Being Vegetarian in America
Most Americans think that being a vegetarian is some weird rebellion against society. Recently when visiting an Indian Restaurant I picked up a Khabar magazine highlighting Indian-American culture. One of the articles was about the difficult transition of an Indian coming from a vegetarian culture to America “beef country.” I hope you are as intrigued by the information is this article as I am. BTW if you are considering becoming a vegetarian scroll down to the sidebars for great references.
“Can I have a burger without the meat patty, and some French fries?”
It was the late eighties, and the place was a McDonald’s on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. Harish Jain, who had recently arrived from India, was taken aback by the response to what he considered a simple request. “There were two African American youngsters at the cash register. They looked at each other and simply burst out laughing.”
While he did eventually get a burger without the patty, his order certainly threw off the staff at McDonald’s. They fumbled about how much to charge him, as there was no such option on their preset register. A manager was able to override the register, and charged him all of 40 cents—perhaps contrite at the embarrassing behavior of his staff, or perhaps out of pity for someone he may have seen as a quirky misfit.
“I was peeved,” recalls Jain, not only about the incident, but also about how unfriendly his new country was to vegetarians like him. A little later in his American journey, Jain was beyond peeved: he was anguished to find out that the French fries he had eaten at couple of occasions at fast food joints were cooked in lard. “For goodness sake, I thought I was eating potatoes!” he exclaims.
It was a different world for someone like Jain, coming from a country where restaurants labeled “Vegetarian” and “Pure Vegetarian” were quite the norm.
Sadly, Jain’s discoveries are clichéd for so many Indian vegetarians who have acclimated themselves to America—folks who could not possibly imagine any risk of ingesting a meat product while eating fries or ordering salads. The concept of pieces of ham in a salad was as alien to these Indian immigrants as was the concept of being vegetarian to many Americans. Even those Americans who were experimenting with vegetarian diets in those early days were often unaware of the deeply religious sentiments attached to the vegetarianism of many Indians.
Good times for vegetarians
How things have changed! From being seen as outcasts of sorts for their dietary choice, vegetarians are now finding themselves at the cutting edge of a shift. Inspired by reasons as varied as health, environment, sustainability, animal cruelty, and various other personal value systems, Americans are increasingly turning away from meat, particularly red meat. They have opened up to the world of possibilities in vegetarianism.
A survey by Vegetarian Times shows that 7.3 million Americans are vegetarians and an additional 22.8 million follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. The 2008 survey also found that 5.2 percent of the non-vegetarians surveyed, or 11.9 million people, are “definitely interested” in following a vegetarian-based diet in the future.
Elizabeth Turner, editor-in-chief of Vegetarian Times, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, believes the number of full-fledged vegetarians isn’t really growing, but the number of people interested in eating more vegetarian meals, or who are vegetarian-inclined, is sky-rocketing.
Not only are there an increasing number of vegetarian options in popular cuisines such as Mexican, Italian, Thai and others, but also a profusion of salad bars, vegetarian and vegan restaurants. Unlike fast food joints in the eighties, restaurants such as Taco Bell have pre-set buttons on their cash registers to indicate substitution of beans for beef. More importantly, such requests are taken in stride rather than laughed at.
Sri Nair, a lecturer at the University of Michigan and a long term vegetarian, observes, “There is not just the increase in vegetarian restaurants, but an increase in produce selection in supermarkets like Kroger as well.” From supermarkets to specialty stores, American retailers are waking up to the growing market for vegetarian options. National chains such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are big on these offerings, attracting customers who value health, ethics, and environment in their food choices.
A rich legacy versus an alternative lifestyle
A friend commented that she could imagine being a vegetarian if it meant she could have Indian vegetarian food. Indians, she said, had figured out the art of “being vegetarians and eating delicious food at the same time.”
