Essay-Question Poll: Dietary Choices

I have noticed that among philosophers, vegetarianism of one form or another is quite common.  In fact, I became a vegetarian (technically a pescetarian) myself partly out of respect for an undergraduate philosophy professor.  I am interested in finding out if there is a similar disproportion in the Less Wrong community.

I didn't request that this go into Yvain's survey because I want more information than just what animal products you do or don't eat; I'd also like to see nuances of the reasons behind your diet.  There are a lot more shades than carnivore/vegetarian/vegan - if you want to be a vegetarian but are allergic to soy and gluten, that's a compelling reason to diversify protein sources, for instance.  I'd also like to hear about if you avoid any plant foods (if you think they're farmed in a way that's environmentally destructive or that hurts people or if you have warm fuzzy feelings for plants, maybe).  Here are some questions that come to mind:

  1. What foods, if any, do you normally avoid for reasons other than pure culinary taste, cost, individual health concerns (allergies, diabetes, etc.) or ease of preparation?  (Avoiding foods that are considered revolting or just non-food in your culture of origin, like balut or fried locusts, counts as "culinary taste".)
  2. What are your reasons for avoiding those foods?
  3. How strictly do you avoid them?  For instance, will you eat them if you are served them while a guest at a meal, or if you are hungry and there is nothing else available?  Do you check to see if they're in potentially questionable dishes at restaurants (and if so, do you trust what the server says?)
  4. If you have children or plan to have children, will you expect or encourage them to avoid the same foods?
  5. Do you try to convince your friends and family members to make dietary choices similar to yours?  If so, have you ever succeeded?
  6. If you avoid a class of foods with valuable nutritive content (as opposed to Twinkies), what do you replace it with to get complete nutrition?
  7. What are your attitudes to people who are more restrictive in their diets than you are?  Less restrictive?
  8. What is the timeline of your dietary restrictions?  (Transitions, lapses, increases or decreases in restrictiveness, etc.)
  9. If you have not avoided these foods for your entire life, how much did you enjoy them when you ate them, and do you still sometimes want to eat them?
  10. Is there anything else about your choice of diet that might be relevant or interesting?
234 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:50 AM
Select new highlight date

I'm here to strike a blow against selection bias: I eat anything.

Well, you're certainly going to get some selective reporting from this poll. Personally, I love eating meat. If it isn't sentient now, isn't going to become sentient in the foreseeable future, and is owned by me, then I have no moral problem with killing it. In fact, I think I could eat venison while watching Disney's film Bambi, without it bothering me.

The word is "sapient". Animals are sentient - which refers to their "experiencing sensation or feeling" [American Heritage Dictionary]; although I admit this is an increasingly common confusion.

In fact, I think I could eat venison while watching Disney's film Bambi, without it bothering me.

Bah, anyone could do that - venison is delicious.

Hear hear. Lifeforms that can't think are munchies unless inedible or icky.

I feel the same way, though I do find it a little odd that so many people believe animals are sentient, and yet are not vegetarians. (I wouldn't eat Soylent Green even if the victims had been killed humanely!)

Interesting thread. Looks like people are still responding to it from time to time, so here are my long-winded (sorry, can't help it :P) answers.

  1. I do not eat any animal products other than honey (which I don't use much, but don't morally object to in the same way that I do other animal products). I also don't usually use animal-based materials like wool or leather, with some minor exceptions (see my answer to #2). On that basis, some would call me a vegan and others would not. I do call myself a vegan.

    There are probably some plant foods that I should give up (or only buy domestically/locally), in order to avoid contributing to anything that harms the environment or workers, but I don't know enough about this issue to be able to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable plant foods.

  2. I want to avoid causing suffering in entities that can reasonably be said to suffer. I feel pretty confident about mammals and birds; not quite as much about fish, but enough that I don't want to take the chance.

