Veganism in American Culture

 Liza Reynolds, Amanda Rodgers, and Megan Sutherland

As we watched Marisa J., a vegan, cook tacos free of all animal products for dinner, we couldn’t help but think of how important the food she puts into her body must be in her life. Similar to many of the meals Marisa makes and eats, this one was homemade, and included some of the healthiest options available. Marisa has been a vegan for five months, and although she is new to the vegan lifestyle, she indicated that she does not regret it at all, and has no intention of turning back any time soon. Marisa stated, “I thought why not just try it for a week and see how I feel. I felt really good. I’m really into working out so I had a lot more energy, and I just never went back, I felt really good being vegan,” expressing how this vegan diet changed her entire livelihood. Many individuals in our culture are becoming more aware of what they put into their bodies, but few are willing to go the extra mile and give up all animal products. Research has shown that there is a large cancer risk reduction associated with consuming an increased amount of fruits and vegetables and consuming less animal products, especially red meat (Craig). According to The Rise of Veganism: Start a Revolution, only two-and-a-half percent of American population is vegan, but this is a huge increase from one percent in 2009. Although many Americans are not planning to give up animals products completely anytime soon, the consumption of meat is falling, and has been doing so for the past twenty years (The Rise of Veganism: Start a Revolution). This photo essay outlines the vegan lifestyles of five female vegan participants within our American culture. Lauren A., Lisa A., Marisa J., Katie J. and Allie S. all expressed their trials and tribulations of being vegan, as well as their profound devotion and adoration for their plant based diets. Our questions aimed to discover our participants’ history with food, how it affected, and still affects their lives on a daily basis. Our participants were asked questions such as why they became a vegan, what they typically ate, and where they shop for ingredients. Their answers to these questions reflected how our culture guides what people eat and how people think about food. In this case, our participants’ veganism guides what they eat because it is a culture and way of living in itself. The goal of this research project was to determine how our participants’ veganism shaped their everyday lives within American culture, and how our culture has influenced their choice to become a vegan.

Here Marisa is cooking a twenty minute meal over the span of one minute. Marisa is cooking a taco free of all animal based products. She cooked a taco on a whole-wheat tortilla with refried beans, white rice, stir-fried onions and peppers, salsa, and lettuce. Filmed by Liza Reynolds.

What Is Veganism?

Being a vegan does not just include limiting the food you eat, but also entails excluding animal products from all aspects of your life. There is evidence that people have been avoiding animal products in their diet for over 2,000 years (The Vegan Society). In November 1944, Donald Watson met with five other non-dairy vegetarians to discuss non-dairy vegetarian diets and lifestyles. These six individuals were the first to found a new movement – The Vegan Movement. The Vegan Society decided to entitle this new diet “vegan,” the first three and last two letters of vegetarian. Watson stated that the vegan diet was “the beginning and end of vegetarian” (The Vegan Society). The Vegan Society was one of the first official groups of vegans, but took awhile for individuals to officially label veganism and to “hop on” the vegan bandwagon. In 1979, The Vegan Society was registered as a charity and updated their official definition of veganism,

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals (The Vegan Society).

A vegan diet is “richly diverse and comprises all kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, beans and pulses – all of which can be prepared in endless combinations that will ensure you’re never bored” (The Vegan Society). Compared to vegetarian diets, vegan diets have become a lot more popular because they contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fiber, vegans tend to be thinner, have lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (Craig). One of our participants, Lauren stated that veganism to her is,

A diet that eliminates dairy, meat, seafood (anything that comes from an animal).  Basically a diet that is plant based – all foods eaten come from plants. Though, I am just exploring this at the moment – I also believe that veganism can be a way of life were a person excludes all animal based products from their life (including clothing, shoes, etc.),

explaining that giving up all animal products is consistent with being a “true” vegan. Marisa expressed that giving up all animal products has given her “a lot more energy,” as well as helped her see the negative effects of the treatment of animals. She explained how she decided to become a vegan after watching a video entitled, “101 Reasons to Go Vegan.” She described how this video helped her realize that the reason we eat certain animals is determined by society and all animals should be cherished and loved, “I don’t know the difference between one or the other, they’re all animals and they have a will to live, so I just don’t think we should kill them.” Many vegans have a similar idea of what being a vegan means to them, but each vegan lives life a little differently and by different rules. The food they eat normally fits into the same plant based criteria, but can be shaped by their individual experiences and cooked into different meals that are desired by each individual vegan.  

