In Sustainability, Vegan Diet Cooks Up New Benefits



Some socially conscious eaters gravitate to non-meat diets because of the meat industry’s lack of sustainability. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)
Some socially conscious eaters gravitate to non-meat diets because of the meat industry’s lack of sustainability. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

Angela Owczarek, FCRH ’14, turns down bacon with her breakfast and instead chooses to eat steel-cut oatmeal with a side of soymilk and avocado. She is a vegetarian by choice, and she attributes the main reasons for her decision to her two immersion trips, one to a low-income neighborhood in San Francisco and one to Calcutta.

“We lived on an extremely limited budget, and meat was a huge luxury we often could not afford,” Owczarek said. “In India, I also was able to live in an environment where many people, even those who could afford meat, chose not to eat it for religious reasons… I just had this slew of experiences that made eating meat less important or even impossible.”

She believes that more students are choosing vegan/vegetarian diets with a focus on sustainability and environmentalism.

“Overall, I just feel that, having the experiences I have had, I would have to be lying to myself about the environment, global equality and health, if I continued to eat meat, especially the kind and quantity of meat that is regularly consumed in America,” Owczarek said.

Owczarek is one example of the rising number of vegan and vegetarian college students in the United States. These diets used to be classified as ‘hippie’ or reserved for individuals who were obsessed with health, but recent trends show that both lifestyles are becoming much more mainstream and accessible.

According to a 2012 study by “Vegetarian Times,” about 3.2 percent of Americans, or 7.3 million people, are vegetarian. 2.5 percent of people in the country identified themselves as vegan (a 1 percent increase from 2009). Vegans do not consume eggs, butter, milk or dairy of any kind, fish or meat. Among those numbers, about 12 percent of college students are vegetarian and 2 percent are vegan, a 50 percent increase from 2006.

These numbers show that having vegan/vegetarian cafeteria options on university campuses is of rising importance to many students. Students are ahead of universities in wanting these options, but there has been a steady increase in the number of campuses, as well as airlines and hotels, slowly adopting these accommodations.

There are also many Americans who identify themselves as ‘flexitarians,’ or being very inclined to a vegetarian-based diet.

Certain nutrients and fats, like Omega-3s, are necessary in our diets, and often the best sources are in meat.

“I tend to eat some fish every once in a while to get those healthy fats, and will eat small portions of organic white meat on occasion if I want to have it in a special meal,” said Ava Gagliardi FCRH ’14. “For instance, I’ll definitely have a bit of turkey on Thanksgiving.”

“While I use the term vegetarian loosely, and some people may not consider me a true vegetarian, I won’t deprive myself of something if I want to enjoy it healthily. I just make sure to do so as responsibly and moderately as possible,” Gagliardi said. “I am concerned about production ethics, health effects and sustainability,” said Owczarek. “I am more and more turning to as many natural and local options as possible, which unfortunately are often only available to those with extra wealth.”

Some people claim that vegetarianism and veganism are just diet fads, brought about by high-profile celebrities. For example, Justin Timberlake dressed up as a block of tofu on Saturday Night Live and sang about the ethics behind these diets. Most likely, some people are just becoming vegan to be trendy, but others are choosing this lifestyle for different reasons — such as sustainability, ethics and environmentalism.

Normally, diet fads die out even more quickly than they arrive. For many, becoming a vegan or a vegetarian is a turning point for the future rather than just a new way to achieve that magic number on the scale.

There are serious health benefits to going vegetarian or vegan besides weight loss. Companies sometimes use chemicals (which are often undisclosed) in the process of meat production that are linked to cancer and other health issues.

Some people become vegetarian or vegan because they are conscious that grain-based foods are more sustainable that meat.

Research has shown that meat consumption is the leading factor in climate change. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that at least 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide can be attributed to livestock and their byproducts. For many vegans and vegetarians, like Owczarek, concern over the carbon footprint emitted by livestock is another factor in their decisions to change their diets.

Investigative documentaries have also sparked consumer awareness about the practices that occur behind closed doors in animal agriculture.

“I saw a PETA video regarding the fur industry in China, depicting how they basically skin the most helpless and adorable animals alive and in the most inhumane ways, just for some fur lining on a coat, as well as countless documentaries about how our meat is produced, how the animals are killed and the treatment that they are faced with, as well as the health effects of it all,” Raquel Plaener, FCRH ’14, said. “I was instantly turned off and could never look at meat the same way again.”

While Plaener does not believe that her small acts are going to change this situation at all, she is happy to see that awareness regarding these injustices is spreading and that others are catching on.

People choose to become vegan or vegetarian for a wide variety of reasons, including personal health, environmentalism, sustainability and concerns for animal welfare. An increase in vegetarian and vegan options can help everyone, even ‘flexitarians,’ eat healthier.