In September of 1992, I walked into a Red Lobster in Redding California to have lunch with my girlfriend. In the waiting area there was a tank packed full of lobsters, their claws banded, their motion lethargic. I’d been fascinated and revolted by the same spectacle as a child in supermarkets, but on this day it struck me quite differently. I was the adult here, and it was I who was being given the chance to choose which of these creatures would be thrown into a pot of boiling water and then served to me on a plate. If I hadn’t seen them alive I would have eaten one happily, as I had on hundreds of occasions while working at a “surf ‘n’ turf” restaurant in southern California. This, though, was personal and important. I suddenly knew that if I wouldn’t kill a lobster, I had no business eating one. I didn’t eat lobster that day and I didn’t eat meat at all for the next five years.

Thus began my diet odyssey. Becoming a vegetarian was the first step in my adulthood-long quest for the most ethical, healthy life I can muster. I wonder why I chose diet, why I chose meat and why I chose complete abstinence, in a society whose diet is dominated by meat? I also wonder why something that seemed so obvious to me for so long is no longer compelling. The answers are not simple but I think I have identified the primary ingredients: my own sensitivity and desire for things to make sense, plus the availability of the vegetarian bodies of thought.

Pre-Conversion

My conversion to vegetarianism, while sudden and complete, was not a surprise. It was more like I had been waiting for the right time and place and suddenly found it. I had just moved into a new apartment in a new city and started attending a new school. No longer living with my parents, I was completely responsible for my diet for the first time. Four months earlier and unknown to me, two British sociologists named Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil, had published a paper called “The Vegetarian Option: Varieties, Conversions, Motives and Careers” which found that these kinds of transitions are classic conditions in vegetarian conversion stories (267). According to Donna Maurer, another sociologist who has studied vegetarians extensively, there are several other ways that my demographics were quite normal: I am white, as are 95% of vegetarians in America (9). I am much less likely than average Americans to practice a mainstream religion, drink or smoke. I am much more likely to call myself “spiritual,” practice yoga and meditation and read about nutrition (13). I was also 21 years old, which put me squarely in the most common age range of 16-24 (Beardsworth and Keil, Sociology 224).

Of course, I didn’t know any of that. I did know that it didn’t make sense for me to eat meat anymore. I didn’t become interested in unearthing all the factors that may have influenced me for over a decade. Now that I have, I have uncovered many, many influences, both personal and societal, philosophical and scientific.

In the 1970s, my parents were on the cutting edge of the counter-culture’s holistic living movement. We ate vegetarian diets off and on, for health and economic reasons, though they were never moralistic or overly strict about it. I inherited from them the unusual idea that it not necessary to eat meat. Not only that, but following the crowd was not a dignified reason to do anything. We were a health food family, so I became used to diet setting me apart from most of my friends growing up. I remember particularly my friends’ horrified, mesmerized reactions to my eating nori. They had never seen or tasted anything like the dark green seaweed paper that we wrapped brown rice or salad in. Sometimes I was embarrassed, but I think I came to identify with it: I am the kind of person who eats differently than you.

Following the lead of my parents and a few friends, I began to consciously distance myself from mainstream culture in high school. I was a hip band-nerd, not a trendy jock, thank you very much. I did not care for whatever inane pop was in the top 40 countdown that week. I was into “alternative” music, especially the British band, The Smiths, who, come to think of it, had a song called “Meat is Murder,” with the lyrics,

And the flesh you so fancifully fry

Is not succulent, tasty or nice

It’s death for no reason

And death for no reason is MURDER

I never cared much for that song, but I loved the album and must have listened to it hundreds of times. I did think that they had a point, but I can’t remember ever considering becoming vegetarian because of it.

The first person I knew to “go vegetarian” was the junior manager at a swimming pool I worked at in high school. He had just come back from his first year of college and had that evangelical gleam in his eye. He showed me a list called something like “Reasons to be Vegetarian,” with the now-ubiquitous arguments based on resource use and world hunger: Plant crops are a more efficient use of water, land and protein. They hadn’t occurred to me before and they seemed sound. I don’t remember being tempted to make the change, however. I was making my own money and eating whatever I wanted and that meant a lot of the fast food that I’d been deprived of in childhood. I can’t remember thinking much about it after that, but a couple years later, I had a very short conversation with my best friend where he casually mentioned that he would probably stop eating meat when he moved out of his parents’ house. I said “Yeah, me too,” and I meant it. It was with him that I moved to Redding, though I don’t recall him ever being vegetarian.