    Having been raised vegetarian, all of my justifications (for vegetarianism at least, not veganism) necessarily came after the fact; my first attempt, as a small child, was deciding to believe that all animals were exactly like humans (in intelligence, emotional depth, social organization, etc.) but different in physical form and without speech, and were therefore deserving of all the same rights and protections as humans. I'd like to think I've come a long way since then — I'm fairly convinced of my current rationale based on the idea that different kinds and sizes of animal brains have the capacity for varying degrees of suffering and other emotional experience — but I have worried at times that I'm just getting better at coming up with less-stupid-sounding rationalizations for an ultimately arational belief.

    But I've done my best to honestly probe at the underlying values that make me care about this, plus the factual reasoning about degrees of capacity for suffering, and I think it holds up about as well as it should. (I felt a little bit validated when I read about Douglas Hofstadter's transition to veganism for very similar reasons.) In any case, I would bet my life that a mushroom or a soybean or a carrot does not experience anything we would call suffering — I'd be nearly as confident that they don't have anything we'd call experience in the first place — but I'd be significantly less confident making those assertions about fish. I'll do my best to be open to the possibility of evidence that should make me change my mind.

    That also leads me to why I don't avoid honey or silk, and why I don't mind swatting flies and ants. I wouldn't say I'm life-bettingly confident that insects do not suffer in any way worth empathizing with, but in that case, I easily find it unlikely enough that I don't feel bad about exploiting or killing them.

  3. I will not make an exception if I'm served any of those foods as a guest, so I try to let the host know in advance.

    It is arguable, I suppose, that if I'm already being served something with meat, eggs, or dairy in it, rejecting it will not prevent any suffering, as it'll either be eaten by someone else or thrown away. My rationale there is that I don't want to give myself advance permission to break my rules, because then that exception becomes part of the rules; I don't want to get used to making exceptions like that. And I don't want people to think I'm the sort of person who is willing to accept those foods for free or when I have already paid, because then they may take that into account when deciding what to serve me in the future, possibly leading to preventable demand on my behalf for those foods.

    I must admit that on the rare occasion that it comes up, if I'm really, really hungry, and I'm at a restaurant or some other public place serving food, and the only things available are likely to have eggs or dairy, I'll choose not to ask. I usually regret it afterwards, but I would probably regret starving myself even more. However, when I already know for sure that something has eggs or dairy (or especially meat) in it, I haven't been able to (nor have I desired to) put that knowledge out of my mind, no matter how hungry I am. (And if I'm not starving or if there are other options, I'll always ask before ordering or eating something.)

    If I were stranded with absolutely no other way to survive, I would eat animals, assuming I could figure out how to kill and cook them before starving to death. I would try my best to minimize any suffering I might cause them, but ultimately I care more about humans than about animals.

  4. If I ever have children, I expect I will impart my values to them as much as any parent would, but I would not resort to coercion. I would not pay for or cook with non-vegan foods for them, but I would let them try it elsewhere if they chose to. (I'm hoping that meat from animal sources is obsolete by then anyway. Research into growing meat in petri dishes appears to be going well.)

  5. Everyone in my immediate family is vegan. (Including my cat! Don't worry, it's a specially formulated expensive vegan cat food, which we've been feeding her for about 7 years, and she's very happy and healthy (not to mention cuter than babies). You're still free to laugh at me for bothering with that, though.) I have some vegetarians and vegans in my extended family, and in my circle of friends, but to those who aren't, I don't try to evangelize anymore. It's not that I don't care about it — I do, I really would prefer if everyone were vegan when possible — I've just found that it's too easy to come off as annoying and presumptuous, and there's the usual difficulty with persuading people to change their values.

  6. I take a few vitamin supplements. I eat a lot of soy and legumes and gluten as sources of protein and deliciousness; thankfully I don't have any allergies to those. (Except for lentils. I was pissed when I found out I was allergic to them. Lentils rock.)

