President Bill Clinton, once known for his love of fast food, has been making headlines for his recent dietary change. He’s swapped the Big Macs, chicken nuggets and fried shrimp for veggie burgers, beans and fresh fruits and vegetables. After years of battling heart problems — even undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery — Clinton took his doctor’s advice to reduce his meat consumption and increase his intake of plant-based foods. He reports that the results have been tremendous: he has 24 pounds, feels more energetic and has seen a welcome drop in cholesterol levels.
Clinton isn’t the only one turning over a new leaf. From Usher to Oprah Winfrey to Ellen DeGeneres to Kristen Bell — people everywhere are eating less meat. Even Mike Tyson, once known for biting off a human ear, is now limiting his ear consumption to those of the corn variety.
The movement toward more plant-based meals is also taking root on college campuses. More than 200 universities have adopted “Meatless Monday” campaigns in their dining halls, including the University of California at Berkeley.
Nationally acclaimed food writers, such as The New York Times’ Mark Bittman and The Washington Post’s Joe Yonan, are helping the nation discover meat-free dishes that will leave diners impatient for the next meal. Eating your vegetables? If you don’t know the possibilities that phrase encompasses in 2013, you are missing out.
There has never been a more exciting time to expand our dining horizons. Skipping meat one day a week is not a sacrifice but an adventure — and students are embracing it. According to a study conducted by Technomic, more than 20 percent of college students are reducing their meat consumption.
One reason people are adjusting their food choices is an increased concern for the 9 billion chickens, pigs and other animals raised for food each year, most of which suffer in factory farms. For example, mother pigs in the pork industry are typically confined in tiny crates scarcely larger than their own bodies for virtually their entire lives. Unable to even turn around, these sensitive, intelligent animals — all of which have their own personalities and preferences — experience tremendous physical and psychological pain. Most egg-laying hens suffer a similar fate, as they’re crammed into tiny cages, each bird granted less space than the screen of an iPad in which to live her entire life. By choosing meat-free options just one day a week, we can all help prevent an enormous amount of cruelty to animals.
There are also environmental and public-health benefits that come with eating less meat. A report issued by the Environmental Working Group put it simply, stating that “producing all this meat and dairy requires large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, feed and water. It also generates greenhouse gases and large amounts of toxic manure and wastewater that pollute groundwater, rivers, streams and, ultimately, the ocean.”
An increasing number of family farmers are also voicing their support for Meatless Monday as a means of achieving a more sustainable, community-based agricultural system. Our current rate of meat consumption is simply unsustainable. With the rise of industrial-scale production, the nation has lost more than 95 percent of its egg farmers, 90 percent of its pig farmers and 40 percent of its cattle farmers in the last 30 years. By reducing the number of animals raised for food, we place greater value on humane and sustainable farming, in which animals welfare is a priority.
Thankfully, eating meatless doesn’t mean “less” at all. It means “more,” as in more choices. It means “better,” as in better living — both for us and for animals. From chain restaurants such as Chipotle and Denny’s serving up hearty vegetarian fare to Indian, Thai, Chinese and Mexican cuisine, which regularly incorporate delicious meat-free items, the options are endless.
Kenny Torrella is the food policy coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States and can be reached at [email protected].