I fully understand the motives of those activists who try to promote vegetarianism by talking about the fringe benefits. You know – all of those generic articles which list the “Top X Reasons to Go Veg” and mention things like improved health, saving money on groceries, and that going veg is easy. Here is the problem with using these fringe benefits to support vegetarianism:
None of these benefits hold up.
Sure, there is some truth behind each of the claim. But they are all contingent on following a specific type of vegetarian diet. Let’s break down some of these top claims.
Vegetarianism for Health Benefits
There are plenty of studies which cite the health benefits of going vegetarian. The most popular ones are about how vegetarians have lower risk of certain cancers and live longer. But, to get these fringe benefits, you’d have to be eating a healthy vegetarian diet. It is safe to say that there are a lot of what I call “spaghetti vegetarians” who eat nothing but pasta with marinara sauce every day. Hence, there are plenty of studies which also show that vegetarians are at risk of nutrient deficiencies. And, with all of the vegetarian processed foods available today from brands like Lightlife and Morningstar, vegetarians eating these foods are probably getting just as much chemical residues in their diet as omnivores who eat junk.
I would love to see some study which shows the percentage of vegetarians/vegans who eat processed junk compared to the average omnivore. I hypothesize that vegetarians probably do eat a lot less junk than the average omnivore, in part because vegetarian junk food isn’t as readily available. Also, because after so much time spent reading labels, you become aware of all the crap found in processed foods and start to avoid it. But sorry vegetarian advocates: all the health benefits you claim come from going veg could also be gained by switching to a healthy omnivore diet!
Vegetarianism for Saving Money
I’ve come across all sorts of breakdowns which show that the vegetarian or vegan diet is a lot cheaper than eating meat – like this one which shows that vegans spend $11.15 per day on food compared to $14.65 for meat eaters.
Once again, this argument can easily be countered. For starters, the whole cost benefit is based on the price of dry beans, dry legumes, dry grains… Sure, a lot of us don’t have a problem with soaking our own beans and buy everything in bulk. I’m poor, so I go as far as cooking giant batches to save electric costs and put the food into little baggies in my freezer to pull out at my convenience. But I realize that most people aren’t as organized or motivated as me.
As a former Whole Foods employee, I can testify to how many more cans of beans we sold than dry beans. And then there is the really high price of processed foods ranging from veggie mock meats to vegan cookies. Vegetarians and vegans eating these foods will probably spend more than omnivores. (Note: I know of paleo diet people who buy entire cows from farmers and eat them nose-to-tail to save money, so it isn’t just dry beans that can be cheap).
But what about the whole argument that, because vegetarians are healthier and have lower risk of heart disease, they save money on healthcare costs? PeTA even goes as far as listing the cost of heart surgeries because vegetarians have lower risk of heart disease. This goes back to the veg is healthier benefit. Yes, following a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet will probably save you on money in the long run because of healthcare costs, but obviously not everyone is doing this.
Vegetarianism is Easy
This is another argument that PeTA loves to spout in their support of vegetarianism. They (and lots of other veg advocates) say that going veg today is easier than ever because of all of the veg-friendly processed foods which are available. Oh, the hypocrisy! You can’t say that “vegetarianism is easy” and then, in the same argument, also say that it is healthy and saves you money. Because pretty much all of those “easy” veg options are expensive and full of processed crap (note: here are the best and worst options for vegan processed foods in terms of health).
Ethics is the Only Real Benefit of Going Vegetarian
It is great to talk about the potential benefits of going vegetarian or vegan because they get people interested. But let’s be honest when we talk about them or we open the door for people like the zealots at Weston A. Price to counter these purported benefits with their own articles about “reasons not to go vegetarian”.
Less talk about the fringe benefits and more talk on how to achieve these fringe benefits. After all, people who go veg to “improve health”, “save money” or “because it is easy” aren’t going to stick with it long when they start feeling like crap from nutrient deficiencies, are spending a fortune on veggie burgers, and going crazy trying to adjust to the new diet. But, if we can honestly inform people about what to expect on a vegetarian diet and how to overcome problems during the transition, then we’ll get converts for life.