  7. I don't hold fruitarianism, etc. in very high regard, because the only justifications for it (unless there are nutritional or environmental reasons I haven't heard about) seem to be new-age concepts or other nonsense. That goes doubly so for the people who anthropomorphize trees to the point where they'll only eat fruit that has naturally fallen off. (Apparently some people actually do that, wtf.) I feel the same way about vegans who have similar rationales, actually. I'm certainly glad when I hear that someone is a vegan, but if they go on to say that it's because all animals have metaphysical souls, bestowing upon them the same absolute and universal rights that we humans have, or if they say it's because Adam and Eve and all the animals in the Garden of Eden were vegetarians before the Fall, then I have to judge their rationality negatively, even if I approve of their actions. I'm a little bit more sympathetic to raw-foodists, though the appeal to nature fallacy still seems to rank highly among the usual justifications for it. Meanwhilst, there are also the "freegans", who, if I understand correctly, only eat non-vegan food when they feel there is no chance of it contributing economically to the industries in question. I guess I have no moral objections to that, if they're really careful not to indirectly create any demand, but that can lead to an odd primitivistic lifestyle that can be immoral in its own ways. I once knew a freegan who subsisted mainly on theft and dumpster-diving. I didn't doubt her good intentions, but I found the whole thing to be too weird for me to respect.

    In the other direction: I have to admit that, yes, I judge meat-eating to be less moral than vegetarianism. That seems to cause a bit of indignation when I mention it (so I don't usually mention it), but it doesn't seem like it should be surprising. I'm not saying that meat-eaters are Innately Evil, but there's nothing in my own values that says that it's wrong for me to do it but okay for others. That would be a weird value system. Still, since meat-eating is still the unquestioned norm in most of the world, I don't judge individuals on that basis, and I'm usually quiet about it.

  8. I was raised vegetarian (both of my parents had been for many years), and I went vegan some time around 2002 or 2003, I believe. A few years later I decided I didn't care about avoiding honey, which made almost no difference in practice.

  9. I miss egg dishes sometimes. I miss not having to worry about whether things have eggs or dairy in them before ordering. I miss not knowing that a lot of Thai dishes are made with fish sauce that they don't mention on the menu.

    I was once accidentally served bacon at a restaurant. I liked the taste (had a few bites before I noticed it didn't taste like tempeh), but didn't see what all the fuss was about.

  10. Growing up vegetarian was very easy for me, because I happened to be born with a vegetarian cookbook author for a mother. So I never felt deprived or forced or jealous; good food was always in abundant supply. (My parents actually used the same strategy that I described in my response to #4, but I never had any desire to try meat anyway. There's probably an element of reverse psychology in there.) It's been a little harder now that I'm living on my own — I never really learned to cook, and I don't have enough money to eat out as often as I'd like — but I've not been tempted to give up any aspect of my veganism. I have, however, stopped bothering with organic ingredients (which my parents used, so I was used to them when I lived at home). I'm not convinced that their alleged benefits have enough evidence to justify the added cost.

  1. I don't eat meat.
  2. Ethical. If I wouldn't want people torturing dogs, I have no justification to be okay with people torturing cows, pigs, and chickens, and from what I've seen conditions in a lot of farms and slaughterhouses are tantamount to torture. Even though animals can't think verbally, they still have some level of awareness and the ability to feel pain, so causing them suffering is verboten. I am kind of sympathetic to the argument that free range meat raised with the animals' welfare in mind isn't so bad, and to the argument that if we weren't raising these animals for food they'd probably be endangered or extinct. But free range is only a small percent of meat products, and there are major environmental costs anyway, and the meat-farming industry just does so much damage in so many ways that I feel I need to do my part to discourage it. Right now my goal is to aim for zero meat and accept the inevitable lapses when they come as not being an ethical disaster.
  3. I'm not too strict about it. When I'm traveling or a guest somewhere it's pretty tough to avoid meat, so I let myself get away with it.
  4. Hard to tell. I think I'd at least share my reasons with them, but if they didn't want to that's their choice. As long as they can provide a rational explanation, of course :)
  5. Never tried.
  6. I eat a lot of Quorn when I'm in the British Isles, and soy products when I'm elsewhere. Quorn is better, but I haven't been able to find it outside Britain and Ireland.
  7. I'm pretty live-and-let-live about this.
  8. Became a vegetarian in elementary school, I think, maybe middle school. Gave it up on three or four occasions for a few months, usually after moving and not being able to find good vegetarian foods there, but always went back. Sometimes give it up for a few months when I go back to my parents' place, because the food there is too good and I don't have as much control over my diet.
  9. I love meat and I want it all the time.
  10. I don't really eat many fruits or vegetables. I hate them to the point where I have trouble keeping them down. This doesn't apply as much to salads. So I kind of live off of grain products, with some milk and eggs and Quorn thrown in. There are a lot of diet theories that suggest I should be very fat right now, but I'm actually pretty thin. Go figure.

