Scott H Young

Why Vegetarian?


Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Almost inevitably, when I tell someone I’m a vegetarian, I get a curious stare with the response, “Why?” Unfortunately, this usually comes around dinner time, so I usually try to shift the topic rather than engage in a lengthy debate attempting to justify my lifestyle choices. Most of the time, I’d rather just eat.

However, considering the bulk of email I receive about being a vegetarian, it’s probably time I explained why I don’t eat meat. But before you expect me to go into a pro-PETA rant (I won’t, by the way), I’ll explain what I’m not going to do:

First, I don’t care if you become a vegetarian or stay a devout carnivore. I’m a vegetarian for personal reasons, and while it’s always nice to meet with fellow vegetarians, your eating meat has no impact on my lifestyle.

Like my past article, Why Atheism, where I explained my lack of religious belief, this article is an explanation not a sales pitch. Instead, I’d like to explain how I believe the practice improves my life, and for me, allows me to be a happier, more productive person.

However, if after you read this, you declare I’m a nut-job and proceed to grill up a steak, more power to you.

Why I Became Vegetarian

I’ve been a vegetarian for close to four years now. I was also a strict vegetarian for roughly 4-5 months (no eggs or milk, either). My initial decision to go from happy-go-lucky omnivore to vegan was prompted after reading the book, The China Study.

Before reading this book, I assumed all vegetarians abstained for ethical reasons. As a kid that grew up in a town that celebrates a fur-trapping heritage and had been fishing and hunting, that argument never resonated with me. Animals aren’t humans, and don’t deserve the same rights as humans, such as the right not to be my dinner.

The China Study changed my perspective. Dr. Colin T. Campbell demonstrated, with a wealth of nutritional evidence that plant-eating was also far healthier. Osteoporosis, macular degeneration and even most cancers, were according to his research, linked to the toxic diet the western world had been binging on. Too much meat, too much processed foods, not enough plants.

I’ll avoid recapping the entire book, but even for a skeptic like myself, it was eye-opening. From that point, I continued reading books and blogs about the topic.

Steve Pavlina was a big influence for me in creating the connection between health and the ability to reach my goals. Now, vegetarianism wasn’t just looking attractive from the standpoint of health, but in self-actualization. A healthy body, even in a minor way, contributes to small increases in daily energy and focus. Those increases add up over months and years, allowing you to do more, even if on any particular day their importance appears small.

I also read Diet for a New America and a few other books on the veg*n lifestyle. This allowed me to finally listen to the argument I’d ignored throughout my omnivorous years. That meat-eating has a negative impact on the environment and is, at the very least, ethically questionable with cases of factory farming.

Why I’m Still a Vegetarian Today

Now, after four years, my initial piousness has diminished. I can still say I believe vegetarianism is better for health than 95% of the diets people commonly consume. I can still say I believe eating plants is better for the environment, global warming and feeding a growing population. Also, I can still say I believe meat-eating is, at the very least, in a moral gray area. By eating only plants, I sit on the more comfortable side of that debate.

However, I no longer claim vegetarianism is the perfect diet. I think there is evidence that a diet which involves a small amount of meat or animal products (so-called flexitarianism) is equally healthy.

I am also not so idealist as to believe if everyone switched to vegetarianism global warming would be avoided and world hunger would stop. People would find other ways to pollute, and in a capitalist world-economy, we waste a lot of food that could be used to feed the starving but isn’t, because of logistic, political and economic reasons.

And, as I felt with my fur-trapping cultural heritage, animals are not people. They likely have some version of a conscious mind, but ascribing them all the benefits and rights of a human, is extreme and illogical. Some conditions of factory farming may be deplorable, but the emerging practice of artisanal farming, which allow animals to live otherwise free and natural lives feels like an acceptable alternative.

My reasons for continuing as a vegetarian are simple, although they don’t have the same piousness people often ascribe to vegetarians:

  • On average, it’s better for health than most other diets.
  • In most cases, the environment impact of vegetarianism is lower.
  • It eliminates the need for ugly practices like factory farming.

