Plant-Based Diets 101: Reasons to skip the animal based products

by Maria Deloso, ’15

On my flight to the Philippines this summer, the flight attendant asked why I wasn’t eating. Not knowing the easiest way to explain my diet in 5 seconds, I blurted out, “I’m a vegetarian.”

Immediately, the guy next to me who I had gotten to know quite well during the flight gestured to his chicken dinner and went, “Oh, now I feel bad eating this in front of you.” The conversation soon died (although he did later ask about adding me on Facebook at the baggage claim area).

I really wish people would question my eating habits more, rather than leaving it as an uncomfortable issue. I could go on and on about:

1.  Feeling good,

U.S. total meat consumption, in billion pounds. Source: npr.org, Earth Policy Institute

In the past, I used to think that being vegetarian meant buying weird animal product replacements like Tofurky, mozzarella style shreds and tofu. With the exception of the tofu, wouldn’t animal products be the better diet? I don’t want a block of processed soy at my dinner table or “shreds” on my pasta. PETA’s suggested vegan meal plan always looked plain nasty– almost every dish requires some sort of fake meat substitute. Thankfully, there’s this thing called the Internet where I learned about roasting vegetables, making filling salads, and replacing eggs with ground flaxseeds. A veggie sandwich (be creative: carrots and pesto) is now a go-to meal. I have fewer tummy problems than before– before I switched to a plant-based diet, I had been using heartburn medication and gone through on-off periods of stomach pain. A daily green smoothie and one cup of tea has replaced coffee. And did I mention not gaining weight despite my 9 to 5 sedentary desk job this summer?

2. Other people,

The amount of grain we feed to livestock in the US could feed an extra 840 million vegetarians. One third of the grain produced in the world goes to livestock, which in turn feeds those with enough money to purchase the meat products. A single pound of meat wastes 16 pounds of grain to be produced. Farmed fish isn’t much better: at least 3 pounds of wild caught fish are needed for each pound of the unnatrual stuff. You’re better off forgoing meat rather than gaming for 10 grains of rice on freerice.com or throwing money at some charity.  There are 925 million hungry, malnourished people in the world, almost 1 out of every 7. Compare that to the 311 million people in living in America, where instead we worry that two-thirds of our population is overweight or obese.  Our leading cause of death –cardiovascular disease– has been linked by Harvard researchers to processed and red meat consumption (interesting fact: pork is red meat). Looking closer at the farm, the livestock we raise for food consumption in America produces 130 times more fecal waste than our country’s own population. Those living near livestock production facilities have to deal with air pollution, awful smells and polluted water, lowering their own standards of living. Georgia alone raises 1.4 billion chickens a year for meat. That’s higher than the number of hungry people on Earth! And we haven’t even gotten to the chickens bred for eggs.

3. The Environment,

If everyone switched to an all-plant diet, we could produce 50% more food according to the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota.

Raising livestock accounts for 70% of all the agricultural land and 30% of the ice-free parts of the planet’s surface. If we’re going to have an extra 2 billion people by 2050, this current system just isn’t going to cut it. If every American ate one less serving of chicken each week, we would have as many CO2 emissions as taking half a million cars off of the road. The meat, dairy, and egg industries are responsible for 65% of the nitrous oxide emissions in the world. Nitrous oxide is 300 times better at trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere than CO2. Finally, eating one less serving of meat saves as much water as not showering for 6 months. Every bit counts.


4. Animals, 

Actually, animals is a new thing. I’ve never been a puppy lover, having been scarred by a friend’s dog attempting to hump me at some middle school birthday party. Volunteering at an animal shelter or any of that stuff never has interested me, although I do admire people who are involved in that stuff. In the past, I never understood the vegan rally cry of, “Cruelty Free.” I’m sorry, but humans have been killing and eating animals since forever (just look at the return of the caveman diet that’s all the rage these days). To say that killing an animal constitutes cruelty is a personal decision for each person. Now, if you reframed the argument into animal welfare, there’s more than meets the eye.  How right it is to castrate cows or to cut off chicken beaks without anesthesia for the sake of profits and our taste preferences? Or what about artificial insemination, which 100% of all turkeys, 95% of dairy cattle, and 80% of pigs undergo– basically, forced pregnancies and babies without the sex? The idea that we can shove some semen up another female so that we can have her babies for dinner raises some interesting concerns about our own species.

Semen collection for artificial insemination. The worker behind the cow is holding an artificial vagina.

5. and Stretching my wallet

Okay, not every farm is that crazy. There’s still the 1% of non-factory farms who may or may not be taking advantage of the previously mentioned legal practices that fall under “Common Farming Exemptions.”  They might even integrate their animals within an ecologically sustainable system. But let’s be frank: these smaller farms would never be able to match the current production of the factory farms, which kill around 10 billion animals in the United States annually in honor of the sacred pillars of breakfast, lunch and dinner. At Whole Foods the other day, my mother spent $9 on just over a pound of “ethical” meat. It lasted two days split among the six other family members living in my household this summer. I’d rather have spent my money on capers, cashews and rich chocolate sauce– investments that would flavor many meals to come. Maybe paying so much for meat could be justified occasionally. Even sometimes. Just not always.