My Remarkable Demographics

How unusual was I? Quite, it turns out, for several reasons. Initially, though, that was not obvious, mostly because “vegetarian” turns out to be a very flexible word. In a survey that lets people define the word for themselves, a large number—7% or more—will check the “vegetarian” box (Beardsworth and Keil, Sociology 224). It seems that many consider themselves vegetarian if they don’t eat meat very often, or if they don’t eat red meat. The wording of some surveys have allowed vegetarian advocates to claim numbers like 22% (Stahler). The problem is that there is a whole spectrum of diets under the vegetarian umbrella. Here are some of the more common ones, arranged from loose to strict:

Semi-vegetarian Rarely eats meat or eats anything but red meat.
Pesco-vegetarian Eats anything but mammals and birds.
Ovo-lacto-vegetarian Eats no flesh.
Lacto-vegetarian Eats no flesh or eggs.
Lax vegan Eats no flesh, eggs or dairy.
Strict vegan, herbivore Eats no animal derived products.

The only way to use a survey to discover what people don’t eat is to be explicit: Ask them to check the boxes next to the foods that they never eat (Beardsworth and Keil, “Vegetarian” 263-5). Using that method, ovo-lacto and stricter vegetarians make up somewhere between 1 and 2.8 percent of the US population (Maurer 13; Iacobbo 6). A generous estimate, then, makes my conversion unlikely at three out of a hundred.

Next, I am male. Vegetarians are about 70% female (Maurer 11). That puts me at less than one out of a hundred. Many theories have been advanced about that, from the idea that women, whose upbringings emphasize empathy, are more likely to be moved by ethical arguments against eating meat (12), to the idea that vegetarian men face more ridicule because of the masculine connotation of meat (Adams 32). I can verify Adams’ assertion. I remember waiting on a table of cattle ranchers in Redding. They asked me how the fajitas were and when I told them I didn’t know because I didn’t eat meat, one stage-whispered to another “He must be gay.”

Third, I am working class. Vegetarianism is an almost entirely middle class phenomenon (Maurer 8). That surprised me because I found it so much less expensive to cut out meat. I could partly identify with what could be called “economic vegetarians,” who, like Benjamin Franklin, preferred to spend their money on other things (“Vegetarianism” 578). Maurer thinks middle class people are susceptible because of their desire to set themselves apart. She quotes Margaret Visser: “Modern people in rich societies have reached a stage of satiety, of exhaustion with ‘choice,’ that sometimes makes them want to have something they can reject” (Visser 129). I can understand the need to set oneself apart, but not with the desire for less choice when it comes to food. In fact, “a middle class meal” conjures up a boring image for me, maybe barbecued chicken, potato salad and an iceburg lettuce with a low-fat vinaigrette dressing. Again. In any case, as a working class person, I was now in a group of no more than a few out of a thousand.

The abruptness of and reasons for my conversion were also somewhat unusual, putting my group at less than one out of a thousand: Unlike myself, most Americans stop eating meat because they believe it will improve their health (Maurer 4), and most people gradually eliminate foods, starting with mammals, then birds, then fish, over a period of months or years. They also usually do so under the influence of vegetarian peers. Maurer found that 63% of vegetarians were primarily influenced by vegetarian people or groups (7). While I experienced none of the disapproval of family and friends that is common for vegetarians, I had virtually no vegetarian peer support for my entire vegetarian career. I think I can consider myself one of the rare people who converted themselves to vegetarianism.

Traditions

Beardsworth and Keil have since become two of the most prominent diet sociologists in the world. They published a book in 1997 called Sociology on the Menu, summarizing and analyzing their findings to date. One is a set of food paradoxes that humans encounter (152), two of which created the vegetarian movement and the two major branches of vegetarian thought: Food is required for optimal health but it can also cause disease, and food is required for life but means killing the things that are to be eaten (153). These problems are the crux motivations for people who turn to vegetarianism for better health and a more ethical lifestyle, the two most common reasons. Delving into the history for this project, I have been surprised to find that despite being unusual, I was a member of lines of thought and behavior that go back hundreds and thousands of years.

