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Vegetarians & Vegans: Who they are and how to become one

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Vegetarians

Human herbivores are enigmas. Vegetarians. Vegans. We’re all crazy. Seriously, what kind of person wouldn’t want to eat bacon on everything possible? We come in two categories: 1)hippies who don’t shower and are essentially the Amish but instead of working hard, we smoke homegrown weed, or 2) entitled snobs with huge egos who simply want to show that we’re better than everyone else – because we are.

As a vegetarian, I’m often surprised by the number of people who don’t understand plant-based diets. I thought vegetarians were pretty common in this day and age. I thought every downtown district in America had a vegetarian café by now. My city does – and I live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the home of the Packers, cheese, beer and brats. In fact, the place is really popular and if you’re ever in the area, you should check it out – despite the absence of veggie-brats from the menu.

But I’m not here to judge. I don’t want to be one of the snobs. I simply want to inform. I want to channel the veggie-hippie-super-zen powers and build bridges, not fences (but just a heads up, I haven’t been a vegetarian for too terribly long so I don’t have as strong of a connection with the tofu spirits as you may have hoped).

Let’s clear up the confusion and go through the basics of what it means to eat a plant-based diet.

By the Numbers

So how common is vegetarianism in the U.S.?

According to a 2013 study:

  • 7.3 million Americans are vegetarian
  • 22.8 million follow a “vegetarian-inclined diet”
  • 1 million are vegan
  • 59 percent of vegetarians are female and 41 percent are male
  • 42 percent are 18-34 years old, 40.7 percent are 35-54, and 17.4 percent are over 55

And they’re not all hippies. They’re not all fitness obsessed. They don’t all go around throwing paint on people yelling, “Fur is murder!” A lot of them even like cake and only eat a bowl of kale with hemp milk for breakfast like once a week. They come from every walk of life. Want proof? I’ll introduce you to my firefighter boyfriend. Or you can check out this list of more well-known meatless members of society

Types

There are actually several categories of veggie-lovers. If you thought it was challenging enough keeping the differences between vegetarians and vegans straight, you’re sure to love the vocab list created by Vegetarian Nation.

But let’s start with a bare-bones explanation – or, to avoid meat, let’s go with the nutshell analogy.

The basic plant-based diets are vegetarianism or veganism. Neither vegetarians nor vegans eat meat – no red meat, no poultry, no fish. They also don’t eat most foods made using the flesh of an animal, like beef or chicken broth. Vegans take it a step further and avoid all products from animals. This includes milk, eggs, gelatin and sometimes even honey. They also often abstain from using animal products like leather and wool.

So here’s our nutshell: Vegetarians = no meat. Vegans = nothing that comes from an animal.

Now for the more technical stuff:

  • Lacto Vegetarians: No meat of any kind and no eggs. However, they do eat dairy products like yogurt, milk and cheese.
  • Ovo Vegetarians: No meat of any kind and no dairy products, but they do eat eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo Vegetarians: No meat, but they eat eggs and dairy. It’s the most common type of vegetarian and the group I consider myself part of (though I keep it simple and just say I’m vegetarian).
  • Pescatarians: No red meat or poultry, but they do eat fish and seafood. Many vegetarians would say this doesn’t count as a type of vegetarianism. Some might call these people “semi-vegetarians.”
  • Pollotarians: Another “semi-vegetarian.” They avoid red meat and fish but eat poultry.
  • Flexitarians: Basically a vegetarian who splurges now and again. Their diet is almost entirely plant-based, but they’re okay with a little bit of meat here and there. Vegetarian Nation is a bit condescending toward this group:

“These folks do their best to limit meat intake as much as possible and they have an almost entirely plant-based diet. This is not technically considered a ‘vegetarian’ diet, but we commend the effort!”

No wonder vegans and vegetarians get reputations as snobs.

