The Compleat Vegetarian
Hits 10875 | Created 2004-04-15 | Modified 2007-05-25I often joke with people that I became a vegetarian to impress a couple of hippy girls I once lived with, and although this is partially true, it is not the whole truth. At the time I had been reading a lot of books on religion, learning about meditation and generally becoming, well, more hippy than I was anyway. Slowly, over time, I began to have nagging doubts about meat.
Like a lot of people, I had distanced meat from the animal somewhat, so that pork chops were just tasty slices of loveliness and not actually a thin bit of pig. Sausages were only very vaguely connected to the cows I saw in fields. I had a minor revelation, realising that I wouldn't be able to kill a pig, or a cow, or even a fish for that matter, and so was being hypocritical in my meat eating. The conviction grew with time, and now, after ten years or more, there's no going back really.
Now, my reason for vegetarianism is a purely personal one, and not one I would advocate for anyone else, in fact, I don't care if other people want to eat meat - I don't actually have a problem with that - for me, it's pure personal, nothing more. The type of people who push their own opinions on others - what they think is right - I find arrogant and distasteful.
So, therefore, this essay isn't designed to turn you into a vegetarian if you're not already one, more, it's just an essay about some of the myths, misconceptions and dull arguments that people use against vegetarians. It's merely to inform, not preach.
"I'm a vegetarian, but I eat fish".
This is a phrase I hear quite a lot, and although I'm not a fan of labels, I do think that we should be clearer about what a vegetarian is, for a few different reasons.
One is that I don't like to be put into the same class as 'fish-eating vegetarians', as for me these people are just picky eaters. You might as well say that I don't eat fruit, but I do eat apples. It makes no sense to me - fish are animals too. Anyway, for my purposes, I'll be using the traditional definition, simple and to the point:
One who does not eat flesh, fish or fowl.
The fine lines and boundaries of this definition are discussed later in this essay in the arguments section.
The other main class of vegetarians are the vegans, who can be thought of as an extreme vegetarian, as someone who won't eat anything that exploits animals, and perhaps won't wear any leather, etc. Many vegans won't eat honey, due to bee exploitation, and will carefully examine additives in food to check for suitability (some additives are blatantly animal-based, discussed later in the pitfalls section).
No matter what you think of vegans, you should be aware of them and the differences between them and just general, run-of-the-mill vegetarians.
There are different attitudes within the vegetarian community to how strict you should be in your diet. Many vegetarians will eat any cheese they can find, oblivious (or not caring) that a lot of cheese is made using a calf stomach by-product. Likewise, they might eat any sweets that they can find, despite the fact that they may contain gelatine, which is a fish by-product.
Now the reason for this is as diverse as the reasons that people become vegetarian in the first place, which can be broadly categorised as follows:
1. Spiritual / religious reasons (life is sacred).
2. Squeamish disposition (I couldn't kill a bunny rabbit).
3. Health (It's good for you, eliminate risk of strokes, etc).
4. Picky eating (those fish-eaters again).
5. Ethical (animals are treated badly, I don't eat meat as a protest).
There are probably more, as I say, there are many reasons.
Another reason for having good labels is so that when I tell someone in a restaurant that I'm a vegetarian, then they'll understand and give me something that I can eat. This is where fish-eaters that call themselves vegetarians muddy the water somewhat.
The word doesn't translate well either. In South Korea I had a tremendously difficult time getting vegetarian food (outside of Pizza Hut Margaritas). When I used the words in my phrase book, dishes would arrive full of fish, or chicken generally. In the end I got a kind young man to write down for me, in Korean, on a bit of paper, 'I'm a vegetarian'. The translation was a full side of paper, as it had to list every single thing that I couldn't eat - 'I cannot eat chicken, beef, pork, fish, bacon, squid, eel, etc..'
The same trouble can be had in Japan, where 'vegetarian' dishes often appear, topped with bacon.
A tip for you travellers in Asia - try asking for 'Buddhist food', or 'Monk food'. If in India, try asking for 'Jain food', which is Vegan (you'll have no problem getting plain old vegetarian food in India!).
"It's just a fad."
People have been vegetarians for thousands of years, and the fact that it is still around should tell us something. Mind you, war has been around for just as long, and that isn't necessarily a good thing.
