Green salad, plain tofu, fruit smoothies, soy protein, wheatgrass germ. Hippies, hipsters, eco-freaks. These are all associated with veganism and vegetarianism, whose cultural impact have exploded in recent years.
Although vegetarians and vegans were once considered a subset of a population comprised of hippies and people with strong religious convictions, both vegetarianism and veganism have become much more prevalent in recent years. A telephone survey conducted by Harris Interactive through the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2011 revealed that the number of vegans in the United States has doubled since 2009, and that 5% of Americans pursued wholly vegetarian diets. Veganism has transformed from more than dietary restrictions into a cultural phenomenon, with people choosing the vegan lifestyle for many different personal reasons.
There is a distinct difference in the diets of vegetarians and vegans. While vegetarians avoid meat but still consume dairy and eggs, vegans eliminate any sort of animal product from their diet. The lines of each dietary choice blur and vary in various ways, creating a variety of subcultures—pescetarians eat fish in addition to a regular vegetarian diet, for example, and freegans pursue a diet of eating only locally produced food. These labels mainly inform dietary restrictions, but they are also often used to denote cultures that emerge around those choices. The semantics of each culture vary, but the underlying idea is the same: to minimize consumptions of animal products.
People choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for a variety of reasons. One of the more common motives is ethical concern. Those opposed to the slaughter of animals turn to vegetarianism or veganism out of moral opposition to the consumption of meat or animal byproducts. On the more serious end of this spectrum, some take their moral principle outside of the realm of food, going as far as avoiding the use of animal products outside of the food realm, such as leather.
Many also subscribe to vegetarianism or veganism for health reasons. Studies have shown that vegans have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and a decreased risk for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes than meat eaters. In an interview with US News and World Report, Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, said that are vegan diets healthy and appropriate for people at all stages of life. For example, vegan diets are also much higher in fiber than conventional diets, and have been shown to aid in weight loss and lowering individuals’ body mass index.
In addition, several religions and cultures also promote vegetarianism or veganism in their tenants. For example, Hindus refrain from eating beef because cows are considered sacred and Buddhism prohibits all killing in its First Precept.
Eating vegetarian or vegan is also more eco-friendly, as many green activists will be quick to attest. By consuming less animal meat, an individual’s carbon footprint is significantly reduced. Not only does the processing of meat take up energy in itself, the amount of arable land used for producing grain and the use of fertilizer with nitrous oxide intensifies the greenhouse effect. For those vegetarians and vegans concerned with sustainability, their dietary changes helps reduce resource consumption.
There is also a subset of the population practicing vegetarian or veganism to be “trendy.” Ultimately, this fad is deeply tied to many of the cultural stereotypes induced by veganism. Vegetarianism has become so prevalent that some might consider it a fashion statement. Vegan and vegetarian restaurants have become more commonplace around the country, particularly in cities with a younger population. Locally, True Bistro is a popular vegan food and drink restaurant that opened two years ago, located just a short walk from campus. On a larger scale, celebrities such as Carrie Underwood and Russell Brand publicly announcing a switch to veganism has supported its increased media presence.
The cultural trend may be a point of division for the vegan and vegetarian movements, however. Sophomore Nate Matthews believes that while vegetarianism can be considered a trend, veganism still has a certain stigma attached to it. “In my high school and at Tufts, there’s definitely a large vegetarian community, so I often get shared smiles of solidarity with people when we realize neither of us eats meat,” he explains. “When people realize I’m vegan, though, they usually scowl and say, ‘Why in the world would you do that to yourself?’… So I would say trendiness is probably a factor in making people go vegetarian but not in making people go vegan.”
Going vegetarian or vegan has become more than just a dietary choice—for many, it is part of their daily culture. Websites, groups, and clubs dedicated to veganism have sprung up over the last few years, uniting those who choose to forgo animal products in their diets. Vegan cookbooks are becoming commonplace and classic recipes have been adapted to substitute soy instead of meat. Bumper stickers and slogans supporting the culture have also grown in popularity, such as “Animals are friends, not food,” and “I think. Therefore, I am vegan,” among several others. The movement is gaining so much momentum that it has almost reached the point where eating vegan or vegetarian is a “cause”. Celebrities who switch to vegan diets are heavily publicized in the media, and the rising number of consumers at Whole Foods, vegan-centric restaurants, and other similar establishments fuels the growth of vegan culture as it permeates society.
Whether it’s to follow a trend, shed a few pounds, or go green, the number of vegetarians and vegans is rapidly increasing, and society has become more aware of that growth. The scene is changing: meat is out, green is in.