegetarianism

My personal reasons for becoming mostly vegetarian 

Before I go into some of the benefits of a plant-based diet, let me say a just few words on why I am mostly instead of completely vegetarian or vegan. My real interest in food began in 2000, when I first started cooking for myself in college and bought an old macrobiotic cookbook.  Around this time I also started practicing yoga, and gradually gravitated toward its recommendation of a diverse lacto-vegetarian diet for health and other reasons. But eggs and fish and any meat are not recommended in yogic traditions, and yet I still eat these a few times a month. Eating organic yogurt from grass-fed cows and humane free-range eggs for now seems like a passable omnivorous concession, as arguably the animal doesn’t suffer and the environmental impact is lower than that of meat. If invited to a meal prepared by someone else where meat is the main course I will eat a bit of it out of respect for the host and culinary curiosity. I will also eat some fish or chicken if my partner, who sometimes gets a craving for these, prepares a fun non-vegetarian recipe. 

It’s not that I especially enjoy these animal products or would miss them if one day they disappeared from tables everywhere, but frankly I just don’t want to be too militant with my family members, friends, or even myself. I truly believe that if 3 or 4 out of 5 people adopted planet-friendly diets in which, for example, they reduced consumption of animal products by 80%, we would do a much greater service to our collective and environmental health than if only a minority became 100% vegan while the rest carried on as is. And as my nutrition teacher once said, flexibility is key to a sustainable relationship with food.

Now, what’s so good about eating in a plant-based way?
Plant-based foods are full of nutrients and, being lower on the food chain, have costs and environmental impact that is many times lower than animal-based foods. Plants nourish us in a cleaner, more direct way with the sun’s energy and the earth’s minerals, without the saturated fats and toxins that accumulate in animal flesh.

Personal wellbeing: I simply feel better, more energetic, and less hungry eating unprocessed plant-based foods than I did when I was eating a balanced, home-cooked, whole-foods-based diet that included meat almost every day. Good plant based-diets have proven preventative and therapeutic effects, so it is also comforting to know that I am improving my chances for a longer life free from obesity, cancer[1], diabetes, heart-disease, digestive problems, liver malfunction, and antibiotic resistance. A recent Tufts University study showed that the less animal products you eat, the lower your risk of being overweight in middle age (25% for lacto-vegetarians vs. 60% for omnivores)[2]. From a more aesthetic and nutritional perspective, because plants are lower on the food chain and get their nourishment from sun and soil, there is abundance of vitamins and other essential nutrition in them without the concentration of toxins that occurs as you move up on the food chain. There’s literally a limit to how high on the food chain humans can eat – no one eats carnivores like tigers or hyenas, and there are stern medical warnings on limiting your consumption of fish high on the food chain. Even though animal foods may have fairly high concentrations of protein, they are lacking in many essential nutrients and fiber, and are full of problematic components like saturated fats that humans just can’t process in large quantities.

Enjoyment: I simply enjoy the taste and texture of beans and tofu more than that of meat (have you ever noticed the need to floss immediately after eating even tender meat but not after a vegetarian meal?). Picky eaters will especially appreciate the fact that there aren’t any stringy/squidgy/fatty parts in plant-based meals. The range of exciting vegetarian meal possibilities seems to me much greater than what’s present in the ‘SAD: standard American diet’ or meat & potatoes-oriented traditions.

Ease of handling/simplicity in the kitchen: I used to like the taste of meat but was always put off by handling raw animal products in preparation, the need to ensure meat is very fresh and fully cooked to prevent poisoning, the need to take the trash out promptly if it contains meat packaging or scraps, and the tedious clean-up of greasy dishes and cookware…so much so that I barely ever cooked until discovering the possibilities of vegetarian cuisine. Storage of most vegetables is much more forgiving in terms of refrigeration, raw or semi-raw consumption, and disposal.

Saves money: Shifting toward plant-based foods while using even some of the principles from this book is sure to shrink your food bills.

Less waste: If you recycle and start a composting bin for vegetable scraps you’ll be amazed at how miniscule (and non-smelly) the amount of trash you produce will be – a family of 2-3 cooking most meals at home will produce as little as ½ a small grocery bag of actual “trash” per week as there is no meat scraps or cartons from packaged meals.

