33 Days of Truth: Day 16
The other night I attended an event put on by the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii, featuring a presentation by Mic the Vegan, a Youtuber whom I hadn’t previously heard of. It was just the inspiration to prompt me into writing about today’s 33 Days of Truth topic: Why and how I came to eat a plant-based vegan diet.
As of this post, I have been eating vegan (no animal products or byproducts) for a year and a half. I ate a lacto-avo vegetarian diet (no meat but some dairy, cheese and eggs) for 11 years before that.
My primary reason for both dietary changes was and remains a moral one. I personally do not want to take part in either the killing or suffering of any animal.
Growing up, I loved animals, although I did not have as deep a compassion toward them or as strong a sense of moral conviction about their welfare that I do now.
I did not have a particular attachment to eating most kinds of meat, which perhaps poised me to be more receptive to eventually dropping it from my diet. I didn’t like seafood, I was picky about bacon (it had to be soft cooked), and my family cut out beef when the whole Mad Cow thing went down. We primarily ate poultry.
Tastes Like Chicken
Growing up, my family kept chickens for eggs but we also slaughtered some of them for meat. I recall one time seeing a chicken get beheaded; with a severed neck the body leapt from the wooden block where its head remained and ran around the yard until it finally dropped dead. Which, by the way, is where that saying comes from. (“Like a chicken with its head cut off.”)
That was at my childhood home in California. Later, we moved onto 20 acres of land in the woods of northeastern Washington, where we had other farm animals in addition to chickens; turkeys, ducks, rabbits, and goats. A few of them were pets, others were dinner.
Because hunting was popular in the area, we also had the occasional bite of wild meat, including rabbit, elk and deer, usually brought to us by the neighbors. I had plenty of direct exposure to killing of animals for sustenance. Back then, it did not phase me much. It’s just what we did.
I could take or leave most meats, but my very favorite food was, hands down, chicken. I could eat chicken all day, in everything. When I moved out after high school, my mom gave me a little recipe box with all of my favorites. Chicken Monterey. Chicken Parmigiana. Cheez-It Chicken. And a special Chicken Salad dish that was my requested dinner for every single birthday. I did not have any thought or intention of cutting chicken from my life.
Vegetarian and vegan options were far from my reality, as I had very little exposure to such a diet or lifestyle. There is just one experience that stands out in memory of associating with anyone who ate a vegetarian diet, before I made the switch myself.
It was during a visit with my older brother to see a longtime friend of ours. This friend was going to college at the time and lived with his girlfriend. They were both vegetarian. We all went out to a Mexican restaurant, and I really wanted the chicken burrito. But I felt uncomfortable about eating meat in front of them. I asked if it would be ok. They graciously assured me it was no big deal, they didn’t mind, and to please eat whatever I wanted.
Once I adopted a vegetarian diet, I commonly found myself in a similar position of having to reassure others that I wouldn’t be offended if they ate meat in my presence. It’s interesting to have been on both sides of it. I do appreciate others consideration of me and my feelings (although, if I may confess, I would extra appreciate if their consideration extended out to animals, too. Le sigh…).
I had a vague sense of why vegetarians might choose not to eat meat, but I really didn’t know much of anything about factory farming. I was in the dark, and quite enjoying eating my chicken with the lights off.
In my early twenties, though, the light came on. Like a switch turned. It happened in a single moment of revelation, when I got hold of the alternative media magazine, Utne Reader.
I’m not sure where it came from. I think maybe my dad sent me a bunch of editions he had finished. I was flipping through one when I came across an article written by a reporter who had gone undercover, working at a major chicken processing plant for Tyson Foods.
Interestingly, the article was not about the conditions of the animals. The focus was on issues of ethnicity, and the sociopolitical and economic struggles of the workers employed there. But a couple of paragraphs effectively described what it was like in the “live hanging” room, and that was all it took. I put down the magazine, went into the kitchen, and told my grandma (who I lived with at the time) that I would no longer eat meat. I haven’t eaten meat since. That was over twelve years ago.