Marisa explains why it is important to her to not eat animals or animals products. She believes that “all animals have a will to live,” and should not be killed. Filmed by Liza Reynolds.

Why Become a Vegan / Values of Vegans

One may become a vegan for a variety of reasons.  It may be because of ethical reasons, animal rights, health purposes and environmental concerns. Based on the participants we interviewed, several of them said they had become vegan due to their health. They choose to be vegan for their own personal health and believe that plant foods will provide better health outcomes not only on a daily basis, but for long-term health outcomes.  One of our participants, Katie described to us why she became vegan.  She stated,

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes last semester and was told that a low carb diet would help me control my blood sugars. This diet change became a struggle for me. I found myself not knowing what to eat, and I also found myself very sleepy and out of energy throughout most of the day… I learned that in a vegan diet you are constantly eating foods that provide you long lasting energy, which was exactly what I needed. Now I am full of energy again and feel great about what I eat.

This is just one example of why one decides to become vegan for specific health purposes.  Lisa one of our other respondents described that she has a sensitive stomach and vegan eating keeps her stomach feeling good.  Similarly, another participant Lauren stated,

Such a diet prevents (and can even reverse) terrible chronic medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease.  It has also been shown to decrease cancer formation as well as to decrease the inflammatory response in the body that may lead to autoimmune diseases.  A vegan diet allows me to be active as well – by controlling my weight and giving me lots of energy!

Through interviewing several of our participants we were able to gain insight into why a vegan diet is beneficial to their health, as well as how it allows them to help control a particular disease they may suffer from, as demonstrated by Katie. 

Some ethical reasons for becoming vegan revolves around the exploitation of animals and people.  Specifically according to The Vegan Journey, “They believe it is unethical to take body parts from animals for food, clothing, or household items. They are against the torture and killing of animals for any reason, including medical research, entertainment, and for products” (Steele).  Furthermore, their ethical beliefs are more complicated and surround controversies that are concerned with the impact on humans, from the violence and torture that goes into the factory processing of animals.  Generally ethical vegans feel sadness and guilt by the thought of eating a dead animal or a product that comes from a tortured animal.  One of our participants Allie stated that, “I know that I could never kill an animal under normal circumstances, or harm them at all, so I don’t want to support the corporations that do”.  Furthermore, Lauren described, “I don’t think that the health and wellbeing of animals should take precedence for our desire to eat such food”.  Both these participants feel strongly that we should not participant in harming animals for the benefits of humans, which has become a strong ethical reason that shaped their decision to become a vegan.

From an environmental standpoint, vegans believe that fresh water, the decline in biodiversity, Global Warming, and pollution are rising problems because of the use of animals in food.  Specifically, in a study by National Geographic in 2011 scientist discovered the following:

  • 1,799 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef,
  • 576 gallons of water to produce one pound of pork,
  • 468 gallons of water to produce one pound of chicken, and
  • 216 gallons of water to produce one pound of soybeans (Henning, 2011).

The immense amount of water that is needed in food production has a large impact on the environment. One of our interviewees, Allie, has a strong belief in the environmental impact of the food industry. She argued that “Although no one willing to talk about it, a HUGE contribution to greenhouse gasses comes from animal agriculture.  So, by not supporting or taking part in those practices, I am taking a stand against the industry.” From our research and from what we learned from our participants, it is clear that many become vegan for the impacts the food industry has on the environment, for their own health, or for other ethical reasons.

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Allie is participating  in a cooking class at Western Michigan University where she and other vegans practiced cooking meals free of animal products in Kalamazoo, MI. Photos taken by Allie Spring.

Shopping for Ingredients / Product Availability

Another focus of our study was on how easy and/or difficult it was for our participants to find foods that they could eat, as well as finding ingredients that they could use to cook.  When asking our participants specific questions on this matter it was clear that they all were easily able to find the specific foods that they needed to eat.  We also noted that there has been a change in mainstream grocery stores expanding their healthy foods sections over the last decade.  The demand for vegan food has increased in the last decade meaning that more grocery stores are expanding their natural and animal product-free food departments, making it easier for vegans to shop for what they need. According to The Vegetarian Resource Group’s report on vegan foods,  

Although health foods stores and the natural foods chains, Whole Foods and Wild Oats led the retail vegetarian and soy foods movement, these foods are now commonplace in supermarkets, discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Target, and warehouse or club stores . . . by mid-2006, three-quarters of soy food and drink sales came from supermarkets, up from about half in 2001” (Geinsburg).  

Furthermore, “Total retail sales of soy milk, almond milk, rice milk and other plant milks reached $1.33 billion in 2011” (Zacharias). This statistic shows vegan products are increasing in sales and creating more demand, meaning more grocery stores have begun to sell more vegan friendly products.  More stores are expanding their food selection and according to Catalina Marketing, “72 percent of grocery shoppers say that their local supermarket stocks a wide variety of healthful foods and beverages, presumably leaving 28 percent that might like to see increased offerings” (Geinsburg).   These statistics show that there is a higher demand for vegan foods, and grocery stores have adapted to this demand by acquiring more healthy food options in their stores.  Since main stream stores have expanded, consumers are shopping at their local chain grocery store, such as Meijer and Kroger, for their natural food needs.  Specifically, Lisa who has been a vegan for seventeen years stated, “I have noticed more vegan products available, it’s nice to have more options and is very convenient.” Furthermore, another participant Lauren states, “I love the expansion of vegan friendly options at stores now.  It’s so convenient.”  This shows us that vegans are having an easier time accommodating their dietary needs, due to the expansion of grocery stores healthy and natural food options.  Our participants noted a change in mainstream stores such as Meijer.  All five of our participants stated that they are able to shop at Meijer and find what they need.  For example, Allie sated, “The most notable change that I’ve noticed is Meijer, and their new brand of organic food. Now, I am much more likely to shop there because it offers the types of food I am looking for (healthy, organic), whereas some smaller grocery stores have very limited selection.”  While our participants did say that they are likely to shop at other stores like Fresh Thyme, Whole Foods and different farmers markets, they all recognized the growth in vegan friendly options at the bigger brand grocery stores.  We have been able to conclude that the expansion of mainstream grocery stores vegan and healthy food options has made it significantly easier and more convenient for vegans to find the proper foods for their unique diet.

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Here are some vegan products bought by Katie Justice at Fresh Thyme. Some of the food Katie bought includes vegan cheese, almonds, veggie burgers, spinach, almond milk, bananas, and clementines. Photos taken by Liza Reynolds.

 Katie is shopping for vegan ingredients at Fresh Thyme, a local whole foods grocery store in East Lansing, MI. Katie purchased items such as bananas, clementines, frozen fruit, veggie burgers, and vegan cheese. Filmed by Megan Sutherland. 

American Culture and Its Impact

Veganism

This infographic displays many statistics regarding veganism in America. Source: TopRNtoBSN.com

American food practices have played an important role in shaping our respondents decision to abstain from animal products. To understand how this process occurred, it is important to examine our culture’s beginnings. The practices associated with food of contemporary American culture have deep evolutionary roots established by our ancestors. Michael Pollan explores this concept in his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, where he examines the implications behind what we choose to eat. Pollan states that, “For although humans no longer need meat in order to survive […] we have been meat eaters for most of our time on earth. This fact of evolutionary history is reflected in the design of our teeth, the structure of our digestion, and quite possibly, in the way my mouth still waters at the sight of a steak cooked medium rare. Under the pressure of the hunt, anthropologists tell us, the human brain grew in size and complexity and around the hearth where the spoils of the hunt were cooked and then apportioned, human culture first flourished” (Pollan, 314). This reveals just how deeply rooted our desire for meat is in our American culture. For our ancestors, to ensure a group’s survival, it was imperative to hunt game, trap smaller animals, hunt for fish, and gather various plants. (The Editors of The Encyclopædia Britannica). These adaptive strategies are still important to our culture even in the modern era. In fact, The United States consumes more meat than any other country in the world. In 2012, “The meat and poultry industry [was] the largest segment of U.S. agriculture” (North American Meat Institute). In addition, the average American consumes, “110 lbs. of red meat and 62.4 lbs. of beef and 46.5 lbs. of pork. Americans eat 73.6 lbs. of poultry, including 60.4 lbs. of chicken, as well as 16.1 lbs. of fish and shellfish and 32.7 lbs. of eggs” (Wesley).

