The psychiatry of vegetarianism

A fascinating but unfortunately locked review article on the psychology of vegetarianism has this paragraph on how avoiding the pleasures of cooked flesh has been seen as a mental illness in times past.

How vegetarians are seen has shifted radically over time. During the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church declared vegetarians to be heretics, and a similar line of persecutions occurred in 12th century China (Kellman, 2000). In the earlier half of the twentieth century, the sentiment toward vegetarians remained distinctly negative, with the decision not to eat meat being framed as deviant and worthy of suspicion.

Major Hyman S. Barahal (1946), then head of the Psychiatry Section of Mason General Hospital, Brentwood, wrote openly that he considered vegetarians to be domineering and secretly sadistic, and that they “display little regard for the suffering of their fellow human beings” (p. 12). In this same era, it was proposed that vegetarianism was an underlying cause of stammering, the cure for which was a steady diet of beefsteak.

In contrast, research shows the general attitude to vegetarianism has generally shifted to be, shall we say, somewhat more positive.

Link to locked article. Forbidden fruit and all that.

36 thoughts on “The psychiatry of vegetarianism”

  1. well, eating things with eyes and mouths, etc. has been a problem for quite a lot of people, but I give it the microscopic view and have a squizz at the amazing “faces” of the life that we can’t see that is consumed, swallowed, breathed in and out, crushed, washed away, etc. and have consequently realised that the main concern is in making sure that what I eat is not suffering any pain, and is quite dead… hard to do with the microscopic, but yeah, chew one’s food properly and humane ways of killing chickens, livestock, etc. It’s an awful thing for most to contemplate, having had their first traumatic shocks when they were children, but, because the child is tiny compared to the giant parents or elders that feed it, just quietly gets on with eating what it is fed for fear of consequences, until it is old enough to make its own decisions on what it will consume… my biggest lesson in trying to be vegetarian, was when I imagined I was a donkey and I ate a mouthful of grass, and in the grass I chewed, I chewed up a ladybird and some other bugs, and from thenceforth decided that it would be a very hypocritical viewpoint to have the aloof attitude that I didn’t kill anything while I was eating, and understand that throughout my life, I was killing, eating, etc. many microscopic creatures and bactaria without even knowing it… i mean, take a look at some close up pictures of bactaria and other living things under the microscope… mini dragons and cats and worms and stuff… i mean, just have a look!!! and then we wash them off and drown some of them, too… there’s no winning the argument, so just eat what is on one’s plate, as long as it is quite dead and not feeling the “crunch”…

  2. Let us not forget that Plants are alive. Im a vegetarian and am well aware of this. Vegetables Plants and Herbs grow or create fruit, vegetables, flowers, fragrance, and in the case of herbs thousands of natural agents that serve the plant no know purpose but have amazing healing abilities in animals. Here we see plants benefit from animals using and eating their edible parts for survival and seed spreading.

  3. Purely unscientific personal opinion here, but it seems to me that the vegetarians I run into are often kinda cranky and edgy, and generally don’t seem to be a very “happy” bunch. Perhaps that’s simply the temperament of those attracted to it to begin with. But my sense is they’re just running around without enough protein, with their bodies always on the edge of “starvation”. And yes, I already know we can get by on less protein, yada-yada!

    1. About half my friends are vegetarians and none of them are ever cranky nor edgy. In fact they are calmer than most, and easier to get along with.

    2. The field of psychology has never, as far as I know, done a modern day study of vegetarian’s personalities. Just look at this article – entertaining, but it does not explain anything current.

      Pat Shipman is the only person who even has a good hypothesis about why people keep pets.

      As a former vegetarian (started at 14 and gave it up a few years ago after I developed a wheat allergy) I can tell you that it just made sense to me – I always respected animals growing up, and to hear the factory condtions, I could not bring myself to consume meat any more.

      What was disappointing and also a bit crushing to me as a young woman was people’s reaction to my decision. I was derided and in college students would make it a point to tell me stories of when they kicked or tortured animals.

      A severe B12 deficiency can certainly make people cranky, however anyone who respects animals will also not have a nice time in this world having to tolerate rampant human ignorance.