A diet that does not include meat, poultry, or seafood can actually be nutritiously adequate, highly varied, and desirable—now that’s a concept that is alien to many in the West. For Indians, many of whom are vegetarians, it is a way of life. According to the 2006 Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey, close to 40 percent of Indians are vegetarians of varying degrees (some eat eggs, many don’t, for example). More importantly, the birth of vegetarianism as a way of life is traced back to ancient India. An entry in Wikipedia informs, “Most major paths of Hinduism hold vegetarianism as an ideal. There are three main reasons for this: the principle of nonviolence (ahimsa) applied to animals; the intention to offer only ‘pure’ (vegetarian) food to a deity and then to receive it back as prasad (sanctified food); and the conviction that non-vegetarian food is detrimental for the mind and for spiritual development.”
With such sentiments shaping the staple diet of many Indians for generations, it is hardly a surprise that Indian cuisine can pull off a culinary fest without meat.
“Most Americans who have gone vegetarian have definitely been delighted to discover Indian cooking,” Turner says. “I had never tasted Indian food until I was in college, and when I tasted it, it was an absolute revelation. It is absolutely my favorite kind of food. A lot of us vegetarians tend to feel that way. We have a lot of Indian chefs who have contributed to our magazine. Indian food is not just yummy, but has lots of healthy spices.”
India has had a long history of vegetarianism. Numerous writers have evocatively described the sizzle of chilies, the heartiness of parathas, the tanginess of mango daal, the sweetness of tomato chutney, the spiciness of jackfruit curry and the irresistible appeal of snacks like vada pav or bhelpuri.
In contrast, going vegetarian in America is often a lifestyle choice. According to Turner, there are three reasons that attract Americans to vegetarianism. The first, she says, is ethical reasons. “People are becoming more and more aware of the suffering that’s involved in the production of animal products.” The second is health. Animal products tend to be loaded with saturated fats. Moreover, “we are discovering that we don’t need to eat animal protein to get the good quality protein,” she says. The third is concern for the planet. “The world cannot sustain the meat-eating habits that Western culture has fostered,” she says.
Elizabeth Castoria, managing editor of Vegetarian News, a popular vegetarian magazine, says that a vegetarian diet uses a fraction of the natural resources, like land and water, compared to a non-vegetarian diet. “Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gasses than all of the world’s transportation,” she says.
Nava Atlas, author of nine vegetarian cookbooks, has been a vegetarian most of her life and a vegan for the last seven years. She made the switch in high school. “My parents protested and said I’d have to cook for myself. I started shopping in dusty health food stores, buying things like brown rice and lentils. Still, the meals I prepared were tasty and the rest of the family wanted what I was having. That instilled in me my love of cooking.”
Being a vegetarian has become a part of her value system. “It’s important to me that a living creature shouldn’t suffer for a human’s moment of pleasure,” she says. “I can better understand hunting for one’s survival, but to ‘grow’ animals as food is cruel and environmentally unsound. And I don’t care whether it’s the feedlot kind or the grass-fed variety, I’m against both.”
Atlas is convinced about the environmental prudence of going vegetarian. She cites research that suggests that the grain consumed by American livestock could feed 800 million people—and, if exported, could boost the U.S. trade balance by $80 billion a year. She adds that it takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, as compared to 390 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. Grain-fed livestock consume 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food they produce, compared with 2,000 liters for soybeans. It takes eight times more fossil-fuel energy to produce animal protein than to produce a similar amount of plant protein.
In cutting-edge restaurants, such environmental considerations surrounding vegetarianism mingle with other related trends such as an emphasis on organic food, a value system of peace and nonviolence, and even New Age spirituality. One such restaurant is World Peace Café, which opened in Atlanta in 2007. Manager Chris Byrne says that people are frequently surprised at the number of vegan options available. The restaurant also caters to clients with dietary restrictions, and even offers Buddhist meditation classes.
While vegetarianism can be a lifestyle choice for some people, it can be a religious choice and a value system for many more. It is a philosophy that the World Peace Café is trying to emulate. Byrne says that the café is part of a bigger movement to introduce Buddhist faith in the local community and to create a refuge for people in the busy, bustling city. The café’s operation is interesting on many levels. “The cooking in the café is a collaborative effort. None of the cooks are professionally trained but have been cooking for many years,” says Byrne.