I went completely “cold turkey” from meat eater to vegetarian in response to that article. Incidentally, it occurred a month out from Thanksgiving. My family teased me about that, but not aggressively. Their baffled question of, “But what will you eat?” is something I would learn to dismiss with a laugh, and the onslaught of little sarcastic comments I would come to largely ignore.
Going vegetarian was a lot like taking the red pill in the Matrix, insofar as diet is concerned. Suddenly, the blinders were off, and I could see the exposed reality of the food industry as never before. I discovered that it was obsessed with meat. And that people connected into the food Matrix were obsessed with it, too.
I remember going to the mall cafeteria and trying to find something for lunch. Literally every single picture on every menu had meat. Every dish listed had meat. Not even a salad without it. I was dumbfounded.
You’d think because it was a mall cafeteria, limited options would kind of be expected, and other places would offer greater variety. Not so. Maybe one veggie option. Usually only after requesting to leave off the meat.
Everywhere I turned, the barrage of meat marketing was incessant. Ads constantly told me to crave it, cook it, eat it. I came to find that everyone I knew had a similar mentality as the cafeteria menu, as all the commercials and billboards: A meal isn’t complete, until it has meat.
That’s the message the public was fed. And I saw how those around me swallowed it whole. And how the companies saw dollar signs in every mouthful. To the tune of billions of animals slaughtered annually.
I was no longer participating directly in that, and I felt good about my choice. For a long time, not eating meat was the way I opted out of the animal food industry. But was it enough? Over time, my conscience nagged.
Going vegan, unlike switching to a vegetarian diet, was a years long process. It took a lot more education and self-inquiry before I was able to really absorb how tightly woven together animal byproducts is to the business of meat; and then to internalize that knowledge, to connect my behaviors and choices accordingly.
Upon transitioning to a vegetarian diet, I transferred my love of eating chicken to a love of eating cheese. My new favorite food became macaroni and cheese (it was always a close runner up to chicken anyway). All hail the cheese! I thought I could never give it up. And why would I want to? It was so delicious. A sentiment echoed by many.
The more aware I became about the dairy and egg industries, though, the more ill at ease I began to feel about having animal byproducts in my diet.
Gradually, I reduced them down. I stopped buying cow’s milk, and only consumed it when mixed or baked into things (which is most things, if you read labels). I only bought eggs if they came from pasture-raised chickens (a slight improvement from “cage-free”, but not much by most industry standards). I did a few 30 day trials of cutting out all animal products and byproducts, to test it out. Yet after those periods, I would inevitably return to eating these things in some form or another.
Nobody else was judging me for keeping animal related foods in my diet. I could relish eating cheese without backlash. The social support and approval was there, the same way those who eat meat applaud one another for passionately loving bacon. I was united with others in my cheese worship. I was free to continue.
Others may have been ok with my choices, but I was not. I began to feel like I was in a moral purgatory. Trying to have my cake and eat it too. At a certain point I realized that I would never be able to eat animal byproducts without my conscience pricking me. I could turn down the volume of it. I could not turn it off. I could not regain ignorance about the cost of my cravings, once I saw and understood them.
Knowing that I could fulfill my body’s nutritional requirements without all the animal byproducts, what it came down to was the hard truth that I was only satisfying my own personal desires for taste and convenience by eating them. It had nothing to do with my health, and certainly not with my values.
I had to either step forward with my moral compass as guide, or live out my life within the ethical doldrums, floundering in an endless sea of conflicted interests and resistant feelings.
The Matrix Reloaded
What started as another dietary test-run (eating raw for a week) rolled into finally opting fully into a vegan diet. Mentally I was there. It was time. In August 2017, I cut animal byproducts from my plate for good.
Going vegan was definitely not as simple or straightforward as choosing to eat a vegetarian diet. Being vegetarian, the goal was clearer, the rules easy to follow: don’t eat meat. That was it. Cutting out all the other stuff is an entirely different game. Virtually every food item on the grocery store shelves has some kind of animal derivative in it. Just look at the labels and you’ll know, man.
