All of these reasons for being a vegetarian contain important truths. All of
them, however, require intelligent discussion and sometimes important
qualification. This book aims to provide the information which such intelligent
What is Vegetarianism?
A vegetarian is one who abstains from all meat, fish, or fowl, in any form,
with or without the addition of dairy products and eggs. Vegetarians live
primarily on a plant food diet; some vegetarians, undoubtedly the majority in
the United States, consume dairy products and eggs; others abstain from all
animal food and rely entirely on plant foods.
The kinds of vegetarians usually distinguished are the "lacto-ovo-vegetarians,"
who eat dairy products and eggs in addition to plant foods; the "total
vegetarians" (sometimes known as "pure vegetarians"), who eat
plant foods but no animal foods; the "vegans," who abstain from animal
food and animal products of any kind whatsoever (like leather, wool, etc.); and
the "fruitarians," who live on fruit, nuts, and seeds. In the United
States, the lacto-ovo-vegetarians are by far the largest vegetarian group,
though the vegans seem to be the most articulate and outspoken. The exact number
of fruitarians is not known, but it must be quite small. And there are endless
distinction within these categories. Some people are vegan except that they eat
honey; others drink milk but donít eat eggs. In 1943 there were an estimated
2Ĺ - 3 million vegetarians in the United States; more recently, this figure was
estimated at about 7 million, roughly 3% of the population. Obviously, any
discussion encompassing all the different types of vegetarians will be quite
difficult. When dealing with the various issues, the author has presented the
evidence as objectively as possible, allowing the chips to fall where they may
respecting the advantages and disadvantages of various vegetarian diets. In
doing so, the author has perhaps stepped on some vegetarian toes. So be it.
Existing discussions of vegetarianism vary considerably both in point of view
and in quality of material. Impassioned but uninformed defenses of vegetarianism
are counterbalanced by equally impassioned and equally uninformed attacks on
vegetarian ideas. To complicate matters, there are some ambiguous concepts that
do not clearly fall on either the vegetarian or the nonvegetarian side of the
Probably the most abused of these notions is the concept of "natural
foods." There is a lot of talk about natural foods today; and many people
feel that we would be better off if we returned to a diet that omits the many
unnatural ingredients found in supermarket foods. But just what is a
"natural food"? And what do natural foods and natural diets have to do
with vegetarianism--if anything? Vegetarian thinkers since Plutarch have
asserted, for a variety of reasons, that it is not natural to eat meat.
Non-vegetarians often deny or belittle the importance of such contentions. We
need to consider these issues in more detail.
The "Natural Foods" Controversy
For most people, natural foods are foods which occur in nature, as they occur
in nature, without human intervention. Unfortunately, this way of thinking about
"natural foods" is quite confused, and a quick trip to your local
grocery or health food store will demonstrate that.
Products that contain animal fats or refined vegetable fats will be labeled
"natural"; after all, fats of all kinds occur in nature. Products
containing sugar will also be called natural; and it cannot be denied that
sugars of all sorts also occur in nature. Livestock animals raised without being
stuffed with antibiotics are described as organically grown. What sense can we
make of this concept of what is "natural"?
This concept also ignores the other side of the coin: some foods that are
artificially produced, processed, and manipulated by humans may be quite
wholesome or appropriate to eat. Since the beginning of agriculture, humans have
bred certain strains of wheat and other plants to create entirely new species,
or new kinds of old species, which are moire productive agriculturally. Must we
reject these foods as "unnatural" because they would not occur in
nature independent of human existence? And what about cooking? Must we abstain
from eating potatoes and beans because they do not occur in cooked form in
nature and would be inedible if they were not cooked? What about vitamin
supplements? Not everyone likes to take them; but is taking such manufactured
supplements necessarily bad?
The definition of a "natural food" as a food which occurs in nature
ignores two things. First of all, humans are themselves part of nature and may
actually manipulate nature in ways which are beneficial. Second, many poisons
and unwholesome foods occur in nature without any human intervention. The deadly
hemlock that Socrates drank, for example, would qualify as a "natural
food," since the hemlock plant occurs in nature. Clearly, we need a new
What are we talking about when we say "natural foods"? What we
really mean are foods that are appropriate for humans to eat.
If we want to know what a natural food is, we must ask: Does it cause disease
and death? Does it squander available resources? Does it increase the amount of
suffering in the world? These are the questions we should be asking, and
they are precisely the questions we are not asking. It is these questions
which this book will examine.
The Ethical Basis of Vegetarianism
A diet that can lead to heart attacks, cancer, and numerous other diseases
cannot be a natural diet. A diet that pillages our resources of land, water,
forests, and energy cannot be a natural diet. A diet that causes the unnecessary
suffering and death of billions of animals each year cannot be a natural diet.
The principles of ethics come from our own nature. The term "ethical
vegetarian" usually means a vegetarian who does not eat animals out of
compassion for them. But there is an ethical component in the nutritional and
ecological reasons for becoming a vegetarian as well. Is not the impulse to
preserve oneís health an ethical impulse? Is not concern for the earthís
resources an ethical concern?
The demands of ethics and the demands of nature are closely intertwined. It
is natural to want to preserve health; it is natural to want to preserve the
earthís resources; and it is natural to feel sympathy for animals. It is in
these natural feelings that we find the ethical basis of vegetarian thought.
The author is himself a vegetarian, and believes that practically any
nutritionally adequate vegetarian diet is more healthful, more economical, and
more ethical than the typical Western diet, emphasizing meat, fish, and fowl.
Meat consumption is destroying our health, our natural resources, and the lives
of innocent animals. The contrast between this destructive diet and a vegetarian
diet is the story which this book tells.