When Vegetarianism Went Mainstream

The word diet, at least since the 14th century, has meant a prescribed course of food.

Chaucer used it in reference to the poor widow in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale whose abstemious “diet was in keeping with her coat:” she shunned glitzy spiced sauces and wine in favor of milk, brown bread, and broiled bacon.

Today there are hundreds—possibly thousands—of different diets, variously named for their inventors, promoters, or primary food content. There are low-fat diets, low-carbohydrate diets, low-calorie diets, and even no-calories-whatsoever diets, notably breatharianism, the belief that people can—after a period of spiritual adjustment—give up food and water altogether and survive solely on sunlight and air.

The blood-type diet, invented by naturopath Peter D’Adamo, claims that health, energy, longevity, and weight loss all follow from eating foods that best complement your blood type: A, B, AB, or O. According to this system, type As get fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Type Bs are forbidden corn, wheat, tomatoes, and peanuts, but are encouraged to eat green veggies, eggs, and some meats. Type ABs, unluckily barred from caffeine and alcohol, are allowed tofu and seafood; and Type Os get high-protein diets, heavy in lean meat and fish.

Disciples of Sanford Siegal’s cookie diet—which sounds far better than it is—survive primarily on specially formulated appetite-suppressant cookies. Raw food dieters shun cooking. Subway dieters—inspired by the example of college student Jared Fogle, who lost over 200 pounds—exist on a regime of Subway sandwiches (hold the cheese, oil, and mayonnaise). Vegetarian diets come in an immense array of permutations, among them vegans, who eat no animal food of any kind, including eggs, milk, or honey; lacto-vegetarians who consume milk and cheese, but no eggs; lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat milk, cheese, and eggs; pesco-vegetarians, who allow fish; and even Australian kangatarians, who supplement their vegetables with kangaroo.

Pythagoras: The Father of Vegetarianism

The divide between those who eat only (or mostly) vegetables from those who eat meat dates at least to ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE, when Pythagoras—sometimes called the Father of Vegetarianism—advocated a spiritually uplifting meatless diet for his followers. The “Pythagorean diet”—the going term for meatless meals until the term “vegetarian” was coined in 1847—was intended to promote peaceful thoughts and quash distracting animal passions among budding philosophers.

In colonial America, Benjamin Franklin was an early proponent of a vegetarian diet—both because he thought it healthful and because meat was expensive and he hoped to save food money to buy books. In company with Samuel Keimer, his employer, he tried vegetarianism for three months, at which point Franklin recalled “I went on pleasantly, but poor Keimer suffered grievously, tired of the project, long’d for the flesh-pots of Egypt and order’d roast pig. He invited me and two women friends to dine with him; but, it being brought too soon upon the table, he could not resist the temptation and ate the whole before we came…”

Franklin fell off the vegetarian wagon shortly thereafter. En route to Boston, stranded in a boat off Block Island, he succumbed to a meal of fried codfish.

Photo of a graham cracker.

Photograph by Windell Oskay

Inventor of Graham Cracker Advocate of Vegetarianism

In the early 19th century, foremost among advocates of vegetarianism was Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker. Graham, a Presbyterian minister and general agent for the Pennsylvania Society for the Suppression of Ardent Spirits, believed that meat, fats, salt, spices, ketchup, mustard, and rum were collectively responsible for American crime, fornication, and mental and physical disease. The public promptly fell upon the Graham system, a Spartan regime of oatmeal porridge, beans, boiled rice, unbuttered whole-grain bread, and graham (originally Graham) crackers, supplemented with cold baths, hard beds, open windows, and vigorous exercise.

Among Graham’s followers was Bronson Alcott—father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women—whose experimental community in Harvard, Massachusetts, spurned meat, coffee, tea, alcohol, milk, and warm bathwater, and wore no leather, since animals were killed for it. They used no artificial light, drank only water, and ate only “aspiring vegetables”—that is, those that grew upward, as opposed downward-plunging carrots and potatoes. The community lasted just seven months.

Other influential vegetarians included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Richard Wagner, Leo Tolstoy, and George Bernard Shaw who—after admitting that he considered eating a “troublesome necessity”—abandoned meat-eating at the age of 25, announcing that “A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses.”

Not everyone approved of vegetable diets. Meat, to the British, was a symbol of honesty, simplicity, and masculinity—as opposed to the food of the effeminate French, with their salads, seasonings, and sauces. “Beef and mutton was the diet which bred that hardy race of mortals who won the fields of Agincourt,” thundered Joseph Addison in 1710 in The Spectator.

In 1809, athletic champion Robert Barclay seemed to prove the point, walking one thousand miles in one thousand successive hours, fueled on nothing but beef and mutton. “Vegetarians,” wrote British columnist J.B. Morton, who didn’t think much of them, “have wicked, shifty eyes and laugh in a cold, calculating manner. They pinch little children, steal stamps, drink water, and favor beards.”

Are Vegetarians Healthier?

The question of which dietary choice is the best is sticky. Various studies indicate that vegetarians are relatively thinner than meat-eaters, have longer lifespans, and are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, or cancer. Others point out that meat is a better source of protein and iron, and that vegetarians are prone to vitamin B12 deficiency, which can lead to anemia. (Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, eggs, and milk.) A recent (and hotly contested) study from the Institute of Social Medicine and Epidemiology in Austria found that vegetarians were less healthy than meat-eaters, with higher incidences of cancer, greater susceptibility to allergies, anxiety disorder, and depression, and a lower quality of life.

The question of which—if any—diet is ideal is unlikely to be answered anytime soon. At the very least, most nutritionists agree that the key ingredients are nutritional balance, variety, and moderation, along with a healthy dose of common sense.

Which rules out breatharianism.

We may disagree on what to eat, but there’s not much argument as to whether. Don’t try to live on sunlight and air. Add food.

Green, Harvey. Fit for America: Health, Fitness, Sport, and American Society. Pantheon Books, 1986.
Spencer, Colin. The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. University Press of New England, 1995.
Burkert, Nathalie T., et al. Nutrition and Health: The Association between Eating Behavior and Various Health Parameters: A Matched Sample Study. PLOS One, February 2014.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.