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You are what you eat? Maybe, maybe not

Posted on 06/03/2011


Source: Morning Oregonian, Feb. 5, 1910

Low-fat? Low-calorie? Low-carb? Headlines seem to grab the public’s interest every day with warnings about what and what not to eat. With food-related health issues and rising obesity rates getting so much attention in the United States and around the world, it is tempting to think that mankind’s struggles with diet are new. But of course they aren’t!

Source: Rising Sun (Kansas City, MO), May 26, 1905. Click to open in PDF.

Immortality—or at least the extension of natural life—has always been a goal of mankind, and links between health and diet have long been subjects of debate. One of the world’s oldest food controversies centers not on carbohydrates, trans-fats or sugar. Instead, it’s a bit more basic: to eat or not to eat meat? Historical proponents of a vegetable diet have included such famous figures as Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton and Mahatma Gandhi, who all professed belief in non-animal diets at one time or another. In fact, claims have been made that herbivores live longer and have greater endurance than those whose diet includes meat. Champions of a vegetable-only diet have looked to nutrition to not only improve their health but to predict and change their temperament as well. Been a bit cranky lately? Perhaps onions are to blame. Enjoying Popeye-like strength? You must be eating your spinach.

“Women who eat egg-plant become jealous. Carrots are conductive to a quick temper. String beans encourage profanity. Potatoes lead to laziness and spinach to activity. Onions invite a perpetual grouch, and green peas often lead to the divorce court by arousing the flirtatious instinct.”




Source: Duluth News Tribune (MN), April 10, 1910. Click to open in PDF.

One faction of vegetarians proclaims that killing animals for food is a form of murder. In this view, the taking of a life, any life, is in opposition to moral values and religious tenets. In the Duluth News Tribune article above, the recent president of the Chicago Vegetarian society claims that vegetable-based diets could eradicate human vices:

“Drunkenness and cruelty would be unknown. War would be unknown. There would be less sickness and less poverty. There would be little excuse for the existence of jails, and insane asylums would cease to exist.” 


Source: Trenton Sunday Advertiser (NJ), May 8, 1960

Health, mood changes and morality are but a few of the reasons that vegetarianism has enjoyed waves of popularity throughout history. Another recurring theme in abstinence from meat is simple: economics. Raising or purchasing meat can be expensive. Many allege that Benjamin Franklin’s vegetable diet was never a health-related choice but simply due to his penny-pinching ways.


Others have even predicted that the world’s population explosion would force a meatless society. Meat would someday become a luxury afforded by the elite few.



Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA), June 19, 1915

And so the debate continues.

Are meat eaters more likely to be peaceful, good natured, genteel folk? Maybe, maybe not – but if they are, it’s surely not a by-product of diet alone. Does a meatless diet translate into health benefits? The jury is still out on that hotly debated topic. As for economics? In these budget-conscious days, there are many proponents of cost-savings through vegetable diets.

“Yes, fresh produce generally costs more than canned or frozen, and organic produce and products cost more than their chemically grown counterparts.

“But when you compare the cost of standing rib roast or ground beef, tofu and even shiitake mushrooms look like a bargain.”

[Source: NewsBank--The Versatile Vegetarian: No-meat diet usually means savings, though quality doesn't come cheap, The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution; Thursday, January 11, 1996]

Today, with no clear-cut answers, the choice to forgo meat is still very much an individual one; the reasons provided by vegetarians for their dietary choices are as varied as ever. Some have even put their own twist on vegetarianism by deciding NOT to decide. Flexitarians are those who are unwilling to adopt a meat-free life but still recognize the health and, often, budget savings associated with vegetable diets. They believe in cutting back the number of times meat is eaten and when, but do not eliminate it from their diets completely.

“Identifying yourself as an eater used to be simple. You either ate meat, or you didn't.

“Now? Maybe you eat meat, but only certain kinds or only on certain days - or even certain hours. Or you don't eat meat ... except when you do.”

[Source: NewsBank--The occasional carnivore: Flexitarian eaters are finding they really can have it both ways, Charlotte Observer, The (NC), March 2, 2011]

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