The discussion about the “right“ way to eat is very emotional because it’s deeply connected to people’s values. That’s perfectly fine but it makes the topic of personal diet sometimes a bit difficult to approach. If you are not a vegetarian, chances are, you don’t even want to talk about nutrition with people who are. Perhaps, you’re worried about entering into an emotional conversation. Well, let’s try to keep this emotional part aside for now (even if its it difficult). Instead, lets focus on facts.
At the end, I will follow up with some practical tips to help ourselves and the environment. I will not go deep into background information, just helpful facts for the purpose of this article. In case you are interested, I will link some great reading below.
Overdrawing the worlds bank account
Our way of living and using more resources than we (can) recover, creates serious problems for future generations. It’s like spending more money than earning. This might work out for some time, but sooner or later you must face the consequences of your overdrawn bank account. Regarding our environment – we are wasting the one and only world we have, which is way more serious than having financial debt. Green-house gases, water and air pollution as well as animal suffering are widely caused by our nutritional habits and lifestyle [1, 2].
Karma is just cause and effect
Even if some people argue that we might have the right to eat animals, because lions and other animals do too, we certainly don’t have the right to cause much suffering in other living beings. I truly believe that we harvest what we plant. This is a kind of Karma, simply cause and effect. Example: If you treat your friends badly (cause), you will have no friends sooner or later (effect).
Did you know that people are starving because agriculture in their countries is growing food for livestock which finally ends on our plates?  For instance, “in Central America 40% of all Rainforest have been cleared or burnt down in the last 40 years, mostly for cattle pasture to feed the export market […] . Right now, 840 Million people worldwide are undernourished  and 36 Million people will die of hunger this year . The reality is, if we reduce our meat consumption to 300 – 600g per week (which is healthier anyway), each one of us could feed more than 33 people per week, because our nutrition requires less soy and grain to feed the animals we eat. This means: every year each person could help 1,716 people to eat better by just eating less meat . Eating less meat is so effective, because meat production requires many resources to produce just one pound of meat: “One acre of arable land can yield 250 pounds of beef (…) but that same acre could yield 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, 53,000 pounds of potatoes, or 30,000 pounds of carrots” . This says a lot, because it gives some dimension to the otherwise lifeless numbers. The purpose of sharing these numbers is to illustrate that we can change the world, if we as humans make small changes to our daily diet.
How to solve cognitive dissonance
Pictures of animal suffering we all have seen, is something we like to cut out of our conscious mind because it’s far more than we can swallow without feeling incredibly guilty. The picture we have of ourselves as kind and animal loving humans is incompatible with our knowledge that we are part of this torture industry. Acting, not according to our beliefs, creates something called “cognitive dissonance“ in Psychology. It’s a mismatch between our values and actions. We always like to reduce this unpleasant feeling. There are two ways to recover our peace of mind, either we start acting according to our beliefs (which means we would have to change our lifestyle) or we just ignore the information we get. Often, we choose the second option because we can just keep our habits the same, which is much more convenient.
But for our kids the situation is often different, they can’t choose based on information like we do: How many of them don’t even know how Chicken Nuggets are produced or where their favourite sausage is coming from? How many of them ever saw or touched living chicken, cattle or pigs to recognize them as living beings?
Our emotions and thoughts regarding nutrition, world hunger, convenience and self-perception are very complex: “World-hunger“ and “global warming“ seem to be so far away, it’s not connected to faces or people we know so it doesn’t seem to touch our lives and hearts. Pictures from mass animal production touch us nevertheless, but still we believe that we can’t create a change because the impact of one person is just small and change is inconvenient as well. We worry that we might miss our favourite foods and anyway, we don’t even know exactly how to change our lifestyle, it seems to be so complicated.
Small steps can create tremendous impact
In the middle of all these confusing thoughts and feelings I want to hopefully inspire some of you to take action and close a gap with some practical implications. The origin of my idea is the fact, that the percentage of “vegetarians of choice” remains fairly stable over the last years . It’s still the case, that most vegetarians are living in poor countries. They don’t eat meat, because they can’t afford it, they are “vegetarians of necessity“, about 20% of the world population. As soon as these countries become wealthier, the percentage of vegetarians decreases (for example Vietnam: estimation of vegetarians 1992 1.5%, 2006 0.8% ). The percentage of “vegetarians and vegans of choice” (5%, 1%, ) is not likely to increase dramatically over the next years. Although more people in industrial countries might adopt a more plant-based lifestyle, people in poorer countries will eat more meat once they can afford it.
