A Brief Recent History of U.S. Vegetarianism

It has been said that, "Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come." Based on the tremendous, almost incredible, progress that has recently been made in many aspects of the vegetarian movement, it can easily be said that its time has come. This article will discuss many of the important recent events and the (often unsung) heroes who contributed to them. Inadvertently, but inevitably, we will omit people and groups who deserve much credit, and we apologize in advance to them.

(Most of this material was originally written in 1993, so it may not be completely up to date in all aspects.)


In the mid 1970`s the vegetarian movement was only a pale shadow of what it is today; tremendous changes have occurred since that time. In 1975, the bi-annual World Vegetarian Congress was held in Orono, Maine. It proved to be a turning point, because for the first time in the United States, almost 1500 vegetarians got together and began to form alliances.

Paul Obis started publishing Vegetarian Times in 1974. He began by distributing 300 copies of a 4-page typewritten free handout at Chicago-area health food stores. From his original $17 investment the magazine has steadily grown until today its circulation is about 350,000. Their special "Sweet 16 Issue" (December, 1990; Issue 160) gives many details about vegetarian events and personalities.

At the conference at Orono, Victoria Moran, a vegetarian since 1969 and a contributor of articles to publications such as Well Being and Vegetarian World, met Paul Obis, who asked her to write for Vegetarian Times . Since then Ms. Moran has been contributing articles to that publication and other vegetarian and animal rights publications. Later she became a vegan, and wrote a comprehensive book on veganism, Compassion - The Ultimate Ethic (1985) She frequently speaks on various aspects of this diet, and she recently wrote The Love Powered Diet - When Willpower Isn`t Enough (1992) to show people how to move toward a healthier way of eating.


A book that was extremely influential in promoting the animal-rights cause was Animal Liberation, by philosopher Peter Singer (1975). Updated in 1990, it presented a scholarly, yet graphic, condemnation of factory farming and medical research. It has had a great influence in persuading many readers to reconsider their casual acceptance of meat eating and the abuse of animals.

The vegetarian cause was furthered from the early 1970s by a number of pioneering books. These include Eating For Life by Nat Altman (1973), Food Reform: Our Desperate Need by Robin Hur (1973), The Vegetarian Alternative by Vic Sussman (1978), Vegetarianism: A Way of Life by Dudley Giehl (1979), and A Vegetarian Sourcebook by Keith Akers (1983). Each of these books helped make people aware of the many benefits of vegetarian diets, in such areas as health, the environment, conservation of resources, helping hungry people, and humane treatment of animals.

Perhaps the most influential book that helped move many people (including the author of this article) to vegetarianism was the popular Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe (1971). While it did not directly promote vegetarianism, it made many people aware that raising animals for food was extremely wasteful of land, grain, water, energy, and other resources, at a time when millions of people were dying annually due to hunger and its effects. Her book also introduced the concept of protein complementing, an approach she initially thought necessary for getting adequate protein. This theory has since been discredited, and Ms. Lappe abandoned it in the 10th anniversary revised edition of her book. Her research led her to become an activist for helping the hungry; along with Joseph Collins, she started the Institute for Food and Development Policy and wrote Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity (1977), a comprehensive analysis of causes of world hunger and approaches to alleviating it. Under their direction, the Institute has produced many books and other educational material that have helped people better understand food and development issues.

A recent extremely influential and popular book is Diet for a New America (1987), by John Robbins. While the book is well written and documented, perhaps its impact is largely due to the fact that Robbins, the only son of Irving Robbins, a founder and chief executive of the Baskin and Robbins ice cream empire, rejected a life of wealth and comfort in order to follow "his higher dream". Rather than perhaps discovering one more ice cream flavor, Robbins gave up an extremely affluent lifestyle, which included a swimming pool in the shape of an ice cream cone in his backyard, to devote his life to educating people about a diet that would result in healthier individuals and a healthier planet. He established a group, EarthSave, to help educate people on the benefits of vegetarianism. He has appeared on a number of popular television shows, including Donahue and Geraldo . His later book, May all Be Fed: Diet for a New World (1992), addresses world hunger and the spiritual side of food, and promises to be another trendsetter. His most recent book addresses the American health-care industry, and why it focuses on cure of disease rather than prevention.

Following in the footsteps of Diet for a Small Planet and Diet for a New America is another very important book, Beyond Beef (1992), by technology-author, Jeremy Rifkin. In devastating detail, it chronicles the tremendous health, environmental, and economic problems associated with the raising and consumption of beef. Rifkin also started a "Beyond Beef" coalition of environmental, nutrition, and anti-hunger groups in the United States and other countries, that is dedicated to educating people with the goal of reducing beef consumption by 50% in 10 years.

