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  • A Short History of Vegetarianism
    with an emphasis on the U.S. from 1970+

    by Michael Bluejay, 1998

    Summary & Milestones
    Prior to Industrial Revolution

    Little meat consumption, nearly anywhere (compared to today's standards).


    Meat consumption rises dramatically in Western cultures as transportation and refrigeration becomes easier


    Publication of Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe launches vegetarian movement in U.S., but unfortunately introduces myth that vegetarians must "combine" their proteins to get a "complete" protein.


    Publication of Animal Liberation by Australian ethics professor Peter Singer provides the spark for the birth of the U.S. animal rights movement and the founding of the group PETA, a strong proponent of vegetarian eating.

    Late 1970's

    Vegetarian Times magazine begins publication


    The first book promoting veganism by a credentialed Western medical authority is published, Dr. John McDougall's The McDougall Plan.


    Diet for a New America by John Robbins provides the inspiration for the vegan movement in the U.S., while it re-starts the vegetarian movement.


    Medical evidence supporting the superiority of vegetarian diets becomes overwhelming. The American Dietetic Association officially endorses vegetarianism, and books by prominent doctors promote low-fat vegan or mostly-vegan diets (e.g., .The McDougall Program and Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease). The U.S. government finally ditches the antiquated and meat- and dairy-industry-sponsored Four Food Groups and replaces it with a Food Pyramid, showing that most of a person's diet should be based on grains, vegetables, beans, and fruits.

    Before recorded history

    Vegetarianism dates back to a time before recorded history. Many anthropologists believe that most early humans ate primarily plant foods, being more gatherers than hunters. (See articles by David Popovich and Derek Wall.) This view is supported by the fact that the human digestive system resembles that of other plant-eaters rather than that of carnivores. (Forget about "canine" teeth -- other herbivores have them too. But no meat-eater has molar teeth, like humans and the other plant-eaters.) The early human as plant-eater view is also supported by the fact that humans on meat-based diets contract major ailments such as heart disease and cancer much more frequently than people eating vegetarian diets. [more on the topic of plant-eating being natural]

    Certainly humans started eating meat at some point before recorded history, but only because unlike animals, humans are capable of that kind of experimentation. However, this short period of meat-eating is not nearly long enough to have had an evolutionary impact on us -- hence the fact, for example, that animal foods will raise human cholesterol while dogs fed solid bricks of butter maintain the same cholesterol level.

    Early vegetarians

    The Greek mathematician Pythagoras was a vegetarian, and vegetarians were often called Pythagoreans until the word was created. (The term "vegetarian" was coined by the British Vegetarian Society in the mid-1800's. The Latin root of the word refers to the source of life.) Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and George Bernard Shaw were also vegetarians. (A modern legend is that Hitler was a vegetarian, but in fact he was not, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.)

    Meat Consumption Rises in the 1900's

    Up until the mid-1900's, Americans ate far less meat than they do today. The cost of meat was very high, refrigeration was not widely available, and distribution was problematic. A side effect of the industrial revolution was that meat became cheaper, storable, and easier to distribute. As these changes happened, meat consumption increased dramatically -- and so did degenerative diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. As Dean Ornish said:

    "Until this century, the typical American diet was low in animal products, fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar, and high in carbohydrates, vegetables, and fiber.... Early in this century, with the advent of refrigerators, freezers, good transportation, mechanized agriculture, and a prosperous economy, the American diet and lifestyle began to change radically. Now most people in the United States eat a diet high in animal products, fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar, and low in carbohydrates, vegetables, and fiber." (Eat More, Weigh Less; 1993; revised 2001; p. 22)

    Birth of vegetarianism in the U.S.

    Vegetarianism was not very common in the U.S. until 1971, when Frances Moore Lappé's bestseller Diet for a Small Planet was published.

    A Ft. Worth native, Lappé dropped out of graduate school at U.C. Berkeley to do personal research on world hunger issues. Lappé was startled to discover that it takes 14 times as much grain to feed an animal than what you get out of it in meat -- an enormous waste of resources. (Livestock eat over 80% of the grain eaten in the U.S. If Americans cut their meat consumption by just 10%, there would be enough grain to feed all the starving people in the world.) At the tender age of 26, Lappé then wrote Diet for a Small Planet to encourage people to eat meatless meals and thus stop wasting the world's food.

    While the 60's are associated with hippies, and hippies with vegetarianism, in fact vegetarianism was not all that common in the 60's. It was really Diet for a Small Planet in 1971 that was the big starting point.