While World Peace Café may be considered offbeat and alternative, across the street is the popular Café Sunflower, an established and well-reviewed vegetarian restaurant that comes without what some might consider the “baggage” of New Age trends. “Even carnivores will leave full and satisfied,” says a review in Go! Magazine, which also names the restaurant in its Atlanta’s Top Dining.
Since people choose to be vegetarians for a variety of reasons, it isn’t surprising that there are many categories of vegetarians. They range from sproutarians to pesco-pollo-vegetarians, vegans to ovo-lacto-vegetarians, each of them defining their diet in a unique, specific way (See sidebar, “The lingo surrounding vegetarianism.”)
Vegetarianism and healthy eating
A common thread running through all the different diets is the idea that, if planned, vegetarian diets can be more healthful to the consumer and beneficial to the environment. The American Dietetic Association has said that, “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Some recent studies have shown that a predominantly vegetarian diet may help improve kidney and nerve function in diabetics, and aid weight loss, and that eating more fruits and vegetables can slow, and perhaps reverse, age-related declines in brain function and in cognitive and motor performance. Studies also suggest that a plant based diet could lower the risk for several chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, cancers and heart disease.
Vegetarian seniors live longer and use less medication than meat-eating seniors. They have a healthier total intake of fats and cholesterol (but a less healthy intake of fatty acids, such as the heart-protecting omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil).
But can there be the danger of a poor diet even within vegetarianism? Bee, a co-blogger of the food blog Jugalbandi, says that vegetarian food by itself is not necessarily healthy. “I am very conscious of the nutritional content, and don’t eat processed foods like soy sausages and the like. I read the whole label on everything.”
But not everyone is that careful. While some vegetarians pay close attention to their dietary intake and vitamins such as riboflavin (B-2), D and B-12, many more don’t have a clue. This is one reason that vegetarians, in a study of overall nutrition, scored significantly lower than non-vegetarians on the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index, which compares actual diet with USDA guidelines. But Byrne of World Peace Café points out that even with eating meat you may not be getting complete sources of protein. “Whatever cuisine you decide to go with, the number one goal is eating well.”
Eating well, or healthfully, hardly seems the primary purpose of Indian vegetarianism.
Recent research suggests that South Asians are at a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments despite the widespread prevalence of vegetarian diets through generations. Dr. K.M. Venkat Narayan of Emory University’s School of Public Health,. says the main cause amongst South Asians of this increased risk is “unhealthy diets—for example, eating a lot of fried and fatty foods like samosas and other snacks, consuming a lot of refined carbohydrates like sugary sweets, sweetened soft drinks, coffee or tea with sugar, processed fast foods, eating a lot of clarified butter (ghee), high content of salt in foods, eating overcooked vegetables, eating a lot of potatoes.”
Dr. Narayan explains that there are positive aspects of being a vegetarian as long as good sources of protein are included and the diet is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, low in fat and refined carbohydrates and also low in glycemic index. In addition, being physically active is also very important—at least 30 minutes of exercise daily. “South Asians have one of the highest diabetes rates in the world, although a high proportion of this population is vegetarian, he says. “This suggests that just being a vegetarian is not a guarantee for good health. It is important to be a healthy vegetarian and to incorporate healthy habits.”
Learning to enjoy the best of both vegetarian worlds
So how can Indian Americans marry their rich vegetarian culinary heritage with the conscientious values of American vegetarianism? How can we successfully negotiate our dual dietary exposures? “Decide why you are a vegetarian—is it a religious choice, a health option, or a moral decision?” remarks Shobha Narayan, a widely published food writer. If it is about morality, then you might want to extend it further to, say, fair-price coffee. If it is a health option, consider organic food. If it is a religious choice, then obviously, it will impact whether you eat in restaurants that aren’t too careful about mixing utensils and vessels for meat and nonmeat foods.
