An outdoor farmers’ market. People mill around, casually sauntering from stand to stand to view the fresh produce. The entire area glows with vibrant hues emitted from the overflowing baskets of lettuce, peppers, peaches and cherries — not a single piece of meat in sight. Vegetarians and healthy eaters alike pop a fresh strawberry into their mouths or purchase the lovely organic food. The typical American household at dinner. Notice the slab of meat on the plate? Notice how the children pay no thought to what they might be eating? The cost of producing this single cut of meat and the possible health consequences from eating it are enough to make most people shudder. Is this the reason why more Americans are choosing to switch to a vegetarian lifestyle?Is the vegetarian diet actually picking up steam amongst the widespread, meat-consuming American diet? According to Statistic Brain, a trusted research provider to many prestigious news corporations (i.e. Forbes, CNN, ABC News, The New York Times, and Oxford University Press), vegetarianism is now on the rise, and 22.8 million Americans are choosing to follow a “vegetarian-inclined diet” (“Vegetarian Statistics”). Are there reasons this lifestyle is becoming a trend in present-day times when past generations brushed it off as a fad? As a matter of fact, most people are currently embodying a vegetarian lifestyle for a variety of reasons: positively influencing personal health, ethics, and avoiding excessively wasted environmental resources.WHAT IS VEGETARIANISM?What exactly is vegetarianism? Is it a bizarre “fad diet trend” that promises twenty pounds of weight loss in only twenty days? Is it a lifestyle only followed by those pot-smoking hippies? The answer to these questions: no. Nowadays, with so many labels and titles, it becomes difficult to determine exactly what defines a person’s eating habits. However, the Vegetarian Society, a registered charity devoted to promoting and educating the public about vegetarianism, defines a vegetarian as, “. . . a person who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, fungi, algae, yeast, and/or some other non-animal-based foods (e.g. salt) with, or without, dairy products, honey, and/or eggs” (“What is a vegetarian?”). Vegetarianism has become a lifestyle devoted to reducing the intake of animal products such as meat, fish, or poultry and instead relying on other foods for nutritional necessities (Driscoll and Griswold). However, there are still many subcategories that fall under vegetarianism: Lacto-ovo-vegetarians are able to consume dairy and egg products, Lacto-vegetarians can eat dairy but shy away from eggs, and Ovo-vegetarians consume eggs but not dairy (“What is a vegetarian?”). The whole purpose of vegetarianism has evolved to represent replacing animal products — for various reasons — with more natural and planet-healthy options.WHO IS CHOOSING THIS DIET? As the number of Americans who are identifying with a vegetarian lifestyle continues to increase, it has become a very curious thing to see exactly who is choosing this diet. Currently, the demographic of vegetarians is split evenly amongst men and women — with only a slight percentage more being women. However, it becomes very interesting to notice the age of most vegetarians; 42% of the vegetarian population is actually in the age group of 18-34. The remainder of the population is divided up with 40.7% being within the ages of 35-54 and the last 17.4% in the age group over 55 (“Vegetarian Statistics”). Although vegetarian diets were once considered taboo amongst many Americans, it is becoming apparent that an increasing amount of people are choosing this diet for specific reasons. FOR HEALTH REASONS?The most cited reason for being a vegetarian is to improve overall health. On a survey conducted by Statistic Brain, 53% of the vegetarians polled stated that the main reason for their transition was to improve health (“Vegetarian Statistics”). Recent research suggests that there are many benefits of a plant-based diet — or vegetarian diet — including ways of maintaining an ideal weight, protecting the aging brain, reducing risk of disease, and obtaining a longer life expectancy due to healthier daily habits.Maintaining an ideal body weight is one of the largest reasons to turn vegetarian. On a vegetarian diet, it is quite easy to consume fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in abundance while avoiding unhealthy fats from meats. Eating a diet of plants is a very large contributor of weight loss, and it allows people following this lifestyle to reduce muscle fat and increase their metabolism. Overtime this eating habit will lead to a healthy amount of weight loss. As Sharon Palmer, a nutrition expert in plant-based diets and author of The Plant Powered Diet, stated that in a very large study of nearly 38,000 healthy men and women, the average body mass index of vegetarians was significantly lower than the average of meat eaters (Palmer). Consuming less saturated fat, more fruits and vegetables, and higher levels of fiber contribute to keeping the plant-based eaters’ weight down. Since most meals are based around vegetables and healthy legumes, this healthy diet is proven to help many vegetarians maintain an ideal weight.Another reason many people choose to become vegetarian is to slow the decline of their aging brain. Evidence is now starting to propose that chronic inflammation and oxidative stress lead to a decline in the brain capacity which is often a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Both of these stressors are caused by unhealthy lifestyles that allow the inflammation process (the healing process against infection and injury) to not shut down. However, high-antioxidant plant foods such as berries and nuts can subdue these symptoms (Palmer). Recent research presented at the 2015 conference of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology followed the diets and cognitive abilities of 950 adults with the average age of 81 for five years. The most interesting finding was that those who ate more green, leafy vegetables had a slower rate of decline in their cognitive abilities as they aged (“More Green, Less Red”). Although most of this research is still in the preliminary stages, it is such a drastic change in the thinking about diets. When consuming one to two daily servings of vegetables can promise the cognitive function of a person eleven years younger than those who consume none, it becomes very apparent why vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular in every age generation (“More Green, Less Red”).Reducing the risk of disease is one of the more significant reasons to turn away meat. A plant-based diet can reduce the likes of heart disease, diabetes, colon disease, and cancer. Since this diet helps to lower inflammation, oxidative stress, blood pressure, and bad cholesterol level, heart diseases are significantly less likely to occur (Palmer). The Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the risk of hospitalization or death due to a heart disease was 32% lower in vegetarians than regular meat-eaters (“More Green, Less Red”). Another disease that most of the United States will eventually fall ill to is diabetes. Eating red and processed meat clogs the cells in the human body where sugars are supposed to enter. Overtime, the fat and sugar build up and cause an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (Palmer). One of the final diseases that vegetarianism reduces the risk of is cancer. The American Institute of Cancer Research has long stated that consuming vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans as two-thirds of a meal helps protect against cancer:Vegetables and fruits have been linked to protection against a range of cancers, including mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, lung, pancreas, and prostate. Plant foods high in fibers, such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits, appear to prevent digestive cancers by speeding up the gut transit time — the amount of time it takes foods to move through your digestive system (Palmer).The foods consume by vegetarians are typically very high in fiber. This allows the food to move through the body at a much faster rate than meat would. Since vegetables sit inside the digestive tract for a shorter time, there is less likely chance of developing digestive cancers or other cancers of a similar nature. Avoidance of the typical diagnosed diseases in the United States is a fact-proven reason why many people choose to transition from eating meat.As a result of being less likely to die from complications due to these health issues, vegetarians are often stated to be healthier overall and to live longer than their meat-consuming counterparts. The China Study, the largest study ever conducted in rural China on diet and its effect on well-being, gave a very concise statement about the benefits of a plant-based diet on human health: plant-based diets have a very strong effect on these diseases, and they are linked to lower blood cholesterol, lower breast cancer rates, lower risk of cancers of the digestive tract, and result in a healthy weight that allows people to develop strong muscles (Campbell and Campbell II 94-95). Turning away from meat seems like a very instinctual thing to do after uncovering information about its effect on the body; it is natural to see why an increasing number are becoming vegetarian in order to establish better and healthier eating habits.FOR ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS?The second most cited reason people choose to become vegetarian, according to Statistic Brain, is due to environmental concerns (“Vegetarian Statistics”). As of recently, news of the environmental effects of the meat industry came to light and caused a global uproar. Many vegetarians and vegans alike have been advocating for a change in this horrific industry; they are stating that meat production is the primary cause of global warming, wastes resources, wastes and pollutes water, and destroys the rainforests.The production of meat is the primary consumer cause of global warming. Every year, an increasing amount of cattle, pigs, and other animals are raised to accommodate for the rising demand of meat in the typical American diet. According to the Humane Society who sourced their information from the United States Department of Agriculture, in the year of 2016 the number of animals raised and slaughtered in the United States reached a staggering 4.6 billion (“Farm Animal Statistics: Slaughter Totals”). The excessive number of animals being raised is producing large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide production all of which contribute to the depletion of the ozone layers (Hamilton 45). The United Nations actually announced that one of the top three contributors to environmental pollution and degradation is livestock farming (Driscoll and Griswold). If there was a smaller demand in the quantity of meat produced every year, less livestock would have to be raised, and the excess production of harmful gases would cease. The hope of many vegetarians, when turning to this diet, is to have an impact in the reduction of meat produced every year which will better impact the environment.Another environmental reason that causes a pull towards the vegetarian diet is due to the large amounts of resources wasted such as grain, water, and forests. Many studies have been done over the years to indicate the large environmental impact of consuming meat. The generic conclusion for the majority of these has been that feeding meat, dairy, and egg producing animals requires growing ten times as many crops as the population could need for other plant foods (Hamilton 45-46). According to the fact base, One Green Planet, one the