One son is a meat-eater, the other a vegetarian. Why is that?
“Are veterinarians also vegetarians?” I asked my Mom when I was in second grade. I reasoned, since vets spent their days healing animals, that they couldn’t possibly eat them. No, she told me. Being one doesn’t require being another. Today, decades later, I still wonder why some people become vegetarians and others don’t. My own family is a great case study, since we fall on all ends of the dietary spectrum.
I was raised to have compassion for animals by parents who ate meat on a regular basis. My Dad was the main cook in our family and he loved meat. All kinds of meat. Sometimes, just for fun, we'd ask Dad about his culinary adventures—the more disgusting, the louder we'd squeal. Had he ever eaten calves' brains? Yes. Rattlesnake? Yup. Squirrel? Sure, but it wasn't his favorite. Tongue? Of course. It was a Jewish delicacy. There were few things my father wouldn't eat, except perhaps oatmeal and cottage cheese.
My Dad grew up helping his parents at their St. Clare Shaw poultry store in Cleveland, where customers would select a live bird, then receive it freshly "dressed." Nothing fazed him—neither fat nor gristle, blood nor bones. "They add flavor," he'd say.
Unlike my Dad, who loved to spread bone marrow on bread and chomp into a drumstick, I wasn't a carnivore by nature. I preferred my meat as disguised and well-done as possible. Plus, I had the misfortune of being the one of four kids most likely to end up with the chewy thing in my hamburger or fatty blob in my chicken. Since I was expected to eat what was on my plate and not complain, I got pretty good at the spit-into-your-napkin trick, or stealthily feeding the nasty bits under the table to our dog, Barfie.
When I got to college, I no longer had to eat meat, so I generally avoided it. Unlike some of the vegetarians I knew, who stopped eating meat after reading Diet for a Small Planet or The Jungle, I simply felt repelled by it. After graduating, I didn't like meat enough to buy and cook it, and eventually stopped eating it altogether.
While my reasons for not eating meat when I was younger were mostly sensorial, they’ve changed as I’ve gained more awareness about sustainability, climate change, and animal welfare. As a child, I read and re-read all the books written by British veterinarian James Herriot, which led me to believe farm animals lived idyllic lives in verdant countryside villages. Only as an adult did I learn about factory farming and its chilling reality.
one eats like me, the other like his dad
When my sons, Noah and Aidan, were old enough to eat solids, I introduced them to a range of foods. I fed them tofu, which is easy for toddlers to pick up and eat. But I also gave them a typical assortment of kiddie-style animal proteins, like chicken nuggets, salmon, hot dogs and turkey slices. I fed them the same meals and yet, by the time they were in elementary school, their eating preferences had become markedly different. Noah's leanings resembled mine (vegetarian). Aidan's were like his Dad's (omnivore).
Noah says walking in on me watching the stomach-churning chicken scene in the movie Food, Inc. when he was 10 years old is why he stopped eating poultry. Later that year, his dad offered Noah a bite of his greasy Polish dog at a baseball game, which promptly put the kibosh on him eating hot dogs ever again. He ate fish for a while, then refused that, too. Now 20 years old and a strapping 6'3", Noah's lack of animal protein didn’t prevent him from gaining muscle or height.
Aidan, now 18 and also over 6’ tall, remains open to eating pretty much whatever is served, including plenty of fruits and vegetables. Because he didn't grow up in a house where meat was cooked very often, he doesn't seem to crave it as much as his grandfather does. Still, it's uncanny how much Aidan's eating inclinations mimic his dad's.
Is it in our blood?
Why did one of my children become a vegetarian while the other did not? While the reasons people choose to eat meat or not are wide-ranging—from ethics, economics, and culture to personal health, environmental awareness, and animal welfare—I wonder if there’s something in our nature that inclines us one way or the other.
One friend suggested that my blood type (A+) may be the same as Noah’s, and that this blood type is more geared towards vegetarianism, whereas my husband's (O-) and Aidan’s do better with an omnivorous diet. According to naturopath Peter J. D’Adamo, author of The Blood Type Diet, type O's, having the oldest blood type, draw on their hunter roots, while type A's do best as vegetarians. I have yet to confirm the blood type for either son, though my meat-loving father happens to be a type O.