In 1997, Eric Marcus wrote a book, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating which cogently summarizes the case for veganism. He has also written some cogent articles related to veganism and is currently (February, 1998) planning a major speaking tour of the United States to promote veganism. Another book that promises to also have a major impact is Slaughterhouse, by Gail A. Eisnitz (1997).


Many vegetarian groups have been extremely important in furthering the vegetarian cause. Among the more important are the following:

1. The American Vegan Society (AVS), founded by Jay and Freya Dinshah in the early 1970s, is one of the oldest existing American vegetarian societies, excluding religious institutions. Since its inception, it has provided background information and support to many local vegetarian and vegan groups throughout the country. It publishes a periodic magazine, Ahimsa, which keeps its member abreast of vegan thought and events.

2. The North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS), an offspring of the AVS, pushes the vegetarian cause through publications, a quarterly Vegetarian Voice magazine, and an annual Vegetarian Summerfest, a gathering which attracts many outstanding vegetarian thinkers and speakers to make presentations. Many local vegetarian groups are affiliated with the Society. Among its dedicated leaders are Jennie Collura, president and editor of the Vegetarian Voice, and Brian Graff, vice president and Summerfest coordinator.

3. The Vegetarian Resource Group, founded by Charles Stahler and Debra Wasserman, started in 1982 as the Baltimore Vegetarians. The group has been rapidly expanding and becoming more influential recently. They publish The Vegetarian Journal 6 times a year and provide a great deal of material and books on nutrition and other vegetarian issues. Among their many publications are Simply Vegan (1991), I Love Animals and Broccoli (for children), Meatless Meals for Working People (1990), and Conveniently Vegan (1997).

4. The Vegetarian Union of North America (VUNA), a recently formed group, attempts to unite vegetarian groups throughout all of North America in one group. They publish a periodic newsletter for individual and group members. Among their founding members is Keith Akers, author of Vegetarian Sourcebook .

5. Among the many young vegetarian activists is Pamela Teisler, who started the VivaVegie Society as a means to more actively advocate vegetarianism. She leads a group of fellow activists to populated areas wearing an outfit that says, "Ask me why I`m a Vegetarian", where they hand out a flyer, "101 Reasons Why I`m a Vegetarian", which she compiled based on facts in Diet for a New America by John Robbins and other sources. Her 1998 version is soon to be published.


There have been a number of medical discoveries and publications that have had a positive impact on vegetarianism:

1. T. Colin Campbell, M. D. and others conducted a huge study of eating habits in various areas in China, a project so comprehensive and significant that it was described by New York Times` nutrition writer Jane Brody as the "grand prix of epidemiology". It showed strong links between many health problems and high-fat, high-protein diets.

2. Dean Ornish, M. D. has done research that showed that severe heart problems that normally are treated by drugs and surgery can be reversed through a very low-fat diet, exercise, meditation, and stress reduction. In contrast, people in his control group, who followed the recommendations of the American heart association - no red meat, but chicken (without the skin) and fish instead, and up to 30 percent of calories from fat - did not improve; some stayed about the same, but most saw a worsening of their heart- related problems. His findings have been presented at conferences of the American Medical Association and have been published in his book, Dr. Dean Ornish`s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (1990). His pioneering work with vegetarianism and heart disease is already influencing the medical mainstream. His method is being used at six hospitals in the United States, and Mutual of Omaha, a major provider of health insurance, reimburses policy holders who use the Ornish approach under supervision. His dietary approach proved to also be valuable for weight reduction, and he has written a book on this, with many recipes and dietary suggestions.

3. Neal Barnard, M. D., a psychiatrist, started a group, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which advocates medicine based on nutritious vegetarian diets and other positive life style changes, rather than reliance on animal experimentation and the use of drugs and surgery. His approach is given in his book, The Power of Your Plate (1990), in which he presents the views of many modern doctors who have practiced wholistic medicine. To counter the negative effects of the old "Basic Four Food Groups", with its heavy reliance on animal products, Dr. Barnard presented the "New Four Food Groups", which puts fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes at the center of the American diet. Dr. Barnard has recently written other nutrition books, including one on weight reduction, based on the use of the "New four food groups".

4. Among the more active modern doctors in promoting vegetarianism through talks, articles, and books is Michael Klaper, M. D. He is a very popular speaker at the annual Summerfest of the North American Vegetarian Society and other vegetarian conferences. He has written two books, Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple ( 1987) and Pregnancy, Birth and the Vegan Diet (also 1987). He has recently been speaking out on environmental threats related to animal agriculture. He is an advisor to several vegetarian groups on health and environmental issues.

