7.12.2005

Levels of Vegetarianism

Last February, I was sitting in the Ash Wednesday service at Hope Chapel, quietly contemplating the love of Jesus in the face of my own failings. In the stillness, I felt that the Lord was calling me to give up meat and alcohol for the Lenten season, so I did. Spiritually, it was a significant time - I learned some tough truths about myself, and grew closer to the Lord. In a practical sense, I had the opportunity to crawl inside the skin of a vegetarian for about a month and a half and walk around (and eat) for awhile. I came out of the experience leaner and more energetic than I went into it. This essay is a feeble attempt to classify vegetarians according to their level of dedication to their lifestyle, and is loosely influenced by my experience being one...

The Levels of Vegetarian Scale goes from 1 to 5, and to register on it, you must profess yourself to be a vegetarian (You may go to Mr. Natural, but if you aren't a vegetarian, it means nothing with respect to the Scale). The Scale grades in between the whole number values, so it would be more accurate to characterize it as going from 1.0 to 5.0. For each whole number value (or significant waypoint), I will use practical examples to illustrate what that Level means. Hopefully, in the bargain of it I will paint a picture that will make clear what I'm thinking here...

One last word before I begin: As I am not a vegetarian, I am open to the possibility that I am utterly full of crap, so any feedback from the vegetarian community is especially welcome and encouraged here...

So, without further ado...

Level 1: The Casual Vegetarian Level

I won't spend too much time on this level, because I think it is reasonably self-explanatory. A Casual Vegetarian is a person who claims to be a vegetarian, but is obviously doing it to be fashionable. They will often brag about their vegetarianism, partly to impress those around them, and partly to convince themselves that they actually are vegetarians. The Casual Vegetarian will frequently keep eggs and fish in their diet. Though this makes sense from a health standpoint (Eggs are a good source of protein when eaten in moderation, and fish contains fatty acids which are good for your heart and for PMS), most Casual Vegetarians are not overly concerned about this - they will substitute ice cream for meat if that sounds good to them.

When I went through my season of vegetarianism, I expected that I would end up as a Casual Vegetarian. To my surprise, I actually achieved...

Level 2: The Hummus Level

I would describe the Hummus level this way. Imagine you are walking into a Thundercloud Subs, presented with the many wonderful sandwich options they have there. Roast Beef w/ Provolone Cheese. Turkey. Ham. Egg Salad with Bacon. At the point where, when faced with these option, you say something to the effect of "I'd like the Hummus", you will have achieved Level 2.

This is nothing against hummus. It makes a great appetizer or a healthy snack with crackers or pita bread. When someone considers it a meal, however, they are demonstrating a dedication to vegetarianism that surpasses that of the Casual Vegetarian. They are a Level 2.

As the vegetarian sojourns up the Scale from Hummus, they will start to experiment with products derived from Soy. They may buy some Boca Burgers or start drinking Silk instead of milk (which, by the way, tastes like dishwater, but I digress.). These products are poor, poor substitutes for their animal-derived products they imitate, but the increasingly dedicated vegetarian is willing to be content with them. This way of thinking can only lead to one place...

Level 3: The Mr. Natural Level

I have never been to Mr. Natural. I have probably driven by it a thousand times, driving down South Lamar, but I never worked up the nerve to even slow down and consider going there, even during the time I was a vegetarian. There is something other-worldly and intimidating about it. It scares me. I've heard rumors of what it's like - soy-based foods that look and (I'm skeptical here) taste like real meat items. Everyone I know who has ever gone there (This would be Erica Fry and Tanya Atherton at this point...) thinks it's wonderful. Someday I may go, but I'm going to need moral support when I do.

What intimidates me is this - when someone goes to Mr. Natural, they are making a statement to the effect of, "I don't care if this place doesn't serve meat. I'll eat what they offer, and do it eagerly, because I'm a vegetarian, dammit!" When someone goes into Whole Foods or Central Market, there is at least a possibility that they can cheat and eat meat. At Mr. Natural, you will be a vegetarian, and if you go there, you implicitly identify yourself as a vegetarian, whether you are one or not.