Becoming vegan has been my own dietary equivalent of The Matrix Reloaded. There are new challenges to face. I have had to continually reaffirm my commitment to staying the course, because of how oversaturated the food market – and our culture – is with animal products.
Do you have any idea how many things contain milk?! It’s about as crazy as how many products contain sugar. (Which is a whole other can of worms I will not open at this time!)
I have had to rethink the way I think about food. Which is bringing me ever closer to a whole foods approach. I appreciate the abundant availability of meat substitutes nowadays, which makes it easier for folks to drop the meat and dairy habits. But even that stuff I’m becoming rather disillusioned with. It’s still processed food. It’s loaded with oils, and flavor is typically valued over rich nutritional content.
Not all vegan diets are created equal. Whole, diverse, nutritionally rich and minimally processed plants is the ticket. There has been a bit of a learning curve for me in this and there are some areas where I can certainly improve. Maintaining a healthy diet (vegan or otherwise) is a practice that requires exploration, experimentation, and dedication to dial in.
So Easy a Caveman Could Do It…
In the cultural debate on what constitutes an “ideal” health and diet, some believe that meat is and should remain the foundation for how we fuel ourselves. The underlying logic behind this being that since our ancestors ate meat, we should too. That we are biologically wired for it; and as it is natural and normal, we have carte blanche to carry on with it.
I think we start to lose the bigger picture when we go down the rabbit hole of “this is how it’s always been done”. To me, the greater issue is how our culture eats meat today. It has no resemblance to how paleolithic humans obtained or consumed meat, or to how modern humans did even a couple hundred years ago.
There is nothing natural, nor ethically acceptable, about mass producing animals for human consumption. The gluttony of it is making us sick with heart disease, obesity and other preventable health problems, and the greed is destroying the very planet we walk on.
Personally, I don’t see the creation smaller meat operations or “grass fed” farming as a good enough response to these major issues. Huge corporations and manufacturers are not going to scale back to that. They will keep doing what people pay for. They will feed livestock with grass pellets and buy “organic” and “humane” labeling for poultry if it will keep consumers coming back and buying from them. They will continue churning out hundreds upon thousands upon millions upon billions of chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs every single year, as long as the profit opportunity remains.
This also applies to all the associated animal byproducts such as milk, butter, eggs, and gelatin. The market will provide what is asked for. Money talks, as they say. I think that the most pointed, direct, and influential act each person can take for a better world is to divest their dollars entirely from the meat and diary industries. And invest it into plants. Cut out the middle man. Go for green!
I know not everybody thinks or feels the way I do about animal consumption. Even though plant-based diets are on the rise and gaining considerable traction in the marketplace, it is still the minority option.
I generally don’t mind others eating meat in front of me, because I take it as a given that it is just the world I’m in. But, I don’t see it is a given that the world has to stay this way. And so I am being the change, to the best of my ability.
Sorry Not Sorry
I rarely talk with passion about the subject of diet to those who eat differently. I answer their curious and skeptical questions when prompted. But otherwise I keep my convictions to myself.
The joke goes that you know if someone is vegan because they tell you. Perhaps that is true of some vegans, but I try not to parade this personal choice and only bring it up in the appropriate context (i.e. when food is involved, such as ordering from a restaurant or declining an offer of something non-vegan).
As a rule, I do not talk too much about my stance on veganism in order to create a sense of acceptance for others who may think or live differently from me. I try to stay relatively neutral to maintain a safe space for those around me (currently most of my friends and family) to be comfortable in their diets and lifestyles. Because I want to be comfortable in mine. Neither of us can if we are weary of judgment or criticism from the other.
With the inevitable social bonding that happens around food, I feel good about my diet around people who eat vegan or vegetarian. Whereas I sometimes feel sad and frustrated when I’m not. In the latter case, I don’t usually express my honest feelings, due to the concerns and considerations previously stated.