5. Another activist and prolific vegetarian writer and speaker is John McDougall, M. D., who also speaks frequently at conferences and contributes articles to vegetarian and general publications. Among his books are The McDougall Plan (1983), written with his wife, Mary, and McDougall`s Medicine: A Challenging Second Opinion (1985), which show how vegetarian diets are the best way to be healthy. He has established a "McDougall Program" at St. Helena Hospital and Health center in Dear Park, California, where residents spend 12 days learning how to change to healthier lifestyles. He also publishes a newsletter and has produced several videos to help spread his nutritional findings.

6. In 1988, the American Dietetic Association came out with a position paper on vegetarianism, authored primarily by Suzanne Havala, R. D, a nutrition educator who has established a vegetarian dietitian group within the Association. For the first time, this respected national nutrition group indicated the nutritional advantages of vegetarian diets. In 1997, they came out with an even stronger statement on vegetarianism which discussed how vegetarian diets reduce the risk of several degenerative diseases.

7. One of the pioneers of vegetarian nutrition is George Eiseman who founded "Vegedine", an organization of vegetarian dieticians. He has published several books on the subject, frequently lectures at conferences, and has started a correspondence course on vegetarian nutrition.

Many other nutrition, health, and recipe books also played a major role in the advancement of vegetarianism. Probably most important was Fit for Life, by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond (1985). While not exclusively vegetarian (in order to reach the widest possible audience, including meat-eaters), this best-selling book (about 3.5 million copies sold) brought their primarily vegetarian message to unprecedented numbers of people worldwide. Their second book, Fit for Life II: Living Health (1987) and Marilyn Diamond`s cookbook, The American Vegetarian Cookbook (1991) are strictly vegetarian and continue to promote natural-foods diets. Harvey Diamond`s recent book, Your Heart - Your Planet (1990), documents that meat-centered diets are harmful to our planet`s health, as well as that of individuals.

Other diet-based books that have had great significance include: The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (1982) by Mollie Katzen, and The New Laurel`s Kitchen: A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition by Laurel Robertson (1986). These and other recipe books are discussed in the Bibliography.


Progress in the vegetarian movement has been paralleled by progress in the animal-rights movement. Two of the pioneer activists are Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk. They founded PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in 1980. It has since become the most prominent animal-rights group, and has been associated with aggressive, innovative events that keep animal issues in the public`s attention. Among its many activities was exposing the inhumane treatment of monkeys in a research lab in Silver Springs, an event that helped make the public question the use of animals in medical research. The group has many educational programs and publications; Newkirk`s book, Save the Animals: 101 Easy Things You Can Do (Warner Books, 1990) gives practical suggestions, including adopting a vegetarian diet.

Among the many more recent books that have helped make people aware of the brutal ways in which animals are treated are Animal Factories (1990) by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, and The Case For Animal Rights (1983) and The Struggle for Animal Rights (1987) by philosophy professor, Tom Regan. Regan has become one of the strongest and most eloquent advocates for animal rights. Initially uninvolved, his life was changed when his pet dog was killed by a car and he read the non-violence writings of Gandhi and learned that "a fork can be a weapon of violence".

Alex Hershaft, a holocaust survivor, decided to become involved in animal rights after seeing a ceremony involving the sacrifice of an animal carried out by a sect in Israel. He formed FARM, Farm Animals Reform Movement, to help make people aware of the plight of animals. Under his dedicated direction, FARM has organized and carried out a number of annual consciousness raising events, including "The Great American Meatout", modeled after the American Cancer Society`s "Great American Smokeout", World Farm Animal Day on October 2, the birth date of Mahatma Gandhi, a "Ban Veal Campaign", and several animal rights' conferences.

A number of fine animal-rights publications have kept activists up-to-date on recent ideas and events. Perhaps the first comprehensive one was Agenda, a quarterly publication, started and edited by Jim Mason, in 1979, to link the many animal rights groups that were starting at that time. Mason, co-author of Animal Factories (1980; updated edition, 1990) has been one of the most active supporters of animal-rights. In 1986, Agenda merged with the Animal Rights Network News to become The Animals` Agenda, an expanded magazine that is published 10 times a year. Looking at a copy of one of these well written and edited publications, one is amazed at the changes that have occurred since Jim Mason started Agenda as a limited handout in 1979.


There has been much activity in religious communities, especially in the last decade, that have had great influence in furthering the vegetarian movement:

1. When my book, Judaism and Vegetarianism was first published in 1982, I felt that a case for Christian vegetarianism could relatively easily be built on it. However, when I spoke to some Christian vegetarian activists about this, they responded that there just wasn`t a strong enough case that could be based on the Christian tradition. Since then, however, there has been a virtual explosion of material relating Christianity to vegetarianism and animal rights.

