Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism.

The Evolution of Vegetarianism

Out of many diets and lifestyle trends over centuries, vegetarianism has proved not to be considered a fad in any sort of way. The evolution of this eating style has developed from our ancestors and earns respect for its dietary sustainability, which is why many people today are still vegetarians.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ 2016 position paper on vegetarian diets states “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” This quote can be controversial for some because of the consistent backlash vegan and vegetarian diets receive. However, whatever other research studies show, it always depends on the person themselves and what fits their specific dietary pattern. Let’s take this through from the beginning, and end on how modern-day vegetarianism has changed and completely evolved.


The first known group who abstained from eating meat were Pythagoreans — followers of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (6th century B.C.). There also is evidence of ancient vegetarianism in the Maurya Dynasty (304 to 232 B.C.), when Buddhist vegetarian advocate Indian Emperor Ashoka encouraged people to care for animals in an attempt to stop the animal sacrifice. There is a lot to say about human and animal sacrifice:

In religions, animals appear as the third party in the interaction between gods and human beings, often as mediators. There was a level of respect and sympathy for animals that dictated how the different species interact with each other. Different parts of the world, which include various practices of religion, chose to handle the relationship between animals and humans independently. For example, in India, nearly three thousand years ago,  the sacrificing of animals was replaced by bloodless offerings.

Eating meat was deemed less pure than a vegetarian diet, and doing no injury to any living being became a universal ethical command in Brahmanical lawbooks. (Saelid, Gilhus, Ingvild 2006).  Also, in England, attitudes to the natural world changed in the early modern period. This change was that animals were viewed with increasing sympathy. Even writers in the Christian tradition no longer saw animals as made solely for human sustenance. However, Christians still employ sacrificial testimony because of the Old Testament’s dictation of the sacrificial lamb as a symbol of Jesus Christ.

The Roman Empire

It’s known that this period of sacrificial practices ended in the fourth century CE, specifically in the limited geographical period of the Mediterranean. However, the ideology of animal sacrifice did not necessarily end.

In the Roman Empire, humans exploited animals on their farms, hunted them in the wilderness and at sea, trained and tamed them, used them to transport people and goods, utilized them in magic and medicine, kept them as pets, cheered them on the racetrack, killed them in the arenas, and sacrificed them to the gods. (Saelid, Gilhus, Ingvild 2006). How human animals and non-human animals relate to each other depends on the moral, material, and technological developments in a particular human society.

The cultural relationship between humans and animals depends on the use of that animal. Humans look at lions differently than sheep. This old ideology dating back to the Roman and Egyptian empires is something that still resonates today. Vegetarians may use the defense of wanting to respect and treat all animals the same. That means seeing a dog as a friendly companion to love and raise and then later seeing a cow and not treating it any differently. But, this is not the ‘natural way of thinking. The average person who eats meat and animal by-products clearly sees a difference in pigs, cows, lamb, and cats or dogs. There is no ‘line’ to be drawn to what constitutes an animal to be considered food or to be considered a pet.

Gladiator Mosaic
Credit: Bad Kreuznach,

The difference between this current ideology and the ones from centuries ago is that back then animals were treated as subjects of philosophical debates and of natural histories. They were part of the cultural imagination and were used in descriptions of people as well as in images of the divine. This cultural and religious debate is not commonly practiced in the Western Americas. In other countries where religion still takes control over animals and flesh-eating, of course, it still holds animals to a higher value in their specific community.


Another group of great figures in the classical world was Pythagoras and his thinking, who contributed to society. He was an independent thinker, the first to admit women to his intellectual circle on equal terms and to argue that the world was a sphere. His teachings included that all animals should be treated as kindred, including abstinence from meat. This was because he viewed vegetarianism as a key factor for peaceful human coexistence. Pythagoras imagePythagoras inspired later Ancient Greek thinkers who then favored the vegetarian diet (such as Theophrastus.) Also, Pythagorean ideals found very limited sympathy with the brutality of Ancient Rome.