Perhaps more importantly, vegetarianism makes me feel good. Those are the logical reasons I have for continuing, but people don’t make choices for logical reasons. I’m still a vegetarian because I remember feeling healthier after switching. I enjoy the lightness that comes with not digesting a meat-heavy meal. I like being able to maintain a slim, fit body without calorie counting. I like the satisfaction that comes from knowing that, if only in a tiny way, my choices are better for the world at large.

Vegetarian Myths

I’d like to explain away some of the myths I’ve encountered from people ignorant on vegetarianism. My experiences aren’t a universal rule, but I feel, having read several books, hundreds of articles and having lived the diet for four years, I can share an insight or two.

Myth #1 – Vegetarians Don’t Receive Enough Protein

I’d say I need to explain this to about 50% of the people who ask me why I’m a vegetarian. Somehow, they’re under the impression that protein, the holiest of all nutrients, is under the exclusive domain of meat. And by not eating meat, I’m depriving myself of that sacred nutrient.

This is a myth for two reasons. First, it’s a myth because plants contain plenty of protein. Have you ever seen an elephant? It’s a vegetarian, and nobody’s calling it a lightweight. Second, it’s a myth because protein, far from being the nutritional holy grail, is (surprise!) just like every other nutrient and eating too much of it can be just as bad as not eating enough.

Many plants, per calorie, contain more than enough protein for the body’s daily needs. Spinach is about 40% protein by calorie. Lentils are around 50-60% protein by calorie. This is true of many other plants, so if you’re a vegetarian eating plenty of unprocessed plants, and are consuming enough daily calories, protein deficiency is unlikely.

Many plants are also complete proteins. Quinoa and soy, for example, contain all eight essential amino acids. And, because proteins can be combined within a few days of each other, even if you don’t eat complete proteins, a varied diet will supply all eight amino acids.

Second, this is a myth because the dietary need for protein is far less than what most people consume. Aside from elite athletes and bodybuilders, Dr. Campbell estimates the amount of protein required is somewhere south of 15% of your daily calories. Vegetarians will often get more than this amount if they are eating balanced diets.

Finally, my personal example is anecdotal evidence that vegetarians get enough protein. While I’m not an Olympic athlete, I keep myself in good shape. I can easily do 60-70 consecutive push-ups, run 10km non-stop and can bench-press more than my body weight. I have also successfully gained muscle using a vegetarian diet without protein powders.

Myth #2: Vegetarian Food is Tasteless Crap

Ok, this one is subjective, but I’ve found vegetarian cuisine delicious and satisfying. It does require different cooking talents, but if you are willing to invest a few weeks to practice, you can probably make some interesting dishes.

A few days ago I brought a pack lunch that consisted of a roasted pepper, mushroom and avocado sandwich. Many of my meat-eating friends had an old sandwich with deli meat on a stale baguette. I’m not trying to argue that meat cuisine can’t be tasty, just that you need to free yourself from the narrow assumption that meat is the necessary flavoring for all food.

Myth #3: All Vegetarians are Zealous Purists

No, I’m not going to freak out if there was meat touching the food I ate. No, I’m not going to throw out the soup you made because it contains a little chicken broth. I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not puritanical.

And, although I haven’t eaten a meal containing meat for close to four years, I have tasted meat on one or two occasions. Each of these times it was when I was a guest at another person’s house for dinner in a foreign country, where the host wanted me to try a small piece of the local cuisine. In these cases, the cultural experience and social etiquette trump my resistance to eat less than a teaspoon of animal flesh. (And no, it didn’t make me want to start eating meat again)

I find nothing more irritating, than know-it-all vegetarians who try to aggressively force their views onto other people. They make us all look like nut-jobs.

Why I’ll Continue Being a Vegetarian

The simple answer is: I haven’t found a reason not to be a vegetarian. Although there are downsides, I’ve found them to be far outweighed by the upsides. It took a bit of getting used to, but I’m so satisfied by my choice to be a vegetarian, that I don’t see any impending need to stop.

Will I always be a vegetarian? I can’t say for sure. I treat life as an ongoing experiment, one of which my hypotheses are frequently overturned. I don’t treat vegetarianism as a lifelong commitment, just a practice I enjoy.

