Animals and Us

The psychology of human-animal interactions.

Why Are There So Few Vegetarians?

Surprise! Most people who describe themselves as "vegetarians" regularly eat animal flesh. And how long will Bill Clinton be vegan? I'm taking bets... Read More

This is absurd. Humans are

This is absurd. Humans are omnivorous animals.


Capacity to change

Humans who eat meat, will have to be reborn again and again (not my choice, but a natural law of the Universe), and may very well have to take rebirth as an ignorant animal, and be consumed by humans.

According to Buddhism, the opportunity for a human birth is rare, and should not be wasted while there is the chance for enlightenment. The most difficult things about becoming vegetarian, are that just about every one you know will express agitation with your decision, and you'll often feel 'left out' of various activities that center around killing animals (such as barbeques etc.). You may have to lie, just to fit in, and perhaps have a little bit of meat to show your friends that you do still care about them.

Are you even a vegetarian?

Since 2011 the number of vegans have doubled. Most restaurants have a vegan option, and indeed, scientists have already come out saying that the world will be forced into vegetarianism by 2050.

Do to the popularity of movies like Forks Over Knives it's almost common knowledge, at least amongst experts, that animal fat and protein is the cause of our most prevalent diseases. See the China Study.

At the end of the day, you have science on your side. The American Cancer Society, The American Dietetic Association, ect. have all come out saying that a vegan diet is safe and healthful for all stages of life.

I don't think you're vegetarian Mr. According to Buddhism. If you were, you'd understand like I do after my 6 years of vegetarianism (4 of which are vegan thus far) that "just about every one you know will express agitation with your decision" is just not true.

You are right that the hardest part of being vegetarian is navigating your social life, I agree. THAT'S how crazy easy it is, the hardest part is just talking to people about it.

10 years

I am going on ten years of being vegetarian, with the last 4 being pretty close to vegan except I still like cheese on my pasta.

I guess what I meant, is that in order to keep friendships, you sort of have to hide the idea of being vegetarian and best not to bring it up much (or at least that was my experience, but I'm not known for being eloquent with words anyways!

You really think that vegetarians are moral heroes?? really??

How ridiculous...

What about the poor plants? We are destroying plants daily? How is that not wrong? Why do we only think that killing and farming animals is wrong but not plants?

There are so few vegetarians because vegetarian diet doesn't work! There was a recent study about why people return to eating me and 75% of those said that it was for HEALTH REASONS.
It's not healthy to not eat meat. We have evolved through thousands of years eating meat, it helps our bodies in many ways.

If anything if you look into healthy diets a smart diet would include.. lean mean and high intake of fish, low grains, especially low gluten. There are many studies that show how gluten can be toxic for many individuals. And high in vegetables.

You are illogical...

1: Eating meat kills much more plants than eating plants directly.

"Over seventy percent of American grain and eighty percent of American corn is fed to farm animals. (30) According to a Cornell University study, the amount of grain consumed by animals could feed approximately 800 million hungry people. (31)"

2: Plants don't have a central nervous system. It wouldn't do them any good to be able to feel pain because they cannot escape. All animals have to eat some sort of living thing to survive. By choosing plants (and plants directly) you are being a moral hero.

3: It's not surprising that vegetarianism has a high recession rate due to 'health'. Because vegetarianism is so obscure and there are idiots like you spouting misinformation; people are convinced that it can't be healthy so they experience the nocebo effect. Others simply do not know how to do it, don't do their research and eat salad all day. Luckily with documentaries like Forks Over Knives, and many doctors curing disease through a whole foods vegan diet, that misconception that some people can't live off a vegan diet is disappearing rapidly.

"I don't understand why asking people to eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet is considered drastic, while it is medically conservative to cut people open and put them on cholesterol-lowering drugs for the rest of their lives"
-- Dean Ornish, M.D.

I wonder what these "many ways" that meat helps you are?

4: We have not evolved to eat meat. Just look at the chart at the beginning of this article...

5: Do you know why people eat meat? Taste, convenience, tradition, and habit. That;s it. There is nothing in meat that you can't get elsewhere. This website explains...

