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A Brief History of Plant-Based Diets

March 7, 2023
Time to read: 9 minutes

Plant-based diets are often thought of as modern contrivances, arising as a reaction to industrial agriculture and large-scale animal farming, and advocated for by animal welfare movements and twenty-first century health trends. In January of 2022, 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 18 considered themselves to be either vegan or vegetarian, there are an estimated 79 million vegans globally, and six percent of U.S. adults claimed to be vegetarian and/or vegan. These numbers continue to grow. However, while the push for plant-based diets is perhaps the largest it has ever been in history, it has not been confined to modern centuries. Various societies have chosen to forgo meat and other animal-based products for hundreds of years, and in some cases, thousands. Plant-based diets have had various origins throughout history, ranging from non-violent doctrines and religious beliefs to health and personal choice. Following plant-based diets’ progression through time and cultures reveals interesting insights into communities’ and individuals’ choices, some of them older than one might imagine.

Religion, Culture, and Plant-Based Diets       

The earliest evidence of vegetarianism dates over 9,000 years ago to the Indus river civilization, in a town called Mehrgarh, located in modern-day Pakistan. This civilization is thought to be from the 3rd–2nd millennium BCE, and where Hinduism, one of the oldest religions on earth, originated, making it also the oldest example of vegetarian diets in religious practices.

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One of the most prominently practiced religions in the world, Buddhism, has followed plant-based diets for some 2,500 years as part of religious and cultural practices. The belief of reincarnation plays a part in these dietary choices, as well as the doctrine of ahimsa. Ahimsa literally means ‘non-injury’, and includes refraining from any type of violence to people, animals, and plants. This includes using cloth made from animal-based materials (such as silk or leather), cutting down trees, eating and/or trading meat, honey, or eggs, and holding animals in captivity at zoos. 

This doctrine is followed in Jainism and Hinduism as well. According to Mahavira, a Jaina teacher who lived in the 500s BCE, “there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life.” It is this reverence of life and these deep-rooted spiritual beliefs that have led to India having the lowest rate of meat consumption in the world, with around 30% of the country and 400 million people identifying as vegetarian. While these choices are largely due to spiritual beliefs and cultural practices, they also reflect the ethical dilemmas that many other people grapple with today in regards to the treatment and respect for animal life. 

Centuries after the birth of Buddhism, plant-based diets began gaining popularity from the teachings of Pythagoras of Samos, the Ionian Greek philosopher who lived from 570 BCE to 490 BCE, around 1,400 years ago. While well-known for his creation of the geometric rule many high school students have dreaded, the Pythagorean Theorem, Pythagoras was also the originator of new schools of thought. He created a community, called a philosophical school but functioning more as a monastery or a religious brotherhood, in Kroton in the early 6th century that lived by a strict set of rules. 

According to 4th century follower Porphyry in his book “The Life of Pythagoras,” Pythagoras believed that souls were immortal, transmigrating (reincarnating) into other animated bodies after death, and that that all living beings, including animals, were related and should be considered part of one family in a ‘kinship of all life.’ Through this belief of all animals being interrelated, Pythagoras abstained from eating animal-based food and urged his followers to do so as well. Interestingly, this belief extended into a less obvious form of life: legumes. 

Pythagoras found that new-growing beans were shaped like human fetuses, and therefore were also part of the cycle of transmigration. Eating them was akin to cannibalism, for beans contained the souls of the dead. Pythagoras and his brotherhood maintained a diet of bread, honey, and vegetables (excluding beans), for “he was satisfied,” says Porphyry, “with honey or the honeycomb, or with bread only, and he did not taste wine from morning to night; or his principal dish was often kitchen herbs, cooked or uncooked. Fish he ate rarely.” Abstaining from eating meat and prohibiting the harm of innocent creatures (including plants and trees) was a personal and moral decision for Pythagoras more than it was a compassionate one, yet many of his ideas still hold a similar tenor to modern animal ethics in regard to the value of all living things being equally deserving of life, much like Buddhist teachings. The name for his followers, Pythagoreans, even became synonymous with ‘vegetarian’ up until the 1840s.