I have considered pescetarianism (which in addition to eggs and milk, allows for fish) as a possible alternative, particularly if I’m living in a place where strictly vegetarian eating is difficult or if the cuisine is centered around seafood and fish. But, even for that decision, I’d like to do a lot of research to see whether the health or environmental merits warrant making a switch.

So, to answer the titular question, “Why Vegetarian,” I can only say this: all of my research shows vegetarianism, if not being the best choice, is at least a better choice than 95% of the world’s diet for health, environment and ethics. But even more, I actually enjoy being a vegetarian, and I didn’t know that fact before I started.

Here are a few links I found useful both in being a vegetarian, and in making the decision to eat only plants:

Great Books:

Free Web Resources:


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29 Responses to “Why Vegetarian?”

  1. Hey Scott.

    I like seeing that you hit a lot of these points. The point about it being more healthy than the majority of diets should be enough to quiet one of those useless “Why?” responses. The few who respond to new or foreign concepts to them by saying “Why?”, in a disparaging manner, are the same ones who can’t embrace change and end up behind by their own accord. The ones who respond with “Okay, let’s take a look at the benefits and differences” are the ones who we call flexible or adaptable, and who we would want to work with or be with in an emergency situation.

    You hit most of the questions a person would ask about being vegetarian. Nice work on your current health and fitness condition, by the way.

  2. Ben says:

    Did you consider that vegetarian food may just be a placebo for you, in terms of energy levels? Vegetarian food makes sense in objective reasons, but I tend to find the claims of greater energy levels (especially Steve Pavlina’s) exaggerated. Although, I’ve only ever reduced my meat intake, not removed it from my diet completely.
    And when you take this argument away, it may not be worth the effort…? – did you find it difficult to change your eating habits?

  3. Maxine says:

    Armen, I think you might find that quite a few people’s resistance to vegetarianism have more to do with their previous exposure to the “nut jobs” that Scott mentioned than a lack of ability to change.

    Your comment seems to be implying that people who are sceptical of vegetarianism are somehow inflexible and unadaptable which unfortunately is the type of superciliousness that cause people to be suspicious in the 1st place.

  4. I’m not sure why, but every time someone asked me why I was vegetarian, I always felt there were too many reasons behind why I gave up eating meat. And there was. But now you helped clarify all my reasons with the three you provided: it’s healthier, it’s better for the environment, and it reduces the requirement for factory farming techniques.

    I would add my own fourth point, which is that I actually stopped liking the texture of meat, and it actually grosses me out now. Something about the idea turns me off… It’s funny because before this, I had eaten meat for over 20 years of my life before that!

  5. Scott Young says:

    Ben,

    There’s definitely an element of a placebo with regards to energy levels. That’s why I try to avoid basing decisions entirely on personal feeling, and I try to find some objective research to back up my intuitions. My argument about energy levels/productivity are based on the argument:

    Health = higher energy levels
    Vegetarian diet = health

    So I’m not basic it entirely on intuition, assuming the fundamental research is correct (as I believe it is) and health translates into energy levels (which, in most cases, is difficult to argue with) I’m confident that my energy levels are, at least in some way, higher.

    It was a bit difficult in the beginning, but now continuing as a vegetarian is relatively easy.

  6. James Wright says:

    Vegetarians may get all their proteins, but to gain the full set of fatty acids needed for healthy brain function you have to go outside a fully vegetarian diet.

  7. Christopher Haddock says:

    Very nice article Scott. I was a vegetarian but switched to a Paleo/Zone type of diet. For me, it worked much better. My energy went up and my body fat went down. I recovered from my intense workouts much faster. There is an emerging school of thought that argues there may be a genetic basis to how a person responds to a particular diet. Some people may do better on a vegetarian/low fat diet, others on high protein diets, etc.

    Plants do have protein. Protein is made up of chains of amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce and must be obtained from food. Animal sources of protein provide these in abundance…most plant sources do not. One has to combine different plants corretly to get them. The only plant source that typically would provide them is legumes (beans). Also, there is the issue of bioavailability. There is some evidence that animal sources of protein are more readily and efficiently used by our bodies (this is why may athletes use whey-based protein powder vs. soy).

