Vegetarianism is defined as “the theory or practice of living solely upon vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and nuts—with or without the addition of milk products and eggs” as well as the barring of meat and often seafood in one’s diet, says the Encyclopedia Britannica. Veganism is similar but a more strict version of vegetarianism: one is not allowed to eat, or sometimes even buy, any product that comes from an animal. Vegetarianism and veganism, or what I will begin to call a “plant-based diet”, in contemporary America appears more like a lifestyle than a diet. There are cookbooks, entire websites, and personal social media accounts dedicated to the user’s plant-based diet, plant-based apparel, and even vegan fast-food items. The interest in plant-based diets has been steadily increasing in recent years all around the world (“Interest in Veganism is Surging”). Globally, in 2014 there were 375 million vegetarians (Figus).
A Very Brief Explanation of the Origins of Plant-Based Diets
Some might think that abstaining from meat and fish is impossible, or harmful for one’s health, let alone abstaining from animal products; however, this was quite normal for many cultures in the past. You may think Pythagoras, who’s often touted as “the first self-proclaimed [vegetarian]” (Avey), is the start of vegetarian history, as many sources pinpoint him to be, but he’s not. Plant-based diets were familiar to many cultures far and wide in the ancient world. Plant-based diets were typical in parts of Africa, India, and parts of the Mediterranean about 2,000 years ago, according to a YouTube video by ATTN:. Your typical ancient Greek ate bread, wine, legumes, eggs, fish, veggies and cheese for meals while only rich Greeks were able to eat meat (Kotsiris). Lots of South African and “Ethiopian traditional dishes are vegan” (Singh). Nicola Kagoro, vegan chef and part of African Vegan on a Budget group, says “veganism originates in Africa” (Signh). Buddha condemned the killing of animals, and Mahavira (apostle of Jainism) supported non-violence and vegetarianism (Garodia and Gupta). Vegan and vegetarian diets prevailed in several ancient parts of the world whether that was due to individuals’ circumstances, their traditional methods of making food, their religion, or for other reasons. Plant-based diets are not new phenomenons, and some individuals in these areas still eat a plant-based diet. For example, as mentioned earlier vegan chef Nicola Kagoro heads a movement “to showcase and educate customers about budget-friendly vegan African cuisine” (Singh). Additionally, some researchers say 20%-37% of India is vegetarian (Biswas). It’s notable that these places- Africa, India, and the Mediterranean- were certainly not the only areas where people ate plant-based diets. However, there was a decline in the plant-based diet when European colonizers forced indigenous people to farm commercially, leading to “a lot more animals but also fewer indigenous crops” (ATTN:). As mentioned earlier in regards to ancient Greece, to these 15th century Europeans colonizers, meat was also a sign of wealth (Alvarez). Plant-based diets were no longer the norm. (The history of the plant-based diet and its erasure by European colonizers is complex and extensive. As a white person who’s continually learning about colonialism, I’m definitely new to this specific topic. If you’d like to learn from good resources, check out “Colonization, Food, and the Practice of Eating” by Dr. Linda Alvarez, “The Surprisingly Black History of Veganism” by ATTN:, and more below.)
Today’s Popularity of Plant-Based Diets
Plant-based diets appeal to today’s consumer for several reasons. Plant-based diets are better for the planet; there’s great evidence to show they’re better for one’s physical health; and it shows support for animal rights. Cows produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Cows, mostly their burps and flatulence, produce so much methane that, “if cows were their own country, they would be the third-biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world” (Kaplan). Producing meat and animal products also uses a lot of land, much more than plant-based alternatives (Kaplan). Many meat-eaters worry about getting enough protein or B3 as a vegetarian or vegan, but there’s also countless health benefits with a plant-based diet. Decrease of risk for the following: certain types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and lower cholesterol are among some of the evidence-based claims that plant-based eaters can promote (Medical News Today). Lastly, many plant-based followers cite the horrific treatment of animals in factory farms as a reason for signing off meat. Animals, due to the factory farming processes that it takes to make the animals consumable, are not even able to inhabit their own bodies comfortably or breed properly or humanely without human interference (Foer). Even with a lot of positivity around plant-based diets, one negative is that they can certainly be more expensive and difficult to maintain in some areas of the world for people who are struggling financially.
