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Sexy vegetarianism could save the world


'Vegetarianism' by Chris JohnstonEarlier this year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) announced their list of the sexiest vegetarians for 2009. Portia de Rossi, Russell Brand, Christie Brinkley and Orlando Jones were among those nominated, and are all undeniably sexy.

So why is it that when most people think of vegetarians, it conjures up images of shapeless hemp pants, brown turtleneck jumpers and long unkempt toenails? Why is vegetarianism still so unfashionable?

We live in a time when most of us want to be (or at least want to appear to be) environmentally conscious. Forget to take your reusable shopping bags to the supermarket, and you risk being spat upon by your fellow shoppers. Install some solar panels and buy a Toyota Prius, and most people expect to find their Australian of the Year nomination in the post soon. When people buy large, flashy and preferably expensive environmentally friendly products it is seen as a wonderful act of benevolence, a gift to the world.

Tell people that you are vegetarian (probably the single most potent thing you can personally do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption) and you are somehow seen as antagonistic and self-centred.

You'd think vegetarians had made a deeply selfish decision purely to sabotage dinner parties. 'Well what do you eat?' the host will ask, exasperated. When surely we should be getting a pat on the back, we vegetarians are more likely to encounter defensiveness, endless 'conversations' demanding we justify our beliefs, and sometimes even palpable hostility.

In answer to your questions: no, I don't think we have a duty to our ancestors to eat meat; no, I don't hanker for a nice juicy steak; no, carrots don't have feelings too. I can't help thinking many of you protest too much.

But who or what is to blame for vegetarianism's image problem?

Partly we have to blame the celebrity chef, food porn, gourmet-at-home culture. High-end restaurants, prime time TV and over-priced celebrity chef cookbooks celebrate meat as the central ingredient in any successful meal. Vegetables are mere bit players.

And it seems the more icky the meat, the better. Nothing says sophistication like a bowl of goose intestines. And if veal and suckling pig aren't young and succulent enough for you, how about duck embryo still in the egg?

It seems that food preparation is no longer about sustenance or even tastiness. Instead it has become a challenge — and the most challenging of ingredients is surely meat. If you get the wrong cut, fail to slow roast it for the requisite nine hours or, God forbid, forget the thyme sprig garnish, all you'll have is a plate of inedible gristle. Get it right and you might have your husband tipping his head back, scratching his chin thoughtfully and delivering you a cheeky smirk of approval, Matt Preston-style.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are consistent, easy to cook and inexpensive. Where's the fun in that?

But perhaps vegetarianism has failed to win people over because of the widely-held assumption that it requires so much personal sacrifice. If the kind of sacrifices I have made include lowering my risk of getting cancer and reducing my grocery bill, then I'll take the chickpeas please.

As a bonus, I am saving thousands of animals from a life and death of suffering, and helping the health of the planet. In a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation paper, it was reported that farming for meat generates 18 per cent of the Earth's greenhouse gas emissions, whereas all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and boats of the world combined account for a mere 13 per cent. How many Priuses will you need to buy to counter that one?

Then there is a prevailing view that vegetarians are somehow morally superior. It is an uncomfortable admission for someone who has always been apologetic about their eating habits, but maybe the truth is that we actually are morally superior. What else can you call it when carnivores put their own laziness ('But it's so easy to just cook a piece of meat and three veg') and selfishness ('But I really like the taste of meat') above the needs of the planet and all its inhabitants — animal and human.

So perhaps us vegetarians are to blame for our own image problem. Sexiness shouldn't be the issue — after all, the meat industry has Sam Kekovich spruiking its wares while we have Sadie Frost. Maybe vegetarians have been too polite, too careful not to offend carnivores. In the current climate change climate, maybe we should be wearing our ethical and environmental credentials loudly and proudly to shame those who still eat meat?

Still, I can't help thinking that it wouldn't hurt to throw out those turtleneck jumpers and Jesus sandals if we really want to win people over to our cause.

Sarah McKenzieSarah McKenzie is a freelance writer and vegetarian.

Topic tags: sarah mckenzie, vegetarianism, sexy, Portia de Rossi, Russell Brand, Christie Brinkley, Orlando Jones



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Existing comments

Vegetarians still consume dairy products, and eggs that could be from caged hens. Up to a million bobby calves are stolen from their mother cows to be killed as 'by products' and others are confined to be raised for veal.

The real vegetarian is vegan. It is not about being 'sexy' but humane, environmentally sustainable and having compassion for living creatures. If this isn't popular it is the flaw of human society, not the food or the lifestyle. The livestock industries have a lot of sway in governments too.

Vivienne | 08 November 2009  

The problem with non-acceptance of vegetarian lifestyle is reality. Most people function in the real world, and in the real world vegetarians are NOT healthy. We need at least a small amount of animal protein for health - there are some things that have no substitutes. I have never met a truly healthy vegetarian yet - they all have less efficient immune systems and resistance to infection. Spend time in the tropics among them and see how many develop tropical ulcers. Local Doctors and Pharmacists will ask about vegetarian habits before anything else when they see persistent ulcers.

Veritas | 08 November 2009  

Yes Sarah, I too am viewed as something off another planet when it comes to my eating habits. I have been a long time vegetarian and a year ago switched to being vegan. As a spin off , one year later my cholesterol and triglycerides have moved from the high normal range into the low normal range. When invited to dinner my friends are amazed at the food I cook, but end their compliments with 'I could never be like you'. So they pop their cholesterol lowering agents, diabetes medications and blood pressure tabs. While I take no such medications and intend to live out my days pill free. People are astounded when they hear I am 64, most take me for late 40's and full of energy, who knows I may even be sexy!

I became vegetarian because of the unethical treatment of animals; feed lots, pigs that live cramped in pens unable to turn around, chickens that never see the light of day and becoming vegan followed many years later when I had my eyes opened to the dairy farming and egg producing industries. In these horror shows cows are nothing more than milk producing machines constantly inseminated so they produce offspring, many calves are ripped from their mothers a few days after birth and slaughtered so we humans can drink cows milk. Look into any aspect of the meat industry and a horror story is waiting to unfold. Ever thought about what happens to the majority of male chicks when they are born so we can eat eggs? Even the most stringent of free range no de-beaking hens are all female! So what happened to the male chicks?
If you are serious about climate change become vegan, persevere, and you will be saving the planet and much more. Angela McD

Maureen Angela McDonagh | 08 November 2009  

Thanks, Sarah. I have been a vegan (a snobby vegetarian 'Brahmin') for thirty years. I have not worn "'Jesus sandals' for about thirty years and I have always hated tutleneck jumpers (even if not made from wool). And my wallet is made of nylon!

Nigel Sinnott | 08 November 2009  

Australians consume too many calories, and could certainly do with less meat and more vegies. But humans are built metabolically and physiologically to be omnivores, and some meat should be part of a health balanced diet. Vegetarianism is too extreme, and like this article have strong neurotic and phobic traits. Exasperation with vegetarians frequently comes with having already having dealt to ones own little kids and their food fads! Sarah , the photo makes you look too thin....I hope you are keeping you BMI above a healthy 20.

Eugene | 08 November 2009  

I have been a vegetarian for many decades for ethical reasons. I am aware however, that I am blessed to live in a country where I have a choice. It is perfectly normal for people to eat meat and many of the world’s poor simply don’t have a choice about their protein source.

Far from being faced with “antagonism” or accusations of being “self-centred”, my family and friends have always treated my decision to be a vegetarian with the utmost respect. As well, all have been willing and enthusiastic dinner guests at my home on many, many occasions. They have also had the pleasure of being successfully challenged to make something more “interesting” (a friend’s quote) than they might have done otherwise when I’ve been a guest of theirs. I must say however, that many restaurants/chefs do not offer creative vegetarian choices for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, and I would dearly like to see this change.

I would suggest that there is NOTHING “sexy” about claiming superiority over non-vegetarians. It’s as sexy as a fundamentalist person of any religion you care to name claiming they are the only people worthy of a happy after-life! Such a “fascist” attitude can only lead to defensiveness (understandably), is arrogant and counter-productive.

Patricia | 08 November 2009  

The American Dietetic Association this year released an updated position paper, published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, on vegetarian (meaning vegan) diets. It concludes such diets, if well planned, are healthy and nutritious for adults, infants, children and adolescents and can help prevent and treat chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. Vegan diets are often associated with health advantages including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegans tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Vegan diets are lower in saturated fat with no cholesterol, and have higher levels of dietary fibre, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals.

It's not about "sexiness". It's about the fact that veganism is the easiest and fastest way to cut greenhouse gases and help stop climate chaos. It's about becoming a more compassionate society. It's about the human race growing up as a species. Veganism's got it all. And the food is exquisite. Vegan's the only game in town.

Sienna Blake | 08 November 2009  

You ask 'who or what is to blame for vegetarianism's image problem?'