I suppose it can also seem the same way from the perspective of meat-eaters being around vegans: Like their world is inundated by these alternate interests which contradict and threaten their own. It seems, in the global conversation around food, we are either a vegan in a meat eating world or a meat-eater in a vegan world, and it is a silent (or not so silent) battle zone. It’s hard to know where the win-win is. Or the win-win-win, if we were to include animals into that equation.
But… What If?
The kids I nanny, for whom I have been a sort of Introduction to Veganism 101, have asked me curiously if I were stranded on an island and the only way to survive the ordeal would be to eat meat, then would I do it?
It’s meant to be an amusing “what if” question, but the kids are not the only ones asking it. I find that people want to probe my food-related ethics in a similar direction to find out at what juncture the morals break down. Almost as if hitting a breaking point indicates some underlying fallacy in the way I eat and live my daily life. If my values don’t uphold in the most dire of circumstances, then are they worth upholding at all?
I’m reminded of the movie Life of Pi (based on a novel by the same name by Yann Martel), in which the protagonist is raised in India on a vegan diet, but succumbs to eating fish to survive after being shipwrecked and lost at sea.
At first, Pi is emotionally distraught and cries the first time he kills and eats a fish. After a few times, however, it becomes habit. He goes into autopilot, stops feeling anything about it, and simply does what is necessary to stay alive.
To me that is a key to understanding the way and the why of how we do things. What we are not accustomed to can feel strange and distressing to us. Whereas whatever is familiar and customary seems most natural to us, and most comfortable. Exposure and repetition changes the game. We can get used to almost anything that way. But does it mean that we should?
In my personal efforts to thrive as a conscious being with the power of choice, I choose to use that power for good by looking out not for my own interests solely but to the interests of all, including other animals and the planet as a whole. I know I can best do so by adopting a plant-base diet and that it is possible to be healthy that way, as proven by scientific research.
Also supported by scientific research are some ways to be healthy on a meat-based diet. Although, it may be noted, the environmental impact remains in hot debate. As the research develops with regard to the global impact of the meat and dairy industries, environmental sustainability has become a huge motivator to me in maintaining a vegan diet, in addition to the ethical factors of animal welfare.
Many who feel as I do treat the vegan diet as a kind of religion, attempting to convert or else renounce those who aren’t “true” followers. It creates an us vs. them mentality that separates rather than unites. I usually avoid saying, “I am vegan”, as it makes my free choice something entwined in identity-based thinking; the way someone might refer to a faith or race. It can be a slippery slope into unconscious behavior. I much prefer the proactive statement, “I eat a vegan diet.”
I also sometimes correct people when they say I “can’t” have a particular food with the gentle reminder that I choose not to. There is a difference. This is not something my doctor gave me a note about. It’s something I educated myself on and engaged my own personal moral reasoning to reach a conclusion about what is right for me. Which I find confuses people more than it assures them. As if exercising authority over my own choices is less convincing than if someone else commanded me to them.
I find that how we talk about things can influence how we perceive them. “Vegan” is more of a trigger for people than “plant-based”, for example.
Whenever we identify with, or prejudge, a particular label, or a specific way of thinking or being, it becomes difficult to question the behaviors and presumptions that are behind it. So I like to keep an open stance and an mind open, to continue growing on the heartfelt path, which is what brought me to veganism (oh the isms!) in the first place. It is an ever-evolving journey.
There is no one, true, absolute answer here, of how to eat or live a life, or even how to regard other lives. It is for each person to decide what is right for the kind of person they want to be and the world they want to be in; and for what they want to participate in creating more of. Individually and collectively, we influence how the story goes.
Garden of Eden
Sometimes, a part of me wishes I could not care as much as I do, and just eat the way everybody else does. Sometimes I want to take the feeling and thinking out of it and have the simple convenience of eating any and all food that crosses my plate. It would of course be easier to be a meat-eater in a meat-eating world. That’s just not the kind of world I want to perpetuate, or that I want to leave for future generations to inherit.
Instead, I am doing what I can to be the example of a kinder, healthier world, and to make a little bit of difference for my part in it. To make our planet less of a graveyard, and more of a garden.