How do you get your protein? Does your religion force you? I could never give up Chick-fil-A.
It’s my first-period calculus class and I’ve just revealed to my table that I’ve never eaten meat, eliciting the expected wide-eyed stares and half-concerned questions. I run through the same 30-second spiel that I could probably recite in my sleep at this point, explaining that while no, I am not vegetarian for religious reasons, yes, I am getting enough protein. At lunch, I watch irritably as the same classmates stare in my direction, their expressions something along the lines of awe and disbelief.
It’s a scene all too familiar to the 3.4% of Americans that identify as vegetarians: society doesn’t understand — or make an attempt to actively accommodate — plant-based diets. For most, the definition of a vegetarian diet doesn’t extend much further than a bowl of cold kale and the occasional piece of soggy tofu. This preconceived notion that being a vegetarian means committing to an unsustainable diet is — quite frankly — a gross generalization.
From the social media memes to the misleading media coverage, the truth is that vegetarianism is blatantly misunderstood.
Tracing its roots back to early Jainism and Buddhism in 6th century BCE India, vegetarianism is by no standards a new ideology. Although constituents of either weren’t forced to adopt a plant-based diet, sacred texts and prominent religious figures strongly advocated for it as part of their non-violence dogma. As the gears of colonization and trade began to spin, the premise of vegetarianism began to spread across the Eurasian continent, taking prominence in Christian monasteries of the Roman Empire. Although the world has undergone considerable changes since — both in terms of our scientific understanding and societal perception of such diets — the notion still stands that vegetarianism is a universally followed practice.
But why is it then that society paints vegetarians as radical hippies paranoid about animal cruelty and GMOs? Why is it that society is so polarized on what other people choose to eat?
To some extent, people might feel called out by vegans and vegetarians on their own inaction regarding issues such as climate change.
According to a 2015 public study conducted by researchers from the University of Calgary, it was determined that society had an overwhelmingly more negative perception of vegans and vegetarians when compared to other marginalized groups including people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and atheists. If the vegan or vegetarian in question also advocated for animal rights or the environment, these negative perceptions were even further exacerbated. While we can’t ignore the presence of elitism in certain plant-based individuals — the belief that they are better than others simply for their dietary choices — the extremes of a group should not define the whole.
Being a vegan or vegetarian should not be taboo; it should be celebrated.
Often when the topic of not eating meat surfaces — whether at the Thanksgiving dinner table or casual hangout with friends — vegetarians are quick to dismiss it, apprehensive of what might happen if they continue the conversation. No one wants to be judged. No one wants to be belittled for their supposedly unsustainable diet. No one wants to draw attention to the way they live their life, especially when others will be quick to criticize it.
But the time has come for vegetarians to pursue the conversation: to stand up for their beliefs and to celebrate their lifestyle.
Whether or not society will recognize the merit of a plant-based diet, the truth is that vegans and vegetarians are taking revolutionary strides in terms of sustainability and ethical eating. A report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) discovered that cattle grazing and livestock produce roughly 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is nearly equal to the amount of pollution emitted by every single car, train, bus, and plane on the planet. They further found that cattle grazing takes up over 30% of the Earth’s land area, making it the leading cause of deforestation in places like the Amazon rainforest. A similar study determined that 70% of the wheat grown in the U.S. was being given to livestock that was killed for commercial use.
Why should we support and enable an industry that diverts precious resources like land and food from those in need? Shouldn’t these resources go to those that are struggling to feed their families and not to animals awaiting their inevitable slaughter?
Beyond the simple environmental benefits of going vegan or vegetarian, these diets can be significantly healthier than their omnivorous counterparts. Experts at Oxford University discovered that a widespread adoption of vegetarian diets could prevent 8.1 million premature deaths caused by type 2 diabetes and heart disease that results from consuming red meat. And despite the misconception that vegetarians won’t be able to get a proper amount of protein, B12, and other necessary vitamins, studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health point out that plant-based sources not only offer them in abundance but in more ethical and sustainable ways.
So is food really just a personal choice?
Unfortunately, it’s anything but that.
You can’t choose what to put on your plate everyday without considering how it even got there in the first place: carbon emissions, deforestation, animal cruelty, child labor. If people choose to ignore the politics and unethical methods behind their food, they’re choosing to ignore the power that they have to make a change.
And as such, vegans and vegetarians are paving the way for others to become true advocates of climate change, animals rights, and sustainable eating.
So, go ahead and mock them all you want.
Call them over-sensitive.
Call them paranoid.
Call them obnoxious.
But consider them for a bit more time than it takes to eat your ribeye steak, and you might just learn to call them compassionate, selfless, and humane.
Aryav Bothra is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl