Vegetarians on a College Campus

Vegetarianism is slowly becoming more of a popular topic in American culture–which left us asking the question, what causes one to become vegetarian? Our group was interested in researching the different causes of vegetarianism. We specifically studied vegetarians living on Michigan State University’s campus. Before starting research on this, two of us knew two other vegetarians who were vegetarian for health reasons. This lead us to wonder if there were any other possible causes to vegetarianism, and if one was more common than another. Our research is centered on two women—one in her freshman year of college and one in her sophomore year of college. They are vegetarians for health or personal reasons. According to Hamilton (2006) health and ethical reasons are the most common causes of people becoming vegetarians. This is shown by the fact that 67% of the people who participated in a survey carried out by Amato and Partridge (1989) stated they were vegetarians for ethical reasons and 38% stated it was for health reasons. The overlap is due to the participants choosing multiple reasons. We felt it was interesting that it was so difficult to find anyone who was vegetarian for religious reasons or a male vegetarian. These types of trends in our research of vegetarianism is further discussed later in our research.

We did our participant observation with Erin, who was one of the people we interviewed, and we made a vegetarian pizza. She is currently a freshman at Michigan State University and has been a vegetarian for a few years now. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and still lives there now with her family. One of our group members met Erin through her sorority, and this is how we came to find out she was vegetarian and how we set up an interview with her. We performed our participant observation in the dorm kitchen in Butterfield which is a dorm in the Brody neighborhood on Michigan State University’s campus. The kitchen was a nice size and we had it all to ourselves. We did run into a couple problems though. There were many things the kitchen didn’t have that we needed and had to find a substitution for, such as a mixing bowl and can opener. We managed to work around this because luckily there was pot big enough to use as a mixing bowl and one member of our group was strong enough to open the can of pizza sauce with a butter knife. Once we figured out how to get around these problems, we made our pizza. First we preheated the oven to 425 degrees. We mixed the dough and stretched it across a baking sheet and let it sit for about five minutes. Next we spread the pizza sauce over the dough, and put the cheese and vegetables on top. Lastly we put it in the oven and cooked it for 10 minutes. We chose to cook a vegetarian pizza because pizza is food that eten very often in america. The toppings most commonly put on it are pepperoni and various other meats such as bacon and sausage. We thought it would be a good experience to take something that is most commonly eaten with meat and see how it is different when you are vegetarian. To see how being a vegetarian can change even the most common foods. The pizza itself was good, but different, since none of us usually eat pizza with vegetarian toppings. The different toppings changed the taste a lot.


Erin was a great help in understanding what it is like to be a vegetarian in American society. She was one of the people who inspired us to look into what causes people to become vegetarian because her story is very unique. In her first and second interview, she discusses how she became a vegetarian her sophomore year of high school because she watched the movie, Food Inc., in health class. She was shocked by the amount of chemicals put into processed food, especially meat. Processed foods were such a concern for her because there is “plausible epidemiological evidence for red and processed meat intake in cancer and chronic disease risk” (Daniel 2011).  She made the personal decision for her health to stop eating meat and become a vegetarian. No one in Erin’s family is vegetarian, and she even said that she was the only one in her family with “special food restrictions”. However, Erin does still eat fish. Her reason behind this is that she was a very active swimmer and water polo player in high school and needed a food source with a lot of protein. She does her best to eat organic fish because she is so against eating processed foods. Based on this information, it seemed like Erin may have an issue with American eating habits because many of our foods are processed or meat based. This is proven in the Agriculture Fact Book (2003) when it states that, “In 2000, total meat consumption (red meat, poultry, and fish) reached 195 pounds (boneless, trimmed weight equivalent) per person, 57 pounds above average annual consumption in the 1950s”.

In Erin’s first interview she said her main problem with American eating habits was the amount of chemicals put into meat. She continued to talk about this in her second interview, but she brought up other issues as well. Erin said one of the biggest issues she has with America’s eating habits was the amount of food—specifically meat—we consume. This prompted us to look further into the amount of food Americans consume and how this compares to other parts of the world. We discovered that “in the USA, meat is consumed more than three times the global average” (Daniel 2011). This proves that American society is a big consuming society—bigger is better and we value quantity over quality.

We think that American society has recently been better educated about their eating habits through the movie Food Inc. and perhaps some other forms of research. This was the case with Erin, and it is also the case with many other Americans. Vegetarianism is beginning to become “trendy” and is a part of the health movement. You can now even take pledges on the Internet to become vegetarian or vegan for any number of days. We think it may even be a possibility that vegetarianism could become a norm in America because cultural norms are constantly changing.

Mini Eth


We were also curious if Erin has struggled to find vegetarian options at college. Initially, We thought it would be difficult for her to find vegetarian options because most college students are not vegetarians. However, Erin said that she is “always able to find something to eat at the cafes”. In her first interview she talked about how the options aren’t always very healthy though. Most meals usually contain a lot of starch, and Erin also stated that she often gets bored with the options. Overall, Erin can always find something to eat, but it’s not nearly as many options as non-vegetarian students are offered. This proves American society values their way of eating more than other cultures way of eating. This is why there are few options for vegetarians and why they aren’t the best options.

Colleen was another participant in our study who helped develop an understanding of vegetarians and the mindsets driving their lifestyle for our study. She played a solid role in providing us a base to work off and enrich our education on vegetarians. Colleen is a 19 year old student at Michigan State University, participating in the RISE program as she studies environmental engineering. The RISE program (Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment) is a program guided by individuals living in Bailey Hall dorms, dedicated to salvaging and maintaining the environment in their collegiate setting. Colleen’s role in this community is a driving force for her intensity to protect the environment, a dedication that influences her focus on vegetarianism.

There were many highlights to take away from interviews with Colleen. One important idea was the difficulty it was to find quality vegetarian options in college. Upon entering college, Colleen noticed a significant rise in difficulty for her to find options in the cafeterias, but more importantly find a quality option every day. As menus vary day to day in the café, some options were not appealing at all to Colleen and caused her to both feel upset about her options but more importantly question her vegetarian lifestyle. This is a key takeaway discovered in our study because it reflects both the dedication that Colleen wants to have to vegetarianism, but also the practical aspect of it and the difficulty it is for her to live the lifestyle in limited circumstances. These same barriers and limitations that Colleen feel may reflect the decisions of other individuals who choose not to pursue a vegetarian lifestyle.

Veg Out - Vegetarian Station at the Cafeteria

Veg Out – Vegetarian Station at Brody Cafeteria

A variety of other opinions Colleen spoke about also stood out in the interview process. We discussed advertisement in America and the fact that most advertisements relevant to food focus primarily on meat. Regardless of the advertisement’s intentions about what it’s trying to sell, such as McDonald’s trying to sell a Big Mac burger or a restaurant trying to sell their service, the advertisement always centers on the meat. This made me think about my own perspective and try to recall a food commercial that didn’t have meat in it, which I could not. Colleen also reflected on the “American ideal dinner.” Primarily the fact that meat is a staple in the American family dinner image when it should not be. As mentioned in Erin’s interview, Americans consume too much meat. They also consume too much red and processed meat. Taken from the Nursing Standard’s article discussing meat consumption and when too much is unhealthy, “Consumption of red or processed meat considered separately is not related to the major risk factors for coronary heart disease, but contributes to increased waist circumference, which has been identified as a risk factor.” Americans concern with weight over the years is directly associated with their diets. A vegetarian lifestyle has a significant impact on your health and was a major decision maker for Colleen’s vegetarian lifestyle decision. Though she didn’t choose to go vegetarian because of any concern towards her waistline, many American’s may make that decision and reflects just another takeaway from our study. Less meat can keep the weight down while increasing the overall health of your body as a whole. There’s plenty of factors that tie into vegetarianism including the advertisement, ideal dinner and weight concern mentioned above. These results reflect the countless little details that the vegetarian perspective can display to show their position and attempt to influence others to follow their ways.

