A Brief History of Vegetarianism

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Did you know that Pythagoras, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and Plutarch were all vegetarians? As were Confucius, Buddha, Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, and a host of other impressive figures over the centuries. Clearly, this dietary choice has a long and rich history─which is a great starting place as we learn more about all things vegetarian through the month of March.

History of Vegetarianism

How far back does this history go? Well, although we think of our ancestors as hunter-gatherers, the reality is that early humans were more likely to subsist largely on plant foods─like nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables─supplemented by meat when they could get it. When we look at cultures still living under conditions similar to our ancient ancestors, such as tribal Australian aborigines, we find that only about 25% of their diet is comprised of meat.

Although vegetarianism as a deliberate practice is thought to have started with the early Greeks, it was not until the mid-1800s that the concept really touched western civilization. In England, the Reverend William Cowherd was an early advocate of meat-free eating and one of the philosophical forerunners of the British Vegetarian Society, which initially coined the term “vegetarian.”

In the U.S., Reverend William Metcalfe was an early founder of the American Vegetarian Society in 1850. However, vegetarianism was relatively unknown in the U.S. until 1971, when Frances Moore Lappé’s bestseller Diet for a Small Planet was published. Her book encouraged a meat-free diet and a greater concern for our global food supply. The post-60′s cultural climate was ripe for Lappés ideas, and the American vegetarian movement was officially launched.

Another major catalyst─certainly comparable with Lappés work in magnitude─came from an unlikely source: the heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire, John Robbins. Robbins refuted his prospective fortune to create a book so powerful that it sparked a whole new movement─veganism. His 1987 book “Diet for a New America” was as comprehensive and well researched as it was influential, eloquently exposing the links between nutrition, environmentalism, and animal rights for the first time.

Fast forward to 2000, when a poll conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that nearly 4.8 million adults─about 2.5% of the U.S. population─were vegetarian. In a 2002 Time/CNN Harris Interactive survey, 4% of Americans referred to themselves as vegetarians. However, there is certainly a far larger percentage of “part-time” vegetarians.

Another major influence was The China Study─a 2006 book by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D.─that examines the relationship between eating animal products and illnesses like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, autoimmune disease, osteoporosis, degenerative brain disease, and more. One of America’s all time best-selling books about nutrition, The China Study is based on a 20-year study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, Cornell University, and the University of Oxford.

Described by The New York Times as “the Grand Prix of epidemiology,” the study examined mortality rates, diets, and lifestyles of 6,500 people in 65 rural counties in China, and concluded that people who largely consume animal foods like meat and dairy products are far more likely to suffer chronic disease than those eating a plant-based diet. The China Study also examines the source of nutritional confusion produced by powerful lobbies, government entities, and irresponsible scientists.

Today, acceptance of vegetarianism by medical authorities and the general public is at an all-time high. Stay tuned for more information about a way of eating that has many associated benefits─to say the least.

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One Comment for “A Brief History of Vegetarianism”

  • I’m so glad going meatless is appreciated this month! I believe many people should embrace vegan/vegetarian lifestyles and perspectives for many reasons.

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