      Recently I realized that vegetarianism does not eliminate problems for nonhuman animals. A traditional way of living (eco-friendly, humane farms) is a better way to go overall, I think. Although I still admire people who can stick to the diet.

      The biggest mistake the animal rights movement made was to call for “compassion” for these “poor, helpless animals”. They are not helpless, and they deserve respect. But of course we won’t know just how much we have in common with the animals until we drown like rats due to the way we disrespected the planet. She is still in charge.

      (Holy long comment – sheesh, sorry for the sermon).

      1. loved the long comment, sheesh… just to bear in mind that mother nature shows us horrific things that we have been able to document, like the killer whale catching the seal; the lioness hunting the deer; the cannibal eating the “pig meat”; etc. and then on the other side of the scale, the cheetah’s stopping for a chat with the deer and then moving on; the selfish action of different animals suckling another species; humans laying down their lives for various causes… it’s a matter of balance whether one is going to drown or swim like a rat… if I may quote: “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” and “You are what you eat”… In every way, it’s always going to be how one treats one’s image… it’s the cycle of life and it won’t change, no matter how many laws are put into place: the garden of eden is protected by a sword that goes all ways, and there’s only one way to get “back to the garden”… TREAT YOURSELF WELL AND FAIRLY and know the consequences of your actions… and don’t blame any one else or circumstance…

    3. yeah, i never seen meat eaters whine and complain about things constantly – cause domestic disputes/violence, etc…

      and the protein argument – hilarious. this is crap straight out of Garbage Chagnon / Marvin Harris anthropology that protein “deficits” caused the violence among the yamomami (nevermind the steel tools that missionary douche bags brought and used as fodder for conversion to their Garbage god.)

      seriously, stop commenting on things if your assumptions are ancient, unfounded nonsense. it just makes you look ridiculous.

    4. I’m vegan and when people say they think veggies are unhappy bunch – this is usually in the middle of some hackneyed set of excuses for why they’re not – plus of course the protein nonsense, tell it to the American dietetic association who endorse vegan diets from cradle to grave – I have to say that a) it’s not my experience, but b) when you actually think what happens to millions of honhumans every day, it can be a bit of a downer. Do these people never get sad when they think of fellow humans being oppressed, exploited and killed?

      1. this is the sadness, that we don’t think too much about where that food comes from (or we do but don’t tell any one) and have a healthy thinking pattern that can digest all facts in a way that makes one happy to have been able to eat, drink and be merry, and count one’s blessings, for as we know, too many people, young and old; animals and nature, are suffering fates that the privileged cannot fathom… it is so scary to know that some living creations die from malnutrition, thirst and disease that could so easily be prevented with a tap of running water and a simple meal… of course, before anyone bites my head off, I do know how hard it is to supply water to every one on the planet and to have a supply of food for every one on the planet in the face of wars, feuds, disputes, ownership issues, “some one else will do it” syndrome, lack of funds, inaccessibility, storage, infrastructure, religion, science, weather, etc. etc…. and on top of that, I know how hard people have tried and worked and set up “things” so that all have access and then things just get broken and they become disheartened and feel that they are wasting their time/money/energy… i don’t have answers that can solve all the problems, but I do know this: without water and food I’m not going to make it, no matter whether it is vegan, carniverous, organic or whatever… and I shall then have to go on to the other side, passing over or however it is written in your books…. to perhaps a place where there is order and not the chaos that exists in some places on this planet i call home… i’m terrified to post this, but I shall, hoping that it will just be viewed as my point of view and not an instruction or concreted thought for those who read it… it’s just conversation between bites and draughts…

      1. Passive-aggressive much, Mat?

        You rest nothing: You started the argument, flinging unprovoked (and blatantly unscientific) insults around, while overtly ignoring the actual scientific data, and then you pretend that the problem is with *others*?

        What a pathetic, half-a-man wuss you are. Grow a pair (of whatever vegetable you prefer).

      2. Oh, and did we mention that, best of all, they also tend to be real “preachy” and self-righteous about their ‘choice’ (and hyper-sensitive too)! With such endearing qualities, perhaps no wonder they often feel so “misunderstood” (…LOL)!