For me, the decision was about not wanting to kill animals. That put me squarely in the ethical camp, and, I have now discovered, in a tradition at least three thousand years old. Ancient Indian philosophers in the Vedantic tradition believed that all living things existed on a continuum of consciousness, with no radical separation of moral consideration between them. This, and their adherence to nonviolence, often meant strictures against eating animals in the Hindu and then Buddhist sects that followed (Berry 83). The famous mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras inherited this idea and passed it on to a series of Greek and Roman thinkers. After a period of domination by the Christian church and it’s very different set of values, the re-emergence of classical thought in the Renaissance brought another scattering of European intellectuals like Leonardo DaVinci to take up vegetarianism (Beardsworth and Keil, Sociology 219).

While I do consider myself an intellectual and somewhat privileged person, I am nowhere near the level that would have made me a vegetarian if that’s where the story ended. The ethical arguments for vegetarianism have been bolstered in the last hundred years by the thinking of the environmentalist and feminist movements and now make up a broad range of considerations. Here are the current arguments as made by the incredibly thorough modern philosopher, Michael Allen Fox, in his book Deep Vegetarianism. If animal foods are not necessary for a healthy human life then a moral person will be compelled to avoid them because: Animals experience suffering and pain when they are slaughtered and very often in the way they are raised for food (76-80). The production of animals for meat is having massive and negative global ecological effects, polluting the waterways with pesticides, fertilizer and offal, and the air with methane, a greenhouse gas, and contributing to deforestation, topsoil loss, the reduction of biodiversity and species extinction (84-8). It is such an inefficient way to produce human food that it can be seen as an exacerbating factor in the issues of hunger and economic inequality around the world (95-100). Finally, there is the eco-feminist argument that the destruction and manipulation of animals and ecosystems is a form of oppression akin to sexism, racism and slavery that is only possible because of ignorance, tradition and insensitivity (100-10).

I found all of these arguments persuasive. For some reason, though, they were never enough to create a mass movement. That was accomplished by people concerned about human health (Beardsworth and Keil, Sociology 219). According to Maurer, the desire for better health remains the major factor today, at least among Americans, in why people stop eating meat (19). The word “vegetarian” itself was coined in England in the 1840s to distinguish the new meatless-for-health-reasons movement from the “Pythagoreans” who, like Pythagoras himself, hadn’t been eating meat for centuries because they were against killing animals (“Vegetarianism” 581). While much shorter, I found the history of the vegetarians for health movement to be just as full of eccentric and ideologically minded leaders as the ethical branch, including Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism, and Dr. Harvey Kellog the famous bowel-hygiene guru of the late 1800s and the inventor of cornflakes.

Upon my conversion, I immediately discovered the literature of this lineage and used it to further justify my decision. Looking it over now, I wonder why I didn’t notice that health and science based arguments for vegetarianism, except for the most religious in tenor, are not for abstinence from meat, but for what the famous vegetarian advocate, John Robbins always calls a “plant based diet.” In his new book, Healthy at 100, he presents evidence for the low fat, high fiber vegetarian diet reducing the risk of obesity (103), heart disease (38), several kinds of cancer (130-2) and dementia (97). I have also often heard that pesticides and other contaminants collect in the flesh and milk of the animals at the top of the food chain (Robbins, Diet 317), that food poisoning occurs most often from animal products (Spencer 335-6) and the idea that the human digestive tract evolved to assimilate vegetable matter but not animal products (Klaper 13). All of these ideas except the last (and most hotly contested) are arguments for eating less meat, or being more careful with how meat is raised or prepared. This may be why Maurer found in her study of vegetarian advocacy groups that while their leaders primarily use information about health to attract people to vegetarianism, they don’t consider anyone to be a convert until they are ethically motivated. (19)

