There are all kinds of beliefs wrapped up in a decision to pursue a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. The attitudes vegetarians and vegans encounter from people around them can be complex.
I grew up in an Army household and one of the benefits was we bought our groceries at a post commissary which, by law, sells food at just 5% above cost. My father wanted his kids to have a “normal” childhood, so we always lived in civilian suburbs. While most of my friends ate hamburger, thanks to the commissary savings, we ate steak. Lots of good steak.
After college, I landed a job at a world-renowned medical school and read my fair share of journal articles on the link between diet and cardiovascular disease. I took a more targeted interest in the topic after my father had a stroke during triple bypass surgery. It was easy to be a vegetarian on my own, but sometimes challenging to embrace the diet in certain social situations. When my uncle, a North Dakota cattle rancher, took our family out to lunch after my mother’s funeral and suggested I would like the “Pioneer Steak,” I ended an 8-year run of living meat-free. I felt that it would dishonor my uncle in some way to eat pasta (in those days, it was usually the only veggie alternative on menus) and, on that day, I especially wanted to avoid the inevitable controversy about my food choices.
Is There Anger Toward Vegetarians and Vegans?
Professor Gordon Hodson of Brock University in Canada has devoted much time to studying prejudice—and even discrimination—toward vegetarians and vegans (he uses the term “veg*ns” as a label for people who follow that diet choice).1 Here are just a few conclusions from his research with a professor from the University of Calgary that was published in a paper entitled, “It Ain’t Easy Eating Green: Evidence of Bias Toward Vegetarians and Vegans from Both Source and Target”:2
- Prejudice against veg*ns is indeed a real thing2
- Prejudice toward vegans is more extreme than toward vegetarians, and vegan men are at the top of the list for those who harbor a dislike for veg*ns2
- Veg*ns who don’t eat meat out of concern for animal welfare are more disliked than veg*ns who avoid meat for environmental reasons2 (the researchers thought it was especially significant that meat-eaters whose dislike is affected by why someone doesn’t eat meat are reflecting a defensiveness toward veg*ns rather than just a dislike of them).
- Veg*ns feel marginalized, including by friends and family2
- Meat-eaters think that veg*ns represent a threat to society2
While there is a subset of Hodgson’s research that points to the political leanings of meat-eaters versus veg*ns, I think the writer of The Animalist column for Medium makes an easily digested point: “Veg*ans make omnivores feel guilty. Everyone tends to think of themselves as a good person. People also tend to know that veg*ans think that eating meat is bad, and this makes everyone else feel uncomfortable. It threatens their sense of moral identity (the idea that I am a moral person).” 3
How does this play out for The Animalist? He says, “The part I find hard about being vegan isn’t my diet, it’s the effect it has on my relationships. It’s because three times a day I am reminded that the people I care about don’t care about animal suffering in the same way I do, it’s when they try and convince me to eat animals, it’s that they don’t want to reduce their meat consumption, it’s that they might then make jokes at my expense, or worse, jokes about the animal on their plate, and are baffled when I get offended or upset.”3
The video below entitled, “Do People Hate Vegans?” from Good Morning Britain, 11 Irish broadcaster Niall Boyan calls vegans “just annoying people” as he and TV presenter Adrian Chiles—a vegan—discuss controversial comments about vegans. Chiles describes how he was a “fanatical meat-eater” all his life but encountered a life-changing moment after taking a lamb to be slaughtered while he was making a documentary film about religion. For his part, Boyan says of vegans that “you can’t go anywhere with them, they’re moaning at the waiter ‘does that have gluten in it?’…normally there’s a trend. Vegans normally then move on to gluten because they like to get into all the facts.”