Another theory posits that empathy has something to do with our meat-eating habits. A study conducted in 2012 by Italian neuroscientist Massimo Filippi studied the brains of meat-eaters and non meat-eaters, and found discernible variations in brain areas associated with empathy. MRI scans revealed that, when observing animal or human suffering, the empathy-related areas of the brain are more active among vegetarians and vegans.
As someone who has trouble seeing animals suffer even in kids’ cartoons, let alone documentaries like Food Inc., Eating Animals, or Cowspiracy, I’m a poster child for this theory. But I can also cite several exceptions to the study’s findings right under my nose. Aidan is among the most empathic souls I know, and cannot stand to see others treating animals unkindly, even bugs. He also happens to find meat tasty.
These types of contradictions abound in my family. My mother is an avid supporter of animal welfare and environmental groups and yet still eats meat, with the exception of veal and lamb. She abruptly stopped eating them after learning how they were raised. She has said more than once she could easily become a vegetarian. When I asked my Mom why she still eats meat, she said plainly, “Because your Dad is the one who cooks.”
Even my Dad, who was raised butchering poultry and hunting, is remarkably sensitive when it comes to living creatures. He is kind and gentle to the multitude of cats and dogs who’ve graced their home throughout the years. But when it comes to animals as food, he’s able to turn off his emotions like a faucet. I imagine his ability to compartmentalize was essential while working in his family business.
When I asked my father if he’d be interested in watching a movie about factory farming, he said no. He believes these documentaries are largely propaganda. Since my father worked in the chicken business before it was industrialized in the 1970s, in the so-called Livestock Revolution, he thinks most animals are not treated cruelly.
More than half of Americans hold similar beliefs, according to a recent study by the Sentience Institute. Fifty eight percent of adults in this country think most farm animals are treated well, and 75 percent say they usually buy products from animals treated humanely. The reality is that 99 percent of animal products come from factory farms.
A few years ago, my sister Wendy became a vegetarian, though she says that she enjoys eating meat. "Then why did you become a vegetarian?" I asked. "Because I love animals," she said. After learning how farm animals were treated, she stopped eating meat cold turkey, and hasn’t eaten it since.
Thanks to our growing social consciousness and the greater availability of plant-based milks and meats, plant-based eating is gaining momentum. Sales of plant-based food grew just over 8 percent in 2017 and exceeded $3.1 billion last year. Many of the people buying these alternatives say they’re driven by animal welfare, the environment, and personal health. A growing number simply prefer the taste, especially when it comes to non-dairy milks. Sales of almond milk, for example, increased 250 percent between 2012 and 2017, while cow’s milk is on the decline.
Most Americans, however, are not giving up meat entirely. In fact vegetarians account for less than 5 percent of the U.S. population, a number that has held steady since 2012. But Americans are eating less meat. A recent Harris poll found that about 33 percent say they eat meatless meals on a regular basis. In a survey by GlobalData, 70 percent of the respondents worldwide say they’re cutting back on meat, or giving it up completely. Call this trend what you will, reducetarian, flexitarian, or climatarian, a growing sector of people are looking for food that is less damaging to animals, the planet, and their own health.
Even my father is eating less meat these days. I would have never predicted that the person who once split a cow with his brother, filling an entire freezer with red meat, would be happily preparing oat-based meatballs, but it’s true. Now that nearly one-third of our extended family is vegetarian (including three adults and three children), my Dad is experimenting with plant-based dishes, with impressive results.
Sure, he still smokes his own turkeys and fishes on Lake Erie, but he also takes the time to prepare special vegetarian dishes whenever one of us is visiting. For my Dad, food is love, and he wants to make sure everyone at the table enjoys his cooking, especially his grandchildren.
Elisse Gabriel is a writer, editor, and the author of The Emerald Matchbook, with a range of clients in the health & wellness and culinary industries. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, dog Izzie and two sons (when they’re not away at college).