To me, it seems a bit silly to do this much labeling. Under these rules I would technically be a flexitarian – I had a Philadelphia roll on my birthday and I had a taste of my mom’s stuffing on Thanksgiving. Honestly, I didn’t even know that term until I wrote this blog post.  If we followed all the terms to the letter, a lot of herbivores in the animal kingdom would just be A-for-effort-ivores. Want to know what I’m talk about? Check out this crazy video. (Just a heads up, the video does include two instances of adult language.)

You won't believe what he just ate.

You won’t believe what he just ate.

 

If some people want to argue that I’m not technically a vegetarian, they can go right ahead. They can also stop calling deer herbivores. I’m not in it for the labels and technicalities. I think it’s much more important to look at the big picture. I’m in it for my own health and my own reasons and beliefs. A single action doesn’t make or break a lifestyle.

The Motivators

So what are the reasons and beliefs that make someone decide to limit their meat consumption? There are several major ones, but of course it’s a personal choice and no two people have the exact same experience. For many people, it’s a combination of factors.

Here’s the breakdown from Statistic Brain:

  • Improve overall health: 53%
  • Environmental concerns: 47%
  • Natural approaches to wellness: 39%
  • Food-safety concerns: 31%
  • Animal welfare: 54%
  • Weight loss: 25%
  • Weight maintenance: 24%

As an interesting fact, in a survey from Huffington Post, 42 percent of vegans switched to that lifestyle after seeing a film, educational video or movie.

On a more global scale, many individuals practice vegetarianism for religious reasons, particularly in India.

For me, it was a combination of reasons. Growing up, I was always cautious about meats because I was very sensitive to many preservatives and flavor enhancers.

I started to become more serious about limiting my meat consumption when I started studying a bit of environmental science. I was always a conscientious recycler and advocate of reusable products so it was a natural progression for me.

I won’t go into a full-scale lecture here, but there’s good reason so many people decide to go vegetarian for the environment. Producing meat takes a huge toll on the environment, and America demands a lot of it. We make up just 1/20 of the world’s population, but account for 1/6 of all meat consumed. And it takes about 25 times more energy to produce one calorie of beef for human consumption than it does to produce one calorie of corn. (Click here for some helpful visualizations)

If you’re feeling particularly studious, do some extra reading here.

And it’s not just the health of the environment. The large factory farms producing the majority of America’s meat and dairy also pose immediate human health risks like respiratory conditions and acceleration of antibiotic resistance.

For personal health, many studies have found that eating less meat can also help you reduce your intake of fat and cholesterol and benefit your overall health and longevity.

As you’ve probably deduced, my main motivator is the environment. I figure if I can limit my impact and enjoy doing it, why not?

The second factor would be health. I was always a fairly healthy eater (my mom and dad both grew up on farms so meals were meat, potatoes, vegetables), but making the switch made me pay more attention to what I was eating.

And lastly, animal rights play a small role. I’m not against anyone eating meat – animals eating one another is a natural part of life – but I don’t always approve of the way animals raised for consumption are treated. Don’t worry, I promise to never write a blog post filled with side-by-side images of adorable baby animals and slaughterhouses. But I will include this picture because it’s just so darn cute. 9224729680_b294270211_o

Taking the Plunge

I’m not here to tell you how you should live your life or what’s best for your health. We all have unique needs and personal beliefs. But if you are considering making a switch to a more plant-based diet, here are some tips.

Go slow. Like dealing with addiction, it usually goes better if you don’t quit cold turkey (pun intended). Maybe start with doing Meatless Monday every week. Start limiting yourself to meat for just one meal a day the rest of the week.

Find foods you enjoy. Think about meatless dishes you already like. It’ll help you from slipping back into old habits. It’s also a great way to change your perspective. Once you realize all of the things that don’t have meat that you still love, regularly going without meat will seem less foreign and become much more doable.

Gather some resources. Don’t let yourself use excuses like, “I don’t know what to cook.” Get a vegetarian cookbook. Follow new cooking blogs (click here for suggestions ) or subscribe to a vegetarian magazine. When I made the switch, I signed up for Vegetarian Times. Every month I had new meatless recipes, cooking tips and advice delivered right to my home.

