Meatless Mania: the truth behind vegging out

There are a number of myths about veganism and vegetarianism that circulate in the media, but in a culture that is rapidly becoming more informed and environmentally conscious, do they still have merit? Does the term vegan still carry the daunting connotation, even after polls conducted by Gallup in 2012 show more than 5% of the American population identifies as strictly vegetarian and more than 2% call themselves vegan? What’s causing the holdup in the animal rights movement?

Vegans and vegetarians are vastly considered radicals of a movement that seeks to destroy the lives of carnivores across the globe. “Honestly, I find the words vegan and vegetarian too polarizing because they intimidate people and discourage them from changing their lifestyle,” Elizabeth Tipton ’16 agreed.

Many people worry that they cannot go meatless because of their income, but living a vegetarian lifestyle may be cheaper than not. (For information on how to form a budget-friendly vegetarian meal plan, visit this Wikihow page. Simple steps include buying staples, such as beans, in bulk; more involved vegetarians often take to farming their own produce. If this doesn't sound like it's for you, don't worry! Plenty of the foods you might already eat, such as regular Oreos, are vegan.

With meat prices on the rise nearly 6.5% this year and an expected high of 2.5% in 2016, it may just be in the best interest of the consumer to start making a switch. The USDA expects to see continued inflation of meat prices as American cattle populations decrease.

      Highland cattle, also known as "fluffy cows". 

     Highland cattle, also known as "fluffy cows". 

Many prospective vegans and vegetarians are discouraged by a seeming lack of protein in a meatless diet. Tipton said, “I honestly think it’s funny when people assume that I’m not getting enough protein. Americans consume a lot more protein than they actually need.”

According to the CDC, women only need about 46 grams of protein per day, and men about 56. 

A study conducted by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. found that “Americans tend to take in twice the amount of protein they need”. Recent research has evidenced that eating too much protein can actually be dangerous, leading to kidney disease and even cancer.

Conversely, studies conducted on soy have shown that if eaten in excess, it can lead to an overproduction of estrogen, which could have adverse effects on the human body, including a possible link to cancer. So where should people go for their protein beside meat or tofu?

“As long as my diet is varied and and includes dark, leafy greens and rice and beans, I’m fine,” Tipton explained.

A large number of popular foods are great alternative sources of protein, such as quinoa, black beans, almonds, and even hummus. Not only do these taste great, they’re packed with protein; one cup of black beans contains nearly thirteen grams. These foods also contain far less fat than meat, but they also have little or no direct negative impact on the lives of animals.

“If you go to a restaurant like McDonald’s, you may have a difficult time finding vegan food, but if you eat somewhere like Aladdin’s, there will be a plethora of vegan options,” Tipton said. “Overall, finding vegan food in restaurants isn’t that hard, but you have to be conscious of where you are choosing to eat because some restaurants will be more conducive to a vegan lifestyle, even if they do serve meat and dairy.”

So while you may not be seeing any black bean or quinoa burgers at your neighborhood Burger King, it’s important to note that some fast food chains have made conscious efforts to cater to their vegetarian clientele.

“Chipotle is definitely one of my favorite vegan-friendly restaurants,” Tipton said. Everything at Chipotle aside from the obvious (meat, cheese, and sour cream) is listed by the company as vegan.

Don’t be discouraged by the seemingly lacking supply of vegan goods in the fast food market, plenty of local restaurants are ramping up their meatless selections to become more vegetarian and vegan-friendly.

      Julie Costell, owner of Ms. Julie's Kitchen

     Julie Costell, owner of Ms. Julie's Kitchen

Akron area hotspots, like Ms. Julie’s Kitchen on South Main  Street, serve a variety of vegan dishes sourced locally and sustainability. Owner and operator Julie Costell actually cultivates her own produce for use in her restaurant. Her efforts toward sustainability started fifteen years ago due to serious medical issues caused by unhealthy eating habits, as she explains in an interview with The Akronist.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed by the community. If you visit the kitchen, you’ll notice that numerous awards are displayed alongside pictures of flowers from Ms. Julie’s garden. In 2001, she was crowned the Vegan Iron Chef Award Winner. She received the Summit Of Sustainability Small Business Award 2013 for her continuous efforts toward a better world. (For more on how she’s making a change, click here.) She was also honored with a League of Women Voters Women Champions for the Environment Award in 2014.

In addition to health issues such as those Ms. Julie experienced, there are plenty of reasons to make the lifestyle change.

Gruesome and extensive animal cruelty aside, meat processing uses up resources at record breaking rates; the industry uses one third of the world’s fresh water. The International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Austrilia and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria collaborated on a worldwide study on the meat industry from farm to food. Their research found that farm animals consume nearly 2.6 trillion pounds of grain per year.

Tipton said, “When I first became vegetarian, I did it for mostly environmental reasons. Did you know the food/livestock industry produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry? It’s hard to even imagine. Also, raising livestock uses up a lot of resources, like water and the grain used to feed the animals, that could be used much more responsibly.”

The Scientific American reports that “growing livestock feed in the U.S. alone requires 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen” which then creates nitrous oxide, “a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon monoxide” and methane, which makes up nearly a fifth of American methane emissions. A study conducted in 2009 links 80% of Amazonian deforestation to the cattle industry as well.

“Humans don’t need meat to function, so I wanted to decrease my environmental footprint as much as possible. Once I began educating myself and watching documentaries, I realized that cutting out meat from my diet wasn’t really enough. I then began to cut down on dairy and focused on living a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle,” continued Tipton. “As I continued watching documentaries, my eyes were opened to the horrible conditions on farms and in slaughterhouses, and I came to the conclusion that I did not want to support an industry that would be willing to treat living creatures with such cruelty.” She recommends Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives, both of which are available on Netflix. For the less squeamish moviegoer, Food Inc. is also a very powerful, if at times revolting, documentary.

“The reality is that if you don’t eat meat on weekdays and focus on not consuming as much dairy as you normally would, you’re making a difference than a person who makes no changes to their diet and you should be proud of that,” Tipton concluded. “Not eating meat only 3-4 days a week preserves 148 square feet of rainforest a year!”

Whether you’re carnivorous, vegetarian, vegan or veganish, your options may not be as limited as you think, and your consumption does impact the world around you drastically.

November is World Vegan Month! Huffington Post’s Kathy Stevens wrote on the monumental health benefits of living a vegan lifestyle, from minimizing acne to preventing types of cancer. Get into both the spirit of fall and the spirit of a cruelty-free diet with pumpkin-inspired vegan recipes. Not crazy about the idea of putting pumpkin hummus on your pita? The health benefits of a vegan pumpkin dish may outweigh the unorthodox ingredient combination.