"What about a mushroom? Do you eat mushrooms?"
Vegetarians either spend a great deal of time arguing with meat-eaters, or simply learn to smile when people taunt them and offer half-baked, ill-informed bits of information. I'm in the latter group, having spent five years or more defending my values, now I simply don't bother. It isn't important to me. It is however, important to realise that people that want to argue with you about how wrong it is to be a vegetarian, are extremely unlikely to be convinced by your arguments or ever, ever change their minds. Better then to save your breath and live a little longer.
Anyway, these are some of the top arguments that people use to attack vegetarians, and some responses to the same.
1. Starving to Death
"If you were stranded on a deserted island, would you kill and eat animals to survive?"
Quite frankly, yes. The whole point for me is that because I have a choice, that I can live happily and healthily without meat, that I choose to do that. If that choice is taken away, then I'll kill the wild pig, apologise, and roast it over a fire like any other hungry castaway.
I'm never exactly sure what point people are trying to make with this argument, it's as if they think that by making say that you would eat meat under certain circumstances somehow validates meat-eating as a lifestyle. The fact is that I'm not attacking meat-eating, nor the people that do it, I'm merely defending my life choices. So what if I would eat meat if I was starving? People who are starving eat humans too, to survive, but wouldn't consider doing it if they weren't forced to by fear of death.
Cannibalism is an interesting defensive tool. If you ask someone what they think about cannibalism, they would probably say that it is disgusting, or that they would do it only to survive. Well, I feel exactly the same about eating any animals, not just humans.
"You can't get all the vitamins/minerals/protein you need without meat."
A myth. There's nothing you can't get from a vegetarian diet.
"It's unhealthy for a child to be brought up as a vegetarian."
Nonsense. I'd like you to tell that to the hundreds of millions of Indians that are vegetarians from birth, and have been for thousands of years. A common counter argument to this is for people to point out that Indians are small compared to westerners. I find this generally offensive, frankly. Also, you may think that some westerners are actually a little too big - in a rather obese way.
"We evolved to eat meat - look at our teeth."
There's no denying that we have the kinds of teeth that other omnivores (animals that eat meat and plants) in the animal world have. Those troublesome canine teeth eh? There's no doubt that we evolved eating meat, since the dawn of time, but we've always eaten vegetables and plants too, and as soon as we could we settled down a grew crops as well as keeping domestic livestock.
I'm not trying to argue that it isn't natural to eat meat. We also evolved to resolve our problems with violence and killing, but we restrain ourselves (mostly). This is the thing - I'm aware of the choice, and I find, personally, that to live by not eating meat is a nobler existence. In a spiritual sense, again personally, I find my life purer without the lives of animals on my hands. If you're not spiritual, you won't understand, but that doesn't matter.
My only point is this: does the fact that you evolved doing one thing mean that it should continue to be done, without exception, into the future? This isn't a question that I can answer for you.
Another thing to point out here is that holy, historical figures, have had different attitudes to eating animals. Jesus fed the masses with fish, and we have to assume that he ate fish along with them. Buddha on the other hand ate no animals. If Buddhism had spread as Christianity has done around the world, then this essay would be redundant, we'd all accept vegetarianism as an understood (if not practised) thing.
A further note here: it is generally unwise to bringing up religion when arguing about vegetarianism - it just fuels the fire.
4. Feeding the World
"If everyone in the world was vegetarian, there wouldn't be enough food for us all."
The implication is that if we used all the cow fields for crops, we would all die of famine. Well, half the world is already dying of famine, you could point out to begin with. It's also a myth - ask any farmer, you can feed the same amount, if not more people with grain grown in a field than with the same field filled with cows.
Anyway, I'm not asking for all the world to turn vegetarian.
5. Eggs and the Grey Area
"Do you eat eggs? Eggs are life."
Well, welcome to the grey area. Where do you draw the line being a vegetarian? The grey area is a vast one, from the extremes of vegan bee exploitation, to the fish eaten by the picky eaters. We all draw a line somewhere in that area and try not to cross it.
Gandhi ate eggs incidentally. He didn't for many years, being a strict vegetarian and believing eggs to be life cut short. One day a man pointed out to Gandhi that the eggs were not life-to-be, as the eggs had never been fertilised by a cock. The eggs, if sat on by the chicken would not grow and hatch into chicks - they would just rot and decay. Unfertilised eggs have no life potential - they are, to put it bluntly, chicken periods.