From Level 3 up, the vegetarian grows educated. They learn to cook all kinds of vegetarian dishes, and study the ways that they can gain the proper nutrution from their diet. This isn't just skinny hippy women I'm talking about here either - the beefcake guys from the gym who drink protein shakes and watch themselves do curls all day also fall into this category. Many feel that eating animals is cruel and unusual (or something to this effect), and somewhere around here the genuine conviction that eating meat is wrong takes root to the vegetarian. This could lead them to become a vegan, eschewing all animal products entirely. They become progressively convinced that being a vegetarian is the right way to live, and that if everyone were a vegetarian, the world would be a better place. This brings us to...

Level 4: The Diet for a Small Planet Level

Diet for a Small Planet, a book by Francis Moore Lappe, eloquently makes the argument that a vegetarian diet uses less natural resources and is healthier than the typical omnivorous American diet, and that therefore, if we geared our food production as a planet toward a vegetarian diet, it would help end world hunger. It influenced many in the baby boomer generation to become vegetarians, which gradually resulted in vegetarianism being accepted as a mainstream diet today (at least in Austin). It was the seminal book in the vegetarian movement - if there is a sacred text for vegetarianism, this would be it.

When a vegetarian reaches Level 4, they are well-educated in vegetarianism as a philosophy, and can make an intelligent argument to others that they ought to be vegetarians too. At Level 4.0, they will not be pushy about it - it will make for an interesting dinner conversation with their omnivore companions most of the time. I have generally enjoyed the dialogue I've had with Level 4.0 vegetarians - they are well-informed and generally understanding of my position.

North of 4.0, the vegetarian becomes convinced that, since vegetarianism is the best way to live one's life, the rest of the world must be convinced to become vegetarians. In the low 4's, they argue vigorously with friends and total strangers for the vegetarian viewpoint, sharing all they've learned without solicitation. They post their opinions on bulletin boards, and may even start a website. They grow more and more passionate in their fervor, until they reach Level 4.5 - The Threshhold of Healthiness. Beyond this, they become fundamentalist vegetarians.

Once the Threshhold of Healthiness is breached, their arguments no longer need to be logical - if people disagree with them, they can be shouted down easy enough. They may stand on the sidewalk and pass out vegetarian literature. Somewhere in here the vegetarian pilgrim will join PETA and start protesting (Note: I agree with PETA that cosmetics should not be tested on animals. I disagree in that I eat meat.).

So when does a vegetarian reach the 5.0 Level? If they throw paint on the fur coat of a complete stranger and are convinced that there is nothing wrong about this, I'd say they're pretty close...

There you have it - The Levels of Vegetarianism. After writing this, I realize that this scale could be applied to anyone who professes any philosophy or creed. Golfers. Cyclists. Drinkers of Alcohol. Musicians. Americans. Boston Red Sox fans. Even Buddhists, Scientologists, Muslims, and Christians. If this theory is broadened to "Levels of Commitment", it could be adapted to virtually anything.

As for me, I'm a Level 1.2 Cyclist, a Level 1.5 Golfer, a Level 3.3 Engineer (even with the PE after my name), a Level 4.0 Christian (this is about right, I think), and a Level 4.4 Orange-blooded Longhorn fan (this is down from about 4.97, achieved at the instant that I informed a Colorado fan that "John Elway Sucks." before the 2001 Big 12 Championship, which we would have won if we had started Major, but I digress...).

So have fun with this, and let me know what you think...

2 Comments:

At 3:08 PM, Blogger ellen said...

oh boy...

i am inspired to bop on in to Mr. Natural. Maybe they sell my BumbleBars! (A divine snack of sesame seeds and nuts held together by organic sugar and honey that I can't find anywhere but the Wichita, KS whole foods, which seems impossible since we've got the flagships here, but it's true....)

anyway. my own health food pilgrimage took a direct turn towards soy long before i had interest in vegetarianism. (i'm a half in, half out person, but i'm realizing that i'm more wacky than i thought because the No. 2 concern i have in moving to Tallahassee, FL is whether or not they have a decent health food store.) Is there a level for that?

 
At 11:12 AM, Blogger Laura said...

If you profess yourself to be a carnivore, does that register as a negative number?

 

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