Thank you

Everything you wrote is true and I couldn't have said it better. I don't believe the stats quoted in the original article here. Studies have varied ALOT.
"In 1971, 1 percent of U.S. citizens described themselves as vegetarians. A 2013 Public Policy Polling survey found 13% of Americans identify as vegetarian (6%) or vegan (7%).[61] A 2012 Gallup poll found 5% of Americans identify as vegetarian and 2% as vegan.[62] A 2008 Harris Interactive poll found that 10% of adults "largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet," with 3.2% following a vegetarian diet and 0.5% identifying as vegans.[63] A 2000 Zogby Poll found that 2.5% of respondents reported not eating meat, poultry, or fish; while 4.5 percent reported not eating meat.[64]"

You also just have to look at the business surrounding vegetarian products - It's booming! U.S. vegetarian food sales (meat replacements such as soy milk and textured vegetable protein) doubled between 1998 and 2003 and have continued to rise since then.

Yes I live in California, but both the Bay and LA have a new vegan restaurant every month. If they are any good at all they are packed.

Dear ridiculous

Note that I am not pushing a vegetarian or vegan diet. (I am long-time meat eater.) Further, I am the person who did the study you mentioned showing the most vegetarians who go back to eating meat do it for health reasons. (See my post on this.)

I use the term moral hero in a metaphorical sense....They are people who have the guts to resist what I consider a strong biological urge -- the desire to eat meat. This urge is sufficiently strong that even most vegetarians eventually return to meat.

"Lying" vs. positive self-image

Hal, thanks again for an excellent post. I agree with most points, but would add that some meat-eating "vegetarians" describe themselves as such in research because they wish to project a positive image. Vegetarianism is an aspirational choice for these people and this is a common problem with research -- I wouldn't label it "lying," exactly.

Second, I don't believe that the moralization of eating animals has failed. It's just a long, slow arc. Most vegetarians choose to eschew animal flesh for health, but the rise of "humane" meat is just one example that ethical issues are taking hold, if only very slowly. It's premature to say it has failed, however.

To "ecstasy" -- please do a little research and get your facts straight. First, a vegetarian diet results in far FEWER plants being consumed. What do you think animals eat? They eat plants, and far more of them than humans. Being an omnivore kills far more plants than being vegetarian or vegan. And just ask the American Dietetic Association about health -- those concerns are decades old.

For those who are interested in more research on vegetarianism and veganism, check out HRC's

"Vegetarianism" and lying

Che, I agree that the term "lying" is a bit harsh, and "positive self image" certainly sounds better. In addition, there is the issue that I did not discuss because of blog legnth limitations --the alternative words that describe semi-vegetarians. These include "flexitarian", "easy-vegetarian," etc.

However, I am still struck with the studies that found that 2 out of 3 self-described vegetarians had eaten meat the previous day. I makes me wonder how broad the term vegetarian can be expanded and still have any meaning at all. It seems to me that the term vegetarian means more than simply eating plants. By that broad definition, I would be a vegetarian because I eat vegetables -- every day.

Your long slow arc point has merit. Since I wrote the post, I came across some new Dept of Ag data indicating that per capita consumption of meat has decreased consistently over the past 5 years by a small amount each year -- but these add up over time and may be a real trend rather than random statistical variation.

Thanks for your comments. Keep up the good work.

"Most people (including me)

"Most people (including me) are like Haidt when it comes to meat. We succumb to the whisperings of our genes."

What evidence do you have that eating meat is "in our genes"? There is no real evidence that this is the case. I suspect that imagining biological and/or evolutionary imperatives for meat eating is useful for avoiding the moral question for many meat eaters. I covered this issue in an article on arguments against vegetarianism, which you can see here:

"Most people (including me)

"Most people (including me) are like Haidt when it comes to meat. We succumb to the whisperings of our genes."

What evidence do you have that eating meat is "in our genes"? There is no real evidence that this is the case. I suspect that imagining biological and/or evolutionary imperatives for meat eating is useful for avoiding the moral question for many meat eaters. I covered this issue in an article on arguments against vegetarianism, which you can see here:

author's reply

Mark - Thanks for your comment.

I read your blog and I agree with all of your points. I have never made an ethical argument for eating meat. Indeed, I think that the arguments against eating animals are strong on ethical, environmental, and health grounds.

That being said, based on the extensive research on this topc that I did for the meat chapter in my book, I am convinced that there is a biological basis for that fact that the vast majority of humans enjoy eating flesh. I discuss this evidence in my book and will not review it here except for a quick summary (see my book for references).
1. We evolved from meat-craving apes.
2. Modern human gut anatomy suggests that our digestive system is adapted for omnivory.
3. Behavior genetic studies indicated that preferences for meat are highly heritable (have a partially genetic basis).
4. Virtually all known hunter-gather cultures consumed animal products (ranging from 15% to over 90% of caloric intake).
5. Very few people are able to completely give up the consumption of animal products. Even in parts of India, where 60% of people are vegetarian, virtually everyone consumes dairy. Vegans make up less than 1/2 of 1% of the US population. And studies have found that 40% of animal rights activists sometimes eat meat, as do nearly 70% of "vegetarians." Further, most vegetarians eventually go back to omnivory.

However, even if humans are "natural meat eaters", this does not imply that everyone likes meat equally. I have interviewed a number of people who have never liked the taste of flesh.

More importantly, even if a preference for meat is "in our genes," this does imply that it is OK to kill animal because they happen to taste good. Philosophers call this the naturalistic fallacy -- and they are right.

To quote Katherine Hepburn in the African Queen, "Nature, Mr. McNutt, is what we are here to overcome." I agree.


If you eat fish, you are not

If you eat fish, you are not VEGETARIAN, you are PESCITARIAN.
People need to know their terms.

And there is a HUGE difference between hunting and eating meat, and FACTORY FARMING it.

Treating animals with respect, letting them roam free, then hunting them down and eating them is the circle of life.

Getting your rocks off by the power trip you get by using machinery to confine and control them, then adding to the growing obesity problem by stuffing your fat face with a processed hamburger is greed, pure and simple.

Take down a free roaming cow with your bare hands, then by all means, eat it.
Everything else is unnecessary cruelty.
I'd think if anything, in this day an age, we should be pioneering foods with LESS calories per buck, not more.

Ah well, most Americans are gonna eat themselves into an early grave anyway. With any luck, other countries will invade and they'll stop eating such disgusting amounts of factory farmed animals.

But that's not practical. It

But that's not practical. It would be akin to asking everyone who uses computers to mine their own materials, manufacture their own components, build their own PCs, etc.

And I'm quite sure America is not the only country that eats factory-farmed animals. In fact, the United States (along with the rest of the First World) has much better ethical animal practices than most of the world.

Meat eater here

I don't see anything wrong with eating meat, if other species eat it too. Though I try to eat locally reared and free range where possible. If an animal is going to end up on your dinner plate at least it should have a comfy life and painless death. (Yes I am talking about certain religious practices which seem to delight in cruelty on the killing chain.)

Hal's reply

Thanks for your comment -- but I disagree with your logic.

Just because other animals engage in an activity does not mean that it is moral. For example, chimps ripe the arms off live baby monkeys and eat them (both the arms and the monkey). And I recently watched a group of male ducks gang rape a female duck in a canal in Amsterdam. In addition, my cat loves to torture small animals before finally killing them. None of these activities would be ethical in humans, though they are perfectly "natural" in other species.

Note that I am a meat-eater. But I do not justify the fact that I eat flesh on the basis that meat is part of the diet of other species.


Ascribing the return to a

Ascribing the return to a diet that includes meat to genetics is a far leap in my opinion. What about conditioning to eat meat? It would be interesting to know how many people who were vegetarian from childhood switched to eating meat and for what reasons. Maybe, if we did not get used to eating meat and even found it disgusting (for example as we find eating dog disgusting in western countries), we would simply be vegetarian.

Vegetarian turned Omnivore for both health and moral reasons.

I went from being raised lacto-ovo vegetarian to being a meat eater, but it took a major health crisis to do so. It took a complete breakdown of my health to even consider eating red meat, small inclusion of poultry and fish on their own didn't seem to return me to health, and including at least 1/2 pound of red meat per day in my diet has been nothing short of miraculous, and the more I research it, a morally positive experience.

Ruminants are prey animals, they are supposed to turn inedible grasses into prime nutrients for predators like ourselves. It can be a bitter pill to swallow at first, but to argue that our nature is somehow immoral and we are somehow "above" the food chain if we can just get into the right mindset is absurd.

I am troubled by the idea that eating less meat is a morally superior way of being, it is that exact thinking that kept me locked into way of eating that compromised my health for decades. It was somehow my fault that I wasn't evolved enough to move beyond needing or wanting animal products, and I should self-select myself out of the whole system because it was the morally correct decision, and only those who could survive and thrive without needing or wanting animal products should have the privilege of reproducing.

The planet's health depends on predators as much as it depends on prey, if you remove apex predators from the food system, the whole ecosystem collapses. We are omnivorous predators, our eyes are on the fronts of heads, and we have a mixture of teeth for tearing meat and for grinding plant material. To deny either side of that equation is a recipe for less than optimal health.

All animals die, all people die, there is no way out of that equation. We have the unique perspective of being able to be compassionate predators, and make sure our prey has only one really bad moment. I would argue that a deer being shot by a hunter is a more humane way of going than starving to death or being ripped to pieces by wolves, both quite natural things.

Now onto the environmental moralism surrounding meat consumption, overgrazing can be a problem if it isn't managed, but ruminants are one of our best tools for reversing both desertification, and melting of the permafrost, through smart grazing we can restore the environment both near the equator and the poles.

For anyone wishing to explore this subject more I would recommend both "The Vegetarian Myth", and

Interesting article. I've met

Interesting article. I've met people who call themselves "kind-of-vegetarian-but-I-eat-poultry". I thought they were exceptions--I didn't realize it was the norm!

To add to Hal's comment on Hickey's argument about other animals:
Other animals need meat to survive. I, as a human living in a first-world country, have many other options. I do not need meat to live or to thrive--so why eat it? The logic that "other species eat it too" is a naturalistic fallacy. Natural does not equal ethical.

Also, although Hickey may never see this, I might as well let you know just in case:
"Free range" means nothing. USDA's definition is "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."
Unfortunately, that's it. That is 99% loophole. If you're genuinely interested in eating free-range, be sure to personally visit the farm. Do not trust labels.

on why cigarette smoking declined and meat eating hasnt

Precisely because the scientific evidence that meat is cancerous to our health isn't being taught. Watch forks over knives, tons of data on meat, even clean pre-antibiotic meat, turns on our cancer cells.

Morality isn't enough. In these posts alone people are claiming we are omivours. No were not, try biting into the neck of a cow and see if you break the skin. Our colon can't handle it either, it is long like a plant eater.

Cigarettes were clearly labeled as bad for you. On the otherhand, we are constantly being told we need meat. Yet, a human infant, who presumable needs the most protein to grow, thrives on human breast milk at 5.9 percent, lower then your average vegetable.

Tell people its wrong, who cares, tell people it kills you slowly, then slowly they listen.

For me, it's like were two year olds with toy trucks the way we use and abuse sentient life on this planet, and deep down we know it, hence our aggression, misery, and alienation from not living in harmony with the natural world.

Humans have tiny colons, we are not herbivores


I absolutely understand where you are coming from, I viewed the world through a similar filter not so long ago. I understand falling under the spell of movies like Forks Over Knives, but much of the science the movie is based on just doesn't work, and/or the data is being misconstrued or misinterpreted to carry the preconceived narrative. It also takes a lot of cheap emotional shots that put you in a mindset of panic, so one must act immediately or we'll all die, ahhhhh! I think before holding it up as the pinnacle of health science, I would advise at least a quick skimming of Denise Minger's review of the film.

Our meat supply is seriously effed up, animals are routinely fed agricultural byproducts that were never intended for the human food supply, but we eat, what we eat eats. Cottonseeds for example that have been sprayed with an obscene number of pesticides and defoliants, and those seeds make up a good part of cattle feed. Chickens are routinely fed GMO corn and soy, that makes its ways into us as well. Add the end product of all that to your diet every day, and not developing cancer or an autoimmune disorder is a small miracle. It is so important not to confuse the "what" with the "how" of our food supply. If 80% of kale was poisoned, instead of telling people to avoid kale for their health, it would make much more sense to point them towards finding the 20% that was good for them, and demand that the rest of it stop being poisoned.

Compared to other primates we have short guts, large brains, and particularly small colons, which requires the nutrient density of at least some animal foods or a whole lotta coconuts, and most likely cooking or fermentation to free up the available nutrients for easier digestion and organ/brain support.

Please study slides 11-22 in this presentation, for a comparative analysis between the digestive tracts of various primates and tell me it you still think we are dedicated herbivores.

The macro nutrient breakdown of breast milk is always in a state of flux, it starts out slightly higher protein, and the protein tapers down around 6 months closer to the number you've provided when the baby becomes able to digest other protein sources. You are correct that it is relatively low in protein, but you make the incorrect assumption that it is the protein in breast milk that is needed for rapid growth, it is in fact the fat and sugars that allow for the amazing amount of brain and body growth in the first 6 months of a babies life.

Silly Heroes

As other posters said, humans are omnivorous, so it's part of natural diet to eat meat.
Like most animals, if we stray from our natural diet, we are more vulnerable to sickness.
In every party of nature, there are food chains. It's silly to make a moral argument for straying from a natural diet, that will leave us all healthier.
Of course, all animals eaten should be raised and processed properly.
Oh, and don't forget: Meat taste good for a reason!!!

