Why am I Vegan?

What makes a vegan diet good for me, and people in general, and if everyone should be forced to become vegan.

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I have heard so many times, “I hate vegans, except Ozzy.” Why? Is it because they think all vegans are man-bun-wearing, Kombucha drinking hipsters? Or that they just love their animal products too much to hear anything about why it might be bad? (And why am I an exception?) I have a strong feeling it is a mix of both: the thought that vegans are annoying and that meat-eaters love meat. Vegans have a bad rap for being annoying, trying to “convert” meat-eaters to vegans. I can take it when people make comments like that, but I have recently wondered why I am vegan and why I should be vegan.

There are two stages of being vegan: the first is where you eat vegan (no meat, dairy, eggs, or honey) for health reasons. The second is where you not only eat vegan to be healthy, but also for ethical and environmental reasons. I consider the latter veganism, while just eating and using vegan products to be healthy is just being vegan. If you support veganism, you care about animal rights, the environment, and your personal health. If you are just vegan (which you are when you support veganism), then you are either just going with the trend or trying to be healthier.

Personal Health

Being vegan does not necessarily make someone healthier—there is a lot of unhealthy vegan food, like most vegan alternatives that can be just as bad or worse for you than the real thing. However, by being vegan, you do avoid a lot of unhealthy food by nature.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans. WHO, in 2015, said, there is “sufficient evidence from epidemiological studies that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer. … An association with stomach cancer was also seen, but the evidence is not conclusive.” By not eating meat, especially processed meat, you lower your risk of colorectal cancer (cancer in the colon or rectum).

Additionally, Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard, said, “There’s no question that diet has a huge impact on heart disease,” and that eating less red meat is linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Harvard professor and cardiologist Dr. Deepak Bhatt said, “A diet with meat in it raises the risk of heart disease and cancer, when compared with a vegetarian diet.” By eating vegan, or at least vegetarian, you reduce your chances of heart disease.

A 2016 study by Ambika Satija et al. concluded that “having a diet that emphasized plant foods and was low in animal foods was associated with a reduction of about 20% in the risk of diabetes,” while a diet of health plant-based foods reduced the risk of diabetes by 34%. A diet of unhealthy plant-based foods increased the risk by 16%. Being vegan does not just mean eating plant-based foods, it also means being intentional and thinking about the food you do eat.

As for eggs, a study from Western University in Canada saw plaque buildup from eating eggs “follows a similar pattern to that of cigarette smoking.” TIME magazine explained that the buildup of plaque “is a key risk factor for heart attack and stroke.” Plaque buildup, as described by WebMD, begins “in artery walls and grow over years. The growth of cholesterol plaques slowly blocks blood flow in the arteries. Worse, a cholesterol plaque can suddenly rupture. The sudden blood clot that forms over the rupture then causes a heart attack or stroke.”

Another study from Sweden by Karl Michaëlsson et al. found that “High milk intake was associated with higher mortality in one cohort of women and in another cohort of men, and with higher fracture incidence in women.” Meat increases the risk of cancer and heart disease, a plant-based diet reduces the risk of diabetes, eating eggs is similar to smoking cigarettes, and milk does the opposite of what many think it does: it actually increases bone fractures instead of making your bones stronger.

The Environment

Vegan diets not only benefit the individual, but also the entire Earth and the environment. Most believers in climate change say that, to reduce your carbon footprint, you should drive electric cars, use renewable energy, etc. However, most do not say to eat vegan.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to animal agriculture, while 13% is linked to transportation (including road, rail, air, and marine transportation). If everyone in the world went vegan, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions would be eliminated. This may not affect climate change by a ton, but it would do more for it than everyone getting electric cars. One analysis of the animal agriculture industry, by Dr. Robert Goodland, a social and environmental assessment specialist, and Jeff Anhang, a research officer and environmental specialist, found that “livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least … 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

Any Californian has probably heard that “California is in a drought” and to “take shorter showers.” However, according to Dr. George Borgstrom, Chairman of Food Science and Human Nutrition Dept of College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, one pound of beef takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce, equivalent to over eight months of daily, five minute showers, according to Alternet. And, while only 5% of water used in the US is by households, according to Michael F. Jacobson, 55% of water use in the US is by the animal agriculture industry. Instead of limiting how long showers are and how much plants are watered, people should eat less meat.

