Should We All Be Vegetarians?
 Would we be healthier? Would the planet? The risks and benefits of a meat-free life.

Posted Sunday, July 7, 2002; 10:31 a.m. EST

1) It tastes good
2) It makes you feel good
3) It's a great American tradition
4) It supports the nation's farmers
5) Your parents did it

Oh, sorry ... those are five reasons to smoke cigarettes. Meat is more complicated. It's a food most Americans eat virtually every day: at the dinner table; in the cafeteria; on the barbecue patio; with mustard at a ballpark; or, a billion times a year, with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun. Beef is, the TV commercials say, "America's food"—the Stars and Stripes served up medium rare—and as entwined with the nation's notion of its robust frontier heritage as, well, the Marlboro Man.

But these days America's cowboys seem a bit small in the saddle. Those cattle they round up have become politically incorrect: for many, meat is an obscene cuisine. It's not just the additives and ailments connected with the consumption of beef, though a dish of hormones, E. coli bacteria or the scary specter of mad-cow disease might be effective enough as an appetite suppressant. It's that more and more Americans, particularly young Americans, have started engaging in a practice that would once have shocked their parents. They are eating their vegetables. Also their grains and sprouts. Some 10 million Americans today consider themselves to be practicing vegetarians, according to a Time poll of 10,000 adults; an additional 20 million have flirted with vegetarianism sometime in their past.

To get a taste of the cowboy's ancient pride, and current defensiveness, just click on South Dakota cattleman Jody Brown's website,, and read the new meat mantras: "Vegetarians don't live longer, they just look older"; and "If animals weren't meant to be eaten, then why are they made out of meat?" (One might ask the same of humans.) For Brown and his generation of unquestioning meat eaters, dinner is something the parents put on the table and the kids put in their bodies. Of his own kids, he says, "We expect them to eat a little of everything." So beef is served nearly every night at the Brown homestead, with nary a squawk from Jeff, 17, Luke, 13, and Hannah, 11. But Jody admits to at least one liberal sympathy. "If a vegetarian got a flat tire in my community," he says, "I'd come out and help him."

For the rancher who makes his living with meat or the vegetarian whose diet could someday drive all those breeder-slaughterers to bankruptcy, nothing is simple any more. Gone is the age of American innocence, or naiveté when such items as haircuts and handshakes, family names and school uniforms, farms and zoos, cowboys and ranchers, had no particular political meaning. Now everything is up for rancorous debate. And no aspect of our daily lives—our lives as food consumers—gets more heat than meat.

For millions of vegetarians, beef is a four-letter word; veal summons charnel visions of infanticide. Many children, raised on hit films like Babe and Chicken Run, recoil from eating their movie heroes and switch to what the meat defeaters like to call a "nonviolent diet." Vegetarianism resolves a conscientious person's inner turf war by providing an edible complex of good-deed-doing: to go veggie is to be more humane. Give up meat, and save lives!

Of course, one of the lives you could save or at least prolong is your own. For vegetarianism should be about more than not eating; it's also about smart eating. You needn't be a born-again foodist to think this. The American Dietetic Association, a pretty centrist group, has proclaimed that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."

So, how about it? Should we all become vegetarians? Not just teens but also infants, oldsters, athletes—everyone? Will it help us live longer, healthier lives? Does it work for people of every age and level of work activity? Can we find the right vegetarian diet and stick to it? And if we can do it, will we?

There are as many reasons to try vegetarianism as there are soft-eyed cows and soft-hearted kids. To impressionable young minds, vegetarianism can sound sensible, ethical and—as nearly 25% of adolescents polled by Teenage Research Unlimited said—"cool." College students think so too. A study conducted by Arizona State University psychology professors Richard Stein and Carol Nemeroff reported that, sight unseen, salad eaters were rated more moral, virtuous and considerate than steak eaters. "A century ago, a high-meat diet was thought to be health-favorable," says Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania. "Kids today are the first generation to live in a culture where vegetarianism is common, where it is publicly promoted on health and ecological grounds." And kids, as any parent can tell you, spur the consumer economy; that explains in part the burgeoning sales of veggie burgers (soy, bulgur wheat, cooked rice, mushrooms, onions and flavorings in Big Mac drag) in supermarkets and fast-food chains.

Children, who are signing on to vegetarianism much faster than adults, may be educating their parents. Vegetarian food sales are savoring double-digit growth. Top restaurants have added more meatless dishes. Trendy "living foods" or "raw" restaurants are sprouting up, like Roxanne's in Larkspur, Calif., where no meat, fish, poultry or dairy items are served, and nothing is cooked to temperatures in excess of 118°F. "Going to my restaurant," says Roxanne Klein, "is like going to a really cool new country you haven't experienced before."

Like any country, vegetarianism has its hidden complexities. For one thing, vegetarians come in more than half a dozen flavors, from sproutarians to pesco-pollo-vegetarians. The most notorious are the vegan (rhymes with intriguin' or fatiguin') vegetarians. The Green Party of the movement, vegans decline to consume, use or wear any animal products. They also avoid honey, since its production demands the oppression of worker bees. TV's favorite vegetarian, the cartoon 8-year-old Lisa Simpson, once had a crush on a fellow who described himself as "a Level Five vegan—I don't eat anything that casts a shadow." Among vegan celebrities: the rock star Moby and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who swore off steak for breakfast and insists he feels much better starting his day with miso soup, brown rice or oat groats.

To true believers—who refrain from meat as an A.A. member does from drink and do a spit-take if told that there's gelatin in their soup—a semivegetarian is no vegetarian at all. A phrase like pesco-pollo-vegetarian, to them, is an oxymoron, like "lapsed Catholic" or "semivirgin." Vegetarian Times, the bible of this particular congregation, lays down the dogma: "For many people who are working to become vegetarians, chicken and fish may be transitional foods, but they are not vegetarian foods ... the word 'vegetarian' means someone who eats no meat, fish or chicken."

Clear enough? Not to many Americans. In a survey of 11,000 individuals, 37% of those who responded "Yes, I am a vegetarian" also reported that in the previous 24 hours they had eaten red meat; 60% had eaten meat, poultry or seafood. Perhaps those surveyed thought a vegetarian is someone who, from time to time, eats vegetables as a side dish—say, alongside a prime rib. If more than one-third of people in a large sample don't know the broadest definition of vegetarian, one wonders how they can be trusted with something much more difficult: the full-time care and picky-picky feeding of their bodies, whatever their dietary preferences.

We know that fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and nuts are healthy. There are any number of studies that show that consuming more of these plant-based foods reduces the risk for a long list of chronic maladies (including coronary artery disease, obesity, diabetes and many cancers) and is a probable factor in increased longevity in the industrialized world. We know that on average we eat too few fruits and vegetables and too much saturated fat, of which meat and dairy are prime contributors. We also know that in the real world, real diets—vegetarian and nonvegetarian—as consumed by real people range from primly virtuous to pig-out voracious. There are meat eaters who eat more and better vegetables than vegetarians, and vegetarians who eat more artery-clogging fats than meat eaters.

The International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition, a major conference on the subject, was held this spring at Loma Linda (Calif.) University. The research papers presented there included some encouraging if tentative findings: that a predominantly vegetarian diet may have beneficial effects for kidney and nerve function in diabetics, as well as for weight loss; that eating more fruits and vegetables can slow, and perhaps reverse, age-related declines in brain function and in cognitive and motor performance—at least in rats; that vegetarian seniors have a lower death rate and use less medication than meat-eating seniors; that vegetarians have a healthier total intake of fats and cholesterol but a less healthy intake of fatty acids (such as the heart-protecting omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil).

But one paper suggested that low-protein diets (associated with vegetarians) reduce calcium absorption and may have a negative impact on skeletal health. And although several studies on Seventh-Day Adventists (typically vegetarians) indicated that they have a longer-than-average life expectancy, other studies found that prostate-cancer rates were high in Adventists, and one study found that Adventists were more likely to suffer hip fractures.

Can it be that vegetarianism is bad for your health? That's a complex issue. There's a big, beautiful plant kingdom out there; you ought to be able to dine healthily on this botanical bounty. With perfect knowledge, you can indeed eat like a king from the vegetable world. But ordinary people are not nutrition professionals. While some vegetarians have the full skinny on how to watch their riboflavin and vitamins D and B12, many more haven't a clue. This is one reason that vegetarians, in a study of overall nutrition, scored significantly lower than nonvegetarians on the USDA's Healthy Eating Index, which compares actual diet with USDA guidelines.

Another reason is that vegans skew the stats, because their strict avoidance of meat, eggs and dairy products can lead to deficiencies in iron, calcium and vitamin B12. "These nutrients are the problem," says Johanna Dwyer, a professor of nutrition and medicine at Tufts University. "At least among the vegans who are also philosophically opposed to fortified foods and/or vitamin and mineral supplements."

Debates about the efficacy of vegetarianism follow us from cradle to wheelchair. In 1998 child-care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock, who became a vegetarian late in life, stoked a stir by recommending that children over the age of 2 be raised as vegans, rejecting even milk and eggs. The American Dietetic Association says it is possible to raise kids as vegans but cautions that special care must be taken with nursing infants (who don't develop properly without the nutrients in mother's milk or fortified formula). Other researchers warn that infants breast-fed by vegans have lower levels of vitamin B12 and DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid), important to vision and growth.

And there is always the chance of vegetarian theory gone madly wrong in practice. A Queens, N.Y., couple were indicted last May for first-degree assault, charged with nearly starving their toddler to death on a strict diet of juices, ground nuts, herbal tea, beans, flaxseed and cod-liver oils. At 16 months, the girl weighed 10 lbs., less than half the normal weight of a child her age. Their lawyer's defense: "They felt that they have their own lifestyle. They're vegetarians." The couple declined to plea-bargain, and are still in jail awaiting trial.

Many children decide on their own to become vegetarians and are declaring their preference at ever more precocious ages; it's often their first act of domestic rebellion. But a youngster is at a disadvantage insisting on a rigorous cuisine before he or she can cook food—or buy it or even read—and when the one whose menu is challenged is the parent: nurturer, disciplinarian and executive chef. Alicia Hurtado of Oak Park, Ill., has been a vegetarian half her life—she's 8 now—and mother Cheryle mostly indulges her daughter's diet. Still, Mom occasionally sneaks a little chicken broth into Alicia's pasta dishes. "When she can read labels," Cheryle says, "I'll be out of luck."

By adolescence, kids can read the labels but often ignore the ingredients. Research shows that calcium intake is often insufficient in American teens. By contrast, lacto-ovo teens usually have abundant calcium intake. For vegans, however, consuming adequate amounts of calcium without the use of fortified foods or supplements is difficult without careful dietary planning. Among vegan youth who do not take supplements, there is reason for concern with respect to iron, calcium, vitamins D and B12, and perhaps also selenium and iodine.

For four years Christina Economos has run the Tufts longitudinal health study on young adults, a comprehensive survey of lifestyle habits among undergraduates. In general, she finds that "kids who were most influenced by family diet and health values are eating healthy vegetarian or low-meat diets. But there is a whole group of students who decide to become vegetarians and do it in a poor way. The ones who do it badly don't know how to navigate in the vegetarian world. They eat more bread, cheese and pastry products and load up on salad dressing. Their saturated-fat intake is no lower than red-meat eaters, and they are more likely to consume inadequate amounts of vitamin B12 and protein. They may think they are healthier because they are some sort of vegetarian and they don't eat red meat, but in fact they may be less healthy."

Jenny Woodson, 20, now a junior at Duke, has been a vegetarian from way back. At 6, on a trip to McDonald's, she ordered a tossed salad. When Jenny lived in a dorm at high school, she quickly realized that teens do not live on French fries and broccoli alone. "We ended up making vegetarian sandwiches with bagels and ingredients from the salad bar, cheese fries and stuffed baked potatoes with cottage cheese." Jenny and her friends were careful to avoid high-fat, calorie-laden fare at the salad bar, but for those who don't exercise restraint, salad-bar fixings can become vegetarian junk food.

Maggie Ellinger-Locke, 19, of the St. Louis, Mo., suburb of University City, has been a vegetarian for eight years and went vegan at 15. Since then she has not worn leather or wool products or slept under a down comforter. She has not used cups or utensils that have touched meat. "It felt like we were keeping kosher," says Maggie's mother Linda, who isn't Jewish. At high school Maggie was ridiculed, even shoved to the ground, by teen boys who apparently found her eating habits threatening. She found a happy ending, of sorts, enrolling at Antioch College, where she majors in ecofeminism. "Here," she says, "the people on the defensive are the ones who eat meat."

Maggie hit a few potholes on the road to perfection. Until recently, she smoked up to two packs of cigarettes a day (cigarettes, after all, are plants fortified with nicotine), quitting only because she didn't want to support the tobacco business. And she freely admits to an eating disorder: for the past year she has been bulimic, bingeing and vomiting sometimes as much as once a day to cope with stress. But she insists she is true to her beliefs: even when bingeing, she remains dedicated to vegan consumption.

The American Dietetic Association found that vegetarian diets are slightly more common among adolescents with eating problems but that "recent data suggest that adopting a vegetarian diet does not lead to eating disorders." It can be argued that most American teens already have an eating disorder—fast food, soft drinks and candy are a blueprint for obesity and heart trouble. Why should teens be expected to purge their bad habits just because they have gone veggie? Still, claims Simon Chaitowitz of the pro-vegetarian and animal-rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, "Kids are better off being junk-food vegetarians than junk-food meat eaters."

Maybe. According to Dr. Joan Sabate, chairman of the Loma Linda nutrition conference, there are still concerns over vegetarian diets for growing kids or lactating women. When you are in what he calls "a state of high metabolic demand," any diet that excludes foods makes it harder to meet nutrient requirements. But he is quick to add that "for the average sedentary adult living in a Western society, a vegetarian diet meets dietary needs and prevents chronic diseases better than an omnivore diet."

Like kids and nursing moms, athletes need to be especially smart eaters. Their success depends on bursts of energy, sustained strength and muscle mass, factors that require nutrients more easily obtained from meat. For this reason, relatively few top athletes are vegetarians. Besides, says sports nutritionist Suzanne Girard Eberle, the author of Endurance Sports Nutrition, "lots of athletes have no idea how their bodies work. That's why fad diets and supplements are so attractive to them."

Eberle notes that vegetarian diets done correctly are high in fiber and low in fat. "But where are the calories?" she asks. "World-class endurance athletes need in excess of 5,000 or 6,000 calories a day. Competition can easily consume 10,000. You need to eat a lot of plant-based food to get those calories. Being a vegetarian athlete is hard, really hard to do right."

It's not that easy for the rest of America, either. Middle-aged to elderly adults can also develop deficiencies in a vegetarian diet (as they can, of course, with a poor diet that includes meat). Deficiencies in vitamins D and B12 and in iodine, which can lead to goiter, are common. The elderly tend to compensate by taking supplements, but that approach carries risks. Researchers have found cases in which vegetarian oldsters, who are susceptible to iodine deficiency, had dangerously high and potentially toxic levels of iodine in their bodies because they overdid the supplements.

Meat producers acknowledge that vegetarian diets can be healthy. They also have responded to the call for leaner food; the National Pork Board says that, compared with 20 years ago, pork is on average 31% lower in fat and 29% lower in saturated fat, and has 14% fewer calories and 10% less cholesterol. But the defenders of meat and dairy can also go on the offensive. They mention the need for B12. And then they ratchet up the fear factor. Kurt Graetzer, ceo of the Milk Processor Education Program, scans the drop in milk consumption (not only by vegans but by kids who prefer soda, Snapple and Fruitopia) and declares, "We are virtually developing a generation of osteoporotic children."

Dr. Michelle Warren, a professor of medicine at New York Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City—and a member of the Council for Women's Nutrition Solutions, which is sponsored by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association— expresses concern about calcium deficiency connected with a vegan diet: "The most serious consequences are low bone mass and osteoporosis. That is a permanent condition." Warren says that in her practice, she has seen young vegetarians with irregular periods and loss of hair. "And there's a peculiar color, a yellow tinge to the skin," that occurs in people who eat a lot of vegetables rich in beta carotene in combination with a low-calorie diet. "I think it's very unattractive." She also is troubled by the reasons some young vegetarians give for their choice of diet. One female patient, Warren says, wouldn't eat meat because she was told it was the reason her father had a heart attack.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, sees most of the meat and dairy lobby's arguments as desperate, disingenuous scare stories. "It unmasks the industry's self-interest," he says, "when it voices concern about B12 while hundreds of thousands of people are dying prematurely because of too much saturated fat from meat and dairy products." Indeed, according to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist, the average American consumes 112 grams of protein a day, twice the amount recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. "This has implications for cancer risks and stress on the urinary system," says Pimentel. "And with this protein comes a lot of fat. Fully 40% of our calories—and heavy cardiovascular risks—come from fat."