The beef v chicken ratios can

The beef v chicken ratios can be explained by the medical community saying that beef is saturated with cholesterol and will kill us, but white meat chicken is the panacea of health food. This happens to coincide with the timeline for animal rights.

The beef v chicken ratios can

The beef v chicken ratios can be explained by the medical community saying that beef is saturated with cholesterol and will kill us, but white meat chicken is the panacea of health food. This happens to coincide with the timeline for animal rights.

beef v cattle

Jen -- I agree. The decline in cattle and the increase in chicken were associated with a campaign to link beef with heart disease. Interestingly, at the same time the pork industry began breeding leaner and leaner pigs -- so they could pitch pork as "the other white meat."

"According to a recent report

"According to a recent report by the highly credible Humane Research Council, if you include dairy and eggs, an astounding 920 pounds of animal products slides down the average American's throat each year."

I've been mulling over this number of "920 pounds", and I'm finding it hard to believe. 2.52 pounds per day on average? Is that hang weight, purchased weight, or consumption weight? Does it include animal products that are used in agriculture to grow vegetable crops?

I am an unabashed carnivore at this point in my life and I average about .75-1 lb. of meat per day, a few tablespoons of cream, a couple eggs a few times per week, and that is it for animal products. Maybe I'm in an odd bubble of vegetarian identifying folks, but I eat more animal products, or admit to eating more animal products than anyone I know and would be hard pressed to consume more than 375 pounds per year.

Is it the weight of milk, and average Joe's are guzzling it by the gallon that skews the numbers? Is it normal for people to eat 20 oz. steaks everyday outside of my circle of friends? I guess I just don't see this as being a realistic number and would like to know how it was generated.


Dr Herzog, you're an intelligent enough man to realize that "my genes made me do it" isn't an excuse for harming others. If you think that slaughtering animals for pleasure is unethical, you're capable controlling your actions.

To everybody who claims that eating meat is natural, that doesn't matter. Even if the claim isn't dubious, it's a red herring. Fact is, it's possible to be a healthy vegan. I'm one of them. If it were impossible to be vegan, I wouldn't be here typing this.

By the way, I didn't eat red meat (or animal products) yesterday or within the past two years. Not all of us make claims just because they sound good.

healthy vegan

Do you buy supplements from the drug store? If so, why? What would happen to your health if modern societal supplements and processed soy foods vanished? I think we all know...

And I'd be interested to see your blood work.

Life-long Vegetarian to Omnivore

I was raised in a vegetarian household. Actually, we were mostly vegan -- my mom did not purchase or cook with any dairy products and we mostly eschewed processed foods, but we would occasionally eat a prepared cake or cookies or something like that that contained dairy products.

When I moved out, I started eating dairy products, but remained vegetarian. I never did understand people who claimed to be vegetarian but ate fish, or poultry, or something like that.

Finally, at age 33, I decided to start eating meat. I made the decision for a couple reasons. I was tired of always missing out on some (or most) of the culinary options available, especially when traveling. But more importantly, I felt like I was eating a fantastically unhealthy diet in my effort to avoid meat. I was bordering on BMI obesity. My view was that I generally made a lot of poor decisions about what to eat because I was consistently hungry. So I would either load up on carbs and cheeses (pizza, mac and cheese, huge bowls of pasta or rice, etc.), or if I tried to eat something healthy, I'd later binge on sugary or salty snacks to make up the caloric deficit.

So I tried to completely reorient my diet. I started eating meat (any meat, although I try not to eat high fat meats every day) and sharply limited my intake of carbs, especially sugar. I also tried to eat more fruits and vegetables. Nothing is off limits to me, but I have tried to fill up with relatively healthy meat-based dishes at regular meal times and if I need to snack, to limit it to things like fresh fruits, non-fat, unsweetened yogurt, beef jerky, etc.

In the six months after I started eating meat, I lost 35 pounds and now am at a relatively healthy weight that I can maintain without any sort of strict, constant "diet".

In saying all this, I also recognize that it is at least theoretically possible to meet many of my objectives with a vegetarian diet, especially if I spent time cooking healthy, high-protein vegetarian dishes and taking food with me to work, etc. But I think people have to do what makes sense for them, and as someone who often works 70+ hours per week and eats 2-3 meals per day at my desk, I had to set up a system that worked for me, which happened to involve eating meat.

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Hal Herzog, Ph.D. is the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals. more...

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