From this data, we can see that meat is a vital component to American diet. However, in the midst of our meat-eating culture, various food practices have challenged cultural norms. “According to a Harris Interactive study commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, approximately five percent of the U.S. is vegetarian (close to 16 million people) and about half of these vegetarians are vegan” (Trauth). Veganism shows that an individual can still have a balanced diet and obtain a healthy lifestyle without the consumption of meat or animal products. However, in a culture that stresses the importance of meat, our respondents have overcome many obstacles throughout their journey as vegans.

The consumption of food is not merely a task used to satisfy our needs, it is also a social process that involves conversation and interaction. When interviewing our respondents, we gained insight into how their social experience within American culture has changed since their decision to become a vegan. Going out to eat at restaurants is an important foodway in our American culture. “The average American eats an average of 4.2 commercially prepared meals per week. In other words, as a nation, we eat out between four and five times a week, on average. This number equates to 18.2 meals in an average month eaten outside the home” (Hamm).

One of the greatest challenges faced by our respondents was finding a variety of vegan friendly options when eating out at restaurants. Katie said she, “find[s] it very hard [and is] not as strict of a vegan when I am out to eat. Usually it is pretty easy to find things that don’t have meat, but almost everything has some sort of dairy product in it. So I just do the best I can and remind myself that everything is ok in moderation. But most of the time I just like to eat at home.” This testimony shows how the vegan lifestyle can be difficult to stay committed to due to a lack of variety at restaurants. Our other respondents found the same difficulties and will even avoid restaurants that do not have vegan options. This reveals that a custom shared throughout our nation can be difficult for those who do not conform to eating animal products.

There are greater implications that come with deviating from the norm of meat eating in our culture. One of our respondents, Lauren, revealed the negative stereotypes that come with being a vegan when she said, “I think many times vegans are placed into a stereotype of ‘high maintenance’ or ‘hippies.’  Because of that stereotype I try to keep the fact that I eat plant based to myself.” Lauren also went on to say, “In groups of people that I don’t know, I worry that they think that I am high maintenance for eating the way I do.  I have also gotten some discouraging remarks from my family doctor, which was frustrating.” This lack of acceptance from other members of our culture has had a negative impact on social interactions for Lauren. She worries about what people will think of her because she does not eat meat or any animal products. Finding acceptance for the vegan lifestyle is another challenge our respondents have faced. However, with the growing number of vegans in our culture, we seemed to be getting closer to an acceptance of those who do not eat animal products.

Marisa explains how she thinks meat and protein is perceived in America. Filmed by Liza Reynolds. 

Conclusion

After interviewing our five female participants about their vegan lifestyle within American culture, we were able to conclude that Lauren A., Lisa A., Marisa J., Katie J. and Allie S. all have an extreme devotion to their plant based diets. Our research revealed why our participants became a vegan, what they ate on a daily basis, and where they shop for ingredients. Their answers disclose how veganism guides what they eat because it is not only a diet, but a way of life. Veganism is typically defined as excluding the consumption and use of all animal-based products from all aspects of life. Each vegan tends to have similar rules for what they will consume or buy, but their eating habits can differ greatly. Vegan food typically is all plant based, and shaped by each individual’s experiences as it is cooked into a variety of different meals. One may become vegan for the impacts the food industry has on the environment, for their own health, or for other ethical reasons. As the demand for vegan food has increased in the last decade, more grocery stores have expanded their natural and plant-based food departments, making it easier for vegans to shop for what they need. We have been able to conclude that the expansion of mainstream grocery store’s vegan and healthy food options has made it significantly easier and more convenient for vegans to find the proper foods for their unique diet. American food practices have played an important role in shaping our participants’ decision to abstain from animal products. Even in our meat-obsessed society, veganism allows individuals to have a balanced diet and obtain a healthy lifestyle without the consumption of meat or animal products. Consuming food is not only necessary to satisfy needs, it is also a social process that involves conversation and interaction. In conclusion, this research project has revealed how our participants’ veganism guides their daily choices within American culture, as well as demonstrated how American society has influenced their choice to become a vegan.

Works Cited

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Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Steele, Kelsey. “The Vegan Journey: An Exploration of Vegan Experiences with Vegans from Burlington, Vermont.” Environmental Studies Electronic Thesis Collection. University of Vermont ScholarWorks @ UVM, 2013. Web.

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Trauth, Erin. “Is 2014 the Year of the Vegan?” One Green Planet. 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Zacharias, Nil. “Is There a Market for Vegan Food?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 May 2012. Web. 08 Dec. 2015