Disruptive groups like PETA and people who think that if we are not vegetarian, then we must have a hankering for goose intestines or duck embryos.

And people who don't eat meat and then admit that 'we actually are morally superior.'

Vegetarianism is just a stage that teenage girls go through, but most grow out of.

Frank | 08 November 2009  

Ironic isn't it? We are so consumed today with what we look like and what we eat, that we have forgotten *how* to eat. Our eating habits are characterised more than often by absent-mindedness. When we sit down to eat, we consume our worries, our dislikes, our thoughts – rarely the food itself. Wasn't it the French playwright Moliere who said, "one should eat to live, not live to eat"? My understanding (having been a vegetarian in the past) is that a vegetarian protests against his/her lack of control in a highly politicised and capitalised world. What he/she chooses to eat or not eat is further defined by the needs of the body as a political, cultural and/or religious vessel. Vegetarianism therefore is a protest against one's self, despite the "health" issues that may result (e.g. anaemia). It's not *about* the food, or the environment or animal mistreatment per se. What sustains a vegetarian through years of abstention (if I can use that word) is a kind of self-denial. Meat is not the issue here; it is how we eat that matters: mindfulness and compassion for all living and non-living sources.

Helen | 08 November 2009  

Good one, Sarah. I am not a vegetarian but eat less meat than I used to, partly because of environmental/animal welfare concerns, partly because if you just stop eating it, you lose interest after a while (I'm convinced that most of our food preferences are mere habit).

While I'm not likely to give up meat entirely, I'm trying to limit my consumption to two meat meals a week. If everyone did this we'd make a significant impact on greenhouse gas, save a lot of animal lives and still get our protein, iron, etc. And no, it wouldn't ruin the livestock industry - most Australian farms are a mix of stock/crops and farmers could simply change the mix (they do this all the time in line with changes in prices/demand).

A while back I had a go at lentil burgers and my son (age 7) told me loudly that "was yuck" and he wouldn't be eating dinner, thanks. He tried one, declared it "yum", ate the whole thing and demanded another one.

Matt | 08 November 2009  

Good on you. I am 69 years old and a vegetarian for 23 years. I have just completed a walk from Fremantle WA to Federation Square Melbourne Victoria. I eat raw food and finished a lot healthier than when I started. I must admit I feel a little pleased with myself. Mike Pauly

Mike Pauly | 08 November 2009  

My wife and I are omnivores. If vegetarian friends come for dinner
we cook vegetarian. When we are invited to their place, why won't they cook meat for us?

Even reformed alcoholics will offer booze to their guests.

If God didn't want us to eat animals he wouldn't have made them out of meat.

Ben | 08 November 2009  

Toyota Prius: 89 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

Bicycle or walking: effectively none.

Paul Magarey | 08 November 2009  

I'm not sexy in the sense that Sarah is promoting, but I am sexual, even though celibate.

I'm sexual and I eat meat. I don't discriminate against vegetarians or vegans but do discriminate against Ingrid Newkirk of PETA and those who believe as she does.


Because PETA is using higly emotive blackmail tactics - such as the sex thing, to make out that eating meat is wrong and if you want to be sexy (in the genital way), don't eat meat or fish of any kind.

If all the world ate meat there would be tremendous trouble, just as, if all the world were vegetarian or vegan there would be tremendous trouble. The real issue, surely, is not whether we eat or don't eat meat, but that we live a lifestyle so all can eat.

Reality says that in some parts of the world, vegetarianism, veganism will provide a staple diet, whereas, in other parts of the world the staple will be some form of animal protein - meat, fish, eggs, milk products from various sources.

I'm a sexual, celibate, meat-eating priest who cares about all in the world and wants to see everyone in the world have food for every day. Until PETA and their supporters also support this vision, they are preaching the wrong type of being sexy.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 08 November 2009  

I still recall with horror helping a very honoured, respected guest speaker to pick through a bowl of lettuce and tomato with a bit of cucumber in spite of having told the caterer she was vegetarian. Is that how one should treat a respected guest? I love my piece of steak but always find a vegetarian guest a really interesting challenge. There are some really wonderful dishes.

Margaret McDonald | 08 November 2009  

Food for thought
300 people on train to work =?CO2 emissions
300 people walking or cycling, all puffing, wearing out shoes, showering again before work, living longer due to better health =?C02 emissions

Ben | 08 November 2009  

Veritas goes on the protein myth again! If only Veritas knew how easy it was to get protein.