You can rest assured that the eggs that you buy at the supermarket are unfertilised eggs and devoid of life. The chickens that lay these eggs will probably never see a cock in their entire lives. Some argue (myself included) that you should only buy eggs from free-range chickens, where the animals can run around outside and don't just live in a two foot cage for their whole existence.
The grey area extends, so people like to contend, to such things as snails, clams and mushrooms. What constitutes life? People will ask. Is it a face? Eyes? Legs? A Brain?
A difficult question indeed. We must all draw our own lines and come up with our own definitions of life that we won't devour. Plants are alive too, but we have to eat something. I imagine that if plants ran away when we tried to pick them, then I would tend to class them as life too and become a fruitarian or something.
Fruitarians. Ah, if you do extend life into plants then the only thing left to eat is the fruit of plants, which the plant produces specifically to be eaten and distribute their seeds. Picking fruit doesn't kill or hurt a plant, in fact, it helps it. Nuts fall into this category too.
Fruitarians tend to look a little pale, as it is hard to fulfil all your body's dietary needs on fruit and nuts alone.
And lastly, mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruit of the fungus which lives under the ground. They serve only to distribute spores. Picking a mushroom does not damage the fungus.
6. The Bacon Sandwich
"But how can you live without bacon sandwiches?"
Well, it depends on your reasons for being a vegetarian. If you have a good reason, you can live happily without bacon sandwiches. If you have a less solid reason, then you'll cave in one night after a couple of pints, and eat two or three in one go.
"Don't read the label!"
As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of products that are added to foods which are animal based, which renders seemingly innocent foods inedible to some vegetarians. I'll list some of the more common ones:
Rennet (Pressure in French): Some kind of cow-stomach-lining by product used in cheese making. Alternatives are cheap and widely available, but under-used. It can be particularly hard to find parmesan cheese without rennet. Goat cheese is usually rennet free.
Gelatine: Some kind of fish based material used to thicken things, like sweets, yoghurt and ice-cream. Again, there are alternatives, but they are under-used.
Whey powder: A by product of cheese making, may not be always be vegetarian. These appear in a wide variety of products.
"How do you cook rice again?"
If you want to be a vegetarian, you'd better learn to cook, or you'll be eating a lot of junk and get spots and fat, or eat nothing and get much too pale and thin.
Look at the average meal in India - a vegetable based dish, lentils, bread and yoghurt. This is a good meal with all food groups accounted for. You might also, during the day, eat an egg and drink a lot of sugary tea.
You need to ensure that you eat a varied diet when a vegetarian. If you find yourself eating the same thing, day in, day out, then there's something wrong, and you'll get sick. The body is very good at adapting to a poor diet, so you'll survive for a long time on a poor vegetarian diet - you can survive surprisingly long on bread water and lemons, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Ensure that you eat bread, rice, pasta, beans, lentils, nuts (people always say that don't they? I use nuts in cooking sometimes), plenty of cooked and uncooked vegetables, fresh fruit (or at least fruit juice), butter or margarine, oils, eggs, milk, cheese, tofu, yoghurt, salads, and some cake. If you find yourself eating all these things during a week, then you'll probably do well. Listen to your body, if you crave something, eat it, but don't give into excess and only eat cake all week. You need variety!
People worry too much about how much protein, carbohydrate, vitamins, folic acid, iron, zinc, etc, etc, they are getting every day. All I can say is that as long as you eat a balanced diet as described above, then you'll be fine. Don't stress about the details. The ill people are the people who don't cook their own meals, but live on junk food, fast food, take-away food and pre-cooked food - I'll say it again - learn to cook if you want to be healthy.
And, lastly, the secret of vegetarian cooking - herbs and spices. If you think vegetarian cooking is bland and tasteless, then you've obviously never eaten Indian, Thai or Chinese vegetarian food. The use of herbs and spices is most essential in vegetarian cookery to avoid the dull, insipid, tedious, pasta with red sauce that tastes of nothing, that everyone cooks for you when they know you're a vegetarian. 'What shall I cook?' They scream. 'I know, a tin of tomatoes on top of some pasta - perfect.'