- The debate over whether to eat meat or go entirely plant-based (vegan) is a hot-button issue, often filled with vitriol and name-calling online.
- That's because the argument is about more than just food — according to researchers, the decision to eat animals or not involves cultural, moral and political ideals as well as nutrition.
- Both extremes rely on fallacies about how humans are 'supposed' to eat, and reflect anxieties about a food system out of our control, so vegans and carnivores may have more in common than you think.
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The stereotype of the angry vegan is pervasive — but for some omnivores, even the notion of giving up meat can be rage-inducing.
Particularly on the internet, the simple question of whether to eat meat (and how much) can escalate into flame wars full of insults, more likely to raise your blood pressure than cause anyone to change their minds, said Dr. Matt Ruby, a psychology professor at La Trobe University who specializes in the psychology of food choices.
"Some people on both sides are very determined to take things personally," Ruby told Insider in an interview.
Recently, the term "vegan" has itself been subject to controversy, as more people opting out of animal-products choose to identify as "plant-based" instead to avoid stigma and cultural baggage linked to veganism, said Nicole Civita, a sustainable food systems specialist at the University of Colorado Boulder.
But the conversation has as much to do with politics as it does with what's on your plate. According to Civita and Ruby, food choices reflect deep divides in culture and ethics, but also shared anxieties about our collective future and identities.
Both sides argue that their way is the most natural way for humans to eat, but evidence is mixed
A common argument for, or against, meat-eating is based on how humans evolved, and whether we were meant to be herbivores or omnivores based on our biology and physiology.
According to Civita, when most people argue about dietary choices, they tend to focus on basic principles known as the 4 Ns — natural, normal, necessary, and nice. This means that omnivores look for evidence that meat-eating is ancestrally or biologically appropriate for humans, that it's important and accepted in our culture, that we need meat (or plant-based) diets for optimal health, or that it's just plain enjoyable and giving it up would be unpleasant.
In reality, there no definitive evidence that either a plant-based or omnivorous diet is superior. Most nutritionists and medical experts agree that a balanced diet of mainly whole foods is a healthy way to eat, whether that includes some animal products or not. While red meat and processed meat have been scrutinized for their role in chronic disease, poultry, seafood, and cheese are generally regarded as fine in moderation.
And a natural, or ancestral, approach to dieting isn't necessarily convincing either, says Ruby.
"I don't find that particularly helpful — natural doesn't mean better. Earthquakes are natural, black plague was natural," he explained.
Beyond personal preference, however, what we eat does matter for how we perceive ourselves, and how we want other people to perceive us, according to Civita.
"Food is a form of identity and expressive identity," she said.
Diet choices are closely linked with moral judgment
Although vegans are often portrayed as overly sensitive, offended at the idea of eating meat, Civita says it swings both ways.
Most people would prefer not to think too much about their consumption habits, Civita said, or at least have the choice about when, and how much, to consider them.
Veganism, though, forces people to confront not just their role in food systems but also in the food chain.
"There's this notion of implicit judgment that my choice to not eat animal products is implicit judgment of someone else's choice to do so," Civita said.
Today's food systems allow us the luxury of eating meat without thinking too much about the source. Opting out, or advocating for animal rights, can interrupt that blissful, carefully-cultivated ignorance, Ruby explained.
"In most cultures people grow up eating meat as a perfectly normal thing to do. But at some point they learn where meat comes from and that can create a conflict. A lot of people are really disconnected with where their food comes from, so it can be a bit of a shock," Ruby said.
To make matters worse, most people generally like animals, especially the cuddly kind. At some point, meat-eaters are forced to reconcile their affection for non-human species with their decision to eat some of them, Ruby said, and that cognitive dissonance can make people particularly defensive about their food choices.
Pop culture has linked meat-eating to manliness, power, and wealth
Beyond morals, meat-eating can also raise the sensitive issue of gender identity in culture, particularly when it comes to men. Traditionally, meat has been linked to notions of power and masculinity, and popular culture perpetuates this idea through ad campaigns like Burger King's "Manthem."
"Meat has been associated with wealth, power, status, masculinity, and these associations are often used in advertising," Ruby said.
Veganism, or vegetarianism, by contrast been associated with femininity — a common example is the (previously debunked) notion that soy could raise estrogen or lower testosterone levels in men, causing them to grow breasts or other feminine features.
Meat-eaters tend to be more politically conservative, but a few far-right extremist groups are vegan
Although individual vegans and meat eaters can fall anywhere in the political spectrum, research shows some common trends in the politics behind food choices.
Meat-eaters, for instance, tend to be more conservative and more traditional. This is partly due to the social dominance orientation in both right wing and meat-eating, a sense of a natural class order that puts people at the top of the food chain, economically and biologically, Ruby explained.
"There's a growing body of evidence that in many cultures around the world, eating meat or being omnivorous is linked to right wing political views. On average, there's small to moderate association with conservatism," he said.
However, a few notable exceptions include a branch of vegan Neo-Nazis, and far right politicians in India.
Dietary zealots on both sides have more in common than they think
Issues of food choice evoke social and environmental anxieties, about how our actions might influence things like climate change and economic justice, and more abstract notions of morality and social responsibility.
"There's uncertainty about how to be healthy and how to be a good person. In these notions of wellness and control, the onus on the individual to make themselves. It's a public health version of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," she added.
Internet debates often amplify the most extreme versions of the conversation and the kernels of truth, somewhere in the middle, are lost in the heat of making a point or winning an argument. In that context, nuances are hard for people to digest.
"So much of it is that conversations are happening online, it's easy to forget that you're talking to real people. Many of us have a lot more values in common than different," Ruby said. "Empathizing with the other side doesn't mean agreeing with them."
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