As long as we still believe that there are only two options, being vegetarian (vegan) or being a “meat eater“ it prevents us from contributing to the extent we would actually like to. Remember, it’s not an emotional discussion, I just want to inspire sustainable changes we can create together.
Strategy of small steps
That’s why I want to bring the “strategy of small steps” into play which means, everybody starts with a small, simple and easy change in their own lives. This strategy has proven to be very successful in other areas of life as well. The starting point can be different for each of you, but probably everyone has something which doesn’t require a lot of effort to change. For instance: if you are not a meat eater anyway, choose vegetarian options for your meal more often. If you love cheese, replace salami and bacon by different kinds of savoury cheese. If you are a meat lover, cut down the portion size of meat just by 30-50% each time. Every step counts.
The advantage of small steps is that they are easy to do, without being uncomfortable and without sacrifice. You can bring more people into the same boat, if it doesn’t require too much effort for them. Many people can create a tremendous effect with small changes. They can create more awareness, reduce meat consumption which means less animal torture and less pollution due to less mass-animal production.
If people start to be aware and mindful, the seed for a greener, healthier, and more responsible lifestyle is planted.
7 simple food & lifestyle habits to help your health and the environment. Bonus benefit: May also influence your friends and family
- Start with one meatless day per week (advanced: one vegetarian day).
- Choose a vegetarian meal more often if you have the chance (restaurant etc.). This often means to stop habitual choices because often we have favourites on the menu for different types of restaurants. Perhaps you find a new favourite dish by trying out something else.
- Substitute milk  for your muesli by almond- or oat milk and replace milk in your coffee by rice or coconut milk. Try different versions, because mostly different kinds of milk replacements are more suitable for one or the other occasion (coffee, muesli, milk foam).
- If you want to eat meat, choose a smaller portion than you usually would.
- If you don’t want to skip meat, invest from time to time in a piece of meat from a good quality source and skip over all these processed meat-like-products which contain tons of fat, flavour-enhancers and other additives. I know the fact of killing an animal remains the same, but by eating higher quality meat, people eat less which contributes to our environment as well.
- Replace animal protein (meat, sausage, bacon, chicken nuggets etc) whenever possible with plant alternatives since research has shown that the consumption of protein from animal origin is linked to faster aging (and aging related diseases) while plant-based protein doesn’t have this side effect .
- Festive seasons are, in mostly all cultures, connected to eat meat. But is it necessary to eat lamb for Easter or calf/beef/pig for other celebrations? If you consider vegetarian alternatives you don’t necessarily miss something if you are smart and a little bit creative. There are great internet pages how to create awesome and tasty vegetarian meals.
- Bonus Tip: Think about if there are alternatives to a leather phone case, belt, bag or (fur-) jacket which doesn’t include real leather from animal origin.
What are your ideas and suggestions how you could contribute towards a more plant-based lifestyle?
Finally, to answer the question “Should I go vegetarian?”: I hope that I was able to show that there are not only the options “yes” or “no”, but there are nuances of commitment towards a healthier world if you start with small and simple steps. Eventually you always have the chance to add another step when you are ready to do so! If many people decide to do one or more small steps we can reach a great change.
Friendly Disclosure: I’m not a vegetarian but I’m convinced that a research-based discussion, having an interest in our own health and the strategy of small steps can change our world. I would call myself a pescatarian, which means I don’t eat meat, I like seafood (even if I know about the overfishing problem). I started with tiny steps as well, at first by skipping red meat, sausage and later poultry and milk whenever possible. At home mostly we eat vegetarian food, but sometimes I like to have some sushi when we go out.
Sources and further information:
 Milk: Maybe you are surprised to find milk-replacement in my tips since animals are not dying to produce milk. But: Have you ever thought about that cows are not producing milk “naturally” but just after giving birth? Which means they have to deliver again and again to be useful in milk production. Fresh born calves are separated from their mothers just hours after birth which is a torture for both sides. Often, they cry for days. In addition, milk is a high protein animal product and linked to faster aging as well.