Honestly, I’m not going to pretend to have The Answer to these issues, but if I’m going to eat something, I’d rather pick the choice that seemed better. I mean, this isn’t some crazy revelation: each time we’re at a restaurant we get to pick what tastes best and doesn’t break the bank; I’d just rather pick not only based on taste but what would make me feel more comfortable about my choice. I’ll admit, some things are easier than others. I’ve always thought ground up meat was disgusting because it always reminds me of little mashed clumps of rabbit shit.

Some of my friends poke fun at my so-called “idealism,” but the vegetarian/vegan/mostly plant eating 3% of America has managed to convince the National Restaurant Association to encourage restaurants to offer at least one vegetarian option on their menus. In the 1970s, tofu was virtually unheard of by the general population. Today, many of us have tried it at least once. I remember when I was 10 years old how soy milk was a new grocery thing. Now, I can walk into a regular grocery store and find not only soy milk, but almond, coconut and hemp milk options! There are even a couple of vegan restaurants, a vegetarian fast-food restaurant, and a vegan ice-cream shop within a 20-minute driving radius from my home. While people aren’t becoming vegetarians in droves, many are incorporating these products into their daily lives. A lady in the office I’m interning at this summer makes some sinfully buttery and eggy lemon bars while using almond milk for her morning oatmeal. My own family continues to eat a couple of meat meals each week, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also have some homemade vegan cupcakes for dessert. Even Frances Moore Lappe, the famous author of Diet for a Small Planet, which helped to jump-start the vegetarian movement in the 1970s, doesn’t consider herself a vegetarian (although she rarely eats meat).

In America, we see eating meat as a necessity in a meal. Approximately 2 billion people in the world eat a meat-based diet. But did you know that an estimated 4 billion sustain themselves each day with a mostly plant-based diet? Now, I don’t expect everyone to go completely vegetarian or vegan– I don’t label myself as anything, although the last time I had meat was a shrimp that I ate to appease my uncle while visiting the Philippines. Even my closest friends follow the Standard American Diet (or SAD, as some call it). We all have different priorities and beliefs, and constant preaching really isn’t my thing. However, a little awareness at a forum besides the dinner table never hurt anyone.

The world is full of problems that we will probably never see fixed in our lifespans. We know conventional cotton grown for our clothing is deadly for the planet, that there are people dying every second, and that our laptops were most probably made using some sort of inhumane labor practices. Choosing the meatless option even once a week is not only good for your health, but better for the planet, the hungry, your conscience, and your pocketbook. There are fewer decisions that carry such obvious benefits.


Maria is a sophomore fascinated by the stuff we put into our mouths three times a day, seven days a week. Send her your thoughts/questions/rants at mdeloso@stanford.edu.

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2 thoughts on “Plant-Based Diets 101: Reasons to skip the animal based products

  1. esqg says:

    This is good and comprehensive, and I’m really glad for the part at the end where you discuss making different choices rather than committing absolutely to being “veg(etari)an”. But I would press you on one part.

    “There are 925 million hungry, malnourished people in the world, almost 1 out of every 7. Compare that to the 311 million people in living in America, where instead we worry that two-thirds of our population is overweight or obese.”

    This contrast directly sets up “obesity” as a phenomenon that is opposite to being “malnourished”. It also implies that overweight people are usually rich and, in the context of your #3, wasteful. This may not be intentional but it is unfair to let these implications go so easily. Let’s talk about “obesity” just in terms of diet, the proportion of fat in one’s body, and how it threatens health (rather than what size someone is): then people can be obese because they are malnourished. Many people grow up poor in America, people can worry about their next meals even in America, and learn to eat whatever food is cheapest, is most filling, most delicious, and most readily accessible. They may also be overweight, or be thin but have unhealthy fat content. (Obviously that brings up other nationwide food justice issues which honestly I don’t know enough about; and of course there is a valid contrast to countries where people routinely starve.)

    Meanwhile, we have a culture that makes all kinds of assumptions about you depending on your size, and makes it very hard to address obesity as an actual health issue only correlated with size. Even just looking around to find information about why “obese” is related to “malnourished”, I found this article which does so, and also talks about how plant-based food is better. In any case it is worthwhile to talk about improving diets in the USA without coming across as fat-shaming.

    • Maria says:

      Hi esqg,

      Thank you for pointing out the problems with my simplistic obese/malnourished dichotomy. Blaming people for their food choices without considering access issues or even suggesting that size directly correlated to health were not my intention. The next time I write a piece, I’ll pay more attention to my word choices to avoid any of these possible misconceptions.

      -Maria

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