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Sep 22

Why would a non-vegetarian try to defend vegetarianism? It is a pure coincidence that I had the idea for this blog piece a couple days before David Foster Wallace died, and my piece on him mentioned his essay of ‘Consider the lobster’ (free audio download, text of his essay). So when I listened to his essay on the lobster while running I figured I should write it up.

Well first let us look at the main arguments in favor of vegetarianism

1) 1) Ethical

I won’t touch this – but rather self evident – but your conclusion depends on your beliefs.

2) 2) Health

This is an open argument. Some research has suggested that vegetarianism is healthier than most of the alternatives, but many other would disagree. Some data (here) suggest that there is a health advantage, but the other side I am sure would provide many papers that failed to find differences and suggest that in many cases it is unhealthy (lack of complete protein, Vit B12, etc) but also point out to the difficulties in following vegetarianism to optimize health (get complete protein, etc). And all this is not to mention other versions of vegetarianism such as vegan.

But I would think that any diet that encourages more consumption of fruits and vegetables would be better that they typical food eating pattern followed in developed nations.

One diet that seems to show consistent health benefits is the Mediterranean diet (Based on “food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece, and southern Italy in the early 1960s”, this diet, in addition to “regular physical activity,” emphasizes “abundant plant foods, fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat, dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt), and fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts…The principal aspects of this diet include high olive oil consumption, high consumption of legumes, high consumption of unrefined cereals, high consumption of fruits, high consumption of vegetables, moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt), moderate to high consumption of fish, low consumption of meat and meat products, and moderate wine consumption”). This freely available meta-analysis paper is the most recent paper I could find showing overall health benefits of this diet (reduction in overall mortality, reduction in mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease, and reduced incidences of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases). One thing in common between the Mediterranean diet and vegetarianism is the high consumption of fruits and vegetables.

3) Environment

Simple fact that has been widely pushed to the public since the 60’s that an acre of land can grow X amount of meat or 8-21X times more plant based food. So if you are worried about people starving (though in reality the poverty/starving problem is not about the inability to grow enough food – but rather a distribution of wealth), and/or the environment there is sound fundamental biological (and physics) reasoning why eating more plant based food uses up less land and energy. Each jump up the food chain there is a huge loss of efficiency (e.g. 21 lbs of plant based protein has to be fed to cattle to produce 1 lb of meat protein, other animals typically consumed are more efficient than beef and settle around 8 to 1 ratio). Can we in the modern world of a serious energy problem afford this 10:1 loss.

Another source breaks down the total energy input compared to the energy output (consumable calories).

Ratio of Energy Input to Food-Energy Output
Lamb 57:1
Beef cattle 40:1
Eggs 39:1
Swine 14:1
Dairy (milk) 14:1
Turkey 10:1
Chicken 4:1

Corn 1:4

I think you get the picture, and have heard this general physics/biology very large loss of energy any time you convert idea before.

Does this mean you have to become a vegetarian to play your role in reducing energy waste? I don’t things are necessarily that simple. Similar, to the decision to ride or walk to work (which I have discussed here and here) it doesn’t mean you have to do this 5-7 days a week, or never drive. You would still be contributing if you bike to work 3 or 4 days a week. You have to be practical. Say on Friday you are meeting your friends coming in from out of town further north than your work place. It might make overall sense to drive to work that day and then head out to meet your friends, instead of backtracking home (south) then re-drive back north in the direction you just came from (as one made up example). There are of course thousands of reasons to choose driving, all I am arguing is while being practical try to reduce your driving when you can.

Well the same can be said about vegetarianism, it doesn’t have to be all or none (unless you are choosing vegetarianism based on moral/ethical reasons – then it is more difficult). You can choose not to eat meat the majority of time. Say for example you are over at new friends, or maybe some similar situation, and they have prepared a meat based dinner - then go ahead and sit down to a friendly dinner. Actually it could be argued this might be the best health option. With the occasionally meat consumption (one a week or every 2nd week, whenever) might make the vegetarianism protein/nutrient balancing problem easier to deal with. You get those nutrients that are hard to come by on the vegetarianism diet by your occasional meat consumption. This would also be closer to the Mediterranean diet (since there is meat consumption on this diet). And when you do choose ‘meat’ try to pick the healthier options (fish, lean turkey, chicken over the beef choice).

I encourage you all to either read or listen to David Foster Wallace ‘Consider the lobster’ essay.

Additionally, here is a link to Mr. Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon commencement speech – something to ponder.

Take home message:

Reduce meat consumption to improve your personal energy debt (footprint), it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice: bike more than drive, eat plants more than meat.

6 Responses

  1. Mya Says:

    You’re exactly right. Doing something for your health or for the environment does not have to take over your life. I work for a campaign called Meatless Monday and we advocate cutting back on meat consumption just 15% (one day out of 7) to lower your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. Such actions will also help the environment. Check out https://www.meatlessmonday.com/dyk_environment for facts and figures about meat consumption.

  2. Ward Says:


    thanks for you comment. Obviously we agree, but your right even if you can make the move (or start the move) by cutting out meat one day a week it would be positive to your health (and environment). I think by offering these simple (and easy) steps that more people will start down this road.

  3. Brad Says:

    Ward… if I’m not planning on having kids, should I get carbon points for this? So, no kids, guilelessly use more energy (eating meat)?

    – a homosexual (no kids planned, or adopting) friend made this conclusion and sounded pretty weak. iPhone carbon credit applications never seem to deal with the question of how much it costs to add another person to the earth.

    Ethics of anything can get brutal, confusing.

  4. Ward Says:


    I am no carbon footprint judge/police nor expert. But you bring up some interesting ideas. We could all go around balancing, or rationalizing away the way we live. As you said things can get confusing and there are (or will be) a thousand way to measure your footprint. I am just suggesting that the we might want to consider the concept in some of our choices. And in reality I am using it as just another leverage to try to convince people to do things that will make them as individuals healthier. The gains in a smaller footprint is an added bonus (or for some people the main point). Whatever works for you.

  5. Brad Says:

    Exactly… in this case it is win win for the environment and your health.. but we choose to eat meat.

    Will our choices will be weighted more on ethics, or are we selfish in nature? Can we be persuaded to do the right things for our bodies, but for an environmental reason?

  6. Andew Says:

    Great post, To keep my ecological foot print low I like to eat local as much as possible. I intern with the Eat Well Guide, and we’ve teamed up with Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) to issue the Local, Organic Thanksgiving Challenge this year. Will you join us? And share a recipe? Read more on the Green Fork https://www.blog.eatwellguide.org/2008/11/take-the-local-organic-thanksgiving-challenge

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