I had been following a strict vegetarian diet for about 13 months - mainly as an experiment to see how I’d react. I wrote about my initial thoughts, 5 months in, here:
This is something of an update post.
Periodically during these months I ventured down the endless rabbit hole that is nutritional advice, had lengthy discussions with friends and strangers, and thought a lot about the whole thing.
This article will basically detail why I’m now occasionally eating some meat or fish (under specific circumstances), while still sticking to eating a mostly plant-based diet. More broadly though, it’s about outlook on diet with respect to the reasons why we change our diet in the first place.
To begin with, let us consider the reasons why anyone would want to be a vegetarian, or indeed, follow any diet. So far as I can see, reasons for this decision can be fit into some broad categories.
Health (be it general or athletic concerns)
With two smaller categories being perhaps curiosity and convenience, which we won’t touch on here.
Let’s break down each of these in turn, and see where vegetarianism sits.
A diet normally prescribes a range of foods. Unless your diet is extremely strict, there is normally room for healthy and unhealthy patterns of eating while following any diet. Your diet might be omnivorous, but if you only consume crisps and red bull you’ll probably be worse off than someone who consumes a more varied ‘protein derived’ vegan diet.
Further to this, what is ‘healthy’ can have many meanings. Your body might have certain foods it’s intolerant to (obvious cases being allergies, perhaps less obvious being minor intolerances). In addition, it depends on what you want your body to do. If you’re eating with an eye to longevity, what might be ‘healthy’ to you might be different if you’re eating to maximise athletic performance in terms of power or endurance.
Thus the only sensible way to analyse this in general is to see explicitly what nutrients one might not be able to get within their non-omnivore diet, and to see how one might have to compensate for that.
By not eating meat or fish, a vegetarian diet naturally loses access to good sources of protein, B vitamins and omega fatty acids, and a plethora of other nutrients. All of these can be found within a vegetarian diet, or bolstered through supplementation (something which even those who eat meat often do anyway).
By simple tendency of removing many food options that tend to be higher in protein and fat, many vegetarian diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates – not simply from a higher ingestion of fruits and vegetables but also from a reliance on foods such as bread, pasta etc.
How healthy a higher carbohydrate diet is for an individual varies – and is obviously far beyond the scope of this post. At the same time, a higher intake of fruit and vegetables usually means one is eating a more nutrient rich diet.
So if even one simply replaced their meat and fish with an array of vegetables each meal, they would be eating a more nutrient rich diet in some aspect.
Bottom line: There doesn’t seem to be any inherent health benefits or detriments to this approach. One can get meat and fish nutrients without consuming them, providing they eat certain foods allowed by vegetarian diets. This may be less convenient, but it’s certainly possible. There are still plenty of nutrient dense foods to be eaten in a vegetarian diet, and an intelligent selection would likely work for most people. Health is decided by what and how you eat within a dietary scope (and how your body reacts to it) rather than the scope itself.
Looking at the ethical considerations may not be of interest to some - but I think its important to consider for everyone. Even if you’re not inherently interested in the ethical concerns, because they’re important to others, it’s worthwhile taking a moment to understand their side of things.
I’ve written about this before, but I expect future generations will look back at our factory farming methods with more common shame than we view them currently. This is something to ruminate on.
Announcing that you’re vegetarian/vegan in certain rooms or crowds can draw a cautious pause from your audience. It’s a bit like the modern day equivalent of saying, among some edgy atheists, that you’re a catholic. In certain crowds, it can become confrontational, with people personally taking issue with your choice, and demanding to know your reasons for it, looking to show you’re wrong, protein deficient, that we “evolved to be omnivores” and so on.
In the last year, I experienced some of this, and while it wasn’t unpleasant for me - for the reason why I tried becoming vegetarian was just out of curiosity/coupled with a sort of acceptance that environmentally it was the responsible thing to do - I can see why for others, for whom being vegan/vegetarian is more couched in ethical concerns, this becomes exhausting.
On the flipside, I’m sure we all know of someone for whom their diet is a critical part of their identity, which can also be exhausting to deal with. The internet is full of vegan/vegetarian mocking and backlash which becomes quite emotionally intense.
And this is completely understandable. A lot of people are vegetarian or vegan for purely ethical reasons. These can be related to environmental (seeing our obligation to sustainability as a moral obligation rather than a pragmatic one) but usually are couched in the extreme amounts of death and suffering in the production of meat and fish.
It only takes a bit of research to show that much of animal food consumption is abhorrent. We slaughter billions of animals a year for consumption. Even the animals we use for food production – such as cows or chickens – usually live quite pained existences.
With this context, it’s also easy to understand why ‘ethical’ vegans are so outspoken about it – even if someone eats a bit of meat or fish occasionally, that reasoning is identical (in the eyes of some on the more extreme end) to saying “I’m not that much of a murderer, I have murder-free-Mondays”.
Vegetarianism is a middle ground - a step in the right direction. While you’re not consuming any slaughtered animals, you are indeed supporting less suffering. However, there is still lots to be said about the problems with the dairy industry.
If anything, one could argue that the consumption of fish in some circumstances is in a sense more ethical than meat – pole-and-line caught fish for instance arguably have a higher ‘quality of life’ than a cow whose sole existence is to produce milk. As such, if you’re choosing between buying milk and some responsibly sourced fish, the ethical considerations might not be so simple as vegetarianism makes it out to be.
I’m not an ethical absolutist. I think if we can eat without causing animals unnecessary suffering, that’s obviously preferable.
However I believe some level of humans hunting and killing animals will always be inevitable – a simple example of this is the case of balancing an ecosystem. In Australia, kangaroos are annually culled in the wild in order to help preserve the ecosystem. To me, to not use the meat from this process is wasteful. Similarly, to not engage in balancing an ecosystem is also (from a pragmatic point of view) wrong.