When someone does not finish their food or does not like it, they are often told to not “waste your food” because there are starving children in Africa who would die it. Well, sure, there are starving kids in Africa, but it is not because there is not enough food on Earth. Worldwide, there is enough food grown to feed 10 billion people, 2.5 billion more people than are currently living. If just the grain fed to US livestock was exported, instead of used to feed the livestock, the economy would be boosted by $80 billion per year and could feed at least 800 million people. According to Statistic Brain, Facing the Future, Think Quest, and the Hunger Relief Organization, 850 million people suffer from hunger. Just the grain that is fed to livestock could almost be used to feed every single person that is hungry.

Vegans not only have a smaller carbon footprint (about 50% less than medium meat-eaters, according to Peter Scarborough et al.), but also use less water, food, land, and energy than meat-eaters.

The production of meat accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all modes of transportation combined. (Stanley Nguma)

Treatment of Animals

When stories like this came out of China about Chinese people eating dogs, celebrities (like Ricky Gervais) and also commoners scorned the people eating dogs, and rightfully so; it is a terrible practice. However, Ricky Gervais (and likely many of the others that opposed the practice) is not vegan. Those same people do not freak out about the torture of pigs, cows, chickens, fish, and other animals which they eat that are murdered by the millions to feed a couple people. Some people have made an unjust distinction between an animal that is a pet and one that you do not even see as an animal by the time you get it (most of the time). Why can a pig not be a pet? Or a cow? Or a chicken?

Peter Singer said in his book Practical Ethics, “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.” Singer believes that there is no real distinction that should be made between humans and other animals; humans and other animals are all animals. Singer also talks about the difference between dogs and pigs, saying: “We think of dogs as being more like people than pigs; but pigs are highly intelligent animals and if we kept pigs as pets and reared dogs for food, we would probably reverse our order of preference. Are we turning persons into bacon?” (119). The differences between a dog and a pig, at least when considering which is “better” (especially to eat), are all arbitrary and both species have qualities that make them better or worse.

Singer also connects abortion to eating animals, claiming that people who are against abortion, but eat animals “can hardly claim to have concern for ‘life’ as such” (150-151). People tend to believe in one thing, but not another when it is convenient for them. They like the taste of dead animals, so they do not “care” about the life of that animal. However, some people think it is absolutely wrong to abort pregnancies because they “are taking away a life.” There should not be such a big difference between a human life (even one that is not really alive yet) and another animal’s life in people’s minds.

An egg factory (Mercy for Animals / YouTube)

According to Mercy For Animals, a Los Angeles based nonprofit that performs undercover investigations at slaughterhouses and meat factories, “Farmed animals are crammed by the thousands into dark, waste-filled sheds. Many spend their entire lives locked in cages so small they can’t turn around.” People have problems locking their dogs or cats in a cage for even a day. It is not right to have animals locked in a cage for their entire lives. In addition to being stuffed in cages, animals are abused: kicked, thrown, punched, have their tails cut off, “teeth clipped out, beaks and horns seared off with a hot metal blade, [and] males have their testicles cut off without anesthesia” and painfully killed.

It is not right to treat these animals in this way. Even if they are going to be killed to eat, they should at least be given the decency of a semi-good life. (They can not have a good life since they are going to be killed at the end anyway just to be eaten.) Abusing animals while they are alive is not needed to make human consumable meat. Remember, humans are animals too. How would you feel if you were kept in a small, dark cage for your whole life where you could barely move around, sleep in your own feces, get kicked and abused all the time, and then get killed painfully at the end of your sad life, just so a couple people could have ten minutes of pleasure from eating you? I know I would not enjoy that.

According to Christine Korsgaard, a philosopher whose main focus is on morality, animals can have “things” that are “good-or-bad-for-them in the same sense that they can be good or bad for us. Their good matters in the same way that ours does.” The belief that animals “are better than us” and “humans are not the same as other animals,” according to Korsgaard, are all false. Since animals can have good and bad things happen to them, their good matters just as much as good that happens to humans matters.