Ancient Protein Alternative: Tofu     

One of the staples of plant-based diets today is tofu. Tofu originated in China an estimated 2,000 years ago, its original name being dòufǔ in Mandarin Chinese (its current name coming from a Japanese word for bean curd). Tofu is made from soybeans (don’t tell Pythagoras!), a crop which has been cultivated for 5,000 or so years, and is similar to cheese in terms of its production (soy milk is curdled with calcium sulfate to create tofu blocks of varying firmness).t is used in a variety of dishes such as tofu pad thai, Agedashi tofu, and mapo tofu, and can be found in many forms: silken, firm, pressed, smoked, grilled, and more. It became a staple of Buddhist monks’ vegetarian diets, as it is high in protein, as well as iron and calcium. 

There is much debate as to the origins and history of tofu. Some legends credit Liu An of the Han Dynasty, and that he discovered the process in an attempt to cure his mother of illness. Others think it may have been created by accident, or that Mongolian tribes brought their methods of culturing dairy products as they migrated from north central Asia into China, an idea called The Mongolian Import Theory. However it was first created, tofu has proved to be a staple of vegetarian diets in Asia throughout history, and now in the modern age, across the world. The first European to mention tofu was in 1613 when British Captain John Saris, a merchant, made the first English voyage to Japan. Tofu was not introduced to the United States until 1896, and did not become popular until the 1960s, when vegetarian diets were on the rise and younger generations began following new diets for personal health. There was also a burgeoning interest in alternative proteins as a way to cut down on waste. Today, tofu is a well-known alternative to meat and is used in vegetarian and vegan diets across the world.   

Literature and Vegetarianism  

Several hundred years or so years after Pythagoras created his brotherhood, there lived a man called Abu ‘L’Ala Ahmad ibn ‘Abdallah al-Ma’arri, in the south of Aleppo in what is now known as Syria. At a young age al-Ma’arri was blinded by chicken pox, but his blindness did not deter him from pursuing his talents in poetry and writing of his views on the sanctity of life. He became a vegan at the age of 30, believing that it was evil to physically harm animals, as well as steal their milk and eggs. 

In one of his most famous poems “I No Longer Steal from Nature”, al-Ma’arri wrote of the injustice of taking fish from the water, the flesh from living creatures, milk from lactating animals meant to feed their babies, honey from industrious bees, and eggs from unsuspecting birds. Al-Ma’arri also was not afraid to mention his lack of income and his diet of beans and lentils as a result (don’t tell Pythagoras!). His beliefs, however, remained strong, though he did not follow any specific doctrine of religious belief, which was rare for his time.

The Romantic Era of 19th century Europe was one of the sublime, of literature and beauty, and of nature. It;shumanitarian ideas led to an increased number of plant-based diets and opinions about animal welfare, as well as increased meat prices and profit-driven markets–much like today. Several writers of now-classic Romantic literature followed a vegetarian diet, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote in his “A Vindication of a Natural Diet,” an essay written in 1813, “by all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system…[and] it is only among the enlightened and benevolent, that so great a sacrifice of appetite and prejudice can be expected.” 

Percy Shelley also believed that meat caused diseases, and encouraged his wife Mary Shelley, to follow a meatless diet. Mary Shelley advocated for the welfare of animals through her writing. Her well-known Gothic novel “Frankenstein” has been thought to have humanitarian tones in terms of animal treatment, as the Creature in her book says: “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.” The Creature, while a murderer and monster of Victor Frankenstien’s grisly making, still refuses to eat living creatures or rely on them for nourishment, instead turning to the berries and nuts of the woods.