Agriculture yields and food storage and transportation in North America are impressively efficient. On each hectare of farmland we grow enough food to feed 16 people for a year (at 2700 kcal per day), more than double of what less developed countries are able to achieve. Yet in reality only 5 people are fed from that hectare because so much goes to livestock (which is 4 to 40 times less efficient than feeding humans) and the rest is converted to fuel or simply wasted by the retailers and consumers.

Critical environmental concerns: Even health and environment-conscious people are usually not aware of the degree of ecological devastation the modern meat-oriented diet is causing. Buying less meat helps slow global warming much more effectively than buying a hybrid car or solar panels, and saves more resources than other conservation efforts.

It’s fairly well known that raising animals for food is a costly and inefficient way to feed people, but before writing this book I could not have guessed the extent of those costs. At present, 92.5% of U.S. farmland is devoted to grazing animals and producing feed-grain: corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, oats, barley and cottonseed for confined cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys. Only 7.5% of U.S. farmland produces grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries for direct human consumption.[3] Overgrazing has turned millions of miles of grasslands into deserts. The United Nations report Livestock’s Long Shadow[4] estimates that raising livestock is responsible for 70% of forests cleared in the Amazon Rain Forest. The same widely-cited 2006 UN report calculates that raising cattle emits more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined. Another estimate made in 2009 by a former senior World Bank scientist, incorporating breathing and other factors into the UN calculations, reveals that farming emits 51% of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gasses every year[5] (more than all other industries and transportation combined!).

And how many animals do we actually eat? Per-capita consumption of meat has doubled since the middle of the 20th century[6]. Worldwide, there are 70-90 billion animals slaughtered for meat every year (about 12% of this is in the US, even though the US houses only 3% of the world’s population). Nearly a billion are raised for dairy products.[7] In the US, 90% of animals are raised on CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations, aka factory farms). Feed for most of these animals is grown in the conventional way with excessive use of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, tilling – which further exacerbates greenhouse emissions, water pollution and soil erosion. In addition, animal waste and antibiotic-and-hormone-infused runoff from factory farms is scarcely regulated and pollutes ground water on a horrific scale.

A serving steak requires 16 times more fossil fuel to produce and releases 24 times more greenhouse gasses than a serving yielding the same amount of calories of grains and vegetables[8]. When it comes to fresh water, it takes on average 15,000 liters to produce a kilogram of beef[9], but only 1900 L to produce a kilo of beans and 850-1200 L for a kilo of wheat[10].
To put this in perspective, if you religiously took extra short showers for a full year you might save as much water as you use up by eating just one beef-centered dinner (or two pork or three chicken meals). So substituting even some meat with plant-based food is more impactful (and much cheaper!) than a myriad of other noble conservation efforts.

Global health: Obesity and related disease epidemics afflict over 1 billion people, while chronic undernourishment cripples another billion. Both result in tremendous personal suffering, shorter life expectancy, higher medical costs and lower productivity. In the US, for example, obesity and excess consumption of processed and animal products is implicated in over half of all deaths (from heart attacks, cancer, stroke and diabetes), with at least 15% - that’s 360-400 thousand deaths every year - directly caused by improper diet and physical inactivity[11].  

Ethical/Humanist: Reducing meat consumption and waste would liberate global resources that could be used for hunger alleviation. We dote on and lavish tens of billions of dollars on our pets and certain ‘cute’ endangered animals, and have laws to protect them, but farm animals are hypocritically exempt from animal cruelty laws. Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a balanced and humane relationship with other people and all living creatures within our reach.

Why not eat in a way that’s kind to yourself and others?

[1] Cho E, Spiegelman D, Hunter D, et al. Premenopausal fat intake and risk of breast cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2003;95:1079-85.
[3] NASS, USDA Land-Use statistics, 2002-2008.
[7] Goodland, R., Anhang, J, 2012. Response to “Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right,” by Herrero et al.


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The goal of this blog is to celebrate delicious food that's also practical. Contrary to certain foodie trends, we believe there is no reason for amazing food to be expensive or complicated or time consuming.

Our hope is to bridge the ethos of the slow and simplicity movements (cooking delectable traditional foods from scratch, connecting with others, minimizing waste and clutter) with the everyday needs and constraints of “the 99%”.

Check out the recipe section for easy, healthy, authentic recipes from the world’s vegetarian traditions that ANYONE can make.