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Was Ben Franklin a vegetarian?

Opening Summary

Benjamin Franklin is remembered as one of America’s founding fathers and for his many contributions as a statesman, author, publisher, scientist, inventor and philosopher. He is featured on the $100 bill and was one of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. But was he also a vegetarian? The quick answer is no, Ben Franklin was not strictly a vegetarian. However, he did appreciate the virtues of a meatless diet and saw the benefits of moderating meat consumption. He expressed these views primarily later in life.

Franklin’s Changing Views on Meat Consumption

For most of his life, Franklin was an omnivore who ate meat regularly. This was common for 18th century America, when access to meat was a sign of prosperity. Franklin ate what was typical for his time and class. However, his views shifted as he aged. In his later writings, Franklin described meat eating as unhealthy and wasteful. He saw vegetarianism as a sensible ideal, though he did not practice strict vegetarianism himself.

Franklin came to question meat eating for economic and health reasons. He worried about the environmental strains of raising so much livestock. He also believed that a plant-based diet was better for human health and longevity. Franklin studied nutrition and came to believe that eating less meat could prevent illness.

Though Franklin praised vegetarianism, he was not committed to the diet himself. He viewed meat in moderation as acceptable. He also enjoyed the flavors of meat even while acknowledging its health downsides. For Franklin, the solution was to curb his consumption, not abstain entirely.

Franklin’s Concerns About the Meat Industry

In writings from the 1780s, when Franklin was in his late 70s, he repeatedly criticized the environmental impact of meat production. He wrote about the great tracts of land needed to raise cattle and the immense amount of resources required to sustain livestock.

Franklin calculated that by switching to a grain and vegetable based diet, the acres used for grazing could be repurposed. He suggested the land could produce at least 10 times as much food in grains and vegetables for human consumption compared to meat production. He described the advantages of vegetarianism as “greater Plenty, cheaper Living and greater Healthiness.”

Franklin also objected to the cruelty of slaughtering animals for food. He advocated vegetarianism as a means to avoid violence and killing. Franklin was interested in ethics as part of personal virtue and saw compassion for other living creatures as an important moral value.

Key Franklin Quotes on Vegetarianism

“Flesh eating is unprovoked murder.”

“I have been a great lover of fish, but now I eat none…I believe my health has been much better since my abstinence.”

“It has been found that a vegetarian diet consisting of roots and herbs, with milk and eggs, …would sustain a hardy man.”

Franklin’s Dietary Concerns Were Partly Motivated by Health

A significant reason why Franklin criticized eating meat and advocated vegetarianism was out of health concerns. In his time, the causes of illness and keys to longevity were poorly understood. Franklin aimed to learn through scientific inquiry and personal observation. He came to see meat and animal products as unhealthy.

Franklin noted that meat was often prepared in greasy, salty and smoked ways that could burden the body. He spoke from personal experience about the heaviness in his stomach after eating meat. Franklin perceived that a diet of vegetables, grains, fruit and natural animal products like milk and eggs, was lighter and more nourishing.

The famous inventor also suspected that overconsumption of meat could lead to gout, which he and fellow elites often suffered from. Gout is an inflammatory condition aggravated by rich foods. Franklin observed that meat, fats, alcohol and other indulgences seemed to trigger gout flare-ups.

He pondered: “Perhaps eating too plentifully of animal food may impair our faculties of thinking… and perhaps animal food is less conducive to the improvements of the mind.”

Franklin’s Health Maxims on Diet

– “Eat not to fullness.”
– “Eat moderately, drink temperately.”
– “A full belly is the mother of all evil.”
– “Would you preserve your sight keep your eyes from fat meats.”

Franklin’s Flexible Perspective on Meat

Based on his criticisms, Franklin is sometimes depicted as a passionate vegetarian, which is an exaggeration. He objected to the excesses of meat eating, but with a balanced perspective.

Franklin saw meat consumption as fine in moderation. He believed portions should be modest and seasoning simple. He felt dining on meat once or twice a week could be healthy if vegetables, grains and dairy made up most of the diet.

Franklin also seemed to make exceptions for fish and fowl. He noted that the Bible depicted fish eating as acceptable. He also continued to eat eggs from poultry that he raised.

