V egetarianism in itself may or may not be considered dieting. Political, ideological, and religious restrictions or prescriptions for food intake fall largely outside of the purview of a "dieting culture." Francis Bacon undertook a self-cure by consuming fruit and vegetables. But it was Thomas Tyron (1634-1703), in his The Way to Wealth, Long Life and Happiness, who first and most dramatically linked Bacon's diet to the original ways of Eve and Adam in Gen. 1: 29. Man could return to paradise, but only if s/he ate no meat. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the Swedish mystic, advocated abstinence based on his theological views. He placed all animals on the level of man:
Animals of every kind have limbs by which they move, organs by which they feel, and viscera by which these are put in motion. These they have in common with man. They have also appetites and affections similar to those natural to man. At birth they have knowledge, corresponding to their affections, in some of which appears something like the spiritual. From these facts it is that altogether natural men assert that living creatures of this kingdom are like them, apart from speech.
(Swedenborg 1951: 132)
Other health mystics followed. William Blake (i757-1827) could write in his Auguries of Innocence (1803) to "Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly, / For the Last Judgement draweth nigh" (Stuart 2006: 232). Such views were a litmus test for an entire generation of temperance and vegetarian thinkers in England and the U.S.A. In 1845, the International Vegetarian Union was founded in the United Kingdom with the American group quickly following in the 1850. What had been conceived of as theological objection to eating flesh soon became defined in terms of diet and health.
Whether or not following a strictly political "vegan" or vegetarian diet might properly be considered "dieting," vegetarianism has played an important role in the history of diets and dieting. Indeed, virtually all of the early vegetarians, such as John Frank Newton
(1770-1828), make arguments for vegetarianism as both preventative (a "general increase in health") as well as treatment for illness and a necessity for longevity (Newton 1897: 46). For him, it is "natural" in that children all love fruit, but many "have refused to eat meat. Some have been made sick with it" (Newton 1897: 35). But it is the claim of a "Perfect Purity . . . the return of Paradise, the re-blending of discordant harmonies, the advent of the kingdom of God. It is the exaltation of the divine, the abasement of the carnal, the final victory of the spirit over the flesh," as a leading nineteenth-century advocate stated, that is at the very core of such beliefs (Hills 1897: 117-18). It has historically been argued to be important to health and continues to be seen as a potential weapon in the war on obesity.
Body purism and the notion that vegetable matter is less corrupting than flesh become part of a cult of hygiene in the course of the nineteenth century. The Prague Jewish writer Franz Kafka complains in 1909 that: "My paternal grandfather was a butcher in a village near Strakonitz; I have to not eat as much meat as he butchered and it gives me something to hold on to; being related means a lot to me" (Kafka 1990: 59). Kafka's "conversion" to vegetarianism is seen by him as a true transformation. "He compared vegetarians with the early Christians, persecuted everywhere, everywhere laughed at, and frequenting dirty haunts. 'What is meant by its nature for the highest and the best, spreads among the lowly people' " (Brod 1963: 74). Kafka sees his eating habits as being linked to who he is, to his sense of self, but also to his marginal world. Kafka's guru Moriz Schnitzer, the non-Jewish health faddist, gave his hygienic, vegetarian regime biblical underpinnings: "Moses led the Jews through the desert so that they might become vegetarians in these forty years" (Karl 1991: 270). Yet, it was notoriously Adolf Hitler who observed that, "One may regret living at a period when it's impossible to form an idea of the shape the world of the future will assume. But there's one thing I can predict to eaters of meat: the world of the future will be vegetarian" (Hitler 2000: 230). It is the "natural" food for the child before they are exposed to meat: "If I offer a child the choice between a pear and a piece of meat, he'll quickly choose the pear. That's his atavistic instinct speaking." It is part of what he is. "When I later gave up eating meat, I immediately began to perspire much less, and within a fortnight to perspire hardly at all. My thirst, too, decreased considerably, and an occasional sip of water was all I required. Vegetarian diet, therefore, has some obvious advantages" (Hitler 2000: 204). Vegetarianism infiltrates every possible political position and ideological turn. It is a means of curing the body and purifying the soul.
In the twentieth century, it has become medicalized, at least on its surface. In their position paper on vegetarian diets, the American Dietetic Association observed that "[v]egetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer" (American Dietetic Association 2003). The growing popularity of vegan and vegetarian restaurants and products, marketed as healthy and "heart smart alternatives," attests to the mainstreaming of vegetarianism within dieting culture. It has even survived the high-protein diet boom as a "healthy lifestyle" and weight-loss strategy. Low-fat diets commonly encourage dieters to experiment with meat-free dishes, try meat substitutes, and eat more vegetables, grains, etc.
Vegetarianism popularly conceptualized as "food rejection" has played its part in a dieting culture that valorizes thinness often at the cost of health. Building on the tradition that defines a vegetarian diet as inherently "healthy," individuals in our contemporary dieting culture can thus use vegetarianism as a form of legitimated food rejection. Research looking at correlations between dieting and eating-disordered behavior and vegetarianism among young people suggests that vegetarianism is increasingly used today as a means of controlling weight. For many young women vegetarians, the choice is at least in part a weight-loss strategy (Gilbody et al. 1999: 90). A survey of 2,000 adolescents in fifty-two South Australian schools found a strong association between vegetarianism and "extreme weight-loss behaviours" (Worsley and Skrzypiec 1997: 402).
An analogy may well be to the children of Orthodox Jews and Muslims, who reject the dietary restrictions of their parents in regard to Kosher or Halal meat, but who find in vegetarianism a socially acceptable way of adhering to food restrictions which still fulfill all of the demands of their parent's religious convictions but carry none of the religious baggage. Indeed, in the vegetarianism literature of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism can be found which damns the ritual slaughter of meat. The overall view was the "Jews were a flesh-eating people" (Salt 1897: 96). The philosopher Arthur
Schopenhauer, saw in the nineteenth century the Jews' refusal to use "humane" methods of slaughter such as "chloroform" a sign of their "unnatural separation" of human beings from the animal world that he attributed to the spirit of Judaism (Schopenhauer 1973: 2: 375). Today, however, with advances in the use of soy products as meat substitutes and a proliferation of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks and recipes, you can have your (vegetarian) cake and eat it too.
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