And, do not think it is just the meat industry; the dairy industry is just as bad. Cows are forcibly impregnated endlessly to produce a ton of milk for human consumption. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), “Male calves—seen as ‘byproducts’ of the dairy industry—are generally taken from their mothers when they’re less than a day old. Many are shipped off to barren, filthy feedlots to await slaughter,” while the female calves are also taken away to be impregnated and used for their milk.

And all of those marketing labels, like free range, people see at the supermarket? Most mean nothing. There is an official definition of “free range,” by the FDA, which states that “the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” However, as pointed out in a Salon article, “outside” is not clearly defined. Do the animals just have to be able to, technically, fit out of a small window at the side of the shed they are kept in? And what is outside of their shed? Do the animals actually want to go there? Probably not, since most of the time it is just bare dirt or cement.

Misconceptions about being vegan

One common saying by meat-eaters aimed at vegans is: “How do you get enough protein as a vegan?” If a vegan eats healthy vegan food, they should get all the protein they need. Eating tofu once every week or two, vegetables all of the time, beans and rice multiple times per week, and other meals where beans or rice are snuck in should be good enough. If you eat right, and not just a bunch of junk food, you should be able to get the nutrients you need. This is true with omnivorous diets as well.

Other people say “I need to eat meat; primates did, lions do, etc.” This is not as common as the protein question, though people still say it. Lions do not have supermarkets within ten minutes of their habitat that they can go to whenever they want and buy food. Often for lions and primates, they do not have access to a surplus of other food right in front of them, so the meat of other animals is the easiest and most efficient food to get. Vegetables are no harder to get than meat, and are available at every supermarket.

Why being vegan is bad

Vegan food can, sometimes, be more expensive than non-vegan food. (This is mostly due to the government subsidizing the meat and dairy industries, but more on that later.) Alternatives are usually somewhat “fancy” and more expensive than the real thing, in the short term. In the long term, you may save money on health related costs because you are vegan, but that is hard to calculate. Since some regular food is already vegan, like fruits and vegetables, those will not cost more than they do now, but you may have to eat more (and spend more) on items like those. For people with smaller food budgets, being vegan may just take some more planning to make sure they get the food they need for the right amount of money. In some cases, though, a vegan diet may not fit into peoples’ budgets, and continuing to eat the subsidized meat and dairy they are used to buying may be a better option.

Vegans are not necessarily healthy either. Oreos, for example, happen to be vegan, but they still have a ton of sugar, are highly addictive, and overall are not very good for you. Some people think that just by being vegan they are healthier, but do not understand what other ingredients do to the body. If someone wants to be healthy, and they do not care about the animals, eating meat is a better option for them.

Becoming vegan also means that you have to be open to trying new foods or meals that you may not have eaten before being vegan. This also includes retraining your taste buds to appreciate good, healthy vegan food. There is a steep learning curve with figuring out what is vegan without really taking a good look at the ingredients, and also, in some cases, learning how to find or make good vegan food. People who are easily tempted or are not very committed to being vegan will not do well with the switch to eating vegan, but may become used to it after a while.

Additionally, one of the biggest reasons not to become vegan is because you end up eating a lot of fake, alternative food. I think this is a huge problem with being vegan, and in some cases, takes over the health benefits of going vegan. Alternatives can be just as bad for you, or even worse, than the real thing, mostly due to chemicals and too much soy being used.

People also say that you can not get the nutrients and vitamins needed to be healthy on a vegan diet. This is one of the hardest counter arguments to veganism, but if you do not eat a lot of fake food, and instead eat real food, you can get enough vitamins to be healthy. If not, supplements are always an option. (Meat-eaters take supplements, too!)

There is one type of nutrient that vegans cannot get properly: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) from omega-3 fatty acids. New York dietitian Leyla Shamayeva said: “There are a lot of links with [omega-3s and] mental health, like improving mood and memory and lowering the risks of depression and dementia. But their main link with disease prevention is that they’re anti-inflammatory, and chronic inflammation is linked to medical conditions like arthritis, heart disease and cancer.” All vegan sources of omega-3s usually contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a kind of omega-3, which does not have the same health benefits as EPA and DHA. There is one good vegan source of DHA: microalgae, which is what fish eat that makes them a good source of DHA and EPA.