Other literary vegetarians include Franz Kafka, author of “Metamorphosis,” who followed health fads and certain lacto-vegetarian diets for his digestive troubles. Leo Tolstoy, Russian philosopher and writer of “Anna Karenina” was a pacifist who rejected harm or violence against animals and people, believing that all sentient creatures had souls, and that the Christian Commandment “thou shalt not kill” applied to all living things, not only humans. 

Tolstoy had an influence on vegetarianism in Russia, and wrote an article called “The First Step,” which advocated for vegetarianism and the rights of animals. In this essay, Tolstoy writes of a conversation he had with a butcher, who he asked if he felt sorry for the animals he killed. The butcher replied, “why should I feel sorry? It is necessary”, but changed his answer when Tolstoy said that eating meat is not necessary, but is only a luxury. The butcher then said he was sorry for the animals, but “what can I do? I must earn my bread.” These are sentiments that hold true for many slaughterhouse workers today, where factory workers have little choice but to work in such places to survive and feed their families.

Industrialization and Vegetarian Etymology  

Until the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution, agriculture functioned with little change for some 13,000 years. There was a shift toward efficiency in work and cost, a focus on specialized farming, mechanization, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, market concentration, and high yields for higher profits. However, it was before the 1900s that the word ‘vegetarian’ rose to the public eye. It is a combination of the word ‘vegetable’ and ‘agrarian’, which means ‘relating to the land.’  ‘Pythagorean’ was officially replaced when the first vegetarian society was formed in Ramsgate, England in 1847 (other synonyms had previously included ‘anti-carnivorous’). Only a few years later the American Vegetarian Society was born. Many abolitionists and women’s rights activists attended meetings, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Amelia Bloomer. A detailed report was kept of the first meeting. Vegetarian churches, vegetarian physicians, and vegetarian communes also started to become popular.  

With the turn of the 20th century, as agriculture moved towards mechanized animal farming and large-scale factories, these trends continued. Upton Sinclair turned many Americans away from eating meat because of his vivid depictions of the meat packing industry in his book “The Jungle”, published in 1906. John Harvey Kellog, the creator of cornflakes, experimented with health treatments at the Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitorium, and decided that diets of vegetables and grains reduced health issues. By the 1920s, large scale chicken farming was on the rise, and the wide-spread use of animal antibiotics in the 1940s allowed for animals to be kept in less than desirable confinement – because there’s nothing a little overusing of antibiotics won’t fix, right? By the 1980s, the majority of farmed animals were raised in factory farms. Now, in 2023, 99% of farmed animals in the U.S. are raised on factory farms. More than ever people may find themselves contemplating their daily meal choices and its impact on the world, or on personal and religious philosophies.

Into the Future: Modern Movements into Plant-Based Diets 

With such a high percentage of vegetarians in the world currently, companies have arisen to cater to these choices. Food delivery programs such as Thistle and Trifecta send plant-based boxes of ingredients and prepared foods to subscribers, while companies such as Beyond Meat make vegan, plant-based protein alternatives to meat. Most restaurants have a vegetarian or vegan option, or are fully plant-based, such as Veggie Grill. And it is not only food that is going plant-based, either, but other products such as cosmetics and clothing, with companies such as Pangaia and Pacifica Beauty gaining popularity. The luxury brand Hermès even began crafting their leather products with fabric made from fungus

Plant-based diets have been a common occurrence throughout history. In our 21st century world we tend not to think about Pythagorean theorems or Romantic horror stories in connection to modern health and animal welfare trends, but they have more bearing on the present than we might think, and offer interesting insights into the timeline of plant based diets through history. Not only that, but these philosophies of the past have informed and helped structure the way animal rights movements operate today, from the origin of the word ‘vegetarian’ to world-wide issues of factory farming and endeavors to promote a more just food system for all.

Shay Schmida is a teller of tales, dreamer of dreams, and writer of all things. She is a college advocate at FFAC, and is interested in illuminating the issues of our food system through her writing.

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