    Herbivores, such as cattle and elephants, have digestive systems that allow them to fully digest and utilize the nutrients in plants. We do not because we evolved as omnivores. Thus, we are incapable of fully utilizing plants as nutrient sources. Vegetarianism does not completely fit will with how we evolved. Nevertheless, I think the paleo approach takes what is best about vegetarianism by emphasizing getting most of our carbs from green vegetables and dark berries, all of which are high in antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients. It also encourages us to eat plant-based proteins, such as nuts, so that we do not exclusively rely on meats.

    None of “why vegetarian” arguments address what humans are best evolved to eat though or the problems with diets high in processed, grain-based foods. see: http://www.beyondveg.com/

    Finally, you have to eat a lot more of most plant-based proteins to get the same amount you would get from animals. For example, compare the protein content of 1 cup of broccoli to 1 3oz chicken breast. Even most beans only have half to one-third the protein found in animals sources.

    Finally, given the content of the typical American diet, actually having a philosophy about what you eat, whether vegetarian or paleo, puts you ahead of the pack. Just my thoughts.

  8. William Cheah says:

    Very well clarified Scott. That’s what I love about your posts. You don’t force others to follow take your path.

  9. jim says:

    Hey Scott,

    Have you also looked into the elements of fasting/detoxifying? – eating one meal a day at night; while allowing your body to detoxify during the day as you fast.

  10. Scott Young says:

    Christopher,

    Thanks for the comment. Here’s my response.

    While I think evolutionary arguments towards dietary choice are useful (eating a completely unnatural diet is more likely to be unhealthy) I don’t think you can extend it to it’s logical extreme claiming that there is one diet that is perfect, some mythical paleolithic diet.

    Two reasons for this:

    1. Humans are omnivores, and across cultures there is a wide variety of diets. If one thing can be true, it’s that humans are healthy on a large variety of food (compared to say, koalas who can only eat eucalyptus).

    2. Evolution selects for reproductive fitness, not long-term health. If the body hadn’t adapted to eating large amounts of meat (hypothetically), and the consequences of such a diet weren’t present until someone reached their late sixties (as is often the case with degenerative diseases) then the diet could continue down evolutionary lines, even if it only improved reproductive fitness in a small way early in life (such as being able to build muscle faster).

    So, while evolutionary arguments are compelling, they’re logically incomplete. There is ample evidence that humans can subsist both on vegetarian, flexitarian and even mostly carnivorous diets, our evolutionary heritage selected us for flexibility when it comes to eating.

    There are 8 essential amino acids out of the full 20 available to humans, not 9.

    The reason bodybuilders typically use whey over soy isn’t usually the protein itself (at least, in all the arguments I’ve heard). The resistance against soy is that chemicals also present in soy hinder nutritional uptake, and there are estrogen-like chemicals in soy which some believe may reduce the ability to grow muscles. But that being said, eating protein out of a powder is neither natural or very healthy, so arguing about the distinctions seems pointless.

    As to the volume of protein in plants, I agree. Many vegetables high on protein have a low calorie density, which means you need to eat more of them. However, if you follow the logic presented in The China Study, and similar papers, high-calorie diets and high-protein diets are often less effective for health, so is having a lower calorie density really a bad thing?

    I’m not trying to argue that a paleolithic diet is necessarily worse than veganism. It might very well be healthier. I’m guessing if it avoids processed foods, it probably meets my 95% criteria for being healthier than most diets.

    My only point is that many of the arguments used for contrasting particular diets beyond the basics are flawed when applied to extremes. The only good indicators for comparing these diets would be experimental studies, which are extremely difficult and costly to do. Naturalistic experiments, like the China Study, offer a better solution, if by allowing researchers to examine the actual results of dietary differences.

    Thanks for sharing,
    -Scott

  11. [...] I posted an article explaining why I am a vegetarian. The bulk of the article hinged on the ample nutritional evidence that, if not the best diet, [...]

  12. Hello to you Maxine.

    That is a good point about being exposed to individuals that are a bit over-the-top causing concern for those looking for information. I left out discussion about that group.