Lapsing

Part of my motivation for writing this paper was to look into the disconnect between my ethics and my current diet. I am not eating a vegetarian diet right now by any but the very loosest of standards. My meals are certainly plant-based, but I eat fish a few nights a week, and I’ve been experimenting with eating red meat, too. I recently finished my last piece of Plucky, my aunt and uncle’s cow. Every year they raise a calf in their pasture and then have it slaughtered for a freezer full of beef. Aunt Ruth gave me a pound and a half. Eating it was a bit of an emotional adventure. I helped bottle feed Plucky when she was brand new, wobbly and adorable. She seemed more a pet than a food animal, smart and friendly. But doesn’t  “food animal” just mean an animal that no one cares enough about to protect? I know I wouldn’t have killed her for food unless I was really hungry and had no other options. I’m too sensitive about pain and killing! But I did eat a piece of her body, and that makes me a hypocrite, and that makes me uncomfortable. I’m probably hypocritical about the fish I eat, too, and maybe the eggs and cheese: I have no real idea how these free range, organically raised animals are actually treated.

Eventually, I hit what Jamie Mullany (in his book subtitled Abstinence and Personal Identity) calls an “abstinence threshold” (106-8). I liked that I wasn’t killing animals and I really liked the vegetarian and vegan menus I developed. My meals were creative and delicious. After college, though, I lived with my parents for a couple years and they were eating meat. They never pressured me at all, but I found it more uncomfortable to constantly refuse the food they prepared than to eat meat. It was pretty challenging at first, but since I got used to it I haven’t felt the emotional clarity about meat that I once had, the disgust or aversion. The righteousness I had about diet seems immature to me now, too, and I don’t think I will go back. It’s confusing. I can still see the hypocrisy but it doesn’t seem as important. Or maybe it’s still just as important but I’m experiencing “pressing agenda burnout,” with all the war, racism, sexism, child abuse and ecological devastation going on. It’s also possible that having some meat in my diet is straightforwardly healthier for me. After all, I never once wondered if my diet was healthy before I became vegetarian.

For a while I hoped to find that that the science would further justify my having fallen off the wagon, that I’m still closing in on the “right” diet, but that the perfectly ethical diet and perfectly healthy diet are not the same. I have been unsuccessful. Not, however, because those diets are not the same. It’s that they are myths. Diet tenets thought to be sacred just don’t hold up to intense scrutiny. I’ve been reading every book and article about food, diet and digestion I can get my hands on for years now and all I can report at this point is that there is very little agreement among the experts about the best diet for humans. There seem to be ethical and health pros and cons to every edible material. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; with the possible exception of fruit, what’s good for the eater is usually bad for the eaten. Organisms would evolve defense mechanisms that would make them less nutritious for us. If there is such an ideal human diet, it’s probably a couple incredibly general guidelines, like Michael Pollan’s suggestion in his New York Times article “Unhappy Meals”: Eat a variety of whole foods, emphasizing plants (11-12). And adding in an ethical element, we’re also probably all better off with food grown humanely, organically, on a small scale, and as close to home as possible.

There are certainly more and less healthy and ethical things to eat. I have no doubt I am better off eating a good salad than a handful of refined sugar, and that I’m being less harmful by eating my beets from the local farmers’ market than a piece of a cow raised in what used to be the Amazon rainforest and who in the slaughterhouse may very well have had its skin ripped off while it was still alive. That kind of stuff seems obvious. Moving away from that, though, puts me into ambiguous and day-to-day territory. I have to pay close attention: What does it feel like to be responsible for the death of this salmon? Is it worth it? Is eating salmon making me healthier? How do I know?

I became vegetarian because I am sensitive. I don’t like animals suffering. I also feel each ache, pain, sickness and loss of energy in my own body acutely and would love to have a way of eating that would spare me from them. Vegetarianism seemed a promising option, offering simplicity and certainty. Then, when confusion set in, my quest widened to include the psychological element. I started thinking that how I feel about what I eat has more impact than what it is I eat. The question, which was “What is the correct diet to eat?” becomes, “How is it that I can feel the most relaxation and enjoyment in relation to eating?” So far, it’s a rewarding experiment. And, I see, a new version of the same quest.

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