  4. An easy way to put a vegetarian in a cranky and edgy mood is to ask them probing questions about why they don’t eat meat, under what extreme hypothetical situations they would consider eating meat, etc. Contrary to what many seem to think, this is not a conversation that we are dying to repeat every couple of weeks.

    1. exactly – there is no winning the argument, from all sides… to see how complicated some of it is, you’re welcome to see my painting called “superbug” with heppatitus in the background at, or see my video called “feeding frenzy” on youtube… there’s a world in a grain of sand, and a grain of sand in the world, ad infinitum… the thing is that everyday one (whether you are bacteria, animal, human or plant, etc.) is hungry and needs to eat, and feeding one’s self and those in your cell should be the main criteria, and that is why it’s important for bakers, fishermen, farmers and all others concerned enough to make sure of this, to have a clear path in providing for themselves and their family… of course, the horrible thing that scares everyone quite silly, is cannabilism – that’s just downright freaky and is the dread of all…

      1. but ‘Mother Nature’ (lame, dated concept) cannibalizes all the time. deal with it macho man. why are you getting all moralist now? the idea of “World” is dated and lame also.

        come on buddy, catch up with some new school philosophy instead of just trolling boards with this old boring stuff.

      2. …just my opinion… sorry it brought criticism to my door… just sharing my thoughts in an internet conversation…

  5. The church’s stance on vegetarianism wasn’t really a dietary restriction (many saints were vegetarian). The Cathars of southern France, or at least their Perfecti, were required to be vegetarian. Anything vaguely Cathar was banned.

    In fact, the Inquisition was set up specifically to personally weed them out. See: The Albigensian Crusade.

    Attitudes to vegetarianism today are interesting. Even if we manage to dismiss the animal cruelty argument, we simply can’t argue with the climate change/population argument.

    (NB: I’m not a vegetarian. Or… uhh… a Cathar.)

    1. … also interesting to note that in Chapter One of Genesis, the words indicate that the world was totally vegan, with just berries and nuts for the humans and leafy stuff for the animals… Chapter Two and ensuing history tells of the disregard for those vegan laws and the bloodshed… A typical story about vegan and carniverous “arguments” is set out in the story of Cain and Abel… So, hence, one like myself can safely say that throughout known history, this thing about what to eat and what not to eat has been a cause for “freak outs”, but I know that instead of wasting time arguing and meditating, one needs to eat and drink and all the things that follow… the thing is to live peacefully NOW within your world and keep hunger at bay… I’ve been starved for weeks on a city’s streets and when I finally had something to eat: a baked potato with a shrimp sauce, I could feel the shrimps coming to life in my mouth… but I was starving hungry and suffered much hallucination, sleep deprevation and mentally “deranged”, so I refused to eat the shrimp and screamed that I had asked for vegetarian, and learned throughout the ensuing years to eat what I wanted, and as a guest, to eat what was on my plate – no arguments to waste time and rather to enjoy my company who have laws that they obey in not eating ME!!!!!!

      1. Raine (regarding your comment to me) yes I agree there are some pretty horrific things in the wild, although I have to admit that without death the overpopulation of species would be a much worse situation.

        I guess what I was trying to say with my comment is that psychology has yet to provide a half decent explaination of our relationship with other animals.

        Before Shipman’s hypothesis, the only one I heard was that “people who keep pets are those who cannot maintain stable relationships with other people” I mean really, that’s the best we’ve got? That does not even begin to explain that people of all socio-economic and family status keep pets across the board.

        If Shipman is correct, then my best guess about vegetarianism is that understanding animals is a double-edged sword. On one hand, our ancestors lived and died on the understanding of animals, which allowed us to differentiate from “other animals” into humans, through hunting and the communication / cooperation / language that came with it.

        With that came the knowledge that other animals have much in common with us.