During the gladiator era, animals were treated harshly due to being murdered for entertainment and sport. However, the term ‘Pythagorean’ became synonymous with ‘vegetarian’ from the 3rd to 6th centuries throughout the Roman empire.

Eastern Religions

Vegetarianism has always been central to Buddhism. Buddha and Pythagoras were almost exact contemporaries and it is possible that the Greek thinkers were influenced by such mystical teachings. Also, abstaining from eating meat was also encouraged in other Asian religions, like Hinduism, Brahmanism, and Jainism. They were simply doctrines of non-violence and respect for all life forms.


Bringing it to the 19th century, there were noteworthy vegetarian figures that represented the range of cultural expression. Figures like Dr. WIlliam Lambe (1765-1847) represented both the medical and literary world of this topic. Part of his circle included Mary Wollstonecraft and Dr. John Newton. Newton’s family was involved in promoting the ‘Vegetable Diet’ and later led to set up the organization called The Vegetarian Society.

The Romantic Poet Shelley became a vegetarian in 1812 and added a political dimension to the diet. At this time, the angle meat took in people’s lives usually involved political separation between rich and poor. Shelley claimed this dimension pointed out the inefficient use of meat resources and how it was a reason for food shortages in society. By the 1880s, vegetarian restaurants became popular in big cities like London, England. They offered cheap and nutritious meals for the general population.

How the Wars Brought Meat Back

The two world wars pushed Western diets back toward meat. The vegetarian movement of the 19th century suffered from some bad press but still was a strong influence on many cultures, especially on Americans who eliminated many meat products from their diet. The issue began with how many countries were suffering from so much human loss. It took away from the respect factor for life as a whole.

This included treatment towards animals. On war bases and throughout those years of being a soldier, meat was often the only option to keep a full stomach. Because during this time meat was often seen as a treat, military men enjoyed eating an abundance of meat, completely switching from the previous decade’s movement away from it. Many American and European civilians also felt the urge to see meat as a luxury, not something to avoid. It was a symbol of status. Since it became less available, more people wanted it, and more people valued it.

In the UK, during the wars, there were still some vegetarians-by-choice. The rate of this went up compared to America. The reason for this was that the British government allotted a bigger ration of cheese for those who registered as a vegetarian. Those dairy products were more attractive than tiny pieces of meat, and during the wars, many people opted for choices of food that would feed the family over anything else. However, this changed when pork and beef became more available after the war. Once again, meat became a symbol that people believed in. It represented peace and prosperity, especially since there was a new postwar abundance of it.

More on after the wars

Factory farming didn’t take long to form because a large number of people desired meat. By the 1950s and ‘60s, the general population then became slightly aware of the truth behind these intense factors. Vegetarianism appealed to the mid-1960’s counterculture, as Eastern influences permeated Western popular culture. In the ‘70s, there was serious academic attention to the ethics of animal welfare. Soon came the connection between vegetarianism and the Earth’s environmental issues.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw grave attention to vegetarianism being seen as a process of change and conservation of resources. Information on how slaughterhouses and factory farming in huge meat-eating countries like the USA have multiplied in research over the past twenty years because of how serious the topic has become.

The Health Impact and Outlook

The meat industry, like many others in the present day, is imported and exported to some countries. The’ livestock importance rallied opposition from many ‘ordinary people from all over the UK. Some real health concerns were raised when it was realized that some flesh foods were infected with diseases like ‘Mad Cow Disease’ and Salmonella. The 1980s brought a focus on truly living healthily and the serious connection with food. This was when vegetarianism became more ‘popular’ again because of the health concerns that directly involved the consumption of meat.

Research has found that eating meat regularly increases a person’s risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other life-threatening illnesses. Oxford University published a study that found that the consumption of red meat, processed meat, and poultry meat at least three times a week was linked to a greater risk of no different illnesses.

