When I was a kid, I remember being fascinated by the fact that there were people out there who were willing to give up burgers and steak. As I grew older, I ate less and less meat, naturally gravitating toward salad and fruit, exchanging hamburgers for black bean and lentil burgers. Perhaps that was due to my strange paranoia about food poisoning, but I think it mostly comes down to the fact that meat doesn't sit as well in my stomach. That being said, I still ate meat from time to time, and I never thought seriously about vegetarianism. That is, until a few weeks ago.
I'm currently enrolled in a course called Religions of India, in which we've studied Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism--basically all of the religions I know the least about. At the beginning of our Jainism unit, my professor challenged us to eat vegetarian for as many days as we could for the next week in order to simulate how important vegetarianism is in Jain tradition (she also said we'd get more points on our test depending on how many days we avoided meat, so there was some incentive involved).
Quite a few people in my class were disturbed that our professor would ask us to do such a thing, and they found it rather difficult, some mustering out two days, others neglecting the task altogether. I wasn't as disturbed by eliminating meat from my diet as I was by the reactions I got from the people around me.
I had already observed the looks and comments that vegetarians receive from opinionated, meat-loving individuals on a regular basis, but experiencing it first-hand was even more eye-opening. When I told people about my assignment, most of the reactions I got can be boiled down to two words: utter disbelief. And then when I told them that I was actually going to do it, that utter disbelief magnified. "Oh my gosh, you should just lie and say you did it," they said, "Who's going to know, anyway?" Others would say, "How can she just tell you to give up meat? This is America!"
These responses were interesting to me. At first, I just shrugged it off and said, "I mean, I don't eat that much meat anyway, and I'm mostly interested to see if I have the discipline to do it." But the more I chose to eat vegetarian, the more I thought about the other outcomes my vegetarianism had besides earning more points on a test. It seems as though most people assume that vegetarians don't eat meat because they don't like the idea of animals being killed. But as it turns out, there are many reasons vegetarianism can be beneficial.
This was especially brought to my attention when I learned my best childhood friend had begun adopting vegetarianism into her own life. We talked about the ramifications of eating meat, particularly the violence it inflicts on the environment. I hadn't realized how much water, energy and land is required to produce meat. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) cited a report from the Worldwatch Institute which revealed that "51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture." As it turns out, bodies of water are also negatively affected. According to PETA, "Runoff from factory farms and livestock grazing is one of the leading causes of pollution in our rivers and lakes." I've heard many people argue, "But the damage is already done! The animal is dead and the resources are used. Why let perfectly good meat go to waste?" And here's the truth: the more meat we eat, the more it's produced. By buying and consuming meat, we're asking for more of it.
Eating less meat is not only good for the environment, it also happens to have great health benefits. For a while it was believed that a vegetarian diet couldn't be healthy because it lacks certain nutrients provided by meat. As it turns out, that couldn't be further from the truth. According to Harvard Medical School, "plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient but also as a way to reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses." By eating less meat, vegetarians tend to be at lower risk of heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Harvard Medical School explains why this is, revealing that "vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium [and] magnesium." Eating meat is not necessarily unhealthy, but too much of it can cause problems.
After completing the vegetarian assignment for my class, I continued the same eating habits for three more days. Then I went out to dinner with my parents, and without thinking about it, I ordered salmon. As I ate it, I thought about how it made me feel. Was I distraught by eating meat? Did I feel guilty for inflicting violence on the environment? By the time I was done, I had decided that the guilt I felt for eating a single salmon meal was quite minimal.
While it's great that some people are able to eat purely vegetarian all the time, I don't see a problem with straying away from it every once in a while. Can most Americans make an effort to eat a little less meat? Yes. Even if everyone ate vegetarian for one day out of the week, we could make a huge impact on both our long-term health and the environment. I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty good to me. And if that seems out of reach, we can at least stop giving vegetarians grief about what they eat. Because, in reality, they're helping to make the world a better place.