      2. TO EMMIE and other interested parties: yeah, well, i’m glad you have responded as I did – with an open mind to all possibilities… i mean, i questioned my relationship with animals until I got to the question: would you eat me? I had to eventually, after many years, laugh about the question… i mean, is that the final question we ask of our pets, our friends, our families? and is it the final question our animals – domestic and otherwise – ask us? I was pondering this FOOD/HUNGER thingy since as a little girl I saw my geese friends running out of the garage door with their heads and necks missing and my GrandFather walking out finally with a bloodied axe… So again, tonight, I pondered about the tomato I was cutting up into the egg mixture: was the tomato as dead as I imagined, and were the seeds in a comatose situation like the seed within me? All horror, I’m afraid, but not to the point of inertia – life goes on and one must not tarry too long… I think it was one of the Disciples who said: we die daily… and so it is for me; but I digress… There are many different reasons for having pets and your logic has probably listed some of the following: companionship; warmth; hunting partners; tame food; guide dogs; guard “dogs”, (any animal will set off an alarm if there is some disturbance); monetary gain (breeding/showing/pelts, etc.); clothing… ah, the list goes on and on, oh, yeah, and TRANSPORT!!! forgot that one… But yeah, like it says in the Good Book: NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE, and so, for us to even try to put EVERYTHING into a sentence, is most probably possible, but won’t be original, as it also says: there is nothing new on this earth… Well, what goes around comes around, and I’m glad you have an open mind to all things, coz it also says that LOVE believes in all things, or something like that… Now I’ve lost my train of thought again: Oh yes, I reckon that psychology has to realise that, it, too, was created; for after the first drop of blood fell in the perfect garden, there had to be a BIG adjustment in the trust that existed in all of Creation, Creator included. Guess that’s what it’s all about, is getting to that point again when we can all trust our images forever and not cut each other down… Another interesting thing is that many people I have spoken to have told me things that are unbelievable, and yet, through my own experiences, I can believe in the unbelievable of other people – example: a man threw a biscuit into the sea and it was taken by the tide, and while he was watching the waters, the biscuit came back floating whole and dry… Another example: a man had x-ray evidence of a tumor on his brain, and with positive thought (he pictured the tumor getting smaller and smaller until there was nothing left) the tumor disappeared… I could go on and on, but perhaps, for your enlightenment, you may want to check out my artist’s page at There are a few paintings there (THE VISION, among them) which will show you one of my takes on the HUNGER/FOOD story… It will help if you keep in mind the Last Supper’s Bread and Wine… Yeah, it’s all very mysterious, and that’s no mystery at all, coz we know that it’s mysterious… (You have to click on the painting to read the story, and my bio is on the page as well…) I’m signing off for the evening now… Bedtime… Write anytime, thanks for the GREAT site… JUST LOVE MINDHACKS!!!!!

  6. … a psychiatrist once told me: animals come to their glory by being eaten… i still don’t fully understand his reasoning, but yeah, it was said…

  7. Interesting, but on the other hand many things in the 12th century (and the 1940s) were determined by controlling patriarchs and were deemed abnormal if it shook up the norm.

    On the other hand, I’d be curious to hear a professional’s assesment of Ingrid Newkirk, her bizarre attitude and PETA’s obsession with sex. Never in my life have I seen a non-human advocacy group so rabidly anti-feminine and overly sexual.

  8. The Cathars are said to have rejected eating flesh because land animals reproduced sexually. But they allowed eating fish because fish were thought to be asexual or all-female. Sexual reproduction, with its concupiscence, further entangled Soul in the world of matter, which the Cathars sought to flee, being Manichean dualists who thought matter the invention of the Evil Principle.

    One might agree or disagree with the mediaeval churchmen and feudal rulers who thought this sort of religion would destroy all civilized order and spirituality in Europe. But contemporary vegetarianism does have a considerable holier-than-thou “feel” to it. Even doing it for health reasons, in our society and especially on a limited income, is harder and more expensive than many would admit; and that PETAish attitude doesn’t help.

    1. …I personally feel better than when I’ve eaten some lamb or fish or other creature than once saw, felt and lived… but then, the bacteria under the microscope looks like it also sees, feels and lives, so I’ve opted to eat what I can stomach and live with… i totally prefer not to eat flesh, but one cannot get away from consuming something that “lived” before… I took a close up look at wheat and saw the “embryo” in the wheat and thought: WHAT NOW? I conclude that the thinking species has always tried to find a way to be “on the good side” of life, but can do little to nothing when the true scale of things are balanced… it’s a weird world, true story, and there is always a way to feel “saved” from the immense cruelty that takes place right under our noses on a daily basis by continuing our faith, whatever it may be…

  9. Who are we (our brains) to circumvent the judgement of our bodies (omnivorous) inclination to decide which is better for us or not. Hungry is hungry. We’re designed to eat both plant and flesh in limited and moderated amounts. Both arguments for either disposition are irrelevant.

