According to a poll conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Center, approximately six to eight million adults in the United States have adopted a vegetarian diet, meaning they never eat meat, poultry or fish/seafood (though there are several different types of vegetarian diets, some of which allow for occasional exceptions to the meatless rule). The question commonly asked is, “Why?” What compels an individual to make such a significant restriction to the typical Western diet? The reasons to become a vegetarian are numerous and vary among individuals.
Ethical Reasons for the Vegetarian Diet
There are many people who have moral objections to eating animals. They refrain because they object to the conditions in which farm animals are bred and raised, the way in which they are slaughtered, or they simply oppose the overall concept of using living creatures as food sources. These vegetarians will often also refrain from purchasing items made from animal products including wool, leather and fur.
Health Reasons for the Vegetarian Diet
Some vegetarians believe meat is an unhealthy food choice for the human body. It takes longer to digest and, with the abundance of hormones in the modern meat supply, it often contaminates the body with synthetic, unhealthy chemicals.
According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians have lower rates of death from heart disease, lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer compared to meat-eaters. Additionally, those who enjoy a vegetarian diet are less likely to be obese.
Environmental Reasons for the Vegetarian Diet
According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental problems worldwide, contributing on a “massive scale” to air and water pollution (from animal waste, antibiotics and hormones, fertilizers and pesticides). Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and over 8 percent of global human water use (mostly for irrigation of feed crops). The expansion of the livestock sector is also a major contributor to deforestation.
Religious Reasons for the Vegetarian Diet
Several religions, including Hinduism, recommend vegetarian diets for devout followers. Followers of various other religions, including Buddhism and Judaism, may view vegetarianism as an ideal but not a moral obligation. The underlying reasons are typically centered on the ethical intentions of non-violence and purity.
Cultural Reasons for the Vegetarian Diet
Some cultures are more accepting and encouraging of the vegetarian diet than others and it is therefore more common. Local cuisine tends to be largely meatless. In India, for example, about 40 percent of the population is vegetarian. According to the Israeli Ministry of Health, about 8.5 percent of the population of Israel enjoys a meatless diet. But throughout the European Union, most countries range from two to four percent of the population, according to the European Vegetarian Union.