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Doctor’s Orders: Don’t Eat the Meat

If you’re a vegetarian trying to proselytize, it's worth studying a short history of meatless medicine.


Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do The GOOD 30-Day Challenge (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for June? Go vegetarian.

The Rev. Sylvester Graham, one of the granddaddies of American health food movement and the first nutritionist here to attract major public attention, believed that eating white flour and pork—two staples of the mid-nineteenth century—promoted lust and moral decay. He linked the stimulating forces of eating animal flesh with the excitability of one’s genital organs. Chicken pie also contributed to cholera and "excessive lewdness." Obviously, meat was to be avoided.


At least as far back as Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician and mystical vegetarian, dietary experts in the West have denounced all kinds of delicious and pleasurable foods, especially savory meats and enjoyable alcoholic drinks. The vegetarian fight has long been characterized as a battle against spiritual depravity, a quest for a kind of meat-free enlightenment, a world free of sin and death.

Vegetarians did not enjoy any relative success until the nineteenth century. In the decades following the formation of Vegetarian Society in 1847, the word “vegetarian” variously referred to the dietary preference of chickens and crabs, a fanatical Chinese sect, and a person who abstained from eating animal on principle. What ultimately led to validation, Tristam Stuart argues in his intellectual history of vegetarianism, The Bloodless Revolution, was the mounting evidence from the emerging fields of science and nutrition. Stuart writes:

Believing that the vegetable diet was healthier and meat was positively harmful invariably led people to the conclusion that the human body was designed to be herbivorous, not carnivorous, and that killing animals was unnatural. Examining natural laws was supposed to provide insights into God's creational design, independent from scriptural revelation. The new scientific observations were seen to endorse the old theological claims for the origins of the vegetable diet, and it gave added force to the view that human society's savage treatment of lesser animals was a perversion of the natural order.

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One of the more notable eccentrics who fostered vegetarian ideology in the land of beefeaters was the 18th century Scottish diet doctor named George Cheyne. “A drunken fatso” who at one point weighed 448 pounds, he appears to have poisoned his patients with mercury pills until they succumbed to a milk and vegetable diet that had transformed his own life. He laid the groundwork for Sylvester Graham, and, in Obesity and Depression in the Enlightenment, Anita Guerrini calls him "a progenitor of our weight-conscious culture."

If there's an important lesson in these early prescriptive vegetarian recipes, it's that these trailblazing counterculture reformers bridged philosophy and theology with science. Because “meatless medicine” transcends spirituality, theology, or claims of moral superiority—whether that’s Hinduism, ascetic Christianity, or the dietary fervor of the Fuhrer—it’s probably the only reason vegetarianism still exist today.

Image: James Gillray, Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal, 1792 via Princeton University Library Digital Collections