Why I am a vegetarian

by Rob Tiller

Being a vegetarian is, in my view, a wonderful thing. Otherwise I would have eaten a plant-based diet for the last 15 years. But it is by moments challenging. One of the challenges is dealing with a question that comes up all the time, usually when I’m eating with people I don’t know well. At the worst possible moment — just as the food arrives — my companion asks, “So, why are you a vegetarian?” This is awkward. If you’re not already familiar with the issues, it could make you a bit uncomfortable, and spoil your appetite.

But as long as we’re not eating, let me satisfy the curious who wonder, Why be so difficult? Why not just enjoy a steak? I’ve tried to boil it down, and have ended up with three main reasons: better health, concern for other living creatures, and care for the environment.

I’ll start with good health, on the grounds that it is our most valuable possible possession — more than any number of mansions, yachts, and planes. It’s worth some time and effort to improve your odds for having a healthy life.

A simple way to improve those odds is eating a plant-based diet. Vegetarians typically have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and a lower body mass index. They consume less dietary fat, which is associated with heart disease and cancer. They’re less exposed to the excessive antibiotics and hormones fed to farm animals. Studies have shown that they have a reduced risk of the big killer diseases of our society: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and several forms of cancer.

At the same time, eating fruits and vegetables gives you the health benefits of antioxidants, including carotenoids, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E, and a wonderfully complete collection of other nutrients. It gives you more than enough protein, from such sources as whole grains, beans, nuts, and some vegetables.

Now, it is possible to have an unhealthy vegetarian diet. You could, for instance, subsist on Snickers and Cokes. To benefit from a veggie diet, you need to eat less processed food and sugar, and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Especially in the beginning, that takes some conscious effort. But there’s impressive evidence that it’s worth it, in terms of a healthier, and therefore happier, life.

My second main reason for not eating meat has to do with what meat is. Let me put this as delicately as possible. A hamburger is a cow that has passed on, and barbecue is a pig that has gone on to its reward. These animals are members of one of the great kingdoms of life — the kingdom animalia. Like humans. Farm animals have social structures, solve problems, and feel pleasure and pain. I believe their lives that are entitled to respect, and we make our lives nobler by giving that respect.

We generally recognize the worth of at least some non-human animals. Take my little dog, Stu, the sweetest dog in the world. He loves taking walks and being petted, and he makes strangers smile. I wouldn’t consider eating Stu, and I feel pretty much the same way about eating cows, pigs, and chickens. There’s hardly any difference, from a biological point of view. Most of the genes of Stu and farm animals are the same.

Most of us are revolted by wanton cruelty to animals. For me, it’s hard to ignore the cruelty associated with a steak or plate of barbecue. Most of the farm animals turned into food endure wretched lives filled with what amounts to torture before they are slaughtered. If you have any doubts about this, I recommend that you to watch the documentary Food, Inc., on factory farming and industrial slaughterhouses. Or read the Wikipedia article on factory farming. It is deeply disturbing.

My third reason for a plant-based diet is both ethical and practical: the meat industry is bad for the earth and the humans on the earth. Factory farming causes a host of environmental problems, including pollution of soil, water, and air, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, and habitat destruction.

Meat is a highly inefficient food. It takes 30 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat. We could feed 50 percent more people if we switched to a vegetarian diet. By eating meat, we waste a lot of energy, and burn a lot more fossil fuels. This contributes to global warming, which is an existential threat to the human race.

So there are my three main reasons for a plant-based diet – a healthier and happier life, respect for other living creatures, and taking better care of the environment. There’s actually one other reason, which is more selfish but also important. Taste! There are so many tasty plant foods, and so many textures and tastes that you start to notice when you eat less meat. Ancient cultures have developed exquisite cuisines based largely on plant foods. Think of Indian food, Thai food, and the Mediterranean diet.

Anyhow, those are my reasons for eating a plant-based diet. From now on, I can refer my interlocutors to my blog.