Ethical. If I wouldn't want people torturing dogs, I have no justification to be okay with people torturing cows, pigs, and chickens

Dogs are genetically selected for living together with humans. As such, and unlike their wolf predecessors, dogs are friendly towards us. In many cases, care is reciprocal, in that we more often care about people who care about us. I propose that chickens don't have even the slightest sense of morality, and don't care whether their siblings live or die. With this in mind, I think it's a somewhat justified to torture birds and low mammals, since they don't care about our or their families' well-being to begin with.

However, I would never torture a chicken unless I was at least 99% sure it had valuable information, and the future of the farm was at stake.

Kin selection suggests that chickens may care about their siblings, and general evolution suggests they definitely care about their children.

...which is exactly the problem. You sound like you're holding a grudge against chickens for not being evolutionarily programmed in a certain way. Let it go. If you set some criteria for "deserving" our respect, of course a lot of animals can't live up to it. But it doesn't seem right to use that as justification for hurting them.

Thought experiment: I take Bob and cut out the part of his brain involved in empathy. Now he can't care about other people, but his thought and emotions are otherwise intact. Is it now okay to torture Bob?

Objecting to the living conditions of farm animals seems only compatible with veganism, not vegetarianism. (Though "I should, but can't be bothered" is a fair reply.) Unless you think slaughter is by far the worst part, but it doesn't seem that way to me - especially since egg farms kill male chicks. Yet you seem fine with milk and eggs. Why?

I'm not Yvain, but I do eat milk and eggs and not beef and chicken. (I also do not go particularly out of my way to eschew leather objects, although when aware of equivalent options, I prefer faux items or ones of other materials, and I don't buy that many things firsthand anyway.) Part of it is a matter of quantity. Avoiding actual meat draws a bright line I can toe easily, and surely reduces the number of animals mistreated on my behalf. And part of it is that, in principle, eggs and milk can be obtained without particularly mistreating the creatures that produce them. This isn't how it's generally done, mostly for cost reasons, and to be honest I don't incentivize doing it that way by doing research on which sources are closer to that ideal and paying more to buy from them, but in theory farms could work out how to sex-select their chickens in the first place and how to make cows produce milk without repeatedly impregnating them only to yield veal calves, and then treat their layers and milkers nicely.

If I wouldn't want people torturing dogs, I have no justification to be okay with people torturing cows, pigs, and chickens, and from what I've seen conditions in a lot of farms and slaughterhouses are tantamount to torture.

Do you place equal value on the wellbeing of all animals? This sounds like the same kind of dogmatic adherence to equal weighting that I have a problem with in utilitarianism. I don't want people torturing dogs, I'm less concerned about people torturing chickens. I value the wellbeing of dogs more than the well-being of chickens. I value both considerably less than the wellbeing of humans and considerably more than the wellbeing of HIV viruses.

All else being equal, I'd prefer less rather than more chicken-suffering. If however I have a choice between a $5 chicken breast that caused X chicken-suffering and a $6 chicken breast that caused 0.5X chicken-suffering I'll save the extra dollar and apply it to something I consider more important than chicken-suffering. A donation to a puppy rescue shelter for example (though that would be low on my overall list of priorities).

I weight the well-being of animals in proportion to what I would call for lack of a better word their consciousness. I think dolphins are probably self-aware, capable of reflection, and have strong senses of pain and pleasure. I think ants are probably much less so, although still nonzero. So I place much less emphasis upon the well-being of ants than upon the well-being of dolphins. Since viruses have no nervous system and no brain, I'm prepared to give them zero value.