COVID-19 and the U.S. Diet
Recently, due to COVID-19, since meat-packaging is considered an essential service in the U.S. These facilities were forced to stay open, even though hundreds, and thousands in some cases, of meat packaging employees came down with COVID-19 (Foer). Animal rights activists often talk about the emotional damage done to animals raised for consumption, but the people who work in the meatpacking industry in the U.S. endure traumatic experiences, too. Since grocery stores would not purchase meat due to fears about COVID-19, industry employees had to euthanize animals themselves (Durning). While mentioning the damage that the modern day meat packaging industry does to humans, it’s important to note how it impacts people of color (POC): “people of color… disproportionately are victims of factory farming’s brutality” even though POC “disproportionately self-identify as vegetarian” (Foer). This tells us that factory farming is another part of systemic racism in the U.S. (This is a huge topic and part of environmental racism. Here’s an article on how industrial agriculture impacts POC in the U.S.) Additionally, factory farm workers are also forced to work for little pay. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 the average annual pay for slaughters and meat packagers was $28,450 and the hourly wage was $13.68. As Johnathan Safran Foer noted, this might create a change in the American conscience; more Americans might no longer see meat and factory farming as a necessity or as “essential”.
- Alvarez, Linda. “Colonization, Food, and the Practice of Eating.” Food Empowerment Project, 13 Feb. 2019, foodispower.org/our-food-choices/colonization-food-and-the-practice-of-eating/.
- ATTN:. “The Surprisingly Black History of Veganism.” YouTube, 19 Feb. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mquWUNiwzVo.
- Avey, Tori. “Evolution of Vegetarianism | The History Kitchen | PBS Food.” PBS Food, 28 May 2014, www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/evolution-vegetarianism/.
- Biswas, Soutik. “The Myth of the Indian Vegetarian Nation.” BBC News, 4 Apr. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-43581122.
- Durning, Alan. “Things I Hope Never Come Back After the Pandemic: #4. Cheap Beef.” Sightline Institute, 29 July 2020, www.sightline.org/2020/07/27/things-i-hope-die-in-the-pandemic-4-cheap-beef/.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “Vegetarianism | History, Types, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/topic/vegetarianism.
- Figus, Cinzia. “375 Million Vegetarians Worldwide. All the Reasons for a Green Lifestyle.” EXPONet, 27 Sept. 2014, www.expo2015.org/magazine/en/lifestyle/375-million-vegetarians-worldwide.html.
- Garodia Gupta, Archana, and Shruti Garodia. “What Did the Earliest Humans Eat and Were Ancient Indians Really Vegetarian?” The Indian Express, 22 Mar. 2019, indianexpress.com/article/parenting/learning/what-did-earliest-humans-eat-were-ancient-indians-vegetarian-5637013/.
- Kaplan, Sarah. “Are my hamburgers hurting the planet?” The Washington Post, The Washington Post, 18 Nov. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2019/11/18/are-my-hamburgers-hurting-planet/.
- Kotsiris, Kenton. “Learn How the Ancient Greeks Enjoyed Their Meals.” The Spruce Eats, 7 May 2020, www.thespruceeats.com/eating-like-an-ancient-greek-1705715.
- Medical News Today. “Vegetarian Diet: Benefits, Risks, and Tips.” Medical and Health Information, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/8749#tips.
- Safran Foer, Johnathan. “The End of Meat Is Here.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 May 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/opinion/coronavirus-meat-vegetarianism.html?referringSource=articleShare.
- Singh, Nikita. “Veganism Isn’t New for Africans—it’s a Return to Our Roots, Say These Chefs and Entrepreneurs.” Quartz Africa, 4 May 2019, qz.com/africa/1611946/vegan-restaurants-chefs-and-lifestyle-on-rise-in-south-africa/.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Employment and Wages, Slaughterers and Meat Packers. U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9 Sept. 2018. www.bls.gov/oes/2018/may/oes513023.htm#nat.