Environmental concerns is one of the strongest concerns Colleen exemplified as she reflected on those concerns and her origins of becoming a vegetarian. Though she hasn’t seen the movie “Food Inc.” like Erin has, other movies providing education to those who don’t know much about the food industry influenced Colleen significantly such as “Fed Up” and “Cowspiracy.” These two films were a major influence for Colleen and bring about a good point. Many individuals are uneducated on what’s going on, and when a sense of that is brought to life it influences people’s decisions. Colleen learned a lot about the environmental impact from these movies. One fact that brought her distraught more than others was the intensive impact on the environment and animals that are bred to be slaughtered. Deforestation for fields to raise cattle in as well as the destruction to the fields themselves from the grazing all could be stopped by a decrease in meat consumption. Colleen touched base on the impact on Nitrogen and Methane gases from breeding as well, mentioning a huge rise in Nitrogen as well as the fact that breeding cows accounts for 18% of methane emissions, more than transportation which amounts to 13%. Nigel Hawkes article about the need to cut European meat and dairy consumption supported Colleen’s claim and more, discussing the fact that a cut of 50% of meat from European’s diets would decrease greenhouse emissions by 40%, make room for large areas of farmlands to grow less intensive crops and decrease saturated fats in diets by 40%. Clearly the vegetarians have support for the argument that changing to a vegetarian lifestyle could significantly improve both their health and environment they live in, as well as a variety of other factors in their life. Colleen’s interviews helped develop and drive this perspective into view and benefit our study by bringing to life the quality of life vegetarians seem to life with.

When we were doing our interviews and looking for people to interview we noticed our finding were bias in a sense, because all of our options and the two people we chose were women. We did not find any vegetarian men to interview. According to Calvert (2013) eating meat entail the power and dominance of the nonhuman animal. Also over the centuries, the image of man and meat has prevailed through the concept of ‘man as hunter’. Thus man may see eating meat as more manly and due to this men may be less likely to choose the vegetarian lifestyle. We thought this was a good explanation based on what we observed while looking for people to interview but when we looked at the statistics we found out that about 3% of women are vegetarian and 2% of men are, which means there is only a 1% difference. After doing further research we discovered that the “man the hunter” tale is just that a tale. It is frequently used to explain differences in gender roles, by referencing the effects of human evolution. The story goes that men who were larger and stronger than women hunted to sustain their family. Hunting required aggression, inventiveness, and dominant behavior. These are all things that many people believe have been hardwired into male DNA. This concept has colored gender roles today. Since early males were hunter, not modern men prefer to off to work, they think they need to be the providers. Yet there is evidence that proves that men were not just hunters, they also partook of scavenging and gathering. Something that many people thought was women’s’ work. Anthropologists have found no evidence that proves the existence of historical patterns of male dominance. This common misconception is probably why we also jumped to the conclusion that being a vegetarian wasn’t manly, so that is why we couldn’t find any men to interview. In fact it probably was just a coincidence that we only found female subjects, especially since so few people are actually vegetarians.

Interviews and a participant observation gave our group the ability to learn and research the ins and outs of the vegetarian lifestyle. We learned how by taking away the meat and substituting vegetables, it can significantly alter the taste of a normal everyday meal. We also learned about how what kinds of reasons people have for becoming vegetarians, one being that of their health. Erin decided to pursue a vegetarian lifestyle after seeing the movie Food  Inc.. This movie brought her attention to all the different chemicals that are put into processed food. Due to this she chose to stop eating meat, so that she wouldn’t be ingesting those chemicals. Colleen reflected on a similar experience, seeing the movie “Cowspiracy”, a film that also influenced her decision to become a vegetarian. The tie between Erin and Colleen’s experience with educational movies about vegetarianism and the inspiration they sought from it display the impact these movies have on choosing to become a vegetarian. These movies could both explain other vegetarians’ story as well as influence others in the future who are exposed to them. The education brought out from the movies were a driving force in Colleen’s decision making, primarily the health and ethical reasons. She stopped eating meat because of the non-necessity of our societies’ meat consumption, as well as how our meat production methods negatively impacts the environment. Through other research we also discovered that being a vegetarian has become a trend in modern culture, so some people do it simply because it is “cool”. Understanding and learning about the variety of powerful reasons behind the vegetarian lifestyle was a fascinating experience and drove our group to not only enrich ourselves educationally through the project, but give us a takeaway to hold with us as we continue onwards in life.




BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 28 April 2014)


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