This flexible stance reflects Franklin’s broad-minded reasoning and concern with practicality. While advocating plant-based eating, he acknowledged meat’s good taste and did not force rigid restrictions that might impact his social life or hosting duties as a diplomat.

Examples from Franklin’s Own Dietary Habits

Franklin’s personal eating habits demonstrate his moderate approach regarding meat:

Breakfast and Supper

Franklin ate simply at breakfast and supper. His typical breakfast was bread and tea. For supper, he ate vegetables, roasted apples, bread and cheese. Eggs sometimes substituted for the cheese. Franklin drank beer or wine with these meals.

Main Meal of the Day

Franklin’s main meal was dinner in the mid-afternoon. This meal varied substantially depending on Franklin’s circumstances, company and locale.

When dining alone, his dinner might be a potato, rice or noodle pudding. More social dinners included meat or fish, but with a variety of simple, vegetables and grains making up most of the meal.

Special Occasions

For special occasions like holidays and celebrations, Franklin would indulge in richer meats like turkey, goose, duck or ham. However, he advised eating sparingly of these fatty meats.


Franklin regularly ate seafood, including cod, salmon and eel. He viewed fish as an acceptable meat.

Eggs and Dairy

Eggs and dairy foods like milk, cream and cheese were consistent staples, said to be among his favorite foods.

Franklin’s Table Talk and Social Meals

Franklin believed that dining should be about congenial conversation and bringing people together as much as the food itself. He valued the social role of meals.

As a diplomat and America’s representative in Europe, Franklin entertained dignitaries and intellectuals at his table. He also believed in sitting down to eat with common workers and artisans to learn from people of all classes.

At dinners, Franklin aimed for pithy, amusing and morally uplifting conversation. He compiled examples of good table talk for guests to consider when conversing.

Franklin was inclined to eat simply, but understood the needs of hospitality and his public position. He purchased quality ingredients and had a French chef cook for his dinner parties in Paris. Guests were often welcomed with bread, cheese, wine and tea, followed by multiple courses.

While Franklin ate meat at social meals, he tried to set an example of temperance and moderation in diet. If the courses were elaborate, he would advise guests to just taste the items that most appealed to them, rather than gorge.

Franklin’s Table Talk Guidelines

– Eat in moderation to avoid dulling the intellect and overtaxing the body.

– Choose wholesome foods that balance simply prepared meat and fish with ample vegetables, grains and dairy.

– Enjoy your food and eat attentively for good digestion.

– Avoid excessive salt, oil and sauces that create an artificial hunger for more.

– Drink cool, clean water and in moderation.

– Make mealtimes lively with warm, insightful conversation.

Did Franklin’s Views Change American Diets?

Franklin’s appreciation of vegetarianism was unusual for his era. Most Americans saw meat as essential for health and associated meatless diets with poverty and penance. Vegetables and grains were considered poor people’s food.

The pending meat shortage that Franklin warned of did not materialize in the late 18th century as farmland expanded west and cattle herds grew. Modern factory farming and refrigerated transport have further enabled mass meat consumption.

While Franklin did not convert Americans to vegetarianism in his time, his writings on the topic were pioneering. He made one of the earliest cases for plant-based diets in the American colonies and new nation.

Franklin introduced arguments for vegetarianism that would be repeated by advocates in generations to come. His warnings about overusing land for livestock sounded remarkably modern. And he gave early voice to moral opposition to eating animals in the United States.


In conclusion, Franklin was intrigued by the advantages of vegetarianism and eating less meat, based on ethics, health and economics. He extolled the benefits of a vegetable and grain based diet. But he was not a strict vegetarian himself, taking a flexible stance that allowed for occasional meat and fish consumption.

Franklin’s nuanced perspective showed an appreciation for vegetarian principles combined with his characteristic spirit of pragmatism and moderation. While he valued meat’s flavor, he developed a preference for simple, plant-based meals as the lighter, healthier option. Franklin proved reluctant to give up some animal foods he relished, like eggs and seafood, but he sought to reduce his meat intake as he aged, aiming to live as long and vibrantly as possible.

In touting the virtues of vegetarianism, he promoted ideals still resonating today. Franklin provides an early, imperfect, but thought-provoking model of vegetarian curiosity that pondered diet’s impact on health, environment and ethics.