But it’s quite clear that most meat is not produced this way.
Bottom line: So while a vegetarian diet may be considered ‘more ethical’ in some respects when compared to an omnivorous diet, it’s certainly not entirely free of causing animal suffering. Furthermore, considering arguments related to fish, there are arguably food groups which are ‘more ethical’ to eat, in certain instances, than the dairy that is commonly accepted in this diet. Occasionally eating the meat of a culled, wild animal - killed to sustain an environment - could be considered more ethical than consuming dairy regularly (though obviously this is up for debate).
This is the most compelling argument to me. You may not care about animals, but anyone can see that the meat industry isn’t sustainable, much like global warming isn’t sustainable. There’s a huge environmental impact that occurs from producing animals (for a video that goes into more detail on this, check out some links at the end).
However, what I think is rarely discussed in this area of debate is the scale of impact dietary choices have when considering other lifestyle choices. Consider this graph from Environmental Research Letters, 2017 :
Eating a plant based diet is a high-impact lifestyle choice. But compared with the choice of say, taking one fewer international flight a year, it’s less impactful. And it’s an order of magnitude away from simply choosing to have one fewer child.
Personally, I’ve come to think that we all share some responsibility to looking after the planet (and it would be useful if we all acted this way), and therefore to reducing our carbon footprint. How you choose to express this responsibility however, is obviously nuanced. These are statistical averages and approximations - a meat eating environmental worker is likely doing more for good than a vagabonding vegan.
Vegetarianism obviously would imply you consume less animal products, and therefore contribute less of a carbon footprint. But again, it depends on your ratios. There is scope for having a high carbon footprint vegetarian diet if you consume a lot of the animal products that are allowed within it. We would expect that it averages to less of an impact, but it’s not a given.
And considering the impact of simply not having children, someone who has resolved not to have kids can eat all the meat they want and could still be better - environmentally speaking - than a vegan family.
Bottom line: From an environmental perspective, vegetarianism again probably turns out, on average, more sustainable than the omnivore counterpart. But if we’re concerned with the environmental impacts of our lives, there are things that have much greater impact which don’t usually enter the picture. If you care about the environment, one needs to look at their entire lifestyle, rather than one aspect of it.
This has remained largely unchanged. Much like the health bracket - one can spend a large or a small amount of money within any wide dietary prescription. However what is considered a 'balanced' varied vegetarian diet seems to come out as on average much more economical as an omnivorous one.
Where I stand now:
I am now eating the odd piece of meat or fish. If a friend cooks a dish with these things, I want to be able to try them. And if we're all going out for burgers, once in a while I might get something that isn't made with beans or beetroot. My diet is mostly plant-based, and I’m now thinking more broadly about the environment and ethics than simple ‘is it vegetarian or vegan’. Considerations like the source of the food and the context are important.
The problem with binary thinking of being entirely vegetarian or entirely vegan is that one loses a lot of the progress that can be made by simply reducing meat, fish and dairy consumption. Encouraging these things as something to be had on occasion, rather than bullying people into ethical debates or ascribing to a diet, is a more effective way of fostering change. I’d rather half the population reduce their consumption of these products slightly, than a small % cut them out completely.
Similarly, we should encourage nuance to the debate - vegetarianism, formulated on a purely ethical or environmental basis, has inconsistencies. Vegans with high-carbon lifestyle choices are arguably guilty of the same. We need to look at the whole picture if we really care about these ends and don’t want to be hypocrites.
I do think there’s some benefits from going entirely cold-turkey on meat for a while - but these have nothing to do with ethics or environmental concerns.
Being strictly vegetarian forces you to consider a broader range of foods, rather than simply adjusting your ratios. It led me to learning a lot about Indian cooking and spices, and I don’t think I would have felt compelled to explore the wide variety of vegan and vegetarian foods had I not been a bit hardcore about it in the beginning.
Still, If you simply want to reduce your consumption of animal products slightly, rather than a dramatic change, take ownership of it. If a vegan or vegetarian tells you that you can't identify with their label, or that you're somehow half-baked by simply eating less meat rather than cutting it out, ignore them. They are the ones who are misguided.
Labels aren't important - what matters is that we all take responsibility in small ways to live better for everyone. Make it less of a big deal. Become curious about vegetarian foods (my range of flavours and spices I'm now acquainted with is far more extensive). Understand the scale of it. Think beyond the plate.
And if you need to eat meat/fish/animal products for health reasons, then of course you should. There are other ways you can help the planet.
Concerns about diet are ranged and can be usefully categorised into health, ethical, environmental and monetary considerations.
In my opinion, the one area which is hard to debate is the sustainability of some food sources and their environmental impact. If you believe we all have to share responsibility for the environment, reducing your consumption of these foods logically follows as an action that is helpful to that end in the micro-sense of how you eat.
However, if we truly care about environmental/ethical impacts of our lives, we need to look at factors beyond diet. If we do this, inconsistencies with common approaches and dogmas appear.
Being absolutist or evangelical about diet is counter productive. Ideally, we want lots of people to make moderate and health-conscious intelligent changes, not a few people to make extreme ones.
Trying a diet strictly for a while might broaden your perspective more than a simple moderate adjustment
But the fact remains: any improvement is worthwhile.
Do your bit. Don’t be a dick about it.
A recent very good video by
Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell
Check out this interview with the man himself, Attenborough, which delves into vegetarianism (his principle concerns not being ethical, but environmental)
And another very good, in depth, article on common questions about nutrition, on what is healthy, and what isn’t.