According to USDA data, Americans ate more than 55 pounds of beef apiece in 2017, along with more than 50 pounds of pork and almost 108 pounds of poultry. That’s a lot of dead animals.
Some people, though, really mess up that bell curve by going vegetarian or vegan, and not eating any cows, pigs, or chicken, and in the case of vegans, leaving milk to the cows and eggs to the chickens.
It’s hard to say how many people are actually vegetarians. Plenty of people try it out temporarily—most don’t stick it out. Lots of other people have really flexible definitions of the term, like considering fish and chicken, somehow, to not be animals. And, puzzlingly, one study found that some people just straight-up lie about being vegetarians.
But in an online poll of 2,015 adults over 18 in 2016, The Vegetarian Resource Group found that about three percent of Americans are vegetarians, and about half of those are vegans. Plenty of folks cite concerns about the environment or animal welfare as their reasons for cutting out the meat, as well as their own health or the gross-out factor of chewing up a dead body. We asked former meat-eaters from around the country to tell us why they quit.
Unique Vance, 22, Santa Barbara, CA
(Vegetarian for 7 years, vegan for 3)
In high school, I decided to become vegetarian after starting an environmental education club with my best friend, who was already vegetarian. Talking about recycling and taking five-minute showers were so minuscule compared to the impact of our food choices and I felt like a hypocrite not taking the necessary steps to address this. I went vegan for the same reasons after watching the documentary Cowspiracy in a class on climate change.
I have never been in better health since going vegan and not being a direct participant in the atrocious animal agriculture industry is a big deal for me. For me, veganism connects to my passion for food justice, and for environmental equity. I have lived in a food desert and am a low-income college student who knows the struggles of food insecurity. Veganism is often painted as a lifestyle only the well-off can afford and that's far from the case. All cultural food can be made vegan, contrary to popular opinion, and plant-based staple foods are some of the cheapest you will find: legumes, potatoes, rice, pastas, vegetables, et cetera.
I consider myself a social justice advocate and strongly believe these rights extend beyond humans. I would tell new vegans to find support. If you cannot get it at home or in your community, join vegan Facebook groups. It can be extremely difficult to stand by your principles when your family and friends are unsupportive.
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Chase Macri, 33, Spring Hill, TN
(Vegetarian for 8 years)
I became a vegetarian on a whim. I decided for Lent in 2010 that I would eat a vegetarian diet for a few reasons: for the challenge of not eating meat for 40 days, and to pay closer attention to what foods I chose to eat. After about two weeks without meat I realized that I felt much better than I did before. I felt more energetic and less lethargic after meals. Sometime after the Lenten period, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, and through that and other articles and documentaries, I became disgusted by the meat industry and couldn’t participate in it.
My advice for new vegetarians would be learn how to cook if you don’t already know how. I’ve only come around to this over the last couple years due to the introduction of Pinterest food boards thanks to my wife. There are lots of vegetarian products available at the grocery store that are meat facsimiles, but mastering a few go-to staples will make eating at home more satisfying and help trips to the vegetarian-ignorant more tolerable because you can make your own meals. It’ll also help you better explain to family members “what it is exactly that you even eat?”
Gina Vensel, 37, Pittsburgh, PA
(Vegetarian for 20 years)
From a young age, I felt a connection to animals. I couldn't eat a meatball without seeing a dying cow. Growing up Italian, being vegetarian was considered ridiculous. It was difficult for my family to understand. It wasn’t until I was 17 and started college that I became a true vegetarian. Later in life I began studying Buddhist philosophy, and it suddenly all made sense why I had these strong feelings that eating meat wasn't for me.
The thought of eating meat or fish turns my stomach. It took me a long time to feel comfortable even cracking an egg! Although, my husband is a hunter and meat eater. Thankfully he is compassionate to my lifestyle and when he cooks he uses separate pans and utensils for meat-free dishes. We are raising our daughter to make her own choices. At least I know when she does eat meat that it’s organic.
My advice is to try new flavors: Add curry or a flavorful sauce to a dish to enhance the flavor instead of trying to mimic meaty flavors. The world is full of incredible tastes beyond the flavors of meat and fish. Get a little adventurous and your palate will be pleased.
Jake Lyonfields, 25, St. Louis
(Vegetarian for 6 years)
Vegetarianism appealed to me because the carbon impact of a vegetarian diet is dramatically lower than the diet of an omnivore. I've seen different green fads or trends that people pursue in order to lead a greener lifestyle, which are helpful in their own way. That said, the biggest impact that people can have often comes from making pretty fundamental changes in the way they live. Of course, there is privilege wrapped up in buying and cooking vegetarian, and we need to do more to ensure that healthy food is more accessible and affordable for everyone. Eating in a healthy, climate-conscious way is a justice issue just like climate change itself is.
Cyndi Clausen, 31, Richmond, VA
(Vegetarian for 11 years)
I went pescetarian when I was 20. I slowly eliminated fish from my diet five years later, and I went vegan four years ago. I grew up in Minnesota, and it was like a foreign concept not to eat meat or cheese. I decided I would try it to see if I ate healthier.
I also have asthma, and I think the diet I found helped me with it—I use less of my medication now. Medically, I can’t speak to that being the reason, but I feel at ease about it, like I did the right thing.
Before I went 100 percent vegan, the only dairy I got was at Starbucks. I would get soy or almond lattes but with the caramel syrup. I just had to switch my syrup. I loved peach yogurt, so I went and tried different types of vegan peach yogurt until I found one I liked. When people do it all at once, they have the hardest time.
I’m all for supporting animal rights. I’m not going to get upset when I see someone else eating meat because it’s their choice. It’s certainly inhumane the way a lot of those farming practices are. I do my part just not choosing to eat specific products. At the end of the day, that’s all I can do—just not give them business.
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