Among the many recent publications are Christianity and the Rights of Animals (1987) by Reverend Andrew Linzey, and Animals and Christianity - A Book of Readings (1988) edited by Rev. Linzey and Tom Regan, and Love the Animals (Meditations and Prayers) (1989), also edited by Rev. Linzey and Tom Regan. 2. The International Jewish Vegetarian Society was established in London in 1965 by Philip Pick. He edited a quarterly publication, the Jewish Vegetarian , until his death in 1990. Many local Jewish vegetarian societies have been established and become affiliated with the International society. Eva and Israel Mossman coordinate the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and edit their quarterly newsletter . The group has many American chapters and is led by its president, Rabbi Noach Valley. A course on "Judaism and Vegetarianism" was taught by activist Jonathan Wolf at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York for many years. Two important books that present the case for vegetarianism based on Jewish teachings are Vegetarianism and the Jewish Tradition (1982) by Professor Louis Berman and Judaism and Vegetarianism (2nd edition, 1988) by this author. Roberta Kalechofsky, founder of Jews for Animal Rights, established Micah Publications to publish books on Jewish views on vegetarianism and animal issues. Among the books she has authored or edited are Rabbis and Vegetarianism (1995), Judaism and Animal Rights (1992) and Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (1985). Her book, Vegetarian Judaism, is scheduled for publication in 1998.

3. Other religions have also seen recent vegetarian activities and publications. A Buddhist case for becoming vegetarian, To Cherish all Life ,was authored by Philip Kapleau, a Buddhist monk and Zen master (Roshi) for over 30 years. Other religioms that have had a positive impact on the vegetarian movement include the Jains, Hare Krishna, and the Seventh Day Adventists. The Adventists pioneered in the production of several innovative vegetarian meat substitutes that are still available today.

4. Two books that provide valuable, comprehensive overviews of religious views and activities related to vegetarianism are Replenish the Earth (1991) by Lewis Regenstein and Food for the Spirit (1986), by Steve Rosen.


The vegetarian cause has also been aided by a number of vegetarian celebrity activists. Perhaps the first celebrity to actively promote the vegetarian cause was comedian, Dick Gregory. He was raised on a very unhealthy, heavily meat-centered diet and weighed as much as 340 pounds before meeting a nutritionist who changed his life. He now advocates health and nutrition, primarily through eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. In support of a number of causes, including human rights, he has conducted extensive public fasts and even jogged across the country. His book, Dick Gregory`s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin` with Mother Nature (1973), uses humor to promote healthy eating. Recently, Gregory has become involved in helping people with serious overweight problems, and has developed and promoted the Bahamian Diet, a dairy-free, chemical-free diet aid.

Another vegetarian celebrity activist, Casey Casem, is best known as the host of "American Top 40" and more recently "Casey`s Top 40". He actively advocates the vegetarian cause and has turned down many lucrative contracts for ads for products that exploit animals. He believes that people should stop eating animals for moral, ecological, and nutritional reasons.

An activist vegetarian couple is Paul McCartney, the former Beatle, and his wife Linda. They are vegetarians primarily due to their commitment to animal rights. Paul dedicated a world tour in September, 1989 to helping the environmental cause. Linda has written a book, Linda McCartney`s Home Cooking: Quick, Easy and Economical Vegetarian Dishes for Today (1990), which has about 50 recipes for familiar foods using "fake meats" made of textured vegetable protein.

Among the many other recent vegetarian celebrities are Meredith Baxter, Candice Bergan, Brigid Brophy, Ellen Burstyn, Cesar Chevez, Patti (Reagan) Davis, Sandy Dennis, George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Steven Jobs (former chairperson of Apple Computer and current head of Next, Inc.), Jeff Juliano (former "Ronald McDonald"), K. D. Lang, Madonna, Hayley Mills, Gary Null, Phylicia Rashad, Fred "Mister" Rogers, William Shatner, Ally Sheedy, Cicely Tyson, Lindsay Wagner, Alice Walker, Dennis Weaver, and Gretchen Wyler. William Shatner is the narrator of an influential early short film, "Vegetarian World", which later became available as a VHS video.

Other recent factors that have also had an impact on the modern increased interest in vegetarianism include mainstream films, such as Academy Award nominee, "Babe", vegetarian videos, such as "Diet for a New America", that have been widely viewed, the rapid increase in health food stores and vegetarian restaurants, and vegetarian conferences and expositions, including the well attended "Whole Life Expos".

The above is an all-too-brief tribute (in terms of the credit deserved) of some of the many often relatively unsung heroes that have helped make the modern vegetarian movement as dynamic as it is today. What the future holds, of course nobody knows, but based on recent history, it is probable that these people and groups and others will continue to be active to further the vegetarian cause. I would appreciate information about omissions in the above list, and more recent material that should be added.

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