    1. …exactly – it’s a matter of taste: whether one wants to have the banana peel with the banana (as some do) or just the soft pulp inside; the innards with or without the fleshy meat… all a matter of taste … there are many ways to skin a cat… LOL!!!! I have found that no matter how hungry I am, I will eat some things, and refuse others… it’s weird, like my spirit/thoughts/brain/”me” rules what I put into my body… And when I’m not starved, and just normal hungry, I have this “feeling” for something… all a matter of taste, I say…

  10. I live in the mountains of rural Colorado. It’s always been difficult to be a vegetarian here. If you’re a vegetarian, people think you’re slightly insane.

  11. From a religious point of view i believe eating another animal is wrong, plants dont feel as much pain (a plant cannot cry out when he is being hacked up for cheese burgers)

    So even if as a vegetarian im cranky, its simple, dont irritate me. there are much greater mental problems for people to deal with, and being grumpy shouldnt even be on the list.

  12. Seeing this late. But something I thought of.

    People think vegetarians and vegans are cranky, I think, because too often vegans especially seem to want to take the joy out of food.

    I know this isn’t true of everyone and I myself cook vegan/vegetarian a lot. But I notice that most vegan food is simply awful. And few vegans I have met take joy in eating. It’s like penance.

    In fact, I cold draw some interesting parallels between people who say they are vegans because they don’t want to be cruel to animals, and those who have dietary restrictions because they are concerned for the state of their souls. There’s even a whiff of a desire for immortality — people claim all kinds of (I think overblown) benefits for vegan diets that amount to saying they want to live forever. Not that health is a bad thing, but it’s almost like “I am a better person as a vegan, and will live forever too.” Even though the food itself is often pretty terrible. That’s the penance element that creeps into any vegan dietary practices for a lot of people.

    There’s also bad vegan practice, in which people forget that if you are going to eat no animal products whatsoever you need to replace certain nutrients that are just easier for the human body to metabolize. (We aren’t ruminants, after all) and if you need vitamin supplements, you’re doing it wrong. You should be able to get every nutrient you need from food (outside of certain medical conditions like allergies).

    This, by the way, seems to be exclusive to vegans and veggies I meet who were raised in western cultures. Most of my favorite recipes that involve no meat are from India, Africa and Eastern Asia and those folks always seem to be having a lot more fun with it. And there is a movement among some vegans to cook better food. (Hint: never, ever use a meat substitute unless and until you know how to cook a vegetable. Your tastebuds will thank you. And why are you using meat substitute anyway?)

    1. It never occurred to me, as a vegan, that we were trying to take the joy out of food, rather that we are trying to end the appalling suffering that goes into the omnivore diet – as far as the health/immortality thing goes, the description “vegan” applied to someone implies only one thing, namely an ethical approach to life which involves minimising harm to one’s fellow earthlings, fellow humans and the planet. There are excellent vegan nutrition blogs – Jack Norris and Ginny Messina spring to mind so most vegans are well informed about the need for B12 supplements – which is where stalled nonhumans destined to be eaten by humans get theirs – and so forth. There are also innumerable excellent sources for vegan recipes all over the web and bookshops, in every language under the sun. I think veganism is a bit more developed (don’t forget that vegan diets have the stamp of approval of the American Society of Dieticians) than perhaps you have realised – I hope you have a better time from now on finding out about it! The real “Joy of Cooking” – and eating – comes from finishing a tasty and balanced meal and being able to say “….and no-one was hurt”!

  13. It has been a long way, but it looks we are winning somehow respect, at least nowadays a lot of people understand vegetarianism and they respect it, it is still a long way but now it is much better than 200 years ago.

    Thanks for the post, I will look for more information about hese things.

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