And Then There Is The Environment…
The back-and-forth seen in the video above about whether eating meat is a moral decision is becoming increasingly weighted by a seemingly continuous newsfeed calling out the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries. For example, Prof. Stephen Clune from Lancaster University and colleagues from Australia conducted a meta-analysis of 369 published studies about global warming potential and 168 varieties of fresh food. The team found “a clear greenhouse gas hierarchy emerging across the food categories, with grains, fruit and vegetables having the lowest impact and meat from ruminants having the highest impact.”4
In another study, researchers from Loma Linda University and California State Polytechnic University compared the environmental impact of producing one kilogram of edible protein from plant versus animal sources and found that “to produce 1 kg of protein from kidney beans required approximately eighteen times less land, ten times less water, nine times less fuel, twelve times less fertilizer and ten times less pesticide in comparison to producing 1 kg of protein from beef. Compared with producing 1 kg of protein from chicken and eggs, beef generated five to six times more waste (manure) to produce 1 kg of protein.”5
A team of public health researchers studied vegetarian diets and their alignment with both the health of the planet and the health of humans. They concluded, “At present, food systems account for a substantial use of natural resources and contribute considerably to climate change, degradation of land, water use, and other impacts, which in turn threaten human health through food insecurity. Additionally, current dietary patterns, rich in animal products and excessive in calories, are detrimental to both population and planetary health. In order to resolve the diet-environment-health trilemma, population-level dietary changes are essential. Vegetarian diets are reported to be healthy options. Most plant-sourced foods are less resource intense and taxing on the environment than the production of animal-derived foods, particularly meat and dairy from ruminants.”6
But Are Veg*an Diets Healthy?
Researchers in Switzerland considered the implications of shifting to vegetarian and/or vegan diets and concluded that they “might lead to a reduction in intakes of certain micronutrients currently supplied primarily by animal-sourced foods (Vitamin B12, Choline and Calcium). Results show that achieving a sustainable diet would entail a high reduction in the intake of meat and vegetable oils and a moderate reduction in cereals, roots and fish products and at the same time increased intake of legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.”7
Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital explains that since vitamin B12 is only found in animal sources, vegans might consider taking supplements. “Omega-3 fatty acids are found in both fish and flaxseeds, but your body doesn’t absorb the plant-based form as readily as the omega-3s from seafood. Plant-based supplements are available if your diet needs more of these heart-healthy fats.”8
It turns out that the Swiss researchers are basically identifying what is now called a “flexitarian” diet which is defined as “largely plant-based but can optionally include modest amounts of fish, meat and dairy foods.”9 As a nutritionist writing for Healthline said, “If you’re looking to add more plant foods to your diet but don’t want to completely cut out meat, going flexitarian may be for you.”10 You can read a beginner’s guide to this more…flexible…eating style here.
While we all make our dietary choices for different reasons, my own journey eventually led me to a flexitarian lifestyle—even before I knew there was a name for it. After countless arguments through the years with well-intentioned family and friends about my veg*n choices; my own struggles to maintain a balanced intake of vitamins and minerals; and wider concerns about both animals and the environment, the flex-ability of the flexitarian lifestyle is working… for now.
1Hodson, G. Why Do Vegans Make Some People So Angry? Psychology Today. 27 October 2019.
2MacInnis CC, Hodson G. It ain’t easy eating greens: Evidence of bias toward vegetarians and vegans from both source and target. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. 2015; 20: 721-744.
3Elliot T. The Animalist. On Moral Empathy, Animal Suffering, Family and Friends. Medium. 24 July 2017.
4Clune S, Crossin E, Verghese K. Systematic review of greenhouse gas emissions for different fresh food categories. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2017;140(Part 2):766–83.
5Sranacharoenpong K, Soret S, Harwatt H, Wien M, Sabaté J. The environmental cost of protein food choices [published correction appears in Public Health Nutr. 2015 Aug;18(11):2096]. Public Health Nutrition. 2015;18(11):2067-2073.
6Fresán U, Sabaté J. Vegetarian Diets: Planetary Health and Its Alignment with Human Health. Advances in Nutrition 2019;10(Suppl_4):S380-S388. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz019
7Chen C, Chaudhary A, Mathys A. Dietary Change Scenarios and Implications for Environmental, Nutrition, Human Health and Economic Dimensions of Food Sustainability. Nutrients. 2019;11:856.
8Harvard’s Women’s Health Watch. Is A Vegetarian or Vegan Diet For You? Harvard Medical School April 2014. .
9Willett W et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet. 2019;393:447-492.
10Streit L. The Flexitarian Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide. Healthline. 12 December 2019.
11VIDEO: Good Morning Britain. “Do People Hate Vegans?” 31 October 2018.
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.
This Site Was Inspired By An Interest in Protecting the Environment:
We had the privilege and joy of learning from Dr. Charlie Stine who instilled a love for the natural world through incredible field trips with the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Certificate program in Environmental Studies. At the time, the program was endorsed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Sadly, after Dr. Stine retired, the program was phased out. We hope that we honor his legacy by shining a bright light on environmental issues and sharing good news about the success of various conservation programs when possible.
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