However, I have no evidence that dogs are more aware than pigs are. Any personal preference I have for dogs is because they're cuter than pigs are, which seems like a bad way to make moral decisions. So I am not prepared to make pigs less valuable than dogs.

I never thought about it in terms of your two-different-kinds-of-chicken-breast problem, but I would agree that this would require an actual calculation to see whether the money saved could prevent more suffering than was caused to the chicken. Given the low probability of me actually going through with donating $1 more to charity just because I bought a $1 cheaper chicken, I'd probably take the more expensive one, though.

Any personal preference I have for dogs is because they're cuter than pigs are, which seems like a bad way to make moral decisions.

I think you've deliberately muddied the waters by throwing in the word 'cute' there. You justify your general rule for preferring some lifeforms to others by saying you value 'consciousness' but then say that preferring dogs over pigs for 'cuteness' is not a good way to make moral decisions. If you take away the loaded words all you're really saying in both cases is that you value animal A more than animal B because it has more of property X. When X is consciousness that's a good justification, when it's cuteness it's a bad justification.

I'm quite happy to just say that I prefer some animals to others and I value them accordingly. That preference is a combination of factors which I couldn't give you a formula for but I don't feel I need to do so to justify following my preference. In the case of dogs I think it's more than cuteness - they are pack hunting animals that have been bred over many generations to live with humans as companions (rather than as livestock) and so it is not unsurprising that we should have affinity for them. Preferring them over pigs seems no more problematic than preferring a friendly AI over a paperclip maximizer - they share more common goals with us than pigs do.

Given the low probability of me actually going through with donating $1 more to charity just because I bought a $1 cheaper chicken, I'd probably take the more expensive one, though.

That's not a very rational approach. If it's easier, think of it as $150 a year (probably ballpark for me based on my own chicken consumption) and consider what charity you could donate $150 extra to. In my opinion being rational about personal finances is a pretty good starting place for an aspiring rationalist.

I don't interpret "consciousness" as a preference giving some animals more value to me than others. I interpret it as a multiplier that needs to be used in order to even out preferences.

Let's say I want to minimize suffering in a target-independent way, but I need to divide X units of torture between a human and an ant. I would choose to apply all X units to the ant, not just because I like humans more than ants, but because that decision actually minimizes total suffering. My wild guess is that ants can't really suffer all that much; they probably get some vague negative feeling but it's (again, I am guessing wildly) nothing like as strong or as painful as the pain that a human, with their million times more neurons, feels.

In contrast, obviously cuteness has no effect on level of suffering. If I want to divide up X units of torture between two animals, one of which is cuter than the other, from a purely consequentialist position there's no reason to prefer one to the other.

It might help if you think of me as trying to minimize the number of suffering*consciousness units. That's why I wouldn't care about eating TAW's genetically engineered neuronless cow, and it's why I care less about ants than humans.

(or a metaphor: let's say a hospital administrator has to distribute X organs among needy transplant patients. Even if the hospital administrator chooses to be unbiased regarding the patients' social value - ie not prefer a millionaire to a bum - the administrator still has a good case for giving the organ to someone for whom it will bring them 50 more years of life rather than 6 more months. That's a completely different kind of preference than 'I like this guy better'. The administrator is trying to impartially maximize lives saved*years)

Hopefully that makes it clear what the difference between this theory and "preferring" cute animals is.

If I want to divide up X units of torture between two animals, one of which is cuter than the other, from a purely consequentialist position there's no reason to prefer one to the other.

Well, humans seem to be more upset by images of baby seals being clubbed than by the death of less cute but similarly 'conscious' creatures so that might factor into your total suffering calculation but that aside this does seem to follow from your premises.

It might help if you think of me as trying to minimize the number of suffering*consciousness units.

