In a nation of devoted carnivores, dedicated vegans are a miniscule minority. CNN reports 1.5% of American adults are self-described vegans; that is, they neither eat nor consume any animal products whatsoever. More a cause than a diet, veganism is gaining widespread support among environmentalists and many mainstream healthcare professionals.
Compare vegans’ steadfast refusal of all animal products against prevailing American trends. Last year, American meat consumption hit an all-time high—more than 230 pounds of meat for every man, woman, and child in the country. Despite difficult economic times, domestic meat consumption has increased more than 12% since 2008; meat consumption has more than doubled since 1950. Chicken and beef lead meat-eaters’ shopping lists, totalling eighty-seven and sixty-six pounds respectively; beef consumption is down a little bit from its historic 1985 high, but consumption of pork has more than made-up the difference. The average American ate nearly sixty pounds of pork, ham, bacon, and sausage last year, and popular food networks are reporting “a bacon-craze” sweeping the nation. If current trends persist, the USDA forecasts annual per capita meat consumption to top 300 pounds by 2014.
Of course, public health officials note the correspondence between increased meat consumption and increased obesity. “In a nation where the average person eats nearly seventy pounds of pork every year, it’s a little difficult to feel surprised that two out of three adults are clinically obese,” says one dedicated vegan. Doctors also connect baby-boomers’ problems with cholesterol and heart disease with their dedication to the traditional American meat-and-potatoes diet.
Vegan represents a major commitment—to health and to a cause.
Along the continuum of vegetarian practices, vegan represents the most extreme—and the most principled. Whereas moderate vegetarians will allow for some fish and dairy products, and some more ardent vegetarians at least will make allowances for consumer products, dedicated vegans steadfastly decline to use any animal products. Zero. None. Vegans stress not only the health benefits of their practice but also the environmental and economic benefits of their commitment to the cause.
Vegan health benefits
After giving up all animal products, living strictly on organically grown fruits, vegetables, and soy products, vegans report significantly lower body fat and cholesterol, lower heart and respiration rates, and generally improved health. They also report fewer environmental toxins in their systems, and dermatologists observe they have healthier complexions and hair than meat-eaters. Long-term studies of veganism’s health benefits are still in progress, and researchers generally decline comment on or speculation about their results. Most vegans, however, agree with Claire Sommetrfield, who asserts, “I don’t need a clinical study. I have the proof of my own body and brain. I am more fit, active, alert, and generally healthy than ever before in my life.” Currently a college sophomore, Sommerfield has strictly practiced veganism for two and a half years.
Vegan benefits for animals
Many people become vegans on the strength of their devotion to animals. They not only refuse to eat meat and dairy products but also refuse to use products derived from or tested on animals. Cosmetics and beauty products especially have inspired vegans’ concerns for well over a decade, because animal-testing has an exceptionally lurid history of cruel, inhumane treatment of all kinds of laboratory animals. Leading cosmetics manufacturers finally are responding to vegans’ demands. Sephora and other leading purveyors of beauty products now feature vegan products, pricing them comparably and competitively.
Economic benefits for local organic farmers
Many vegans regard their strict dietary requirements as a statement about the future of American farming. Just as leading economists forecast the imminent death of the big American corporation, and just as leading political scientists predict the imminent demise of the big American city, so vegans look forward to the decline and fall of the huge American corporate farm. Vegans pointing to statistics about how mega-growers’ use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has poisoned ground water and contributed to increases in juvenile cancers in major agricultural areas. They characterize the data and related medical studies as “irrefutable.” Similarly, vegans point to recent outbreaks of e coli in vegetables from corporate farms, and they especially rest their case on the recent recall of millions of “factory produced” eggs. Claire Sommerfield, college athlete and dedicated vegan, challenges, “No one can look at the pictures of those chickens and their conditions without utter shock, abhorrence, and inspiration to take some meaningful action.”
Sommerfield suspects major super-market chains collude with corporate farmers to keep organic produce out of the marketplace and to discourage shoppers by artificially inflating prices of organic fruits and vegetables. She shops at local farmers’ markets where growers bring their produce straight from the field to the stand. “I mean literally from the ground to my shopping bag!” Sommerfield exclaims. “It could not be any fresher, riper, or more nutrient-rich.” She says she appreciates many growers’ refusal to wash fruits and vegetables before bringing them to market, because “I carefully wash all my produce in purified water, and I store it in environmentally friendly containers.”