Have you heard? Bill Clinton has gone vegan. When he was president we heard about his affection for barbecue and burgers, but after having quadruple bypass surgery, Clinton has decided to embrace a meat-free lifestyle. And he’s not the only one: Brad Pitt, Alicia Silverstone, Weird Al, Mike Tyson, Moby, Ellen DeGeneres, Biz Stone, and many other public figures are vegans.
Veganism, which was rarely mentioned in the media a decade ago, is becoming a household word. Oprah, Dr. Oz, and Martha Stewart all dedicated episodes to veganism last season. Even the Food Network, that mainstay of omnivorism, is featuring a vegan food truck on this season’s Great Food Truck Race, and two vegan bakers have won Cupcake Wars with their delicious dairy-free confections.
Still, there aren’t very many vegans in Logan, and you might be wondering why someone would embrace this kind of a diet. Depending on which vegan you ask, you could get a number of different answers to your question. Many vegans are motivated by ethical concerns; others are principally concerned with their health. My answer is that I was first brought to vegetarianism as an 8-year-old who didn’t like the bare idea of eating animals, and as I’ve learned more and more about industrialized animal agriculture systems in the United States I have become increasingly compelled by the idea that veganism is the best basis for an ethical and healthy diet.
For me, the most important issue that I consider when choosing my food is animal suffering and exploitation. Most Americans don’t realize the extreme abuse that is continuously inflicted on animals raised for food. A very small percentage of animals are raised on the family farms that populate our collective farm-animal imaginations; most animals are born and die in factory farms where they are mutilated, abused, and sometimes isolated and beaten, and where they suffer from illnesses and deformities brought on by genetic modification, inappropriate food, and a continual regime of antibiotics.
Animal agriculture systems are also extreme users of land, water and energy, and are linked to climate change, air and water pollution, and threats to biodiversity. A vegan diet, especially one that relies heavily on home-grown and local food sources, is far gentler on the environment than a traditional American omnivorous diet.
People often ask what the difference is between vegetarians and vegans. Vegetarians do not consume animal flesh, and vegans take it a step further: they do not eat meat or any other animal products, such as eggs and dairy products because these products are typically produced in the same abusive and exploitative systems in which meat is produced. People who embrace the vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons also avoid animal products like honey, fur, leather, and products that have been tested on animals.
As a teenage vegetarian, I didn’t have a very healthy diet. I ate lots of refined flours, pasta, white rice, and cheese. As a result I often struggled with anemia, which seems to be something many people fear when they consider eliminating animal products from their diet. I now have more information about the health benefits of eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans, and I’ve discovered a wealth of nourishing vegan recipes that provide plenty of protein, iron, calcium, and all the other nutrients my family needs. In fact, plant foods are often more effective sources of these nutrients than animal products. For instance, bok choy and sesame seeds are better sources of calcium than cow’s milk and cheese.
A well-balanced vegan diet has been linked to decreased rates of heart disease, cancers, diabetes, and certain autoimmune disorders. Even mainstream organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research are beginning to recognize the strongly-substantiated link between meat consumption (especially processed meats) and certain kinds of cancers.
In addition, virtually all cases of food poisoning and bacterial contamination can be linked back to animal agriculture. Often when people think they have the flu, they are actually experiencing the gastrointestinal effects of contaminated meat or eggs. For instance, researchers have found that in meat-eating households, there is more fecal bacteria in the kitchen sinks than in the toilets! And one-fourth of all fast food burgers are contaminated with parasites. It’s no wonder that vegans have been found to be significantly less-polluted than meat eaters!
As more and more people learn about the cruel treatment that animals experience in the factory farming system, and about the health benefits of a vegan diet, I expect that more of our neighbors will be experimenting with vegetarianism and veganism. And the ensuing conversations about what we value, what we mourn, and what we want to change will enrich us all.
Melissa Lambert is a PhD student in the Environment & Society department at USU.