Why is that preference uniquely privileged though? What justifies it over preferring to minimize the number of suffering*(value I assign to animal) units? If I value something about dogs over pigs (lets call it 'empathy units' because that is something like a description of the source of my preference) why is that a less justified choice of preference than 'consciousness'?

If you just genuinely value what you're calling 'consciousness' here over any other measure of value that's a perfectly reasonable position to take. You seem to want to universalize the preference though and I get the impression that you recognize that it goes against most people's instinctive preferences. If you want to persuade others to accept your preference ranking (maybe you don't - it's not clear to me) then I think you need to come up with a better justification. You should also bear in mind you may find yourself arguing to sacrifice humanity for a super-conscious paperclip maximizer - is that really a position you want to take?

Well, I admit to being one of the approximately seven billion humans who can't prove their utility functions from first principles. But I think there's a very convincing argument that consciousness is in fact what we're actually looking for and naturally taking into account.

Happiness only is happiness, and pain only is pain, insofar as it is perceived by awareness. If a scientist took a nerve cell with a pain receptor, put it in a Petri dish, and stimulated it for a while, I wouldn't consider this a morally evil act.

I find in my own life that different levels of awareness correspond to different levels of suffering. Although something bad happening to me in a dream is bad, I don't worry about it nearly as much as I would if it happened when I was awake and fully aware. Likewise, if I'm zonked out on sedatives, I tend to pay less attention to my own pain.

I hypothesize that different animals have different levels of awareness, based on intuition and my knowledge of their nervous systems. In this case, they would be able to experience different levels of suffering. What I meant by saying my utility function multiplied suffering by awareness would have been better phrased as:

Suffering = bad things*awareness

while trying to minimize suffering. This is why, for example, doing all sorts of horrible things to a rock is a morally neutral act, doing them to an insect is probably bad but not anything to lose sleep over, and doing them to a human is a moral problem even if it's a human I don't personally like.

Your paperclip example is a classical problem called the utility monster. I don't really have any especially brilliant solution beyond what has already been said about the issue. To some degree I bite the bullet: if there was some entity whose nervous system was so acute that causing it the slightest amount of pain would correspond to 3^^^3 years of torture for a human being, I'd place high priority on keeping that entity happy.

Well, I admit to being one of the approximately seven billion humans who can't prove their utility functions from first principles.

But you seem to think (and correct me if I'm misinterpreting) that it would be better if we could. I'm not so sure. And further you seem to think that given that we can't, it's still better to override our felt/intrinsic preferences that are hard to fully justify with unnatural preferences that have the sole advantage of being easier to express in simple sentences.

Now I'm not sure you're actually claiming this but with the pig/dog comparison you seem to be acknowledging that many people value dogs more than pigs (I'm not clear if you have this instinctive preference yourself or not) but that based on some abstract concept of levels of consciousness (that is itself subjective given our current knowledge) we should override our instincts and judge them as of equal value. I'm saying "screw the abstract theory, I value dogs over pigs and that's sufficient moral justification for me". I can give you rationalizations for my preference - the idea that dogs have been bred to live with humans for example - but ultimately I don't think the rationalization is required for moral justification.

But I think there's a very convincing argument that consciousness is in fact what we're actually looking for and naturally taking into account.

If this is true, then we should prefer our natural judgements (we value cute baby seals highly, that's fine - what we're really valuing is consciousness, not the fact that they share facial features with human babies and so trigger protective instincts). You can't have it both ways - either we prefer dogs to pigs because they really are 'more conscious' or we should fight our instincts and value them equally because our instincts mislead us. I'd agree that what you call 'consciousness' or 'awareness' is a factor but I don't think it's the most important feature influencing our judgements. And I don't see why it should be.

To some degree I bite the bullet: if there was some entity whose nervous system was so acute that causing it the slightest amount of pain would correspond to 3^^^3 years of torture for a human being, I'd place high priority on keeping that entity happy.

And it's exactly this sort of thing that makes me inclined to reject utilitarian ethics. If following utilitarian ethics leads to morally objectionable outcomes I see no good reason to think the utilitarian position is right.