Pimentel argues that vegetarianism is much more environment-friendly than diets revolving around meat. "In terms of caloric content, the grain consumed by American livestock could feed 800 million people—and, if exported, would boost the U.S. trade balance by $80 billion a year." Grain-fed livestock consume 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food they produce, compared with 2,000 liters for soybeans. Animal protein also demands tremendous expenditures of fossil-fuel energy—eight times as much as for a comparable amount of plant protein. Put another way, says Pimentel, the average omnivore diet burns the equivalent of a gallon of gas per day—twice what it takes to produce a vegan diet. And the U.S. livestock population—cattle, chickens, turkeys, lambs, pigs and the rest—consumes five times as much grain as the U.S. human population. But then there are 7 billion of them; they outnumber us 25 to 1.

In the spirit of fair play to cowboy Jody Brown and his endangered breed, let's entertain two arguments in favor of eating meat. One is that it made us human. "We would never have evolved as large, socially active hominids if we hadn't turned to meat," says Katharine Milton, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. The vegetarian primates (orangutans and gorillas) are less social than the more omnivorous chimpanzees, possibly because collecting and consuming all that forage takes so darned much time. The early hominids took a bold leap: 2.5 million years ago, they were cracking animal bones to eat the marrow. They ate the protein-rich muscle tissue, says Milton, "but also the rest of the animal—liver, marrow, brains—with their high concentrations of other nutrients. Evolving humans ate it all."

Just as important, they knew why they were eating it. In Milton's elegant phrase, "Solving dietary problems with your head is the trajectory of the primate order." Hominids grew big on meat, and smart on that lovely brain-feeder, glucose, which they got from fruit, roots and tubers. This diet of meat and glucose gave early man energy to burn—or rather, energy to play house, to sing and socialize, to make culture, art, war. And finally, about 10,000 years ago, to master agriculture and trade—which provided the sophisticated system that modern humans can use to go vegetarian.

The other reason for beef eating is, hold on, ethical—a matter of animal rights. The familiar argument for vegetarianism, articulated by Tom Regan, a philosophical founder of the modern animal-rights movement, is that it would save Babe the pig and Chicken Run's Ginger from execution. But what about Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse? asks Steven Davis, professor of animal science at Oregon State University, pointing to the number of field animals inadvertently killed during crop production and harvest. One study showed that simply mowing an alfalfa field caused a 50% reduction in the gray-tailed vole population. Mortality rates increase with each pass of the tractor to plow, plant and harvest. Rabbits, mice and pheasants, he says, are the indiscriminate "collateral damage" of row crops and the grain industry.

By contrast, grazing (not grain-fed) ruminants such as cattle produce food and require fewer entries into the fields with tractors and other equipment. Applying (and upending) Regan's least-harm theory, Davis proposes a ruminant-pasture model of food production, which would replace poultry and pork production with beef, lamb and dairy products. According to his calculations, such a model would result in the deaths of 300 million fewer animals annually (counting both field animals and cattle) than would a completely vegan model. When asked about Davis' arguments, Regan, however, still sees a distinction: "The real question is whether to support production systems whose very reason for existence is to kill animals. Meat eaters do. Ethical vegetarians do not."

The moral: there is no free lunch, not even if it's vegetarian. For now, man is perched at the top of the food chain and must live with his choice to feed on the living things further down. But even to raise the question of a harvester Hiroshima is to show how far we have come in considering the humane treatment of that which is not human. And we still have a way to go. "It may take a while," says actress and vegetarian Mary Tyler Moore, "but there will probably come a time when we look back and say, 'Good Lord, do you believe that in the 20th century and early part of the 21st, people were still eating animals?'"

It may take a very long while. For most people, meat still does taste good. And can "America's food" ever be tofu?

—Reported by Melissa August and Matthew Cooper/Washington, David Bjerklie and Lisa McLaughlin/New York, Wendy Cole/Chicago and Jeffrey Ressner/ Los Angeles