Hmm... Does steak sauce count as a vegetarian meal?

Hmm… Does steak sauce count as a vegetarian meal?

Become a label reader. Start paying closer attention to the ingredients and the nutrition facts on the products you buy. You might be surprised how many seemingly meatless items aren’t. Many refried beans include lard and some cheeses technically aren’t vegetarian.

Even your multivitamin and other supplements might not be free of animal-based ingredients. For a completely vegetarian-friendly line of products, try Vega from Natural Healthy Concepts.

Decide which animal ingredients you’re okay with consuming and which you’re not. Also, just because something is vegetarian doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Many meatless products can still contain high doses of sodium and sugar.

Wait a minute. Where's the list of ingredients?

Wait a minute. Where’s the list of ingredients?

Don’t go overboard. When we’re starting something new, it’s tempting to dive in head first. In a middle school art class, I learned how to paint with acrylics and thought it was pretty fun. I ran out and bought my own canvas, sponges, palette knives, all kinds of different brushes, and about two dozen different colors of paint. And I created about two paintings and left various masterpieces unfinished. On the plus side, most of my supplies still look practically brand new.

My point: Don’t be like middle-school-artist Megan. Don’t immediately get up from this post, change out of your pajama pants, and head to your nearest Whole Foods and buy every vegetable you’ve never tried and all the flax, chia, hemp, carob, tofu, and soy-based products you can fit in your cart. Gradually try new things and see what you really like and need.

Excuse me, Whole Foods employee - I'm going to be needing ALL of this.

Excuse me, Whole Foods employee – I’m going to be needing ALL of this.

Know why you’re doing it. Like any other goal, you have to be clear and honest with yourself. If someone asks you, “Why did you decide to go vegetarian?” and you can’t give them a good answer, it’s probably not the right move for you. Do some research and think over your decision. Don’t do it just because of one blog post. Read that post and then read some more. Watch some good documentaries. Talk to other people who’ve made the switch. Do what’s best for you.

Don’t be a snob. This one is probably one of the most important. You know that friend who spent a semester abroad and then came back and compared EVERYTHING to how it was done in Europe – and how it was way more sophisticated and just better? Don’t be that friend. That friend ends up sitting home alone, drinking a bottle of grocery store liquor department “French” wine looking at Facebook and Instagram photos of their friends having fun without them.

Who needs those soulless, meat-eater friends. You're my REAL friend, unripe mango.

Who needs those soulless, meat-eater friends? You’re my REAL friend, unripe mango.

Just because you stop eating meat doesn’t mean you automatically start becoming better than everyone else. Watching the game with friends? Bash the opposing team – not the chicken wings. And when someone asks you why you don’t eat meat, don’t hop on your soapbox and start spewing a fire and brimstone sermon on the wrongs of eating animals. It’s fine to answer honestly and share your opinions, but don’t push your ideologies onto someone else or turn the question on them.

 

The Final Nutshell

It all comes down to personal choice. Do I believe people should eat less meat? Yes. Do I believe my way is the right way and anytime I see someone eating meat I should slap it out of their hand and scold them with a firm, “No!”? Nope. If I cave and eat another Philadelphia roll on my birthday, should I consider myself off the wagon and slink off to the nearest Red Robin with a letter F made of bacon on my chest to show the world that I’m nothing but a worthless flexitarian? Of course not.

Life and health is about give and take. Nothing about it is black and white. It’s green and blue and red and pink and brown and yellow. Pick the colors you like and that work best for you, and be respectful toward those who choose differently.

 

Featured Image: Grilled Kale and Chickpea Salad – Amelia Crook

Open Mouth Deer – @Doug88888

Vegetarian – Christopher Johnson

Refrigerator – Ambro

Camp FRESH helps teens and parents become smarter, healthier shoppers – Christiana Care

Guy restocking vegetables at Whole Foods – benjamin sTone

Attractive Girl with Heap of Fruits and Vegetables – stockimages

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