Gone are the days when vegetarians were served up a plate of iceberg lettuce and a dull-as-dishwater baked potato. With the growing variety of vegetarian faux meats like bacon and sausages -- along with an ever-expanding variety of vegetarian cookbooks and restaurants -- vegetarianism has taken the world by storm.
With World Vegetarian Week beginning on Monday, here without further ado are PETA's picks for the top 10 reasons to give vegetarian eating a try. 1. Helping Animals Also Helps the Global Poor
While there is ample and justified moral indignation about the diversion of 100 million tons of grain for biofuels, more than seven times as much (760 million tons) is fed to farmed animals so that people can eat meat. Is the diversion of crops to our cars a moral issue? Yes, but it's about one-eighth the issue that meat-eating is. Care about global poverty? Try vegetarianism.
2. Eating Meat Supports Cruelty to Animals
The green pastures and idyllic barnyard scenes of years past are now distant memories. On today's factory farms, animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy windowless sheds, wire cages, gestation crates, and other confinement systems. These animals will never raise families, root in the soil, build nests, or do anything else that is natural and important to them. They won't even get to feel the warmth of the sun on their backs or breathe fresh air until the day they are loaded onto trucks bound for slaughter.
3. Eating Meat Is Bad for the Environment
A recent United Nations report entitled Livestock's Long Shadow concludes that eating meat is "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." In just one example, eating meat causes almost 40 percent more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, and planes in the world combined. The report concludes that the meat industry "should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity."
4. Avoid Bird Flu
The World Health Organization says that if the avian flu virus mutates, it could be caught simply by eating undercooked chicken flesh or eggs, eating food prepared on the same cutting board as infected meat or eggs, or even touching eggshells contaminated with the disease. Other problems with factory farming -- from foot-and-mouth to SARS -- can be avoided with a general shift to a vegetarian diet.
5. If You Wouldn't Eat a Dog, You Shouldn't Eat a Chicken
Several recent studies have shown that chickens are bright animals who are able to solve complex problems, demonstrate self-control, and worry about the future. Chickens are smarter than cats and dogs and even do some things that have not yet been seen in mammals other than primates. Dr. Chris Evans, who studies animal behavior and communication at Macquarie University in Australia, says, "As a trick at conferences, I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens and people think I'm talking about monkeys."
6. Heart Disease: Our Number One Killer
Healthy vegetarian diets support a lifetime of good health and provide protection against numerous diseases, including the United States' three biggest killers: heart disease, cancer, and strokes. Drs. Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn -- two doctors with 100 percent success in preventing and reversing heart disease -- have used a vegan diet to accomplish it, as chronicled most recently in Dr. Esselstyn's Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, which documents his 100 percent success rate for unclogging people's arteries and reversing heart disease.
7. Cancer: Our Number Two Killer
Dr. T. Colin Campbell is one of the world's foremost epidemiological scientists and the director of what The New York Times called "the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease." Dr. Campbell's best-selling book, The China Study, is a must-read for anyone who is concerned about cancer. To summarize it, Dr. Campbell states, "No chemical carcinogen is nearly so important in causing human cancer as animal protein."
8. Fitting Into That Itty-Bitty Bikini
Vegetarianism is also the ultimate weight-loss diet, since vegetarians are one-third as likely to be obese as meat-eaters are, and vegans are about one-tenth as likely to be obese. Of course, there are overweight vegans, just as there are skinny meat-eaters. But on average, vegans are 10 to 20 percent lighter than meat-eaters. A vegetarian diet is the only diet that has passed peer review and taken weight off and kept it off.
9. Global Peace
Leo Tolstoy claimed that "vegetarianism is the taproot of humanitarianism." His point? For people who wish to sow the seeds of peace, we should be eating as peaceful a diet as possible. Eating meat supports killing animals, for no reason other than humans' acquired taste for animals' flesh. Great humanitarians from Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi to Thich Nhat Hanh have argued that a vegetarian diet is the only diet for people who want to make the world a kinder place.
10. The Joy of Veggies
As the growing range of vegetarian cookbooks and restaurants shows, vegetarian foods rock. People report that when they adopt a vegetarian diet, their range of foods explodes from a center-of-the-plate meat item to a range of grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables that they didn't even know existed.
Sir Paul McCartney sums it all up, "If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That's the single most important thing you could do. It's staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty."
So are you ready to give it a try? Check out VegCooking.com for recipes and meal plans and to take the World Vegetarian Week 7-Day Pledge.
Bruce Friedrich is vice president for campaigns at PETA. Before joining PETA in 1996, Bruce spent six years running a shelter for homeless families and the largest soup kitchen in Washington, D.C. He has been a progressive and animal activist for more than 20 years.