    The Protein Combining Craze

    But 1971 America saw vegetarianism much differently than it does today. Nowadays there are all manner of credentialed doctors advocating less meat or even no meat, and there are scores of successful athletes and celebrities that serve as proof that vegetarianism is healthy. That wasn't the case in 1971. The prevailing idea was that vegetarianism wasn't simply unhealthy, but it was actually impossible to survive on a vegetarian diet.

    Lappé knew that her book would be met with this bias, so she researched vegetarian nutrition, and in doing so made a substantial mistake which would dramatically change the course of vegetarian history. Lappé found some studies conducted around the turn of the century on rats, which showed that rats grew best when fed a combination of plant foods whose amino acid (protein) patterns resembled that of animal foods. Lappé had her magic bullet -- this would be the way she could convince readers that they could make their plant foods "just as good as" meat.

    Lappé devoted half of her book to this idea of "protein combining", or "protein complementing" -- how to serve beans and rice together, for example, so that the protein would be "complete". The protein combining idea was contagious -- it appeared in every other book by every other vegetarian author published after that, and made its way into academia, encyclopedia entries, and the American mindset. Unfortunately, the idea that protein combining is necessary was absolutely wrong.

    The first problem was that the protein combining theory was just that -- only a theory. There had never been any studies on humans. The idea of protein combining was thus more superstition than science. And it's not surprising that rats would grow differently than humans, since growing rats need ten times as much protein per calorie as growing humans. (Rat milk is 50% protein while human breast milk is only 5%.) Further, if plant foods were really so inferior, then how did cows, pigs, and chickens who eat nothing but grains and other plants get their protein? Wasn't it odd that we were eating farm animals for protein, and they were eating nothing but plants? Finally, plant foods were not even as "deficient" in various amino acids as Lappé had thought. As Dr. John McDougall wrote:

    "Fortunately, scientific studies have debunked this complicated nonsense. Nature designed and synthesized our foods complete with all the essential nutrients for human life long before they reach the dinner table. All the essential and nonessential amino acids are represented in single unrefined starches such as rice, corn, wheat, and potatoes in amounts in excess of every individual's needs, even if they are endurance athletes or weight lifters. Common sense tells you this would have to be true for the human race to have survived on this planet. Throughout history the food-providers went out in search of enough rice or potatoes to feed their families. Matching beans with rice was not their concern. We have only the hunger to relate to food; there is no drive to tell us to mix and match protein sources to make a more ideal amino acid pattern. There is no need for such a drive because there is no more ideal protein and amino acid composition than that found in natural starches." [emphasis in original]

    -- The McDougall Program; 1990; John A. McDougall, M.D.; p. 45.
    -- More detailed examination in The McDougall Plan; 1983; John A. McDoguall, M.D.; pp. 96-100

    Diet for a Small Planet was a runaway best-seller, and made Lappé famous. It was therefore surprising -- and commendable -- that Lappé owned up to making a mistake about the very thing which made her a household name. In the 1981 edition of Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé recanted and explained that:

    "In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein ... was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.
    "With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on [1] fruit or on [2] some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on [3] junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people ar getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein." [emphasis in original]

    -- Diet for a Small Planet, 10th Anniversary Ed.; 1982; Frances Moore Lappé; p. 162


    The Rest of the 70's

    Though Lappé didn't single-handedly solve the world hunger problem, and the protein combining quirk aside, Diet for a Small Planet was an unqualified success -- it was a runaway bestseller and sold millions of copies. It also launched the vegetarian movement in the United States. Vegetarian cookbooks, restaurants, co-ops, and communes started appearing out of nowhere. We commonly associate the 60's with hippies, and hippies with vegetarianism, but in fact vegetarianism was very uncommon before Diet for a Small Planet in 1971.

    That same year, some San Francisco hippies started a vegetarian commune in Tennessee which they generically named "The Farm". The Farm was large and successful, and helped define everyone's mental image of what a "commune" is supposed to be. The Farm also made a number of valuable contributions to our culture. They popularized the use of soybean foods in the U.S, especially tofu, which was largely unknown to Americans before The Farm Cookbook, which consisted of soybean recipes and explained how to make tofu. The book was published by The Farm's book publishing company, called The Book Publishing Company. (They also have a mail order catalog, whose name you can probably guess.) The Farm also reintroduced midwifery (home birthing) to America, and served to train a new generation of midwives. Finally, Farm residents perfected methods of natural birth control (and of course wrote books about it).