I've found Quorn in the United States in several grocery stores, in the frozen food. Possibly it's regionally unavailable where you live? Or is the US not the "elsewhere" in question?

Several vegetarians have mentioned health benefits as a reason for choosing a vegetarian diet. I'd be interested to know what the health benefits they have in mind are. I've been adjusting my diet recently to incorporate more red meat and saturated animal fats because of the increasing evidence that they are beneficial (I was previously eating less than I would choose to on taste grounds because of a belief that they were unhealthy).

The claimed health benefits of vegetarianism that I'm aware of seem to be based on the low-fat/high-carb theory of a healthy diet which is increasingly discredited by the research. I'm curious if vegetarians dispute the newer research, are unaware of it, or have other health reasons that I'm not aware of.

I base my opinion about the health benefits on anecdotal evidence and this study. I have never heard of a study advising a diet high in non-lean red meat and would be interested to read one.

I've mentioned Good Calories, Bad Calories here before and it is a pretty comprehensive overview of the research. It's also an interesting read as an example of how science and rationality can go wrong when politics and special interests get involved.

I'm not aware of any large scale studies that have done direct controlled studies of the kind of diet I'm describing. Dietary studies are notoriously difficult and expensive which is one of the problems with dietary research discussed in the book. The results from a variety of different studies and nutritional research are persuasive though. I'd suggest reading the book for far more detail than I can give here.

Dietary choices are generally trade offs - if you reduce calorie intake from one source you generally have to substitute calories from elsewhere. There is evidence that polyunsaturated fats from many vegetable oils can lead to higher incidences of cancer. Studies have failed to confirm the hypothesis that saturated fats cause heart disease. There is increasing evidence that sugar and refined carbohydrates are primary factors in obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Substituting refined carbohydrates for fats seems to be a bad idea from a health perspective and it is difficult to obtain adequate calories from unrefined carbohydrates alone. Given that some level of fat intake seems necessary to achieve adequate calories, I'm persuaded that increasing the relative proportion of animal fats to vegetable oils in my diet is beneficial. The fact that that balance better fits my personal taste preferences means that my evidence threshold to make that change is lower than it might be for others.

Polyunsaturated fats aren't great, but monosaturated fats, like olive or canola oils, are healthful. Those two oils and animal-derived milkfat and fat from eggs constitute about 90% of the fat in my diet (the rest is incidental, like the fat in avocados, or shortening in some baked goods).

I primarily use olive and canola oil for cooking at home. I'm fairly confident that olive oil is a healthy choice, I'm a little less so for canola oil but it seems like the the best widely available option. I use butter for some recipes and I've been intending to experiment with lard but it's not available where I usually do my grocery shopping.

Most vegetable derived oils are relatively recent additions to the human diet though and one of the principles of paleo type diets is to prefer foods closer to the hunter gatherer staples and to limit intake of foods that require agriculture, and especially of those that require industrial agriculture (a principle that would have led one to avoid trans-fats even before their negative health effects were studied). On that basis I'm inclined to favour animal derived fats until more conclusive evidence of the relative health implications is available.

Plus, I enjoy the flavour of fatty red meats so I will tend to err in that direction given inconclusive evidence on the nutritional science.

Aren't the highly touted Omega-3 fats polyunsaturated?

Yes, but the current consensus seems to be that the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids is an important measure. Most vegetable derived oils are much higher in Omega-6. Oily fish and grass-fed beef have a higher proportion of Omega-3 fatty acids which research suggests is healthier.

I believe that eating the right amount of essential fatty acids is almost orthogonal to the issue of eating animal products. (Again, for the record, I eat some)

Though grass fed beef has a much better Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio (2:1) than grain fed beef (4:1), and it may have other benefits, there are many dietary switches that make a bigger difference in your diets overall ratio.

Flax seed and salmon oil have a far superior ratio, approximately 1:4.

Quite possibly, but I don't eat fish that often, and most of what I do eat is very low-fat tuna.

