Vegetarianism isn’t a new diet craze, and it’s certainly not a passing fad.

It’s an enduring lifestyle choice rooted in ancient Indian and ancient Greek civilizations. Since that time, vegetarianism has come a long way – but not without its challenges and transformations. As with love, war, and politics, it’s important to understand your history to have a clear vision of where you’re headed.

Origins of Vegetarianism

origins-vegetarianismAccording to Colin Spencer, author of The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism, the earliest recorded practices of vegetarianism were associated with nonviolence towards animals in India, southern Italy and Greece. Religious groups and philosophers were the first supporters of vegetarianism, and many medieval European monks were pescetarians for aesthetic reasons. Pure vegetarianism reemerged during the Renaissance and became widespread practice during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Abstention from meat has historically been central to Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Brahmanism, Zoroasterianism, and Jainism (food for thought: according to my research, it is quite possible the Buddha was not a vegetarian). Ancient verses in the Upanishads and the Rig Veda , the most sacred ancient Hindu text, support vegetarianism because the practice respects all life forms on earth. As Buddhist emperor Ashoka, wrote, “husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another.”

Famous Vegetarians in History

  • Pythagoras, the Greek Philosopher
  • Asoka, Indian king who converted to Buddhism and created a vegetarian kingdom
  • Ashoka, Buddhist emperor from 304 BD to 232 BC
  • St. David, Christian Patron Saint of Wales
  • Alexander Pope, Renaissance era poet
  • Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, 19th century Christian preacher
  • Gustav Struve, 19th century German politician, publicist, and revolutionary

Vegetarianism in America

As Donna Maurer wrote in her publication, Vegetarian: Movement or Moment: Promoting A Lifestyle for Cult Change, “People typically view vegetarianism as a personal habit or food choice, even though organizations in North America have been promoting vegetarianism as a movement since the 1850s.”

Vegetarianism found its way to America by way of the Christian church. In the 1800s, Reverend William Metcalfe of the Bible Christian Church preached about vegetarianism and pacifism.

He and Sylvester Graham (who invented Graham crackers) were among the founders of the American Vegetarian Society in 1850. And as Karen and Michael Iacobbo point out in their book, Vegetarian America, A History, one of the founders of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Ellen G. White, became a vegetarian advocate and the church has promoted a meatless diet ever since.

As Eastern influences began to permeate Western society, vegetarianism appealed to the 1960s counterculture in America. The 1970s brought legitimacy to vegetarianism, as serious academic attention turned to the ethical treatment of animals. Undoubtedly, Peter Singer’s 1975 book, Animal Liberation, which exposed animal experimentation and the ills of factory farming, had something to do with it.

Environmental conservation became front-page news in the 1980s and 1990s, and vegetarianism was rightfully perceived as part of a sustainable solution. During this time and in the wake of the obesity crisis, Americans also began paying closer attention to their personal health and looked to vegetarianism as a viable alternative to prevent disease and live longer.

Health v. Spirituality

Author, J.C. Whorton, published an article titled, “Historical Development of Vegetarianism” in the the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that examines the reasons that people decided to avoid meat in different ages. Prior to the 19th century, people chose to avoid animal foods for more and metaphysical reasons. During the classical antiquity in Greece, “vegetarian diet” translated into a phrase that meant “abstinence from beings with a soul.”

But as Whorton points out, people began considering considering vegetarianism for improved health in the early 1800s, as science ascended to a position of cultural authority. But nonetheless, moral convictions shaped theories of nutritional superiority, making popular vegetarian spokesmen John Harvey Kellog and Sylvester Graham appear as dietary fanatics to some people.

Although spirituality is not a prerequisite for modern vegetarianism, many vegetarians experience a heightened sense of consciousness while paying closer attention to their food choices. These are some of the common spiritual benefits that vegetarians experience:

  • Sense of worldly peacefulness
  • Heightened compassion towards people and animals
  • Reduced feelings of guilt
  • Less toxic energy in the body
  • Elevated levels of perception

Popular Modern Reasons to Choose Vegetarianism

  • Personal health
  • Disease prevention
  • Moral conviction
  • Animal rights
  • Athletic performance
  • Economic advantage
  • Environmental preservation
  • Religious beliefs

Vegetarianism Gender Bias

Although little is known about vegetarian gender bias in ancient culture, women are much more likely to choose vegetarianism in today’s society.

Psychology Today magazine suggests that evolutionary history might have something to do with the gender bias. Throughout evolutionary history, men hunted meat and women gathered plant food. According to the magazine’s survey, women are 60% more likely to become vegetarians (3.33% v. 2.07%).

A “Vegetarianism in America” study published by the Vegetarian Times found that 59% of vegetarians were female, compared to 41% that were male, and that the 18-to-34-year-old demographic was most inclined to try meatless diets.

The jury is still out as to why traditional male culture opts against plant-based diets. More research is needed to determine whether this gender bias is a result of genetic differences in food cravings, patriarchal traditions, masculine perceptions, aesthetic aspirations, or something entirely different.


Vegetarianism holds a complex, multi-faceted place in history for men, women, Americans, and citizens of the world. As University of Washington professor, J.C. Whorton pointed out, “since vegetarianism is still often selected for moral or other nonscientific reasons, nutritional education of vegetarians remains an essential activity.”

For health, moral, religious, and economical reasons, vegetarianism has sustained populations for thousands of years. Considering the growing population and the declining degrees health around the world, vegetarianism is a personal choice that can make a global impact.

As author and North American Vegetarian Society advisor, Rynn Berry put it, “Regardless of the choices you make in your diet, the more the dots are connected between health, compassion and ecology, the more nourishing your diet will become for your mind and your body.”