    After reading my comment, I see how it came off the way you described. It wasn’t directed as you feel it may have been, as it was directed to those vegetarians who come across people who are rooted in their own long-term eating habits and see deviations from them as irregular or silly. It was more of an empowering message for vegetarians.

    Thanks for your follow-up thoughts.

  13. Allen says:

    Great post Scott. I also like your response to Christopher about the Paleo diet. Another thing to point out is that hemp seeds offer all 8 essential amino acids and the appropriate ratio of omega fatty acids that James claims are absent in vegetarian diets. Actually, according to the American Dietetic Association, humans can obtain all of their nutritional needs from plant-based foods without any animal-based foods and the ADA also says there are tremendous health benefits to abstaining from meat, dairy and eggs.

    One thing that struck me about your argument is that you don’t think animals should have the same rights as humans. I don’t think anyone, even PETA, is advocating such a position. I think the animal rights position is just that animals should be afforded the right not to be used and abused for human whims as if they were mere inanimate objects or unfeeling vegetables. Since animals can think and feel, their feelings should be taken into consideration.

    The way I look at it is that most people agree that causing needless suffering is wrong. Since eating meat (and other animal products) is not necessary for human health, any amount of suffering that animals who are killed for food endure is needless suffering. Sure, animals on factory farms may have it worse than a free living deer killed by a bowhunter, but the deer still needlessly suffers and dies. While hunting to survive is one thing, causing needless suffering and death when healthy, great tasting plant-based foods are easily available just seems unethical to me. Call me a “nut job,” but I don’t think the ethical position of vegans can be so easily dismissed.

  14. Scott Young says:

    Allen,

    I actually agree with all of your points made. My point of this article, however, was to avoid bludgeoning people with the ethical argument towards vegetarianism. It’s been overplayed so most carnivores tune it out. It’s reached a state of apathy, where, even if you explain the horrific conditions that animals who have more intelligence than dogs (say, pigs) are put through, they simply shrug as if it isn’t there problem.

    I figure if you’re going to become a vegetarian, for most people, it’s better to explain the “what’s in it for me?” proposition instead of just the moral issues at play. That was how I made the switch, and after switching I was more sensitive to the ethical argument involved.

    -Scott

  15. Adam Welch says:

    Hey Scott. My girlfriend and I recently found out that she was anemic. This information prompted a shift in diet to an iron rich diet. She also had some intenstinal problems, so we shifted away from various things like dairy until it subsided in case they were causing it. The problem is, that the foods that are iron rich, like spinach, are very high in oxalate and can cause kidney stones. So, my girlfriend as I type as a kidney stone. We are now looking for an iron rich diet that is low on oxalate, or more specifically gives a good and healthy range of nutrients specific to her needs.

    You mention lentils for protein, and that is low in oxalate, but it would be difficult to find a diet that gives 15% protein, is rich in iron, and is low on oxalate.

    I just wanted to share this with you in case you weren’t aware of it, but it makes sense that you are.

    Take care.

    PS Ive changed my site from digatheisminreligion to digforyourlife.

    Have you ever thought about vlogging?
    How close are you to public speaking about these topics?

    Good luck buddy.

  16. Anthony says:

    “eating protein out of a powder is [not] very healthy”

    Why do you say this?

  17. Scott Young says:

    Anthony,

    I can understand the use of protein powder in specific training situations, in the short term. But the fact is that your consuming on nutrient, stripped of all vitamins and minerals, in a highly refined state. No other macronutrient can be healthfully consumed this way: carbohydrates or fat, so I don’t see why one can reasonably assume it is healthy to do so with protein powders.

    Highly refined carbs (white sugars, etc.) are not healthy.
    Highly refined fats (margerine, lard in large quantities) are not healthy.

    I’m not saying protein powders are specifically dangerous (like steroids or something with proven health repercussions) just that, on average, it’s probably better to get your protein from natural sources which include vitamins, minerals, flavenoids and all those other wonderful chemicals that science is only beginning to discover have an impact on human nutrition.

    -Scott

  18. Anthony says:

    Thanks Scott for the answer,

  19. Scott K says:

    Good article. My wife and I are actually discussing new ways to eat, and will probably try to get into eating vegetarian meals a couple of nights a week. Any suggestions on where you like to get vegetarian meal recipes?