largest increasing independent publishing platforms in food sustainability and green space, “70% of the grain grown is fed to animals on feedlots, and the world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people” (“Facts on Animal Farming and the Environment”). The meat industry is requiring so much of the crops produced every year just to feed their animals. In addition, the industry also uses a large amount of surface of the planet (30%), and at the same time much of the forestland is being cut down for agricultural use (Hamilton 46-47). In an attempt to have a smaller footprint on the environment, many people are switching to a vegetarian diet and condoning the use of meat. Once the statistics about the negative environmental effects came to light, many people were convinced that vegetarianism was a step in the right direction for the environment.FOR ETHICAL REASONS?Another highly popular reason that many people choose a vegetarian diet is to combat the horrors that occur in the meat industry. Many vegetarians believe that eating meat supports the cruelty that occurs within this industry. As a way to retaliate against these inhumane practices, taking up a vegetarian diet is one of the simplest and effectives ways to combat this.In order to keep up with the high demand for meat and additional products, the industry relies on intensively-raised animal agriculture which is also called factory farming (“Factory Farms”). For many years this type of farming has been justified solely on the fact that it provides cheap food in exchange for large profits. However, this comes at a huge cost to animals; instead of being regarded as individuals with basic needs, animals are treated as production units and often referred to as only “meat”. The goal of many of these factory farms is to produce the greatest number of animals in the shortest amount of time, within the smallest possible space, and with the least amount of food. From birth, animals are engineered for an abnormally rapid weight gain, fed unnatural corn-based diets that cause disorders and damage, and injected with antibiotics and growth hormones on a daily basis. For many raised species, the males do not serve as important of a role in the industry as do the females. Instead of being used for eggs or milk, males are slaughtered inhumanely either right after birth or they are raised to be slaughtered for beef. The females, on the other hand, are routinely put through high levels of stress on a daily basis to increase their production, but after they fail to produce any more, they will also be slaughtered like their male counterpart (Brown).The treatment of these confined animals is also a major concern for many vegetarians. Not only are the animals packed into small crates in windowless rooms, oftentimes the animals will be denied fresh air, sunshine, and pasture for the remainder of their life. To reduce the number of fights and injuries as a result of this overcrowding, many of these animals are routinely mutilated. Standard procedures that are legal include the chopping or burning off of beaks, horns, and tails. These are typical procedures that occur every single day in the United States, and as a result of this, billions of animals suffer immensely before ending their short, sad, and unnatural lives in slaughter (Brown).Many vegetarians are against these inhumane practices; they view the happenings in the meat industry as completely unacceptable. Shawn Camp, the co-owner and vegan of the Iowa Farm Sanctuary, a dedicated sanctuary devoted to rescuing animals and allowing them to live out the remainder of their lives in peace, stated that one of the reasons she chose to turn to a vegan diet was due to the suffering of animals. She declared that, “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I knew I was contributing to their incredible suffering. Many people say they treat their farm animals like family . . . but the animals are ultimately brought into this world to be killed.” In order actively try to discourage these inhumane practices, vegetarians choose to take the rights of animals into consideration and to fight back against the industries by not consuming meat. THE BEST, HEALTHIEST, AND MOST ETHICAL WAY TO EAT?Vegetarianism is a healthy, environmentally friendly, and ethical way to eat; eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a hamburger allows the earth to save 280 gallons of water, 2.5 pounds of carbon, and 50 square feet of land (Driscoll and Griswold). By slowly eliminating meat from a diet and replacing it with healthy vegetables and fruits, overall health will increase dramatically. An interview with a registered Education Dietician at the Pella Regional Hospital, Cathy Pollock, revealed that reducing the intake of meat is quite important. Mrs. Pollock went on to state, “Cutting back on the red meat — beef and pork — is what I recommend to most of my patients wanting to follow a vegetarian diet. I believe that people do tend to eat too much meat and unhealthy saturated fats. Even just one meal a week with a different protein source other than meat (such as vegetables) tends to be great for the body.” Not only will this allow the body a different protein source than meat, this will encourage the intake of plant-based food. Vegetarianism is one of the best, healthiest, and most environmentally friendly ways of eating. CONCLUSIONReasons to change to a vegetarian diet can range from anything such as environmental or health concerns to worries about the ethical approach of meat production. Although much of this information has been hidden for years from the public eye, it is recently coming to light and causing a public outroar. Now many people from all different age groups are casting a skeptical eye at the steak or pork chop that sits atop their plate at the dinner table. What was the real cost of that slice of meat, and what will it cost you?