But when large organizations like the World Health Organization have developed food plans for a ‘healthy’ life that include meat, now what? Are they guiding people in the direction of a possible early death instead of lifelong good health? This brings another sub-topic to the discussion of vegetarianism’s evolution: does a vegan or vegetarian diet equal good or perfect health? Not for everyone. But every country calls the shots differently because of this.

Food is part of propaganda. The meat and dairy industry mostly takes part in manipulating people to eat certain foods that are advertised as healthy but really aren’t. After all this history has been discussed, the current battle between humans and animals hardly includes ethics as its main argument.


From 1958 to 1992, the USDA’s food guide was a rectangle illustrating four food groups: dairy, meat, fruits/vegetables, and grains. When they released the controversial pyramid, it still took some time to replace it, ultimately, in 2005. MyPyramid became the new image of health guidelines for Americans.

image of old american food guidelines

Once again, this model was replaced. Now, it is known as MyPlate, as an image display. The pyramid made it confusing as to why some parts of the image were bigger than others, assuming the recommendation is to eat more grains than vegetables, for example. This plate now makes it easier to understand exactly how much the average person should eat. The biggest change is labeling the meat section ‘Protein’ now. This allows room for other dietary lifestyles like vegetarianism. Dairy is still a section, including a recommendation of low-fat cow’s milk or yogurt.


Japan’s food guide is not a pyramid but instead a spinning top, which is a popular toy in the country. This guide is dish-based and includes traditional Japanese food items like noodles, rice, and seaweed. This guide is also high in carbohydrates like grains and vegetables but is low in fat. It is a controversial addition since many diet trends in the USA call for lowering grains and increasing dietary fat. So which is it?image of the japanese food guide

United Kingdom

The Uk’s ‘Eatwell guide’ states that both grains and fruits/vegetables should each makeover one-third of a person’s total diet. Dairy still has a seat at the table, and so do meats. But like in the USA, they specify that protein includes more than just meat and poultry products.image of the UK's eat well guide

These are just a few examples of how every country takes a different approach to recommend good health. It is rare to see a purely vegetarian or vegan diet as a country’s total diet guide, but that doesn’t mean people are not taking to diets like them. With propaganda changing and allowing more room for different options of protein like beans and legumes, the history of vegetarian eating has already evolved quite a bit.

Still, there is an overall worry about the necessity of meat in a person’s diet apart from the fact that it is highly accessible and overproduced. The average person can buy meat products, so that doesn’t make them as luxurious as they once were. And since these guidelines tell people to include meat, they most likely will structure every meal around a piece of meat. This can sound balanced, but it really isn’t. It is this model that led Americans to take part in more research on why sicknesses caused by eating meat have become very common.


The fact is: meat isn’t the same anymore. Ethics took a back seat in this conversation, which is why slaughterhouses and factory farming are still a thing. Vegetarians and Animal Rights Activists endorse the horror behind the animal treatment and the severe lack of respect for their lives. In those periods spoken about earlier, ethics and religion always took part in how animals were treated, which proved even when people were eating them, they held animals to high value and status.

History has evolved and cut that part out of how we see animals. This ultimately led to how we also treat the Earth and the concern for the environmental impact of raising livestock. Overconsumption and demand for meat and dairy products now not only lead to disease and obesity but also have been proving to damage land and the environment. This is mostly the case for Western culture in North America, but it is enough to damage to raise concern for the entire world.


Campbell, Denis. 2021. “Eating meat ‘raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and pneumonia.’” The Guardian.

Hultin, Ginger. 2019. “A Snapshot of Vegetarianism and Its Impact on the Dietetics Profession.” Food & Nutrition.

Nestle, Marion. 2011. “Goodbye, Food Pyramid: USAD to Announce a new “Food Icon.” The Atlantic.

Saelid Gilhus, Ingvild. Animals, Gods, and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Thought. Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Accessed June 14, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

The Vegetarian Society. 2021. “World History of Vegetarianism.” Vegetarian Society.

Zaraska, Maria. 2016. “This Is Why Vegetarianism Didn’t Catch on Until Recently.” Time.

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