Author of The Book of Tofu

Over the past 25 years, the first big change for vegetarianism is that, today, it is acknowledged that a balanced vegetarian diet is actually healthier than the standard American diet. That's a huge change! The question is, what brought about this great change? I think there are three or four major influences. The biggest influence is the Adventist Health Study, which is a health study that has been running since the 1950s of 50,000 Seventh-day Adventists in California compared with 50,000 non-Seventh-day Adventists. That has led to more than 200 publications in the medical literature. That's something that has never ever happened in the history of vegetarianism before — people can look at numbers published by doctors and see that people who are vegetarian are having dramatically lower rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity — and more. So that study, which surprisingly is not very well-known among vegetarians, I think has been the biggest influence and the biggest change in the past 25 years.

The second influence is the consensus that choles terol and saturated fat are major causes of heart disease. This consensus did not exist before the late 1980s. The consensus had been building since the 1950s, and once that consensus happened, many physicians looked at their heart disease patients (of which there are many) and then knew what to say to these people. Many doctors began to say, "You should cut back on your consumption of meat and saturated fat." And just at that point, meat alternatives began taking off as a category.

The third reason I think health care professionals have changed their attitudes so much is the influence of vegetarian physicians and nutritionists. The ones that come to mind first are Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Dean Ornish, and Dr. John McDougall. Not least are the people of The Vegetarian Resource Group, who have been present at one nutrition conference after another for so many years. This is where nutritionists and dieti tians meet and ask for information. So, The Vegetarian Resource Group has really done a wonderful job work ing over many, many years, and I think many people have changed their view based on that type of outreach.

The second big change for vegetarianism that I see is the way that ordinary Americans view a vegetarian diet, which is increasingly positive. Twenty-five years ago, believe it or not, most Americans were trying to increase their consumption of meat. That was seen as a sign of affluence. Today, many Americans are try ing to reduce their consumption of meat, especially those who are better educated. People are increasingly realizing that meat is not good for you. And not only that, they recognize other things about meat, such as the way that it gets to your table, what it does to the environment — subjects that were never even talked about before. Another thing that's quite remarkable is that 17 percent of Americans say they are vegetarians. That means that, first of all, they wouldn't say that if they were thinking that wasn't a cool thing to be, and secondly, even though they are not all vegetarians, it's really nice to have that many people thinking of themselves as vegetarians. It would be nicer if they were really vegetarians, but the fact that so many people say that is a huge change in attitude toward vegetarianism.

Big change number three is how much easier it is for a person to become a vegetarian than it was back then. First, there are all kinds of wonderful meat and dairy alternatives for people who want to take that route. For an awful lot of adults, it's much easier to make a transition to a vegetarian diet if everything kind of looks the same as it did before on their plates. Secondly, there is loads of information — recipes and books about vegetarianism.

The next big change is that I think the number of vegetarian menus that are offered in colleges, uni versities, restaurants, and so forth has gone way up. You can basically go anywhere now and there will be a vegetarian item on the menu, unless it's a very swanky type of restaurant. A few years ago, I remember going to Yosemite and sitting down at the main eating place and seeing the first item on the menu was a veggie burger. That's amazing.

Another big change is the huge increase in the awareness of animal rights and animal welfare that so many people in America have brought about. That will ultimately translate into the way people eat, although it doesn't seem to be doing it that much just yet.

Finally, there has been the huge increase in the number of vegetarian periodicals and their readership. This, in my opinion, is a double-edged sword. The one edge is that you get these glossy, slick publications out there on newsstands in front of the public. But to do that, you have to change the message from the traditional message to what I would call a one-dimensional message. It's necessary to do that so big advertisers will advertise in those magazines. They want a magazine that Kraft will have no objection to at all. And you do that by having pretty pictures of recipes all through the magazine. When the first post-war American vegetarian periodical was published —  Vegetarian Times  — it was a rich tapestry of everything about vegetarianism. In other words, it did not present vegetarianism as a diet , which is the way these modern magazines present it. It presented it as a lifestyle .

VEGETARIAN JOURNAL Issue Three 2007 < previous next >