Lastly, being vegan may not be for people with serious dislikes for beans, nuts, and vegetables, or those with allergies in the same areas. However, if it is just a dislike for the food, it does not make sense to just give up on being vegan. The disliked food should be tried again, and maybe prepared in a different way, to make sure the person actually does not like it. For those with allergies, they may be better off continuing to eat meat.

Principle of Utility

To decide why being vegan is right, I think Jeremy Bentham’s Principle of Utility (or utilitarianism) is a good tool to use. Bentham’s principle explains that the right decision is always what brings the most good (or happiness) to the most amount of people.

If you apply utilitarianism to a non-vegans point of view that wants to keep their current diet, the meat-eater gets some happiness from the way the meat tastes, but the animal where the animal product they are eating came from probably has a lot of pain, due to their life being taken away. According to Studies in Pessimism by german philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “we generally find pleasure to be not nearly so pleasant as we expected, and pain very much more painful. The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.” Additionally, the whole world feels pain due to the environmental costs of meat and dairy. In a utilitarian sense, being vegan maximizes happiness and limits pain.

Utilitarianism has its problems, though. It does not give you a way to measure happiness, so you could spend forever counting the pleasure and pain in this situation. It also does not specify if one type of happiness is worth more than another, which is probably true in most cases. I experience less pain when I wake up then when I get a papercut.

My personal decision

For my situation, I have long wondered why I became vegan and whether my reasons have changed since I became vegan. Originally, I became vegan because I just did not like dairy and eggs, and never really ate meat. However, since becoming vegan, I have started to feel more for the animals and the environment. Still, though, I do “cheat” sometimes and eat food with dairy or eggs. I have come to the decision, though, that I am vegan and support veganism because I care for the animals, even though I occasionally cheat. Because I have now researched the downsides of the meat and dairy industries more, I think I will cheat less and less. It is just not worth it.

My decision for everyone

I have thought a lot about why it would be good or not to force everyone to be vegan, and through this, gone into depth about what makes being vegan worth it and not worth it. If everyone switched to a vegan diet, quality of life would probably go up (fewer illnesses), the environment would be nicer, and we would not be depleting Earth’s resources as quickly. However, I do not think it is really right to force people to eat a certain way. People have a right to choose what they eat, and a law controlling what people eat would be a government overreach. It would also be very hard to enforce such a law to make sure no one would eat meat or dairy. A black market for meat and dairy would most definitely emerge, and the way animals would be treated would probably be even worse than now.

Despite that, there are a couple things that could be done to discourage meat and animal products and encourage people to eat plant-based foods. First, the government could impose a high tax on animal products (similar to taxes on cigarettes) that would, in part, help counter the climate impact of each product, but also make people think if it is really worth buying the animal product. If the tax was high enough, it would make enough people buy more plant-based vegan food that the prices of plant-based food would most likely come down due to the increasing demand for it.

Second, the government should also have stricter regulations on the meat and dairy industry. One regulation that would be good is to require every animal raised for human consumption to be given actual outdoor space to roam around on. Additionally, protections in the law should be given to farmed animals to prevent them from being able to be abused the way they are now. This would at least give animals a somewhat better life.

Finally, the US government should also subsidize plant-based food manufacturers and farmers, instead of the meat and dairy industries. According to PETA, “The American government spends $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, but only 0.04 percent of that (i.e., $17 million) each year to subsidize fruits and vegetables.” That should be flipped so that healthy fruits and vegetables become cheaper while meat becomes the price it actually should be.

If the US is trying to limit its carbon footprint and improve the environment (or maybe not now with Trump, although that is a slightly different story), it should subsidize healthy and sustainable food, regulate the animal agriculture industry more heavily, and tax food that is hard on the environment (like meat).

The US can not simply just make everyone eat vegan food and suddenly remove all meat and dairy from grocery shelves, that could cause worse situations than now and be nearly impossible to enforce. Instead, the government should incentivize people to switch to a plant-based diet so that they think it is more their choice and not big government forcing it down their throat, literally.