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Photo Courtesy of aetherforce.com

February 18, 2016

Got Beef with Veganism?: Why a Million Americans Choose This Lifestyle

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I’m sure that most people by now have heard of vegan diet, and of those who have heard of it, most associate it with various not-so-good connotations. Veganism has quite a bad reputation with the general American population, conjuring images of lifeless lettuce leaves and sad cherry tomatoes. It’s hard for Americans to understand this lifestyle because our own lifestyle is so incredibly centered on meat. Is Thanksgiving really Thanksgiving if you didn’t share a huge stuffed turkey with your family? While Thanksgiving ranks as the number-one eating day of the year for Americans, Super Bowl Sunday is a close second. According to the National Chicken Council’s 2015 Wing Report (yes, that is actually a thing), Americans consumed around 1.25 billion wings while watching the Patriots and Seahawks fight for the Lombardi Trophy. That’s like winning the 2016 Powerball Lottery except, instead of winning cash, ending up with a billion wings! Without a doubt, meat is a huge part of American culture. It seems like no meal is complete without some source of animal meat — bacon at breakfast, a chicken sandwich for lunch and maybe some steak for dinner. And the truth is, meat is great! So why would someone ever choose to give it up to become vegan?

First off, it would be good to know exactly what it meant to become vegan. Contrary to popular belief, becoming vegan isn’t just a dietary adjustment; it’s a complete lifestyle overhaul. In addition to not eating meat (red meat, poultry, fish), vegans do not use or consume other animal products and ­by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics and soaps derived from animal products. Knowing all this makes you realize just how big of a commitment the vegan lifestyle is. As a vegan, you can’t even put ranch dressing on those lifeless lettuce leaves — ranch is composed of mayonnaise, which, in turn, contains eggs. 

Okay, let’s say you decide that you actually don’t need ranch dressing. In fact, you decide that you do want to become vegan. Well, that’s great! So it’s 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and you and your friends decide to eat dinner at Okenshields (because every other dining hall is closed, and this is an absolute last resort). You walk in with a smile on your face, but as you scan each section, your smile fades, realizing you can’t eat the chicken Parmesan, or the buttered corn, or even the stir-fried noodles. The only foods you can eat are in the small salad section. And this unfortunate situation doesn’t just happen in Okenshields: It happens in almost every eatery you decide to eat at. You walk in, take a look at the menu and notice a vegan section; however, it’s awfully small and unappealing. So not only is it hard giving up meat — it’s also hard finding vegan vegan-friendly foods to eat when you’re out. In the face of all these difficulties, the same question looms: why would someone ever choose to become vegan?

Actually, it’s not just someone — as of 2013, there have been around a million vegans in the United States alone. Of course, everyone has their own reason for choosing to become vegan. Three of the most common reasons have to do with an individual’s health, his or her ethics and the environment. It’s important to note that those three reasons are by no means mutually exclusive, and it’s actually more common to have people become vegan for a combination of reasons.

It’s no secret that following a plant-based diet is a great way to eat healthily, especially when you consume a variety of different vegetables and whole grain products. On the other end of the spectrum is our typical American, meat-heavy diet. I am not implying that meat in and of itself is unhealthy because you can definitely derive much needed nutrients from eating meat. However, the problem lies in how Americans tend to cook our meat, as well as the total amount we consume per day. We have the tendency to cook our meat with lots and lots of fat, because let’s face it: no one wants to eat a piece of dry, flavorless chicken for any meal. Instead, we want things like fried chicken or chicken wings over-glazed with tangy sauces. And the unfortunate truth is that in the process, we turn that piece of chicken into something incredibly unhealthy, and even though it’s now brimming with flavor, it’s also saturated in fat. There are definitely healthier ways to cook meat, such as grilling or roasting; however, given the high rate of obesity in the United States, I find it hard to believe that the majority of Americans make use of these healthier methods. The worst part is how much of these fatty meats Americans consume every year. America consumes a whopping one-sixth of the total worldwide meat consumption annually, which is a huge deal, considering the fact that we make up only 4.4% of the world’s population. 

This brings me to the second reason why someone would choose to become vegan: ethics. In order to supply America’s huge, almost insatiable demand for meat, a lot of livestock and poultry are not only slaughtered, but also terribly mistreated. One example of the many instances of animal cruelty can be found by looking at the beef industry. Before they are killed, cows in factory farms are fed an unnatural diet to fatten them up, which causes them to have chronic digestive pain from a build up of gases in their stomachs. On top of constant stomach pain, these cows are tightly packed right next to one another, with just enough room to stand. And cows in the dairy industry do not fare much better.

What most people do not know is that when we eat this much meat, not only do our own bodies suffer, but the environment does as well. Every year, humans release 350 teragrams of methane into the atmosphere, 90 Tg of which is from agriculture. That number may not seem like a whole lot, but it’s actually the second leading source of methane per year, after the 115 Tg from fossil-fuel emissions. And methane as a greenhouse gas is almost 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide because it has the potential to trap so much more heat. You can imagine how factory farms, with their mounds of manure, are huge sources of methane pollution. And in order to raise all those animals for slaughter, you need to create croplands to produce feed for those animals, which comes at the price of soil erosion and the clearing of once great forest lands. 

However, I am not trying to convince anyone to adopt a vegan lifestyle — I myself am not a vegan. I just want to shed some light (albeit, very minimal and incomplete light) on why a million people in America choose to live the way they do, in spite of the many inconveniences such a lifestyle engenders.