I, like most vegetarians, try to be polite about my lifestyle choices, but it frustrates me when I see ill-founded arguments like Veritas'.

John | 09 November 2009  

I agree, there is a general perception that non-meat eaters are uptight and hostile - even when we refrain from commenting about why we don't eat meat.

The celebrity chef, food-porn culture is also contributing to climate change by using fancy products that require lots of resources to produce and import.

Any reduction in an individual's amount of regular meat eating is a step in the right direction. When vegans shout people down for not being 'pure' enough it only deters people from reducing their meat consumption. We need to be encouraging and educating people.

andrew | 09 November 2009  

Sarah, from two very mature age vegetarians your article is clever, concise and brilliantly written. We have known you for a long time and continue to be amazed at your insight as revealed in the article. Bet mum and dad are proud.

Reg and Lorraine Hogan | 09 November 2009  

I think the `food porn' industry is actually helping sustainability. Almost all TV cooking shows and cookbooks advocate fresh, organic, un-processed, home grown and natural ingredients. It's the producers of mass market meat and vegetables with their overuse of fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics that threaten sustainability.

Ben | 09 November 2009  

“We need at least a small amount of animal protein for health - there are some things that have no substitutes. I have never met a truly healthy vegetarian yet”

I have been a vegetarian for twenty years, vegan for four, and have never been healthier. High blood pressure and cholesteral - once conditions I had to take medication for – are both normal. I get sick far less than I did, even as a non-vegan vegetarian.

paul winston | 09 November 2009  

Good question. Why do people who install solar panels and water tanks get all the praise while vegetarians are mocked or criticised?

Amy | 10 November 2009  

Well ... I just have to add my own experience here as a 'Health Warning: Long Term Vegetarianism may be harmful to yr health'.

I had been a lacto/ovo vegetarian for about 25 years when all of a sudden my health started really falling apart - over 12 months blood tests revealed that I was massively deficient in Magnesium & Iodine & Iron, bone density scan revealed I was already fully Osteoporotic & I needed a colonoscopy due to bleeding in the bowel.

Of course I was shocked with these findings as I had presumed that my diet would insulate my health from such events. So I started investigating & found that there is a growing number of "long term" vegetarians whose health breaks down in similar manner. It appears that EVERYONE can appear hale & hearty as a vegetarian when they are young & into middle age BUT that NOT EVERYONE can continue in such good health as their body starts to age.

Of course it depends on an individual's own 'set-up' as to the result & unfortunately in my case it definitely exacerbated the decline in my health. I am now, at the age of 55, fully house-bound & on Disability pension with a final diagnosis of Fibromyalgia.

But I am now very happy to adopt the Mediterranean-style of diet with more (well soaked!) beans than meat & NO wheat or dairy products. And I will always prefer to get my Omega 3 from flaxseed & Soy than fish oil (as I do not agree with the wild harvesting of ANY animal species & could only agree with Humane farming practice i.e. pasture & cage-free).

PruJoy | 10 November 2009  

Most people consider themselves to be 'moral', without ever scrutinising their behaviour and applying moral criteria to it, rather, they abide by their society's ethics and that does for them.

According to my own moral system, and I imagine many others, it is more moral, ceteris paribus, to be vegetarian than not to be. I think there are many people who consider vegetarianism to be more moral but, for the reasons Sarah refers to, don't become vegetarian, and I think this is disappointing, that they deliberately act immorally, and that the negative outcomes of such behaviour go on.

I can imagine a society in which no one eats meat, and in which people, and the environment, are healthier, happier, and more provided-for as a consequence. For this to happen, meat-eating, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, must be seen not just as wicked, but as vulgar. In circumstances where people have the means to go vegetarian, and agree with it morally, continued meat-eating is an act that is at odds with being a moral person.

Joel Dignam | 14 November 2009  

I am a meat eater. Always have and always will. I cannot fathom being a vegetarian or vegan. I love beef, pork, poultry and fish. Vegetables are, and will always been an after-thought, confined to the side plate. Rant over.

Andrew Juma | 23 November 2009  

i don't care whether or not you are vegan, vegetaian or omnivore....it's a matter of choice. What i do care about though is that at least we moderate our eating habits and distribute our resources equitably and try to ensure no child is dying of starvation. Also narks me that we need to rubbish people who put in solar panels or buy a Prius....at least those people are actually contributing to a better environment and also at a personal monetary cost! I hate turtleneck jumpers but i love my jesus sandals....and as for sexy...who really cares.

ron | 07 January 2010  

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