  20. Lily Walker says:

    I use Whey protein a lot before and after my bodybuilding routines. Whey helps a lot in building muscles.,,~

  21. hermes handbags says:

    Thanks Scott for the answer,

  22. Tomas says:

    Scott,

    I wonder if you are aware of this critique of T.C.Campbell’s work:
    http://rawfoodsos.com/2010/07/07/the-china-study-fact-or-fallac/

  23. Namrata says:

    Hi Scott
    I’ve been vegan for about 8 months now. My reasons are ethical-having being raised a Hindu, I feel its unethical to kill or make another being suffer for our needs esp in this age when grocery stores have such myriad options available in nearly every city of the developed world. Reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan FOer has further convinced me to stay vegan. Moreover, I do love being a vegan..:-)
    My only problem is the social inconvenience of it-how do you stay vegan while in a social gathering? What explanations do you give people about your dietary choices? Some pointers would be very helpful.
    Thanks

  24. Adam Hurwitz says:

    Hi,

    I stumbled across an interesting article written by a former vegan. They studied the process of sustainable farming and soil development and learned that the by products of animals are required for a natural soil compost that avoids unsustainable chemicals and practices. This which is led the author to an attitude of consuming meat that is raised in a mindful, humane, and sustainable way. http://www.foodrenegade.com/why-im-not-vegan/

    Even though I am yet to decide my opinion on this topic, I was wondering what other vegans thought?

    Thanks,

    -Adam

  25. Scott Young says:

    Adam,

    That chain of reasoning makes no sense to me. “It’s impossible to fully avoid using animals to live, therefore we should use animals.” That’s a naturalistic fallacy of replacing is with ought.

    Look, I think there’s definitely room for debate about the ethical merits of eating animals, and I think a lot of vegans go overboard focusing on things that don’t matter. But I do think that arguments posed like that are ridiculous. It would be equivalent to saying “some necessary goods in the world are produced by slave labor (an unfortunate truth in today’s society), therefore slave labor is okay.”

    I’m fine if you choose to eat meat, and I think there are some good defensible positions for choosing to eat it in terms of moral philosophy. But the above argument isn’t one of them.

    -Scott

  26. Amanda says:

    Scott, what do you think about the paleo diet?

  27. Scott Young says:

    Amanda,

    I honestly haven’t read enough of the science on the paleo diet to have an informed opinion about it.

    -Scott

  28. Adel-Alexander says:

    Hey Scott, have you ever heard about the book ”Fiber menace?” It was written by a russian doctor who basically says that consuming too much fiber is actually bad for you because it can cause constipation and all other sorts of problem. You should check his website out!

    http://gutsense.org/

  29. Brittany says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thank you for your site, I’ve enjoyed reading many of your articles. I wanted to comment here because I believe you have a lot of readers and wanted to add some new research articles that have come out since this was posted.

    As a species we evolved to eat meat, from the size of our brains, to the length of our intestines, to our teeth. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/meat-eating-human-evolution/#axzz2fgW6fZ4M

    The latest research on B12 is the most convincing:
    “B12 is the only vitamin that contains a trace element (cobalt), which is why it’s called cobalamin. Cobalamin is produced in the gut of animals. It’s the only vitamin we can’t obtain from plants or sunlight. Plants don’t need B12 so they don’t store it. B12 is found exclusively in animal foods, such as liver, clams, oysters, mussels, fish eggs, octopus, fish, crab and lobster, beef, lamb, cheese and eggs.

    A common myth amongst vegetarians and vegans is that it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources like seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and brewers yeast. But plant foods said to contain B12 actually contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block intake of and increase the need for true B12.” http://chriskresser.com/what-everyone-especially-vegetarians-should-know-about-b12-deficiency

    This article goes over the flaws in the China Study: http://www.westonaprice.org/vegetarianism-and-plant-foods/the-china-study-myth

    How soy is toxic and should not be eaten: http://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert

    This is the most ideal diet I have found with paleo coming in a very close second: http://www.westonaprice.org/basics/principles-of-healthy-diets

    I really enjoy your site and good luck on your latest project :)

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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