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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.

  • Alum ’15

    This article reeks of ignorance from proper use of grammar to comprehensive understanding about nutrition and metabolism.

    Additionally, do you think you becoming vegan will necessarily “save the earth”? It’s not about you. What you aim to address involves society as a whole and greater elements that surpass just you.

    Lastly, let me assure you that being vegan does not necessarily ensue greater health. Diet is a spectrum and being vegan lies on the extreme end. You are a very misinformed person. The ignorance is laughable.

    • Alum ’15

      Sadly, I was too aghast while reading this that I skipped the last couple of sentences. Nevertheless, do not be fooled by the unintellectual motives by which vegans naively live by.

      • huh?

        Care to enlighten the rest of us, trapped in our miserable ignorance as we are, with, say, sources and evidence, and more than mere innuendos and other assurances that you know better?
        I would in particular love to hear you develop the brilliant ideas hinted at in your second paragraph, about the proper ways to ‘ ” save the earth” ‘ (we’re going to run out of quotation marks here) and how individual actions carry no weight.
        An they say vegans are arrogant and unbearable…

    • Jordan????

      Being vegan does not rely on being on the extreme end of the diet spectrum. Actually, if you really think about it, a whole food and plant based diet is actually the basis for any and all diets. People who eat meat still eat beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains. All of these foods are full in nutrients and are all healthy. However, many Americans choose to use unhealthy additives and saturated fats to them on top of adding meats, dairy, and eggs to their diets. So in those terms, your argument for that is invalid…making your “collage grad degree” look laughable.

      • Mod Podge

        Are you mocking degrees in collage? It is a perfectly legitimate art form. So many people are ignorant enough to denigrate it.

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  • Kfdsghh

    Comments brought to you by the meat industry

  • Steve

    I am all for the freedom of personal choice when it comes to dietary restrictions and whatever. As a Cornell alumni, I find it difficult to understand how this misinformation makes it past an editor. Cornell is a land grant school founded to research agriculture. You’re missing out on a major source for accurate experiences in animal agriculture and its at your own University!

  • ‘Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” is a groundbreaking documentary about animal agriculture and its effects on the environment. It’s an important film for all interested in this topic. The Leonardo DiCaprio produced cut of Cowspiracy is streaming on Netflix. The original release is on the Cowspiracy web site.

    • San

      Groundbreaking….right…this coming from DiCaprio, who just witnessed the horror of a Chinook in Calgary, Alberta, a well known weather condition where a mass of warm air comes over the Rocky Mountains. Blamed it on global warming. I find it interesting how more and more city people are finding out about agriculture from more city people. The entire vegan movement should be outright sued for slander.

      • Tommy

        “The entire vegan movement should be sued…” What? Based on what one guy said? I hope you’re not a judge.

      • Jamie

        Hahaha what a dumb comment. The meat and dairy industry and all those who support it should be sued for contributing to the destruction of this planet.

  • Thanks for publishing this! And if you choose to WEAR VEGAN, too, Unicorn Goods will help you find what you need.

  • Sarah

    Nancy, you might be interested to know that the foremost nutrition researcher, Dr. T. Colin Campbell is tenured at Cornell University and presently holds the Endowed Chair as the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry in the Division of Nutritional Sciences there. And he is a vegan. His eCornell course “Plant-Based Nutrition” is the top ranked course coming out of Cornell’s online university offerings. His books The China Study and Whole shed some light on the current paradigm the United States views the world from as well as the nutrition and health research behind this whole plant-based movement. I would highly suggest reading them to understand this movement better. Many, many people are vegan for health reasons. And unfortunately, cooking meat by grilling or roasting, as you mentioned for healthier options, actually just creates carcinogens in the process. So, you might say they are equally unhealthy, if not worse, than the fried fare you spoke of.

    • Sarah

      I should classify that comment–“Many people are vegan for health reasons.” That is not to say everyone eating vegan is eating healthfully, but those who are eating optimally (a whole foods, plant-based diet) happen to also be eating “vegan.” Best of health to you.

  • Mike Parkinson ’75

    Mike Parkinson ’75, MD, MPH, Past President American College of Preventive Medicine on February 18, 2016 at 4:28 pm said:

    Cornellians: Just “pasted” this from coverage of Pulitzer Prize winning author’s presentation in another Sun story. Relevant here so excuse repetition!

    Great coverage of Moss’ expose of American’s (and increasingly the world’s) major food groups: added salt, added sugar and added fat.
    Building on the great tradition Prof Colin Campbell’s (and others) recent works, Cornell has the intellectual and global resources, particularly through the Colleges of Agriculture and Human Ecology, to promote a new food ecology. Michael Greger’s just published (MD) NY Times bestseller, “How Not To Die”, should be read and enjoyed as we did the China Study, the Okinawa Program (also Cornell), Drs Ornish, Esselstyn, Katz etc.
    The jury is not “out” – its “in”. Largely or solely whole food plant-based eating, physical activity and purpose/social connectedness predict longest life with least disease. Unfortunately we’re largely headed in the opposite direction on all fronts.
    What does this new healthier world look like, how do we return to a simpler yet affordable food ecology . . and how do we collectively unravel the unfortunate findings of this “Messengers” message?? Go Big Red!
    Reply ↓

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