“Don’t restrict yourself to Indian cuisine,” advise bloggers Bee and Jai of Jugalbandi. “Be flexible and check out other interesting cuisines that have vegetarian options, such as Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, or even Italian.”
Another advice from Amita Chudgar, a professor at Michigan State, who is a vegetarian married to non-vegetarian, is to adapt veggies like asparagus, arugula, brussels sprouts, jicama, parsnips, and olives for use in Indian cooking. “Shopping local and at the farmers’ market is more interesting than restricting myself to specific foods,” she adds.
This message from Byrne also rings true. “Food is such a personal thing for everyone; I never feel that I could tell people what to eat.”
[Mandira Banerjee is a freelance writer who has written for various Indian and American publications. She is the author of food-blog ahaar.blogspot.com.]
Best vegetarian dining picks by accessAtlanta.com
In January, accessAtlanta.com announced their readers’ as well as their own choices for “Best vegetarian dining” in metro Atlanta. The results:
1. Café Sunflower
2. Soul Vegetarian
3. Dynamic Dish
4. R. Thomas
1. Dynamic Dish
2. Ria’s Bluebird
3. Flying Biscuit Café, Candler Park
4. Café Sunflower, Roswell Road
Resources for the American vegetarian
The Vegetarian Resource Group (vrg.org): is a reliable and trustworthy nonprofit organization offering demographic information, nutritional tips, and more. It is dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism and the interrelated issues of health, nutrition, ecology, ethics, and world hunger. It publishes The Vegetarian Journal, a quarterly magazine that provides practical tips for vegetarian meal planning, articles relevant to vegetarian nutrition, recipes, natural food product reviews, and an opportunity to share ideas with others.
Vegetarian Times (vegetariantimes.com): One of the better known magazines on the subject, it recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. The magazine tends to target those who may be new to natural foods and living. Well produced, with good photos. Over 10,000 veg. recipes!
VegNews (vegnews.com): A well-liked publication known for its variety of articles. “There are interviews with celebrity veggies, news features, city spotlights and, of course, lots of recipes, usually with a theme.” – Jolinda Hackett, About.com.
Veggie Life (veggielife.com): Describes itself as “the number one resource for delicious vegetarian recipes, health food stores and vegetarian restaurants.”
Happycow.net: describes itself as the “Internet’s most widely used and longest operating worldwide vegetarian restaurant guide.” It offers helpful classification of restaurants as “Vegetarian,” “Veg-friendly,” “Vegan,” etc. Besides being a restaurant guide, it also lists stores that are vegetarian and health-food friendly.
VegCooking.com: describes itself as, “The best online resource for tried and tested vegetarian recipes.” Includes a shopping guide, restaurant reviews, cookbook recommendations, information about new products, and more.
VegSource.com: An online vegetarian community, with great information on vegetarianism, excellent discussion groups, and an array of “Ask the Experts” pages.
VegFamily.com: Featuring articles, recipes, an “Ask the Dietician” segment, message boards, and more, VegFamily.com is the best place on the Web for information to help vegetarian families make compassionate choices.
GoVeg.com: operated by PETA, it offers references and information with a heavy emphasis against animal cruelty.
And, last but not least, there is forerunner Frances Moore Lappé’s three-million-copy bestseller, Diet for a Small Planet.
The lingo surrounding vegetarianism
Flexitarianism: is a semi-vegetarian diet that values vegetarian food but allows for occasional meat consumption.
Pescetarianism (or pesco-vegetarianism): a diet that excludes mammals and poultry (but allows for seafood)
Pollotarianism (or pollo-vegetarianism): a diet that excludes mammals and seafood (but allows poultry, particularly, chicken)
Lacto-ovo vegetarianism: a diet that excludes any kind of meat, poultry, or seafood, (but allows dairy products and eggs).
Ovo vegetarianism: a diet that excludes any kind of meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products (but allows eggs)
Lacto vegetarianism: a diet that excludes any kind of meat, poultry, seafood and eggs (but allows dairy products)
By MANDIRA BANERJEE