    In 1975, Australian ethics professor Peter Singer wrote Animal Liberation, which was the first scholarly work to present ethical arguments for not eating animals or experimenting on them. This inspirational book was the perfect compliment to Diet for a Small Planet, which showed exactly how to go about eating things other than animals. As Diet for a Small Planet did for vegetarianism, Animal Liberation did for animal rights, virtually launching the animal rights movement in the U.S. overnight. Animal rights groups started popping up everywhere, including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in the early 80's. (PETA paid for a special printing of Animal Liberation and used to give away a copies to all new members.)


    Late 80's: Diet for a New America and The Birth of Veganism

    Diet for a Small Planet got the vegetarian ball rolling in the 70's, but by the mid-80's several myths about vegetarianism were still widely held. One was the idea promoted by Diet for a Small Planet itself -- the myth about protein combining. Many would-be vegetarians were put off about changing their diets because of the planning they thought was required. Another myth was that dairy products and eggs were healthy, and that vegetarians had better make sure to eat enough in order not to die. Yet another was that it might be possible to be healthy on a vegetarian diet, but there were no significant health benefits (and there were certainly no problems with eating meat). Finally, most people had never heard of "factory farming", or of the serious environmental consequences of animal agriculture.

    Those myths were all shattered by John Robbins' 1987 book Diet for a New America. Robbins' work actually contained little that was new and original -- most of the ideas had been published elsewhere, but in a disjointed form. Robbins' contribution was to take a diverse array of existing information and combine it into one large, exhaustively documented volume, and to add his own inviting analysis, which has been praised for being accesible and non-judgemental. Part 1 of Diet for a New America exposed the horrors of factory farming. Part 2 convincingly demonstrated how deadly meat-based diets are, and how healthy and safe vegetarianism (even veganism) is -- debunking the protein combining myth along the way. Part 3 introduced the world to the incredible environmental consequences of animal agriculture, which even many vegetarians were unaware of before the book was published.

    Diet for a New America restarted the vegetarian movement in the U.S., as it launched the vegan movement, and helped introduce the term "vegan" into the American vocabulary. Within two years of the publication of Robbins' book, nearly ten new vegetarian societies formed in Texas.


    1990's: Medical Evidence becomes Overwhelming

    Dr. John McDougall started publishing a series of books promoting vegan diets to treat most major illness in 1983, and he reached his biggest success with the 1990 McDougall Program. That same year saw the publication of Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease, with Ornish being the first reseacher to prove that heart disease could in fact be reversed. Naturally, the largest part of Ornish's program was a low-fat, mostly vegan diet.

    Also in the early 90's, the American Dietetic Association published a position paper endorsing vegetarian diets, and support for vegetarian diets started to be seen throughout the medical community. The U.S. government finally dropped the antiquated, meat & dairy industry-sponsored Four Food Groups and replaced it with a Food Pyramid, clearly showing that Americans should be eating mostly grains, vegetables, beans, and fruits.

    Today, acceptance of vegetarianism by medical authorities and the general public is at an all-time high. Myths still abound, but overall change in attitude about vegetarianism since the 80's is nothing short of remarkable. As a vegetarian since 1985 and a vegan since 1989, this is a surprising but very welcome change.


    The McDougall Program, by John A. McDougall, M.D., 1990

    The McDougall Plan, by John A. McDougall, M.D., 1983

    Diet for a New America, by John Robbins, 1987

    Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe, various editions from 1971-1991


    Other Histories:

    A review of Heretic's Feast, a book about the history of vegetarianism


    Other Info:

    The founder of modern veganism, and coiner of the word "vegan", Donald Watson, died in Dec. 2005 at age 95 (article)


  • Why be vegetarian? Save animals, get healthy, lose weight, help the planet -- take your pick!
  • All about Protein. All vegetables have plenty of protein. Even lettuce. How do you think elephants get so big? :)
  • Is meat-eating natural?  Our bodies are optimized for eating plants, not meat. Read all about it here.
  • Vegetarian Myths.  From "plants aren't a complete protein" to "Hitler was a vegetarian", we run down all the common misconceptions here.
  • Vegetarianism and the Environment.  Meat production involves horrific amounts of water, land, energy, and pollution, compared to plant foods. Going veg. is the easiest way to lessen your impact.
  • This website is not medical advice.  While the author has tried to ensure the accuracy of the information on this site, and while he quotes many medical doctors, he is not a medical doctor himself, and this website is not medical or nutritional advice. Anyone contemplating nutritional changes should seek the counsel of a qualified health professional.

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