There are very serious problems with causation in diet. There are robust correlations between, for example, eating meat, cholesterol, and heart disease, but they are definitely not causal. It is difficult to change cholesterol levels by changing diet and even harder to affect heart disease. It's not even clear that cholesterol levels cause heart disease. It's pretty clear that statins reduce cholesterol and reduce heart disease, but it's not clear that these are related.

  1. I'm trying to cut back on sugar and refined or processed foods.
  2. Health reasons
  3. Not very strict.
  4. Yes, hopefully by the time I have kids, I'll have moved away from the crappy college student diet.
  5. Most of the pressure with regards to vegetarianism has been in the reverse direction. All three girls I seriously dated are vegetarian, so I've had serious discussions about the subject (this also created a weird subconscious expectation that all women are vegetarian by default).
  6. NA
  7. I have no issues with what other people eat. I happily eat meat (though wondering about its moral status), but I wouldn't question someone else's choice.
  8. Diet became substantially worse when I moved to college; slowly getting better.
  9. I'll reverse the question. How much would I miss animal products if I stopped eating them? Some, but I could easily do it. Right now, I am a vegetarian six days out of the week. Since my wife is vegetarian (out of preference, not for ethical reasons), it's easier to cook what we'll both eat.
  10. I don't think there is anything wrong with eating animal products per se. I don't even have ethical qualms with cannibalism, assuming the meat were procured consensually. I do wonder whether animals experience substantial suffering when raised on farms or killed. Fish do not have the mental capacity to experience pain, so I see not problem there. Fish react to harm, and even remember it, but I don't think they are even conscious enough to call this pain. On the other hand, most mammals, some birds, and possibly cephalopods probably do consciously feel pain. The amount of suffering these animals feel should be minimized. However, aside from dolphins, apes, and elephants, these animals lack a long-term conception of self. As such, I don't think it is wrong for them to be humanely killed. Feedlots and factory farms do cause unjustified suffering, but otherwise, I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with the meat industry.

For background, I was raised on a cattle ranch. I might be biased in support of my parents livelihood, but I did experience ranching first hand. At least on our ranch, I don't think the cows lived that bad of lives. They would spend half the year on open range in a forest and the other half in pasture at our home. Once a year, they'd clearly suffer as we corralled them to vaccinate, brand, and tag them. Otherwise, they had plenty of space, food, and medical treatment. The end result is the year-old calves being sold for slaughter of course. Any comment by vegetarians on beef raised like this?

I also hunted as a teenager, shooting an elk, an antelope, and some game birds. I definitely don't think sport hunting should be encouraged, and will never do it again, but don't think it is that bad for similar reasons. If a freezer full of elk steaks trades off against a feedlot raised cow, that's probably an improvement.

Inspired by mattnewport's comment, here are additional questions for any vegetarians: if vat-grown meat were developed, would you eat it? Would there be any ethical issues with eating it?

I would happily eat vat meat without a single pang of conscience.

Possible exception: if it was getting to the point where farm animals were becoming endangered, I would expect a movement supporting traditional farms to arise, and for this movement to place a high priority on animal welfare. If this happened, I would support this movement by buying farm-grown meat, but this would be a personal preference and I would not recognize a moral obligation to do so.

I would eat vat-grown meat. In addition to solving the animal suffering problem it would probably have less impact on the environment as well.

I might eat vat-grown chicken on an irregular basis, if I were sure that it had no bizarre side effects and that it really was from a vat. Other meat no longer appeals to me enough that I would choose to eat it in a non-emergency situation. I don't think there would be ethical issues with it unless it was staggeringly inefficient to grow.

Assuming I felt like it, it would depend significantly on the efficiency (particularly energy efficiency) of the production process.

I would have no qualms about eating it if I liked it. (I'm not sure whether I would because I don't like meat all that much.)

Here's an ethical issue: what happens to all the cows, pigs, chickens, etc? (Consider what happened to the horses.)

Number of a species existing isn't an additional terminal value to me on top of aggregated experiences (except maybe for very small numbers), and it seems pretty likely that the average animal life on a factory farm isn't worth living.