a blog by J.M. Cottle
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Food morality, part two: Eating with reason

(Continued from part one.)

It took me a year to go from paleo to vegan because I was so unsure that it was the right thing to do. I did a lot of research and a lot of thinking before I committed to it. Along the way I noticed that there are four main categories of reasons that people go vegan: moral, environmental, health, and taste. I’ve got reasons in all of these categories. I’ll start out with the one that’s most important for me, and end with the one that omnivores always bring up.

Moral

It was morality that prompted me to take another look at my diet in the first place, and it’s my moral system that keeps me on this path. I’m a pacifist, aiming for peace and practicing nonviolence every day, so it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to be eating the corpses of torture victims. That’s not exactly how I want to fuel my peaceful life.

Nowadays when I hurry past the meat refrigerator on the way to the almond milk, I feel sad and queasy thinking about all the chopped up, ground up animal bodies that are wrapped in plastic and stacked so neatly for us to peruse. Imagine walking through a cannibal grocery store, with human ribs and human legs for sale… It’s a little like that.

This might seem overly sentimental to people who don’t think that any animals except for humans are valuable. The interesting thing is that a lot of these people believe that particular animals — household pets, endangered species — are very valuable, and if you killed and ate their dog they would be devastated and furious. I think that there’s a disconnect in that way of thinking. Maybe these people see their pets as property and therefore they are upset that you killed and ate their dog in the same way they would be upset if you ripped up and ate their couch, but I would like to think that most pet owners genuinely love their pets as valuable individuals. What separates a dog from a pig? Or what separates a pet pig that lives in someone’s house from a pig that lives on a farm? Both are alive, both fight to survive, both feel pain and pleasure. Why is one animal’s pain a crime while another animal’s pain is ignored?

And take it one step further: Why is a human animal’s pain a crime while a non-human animal’s pain is ignored?

I couldn’t think of any explanation that satisfied me, so I consider all beings that are capable of feeling pain to be individuals worthy of kindness. That is what feels right to me.

Environmental

Many vegetarians and vegans will tell you that eating animals is bad for the environment. I don’t know enough facts about that to say for sure. I will say for sure that factory farming is bad for the environment, and that as long as there is a demand for meat and a devaluation of non-human animal life in society, factory farms will continue to exist. The best way to stop the environmental devastation of factory farming is to stop the demand for meat. Maybe I’m wrong — maybe all the meat-eaters in the world can get by on environmentally-friendly, torture-free farming, but I doubt it. I don’t think humans are that good at moderation.

When I was paleo I believed that raising animals was a more efficient use of land than growing crops. You can keep animals on land that is unsuitable for crops, and as long as you let the animals eat grass and bugs and things that are naturally on that land you won’t need to plant separate fields of corn and hay to feed them, so you can use those fields to grow food for people. Polyface Farm uses this method, as do those in A Farm for the Future. I am no longer certain who is right. It may be more environmentally sound to raise animals to feed the growing human population, or it may be more environmentally sound to just focus on crops to feed us. I think the real answer is to slow down the growth of the human population so that we don’t need to use every inch of farmable land on the planet, but that’s a whole different blog post.

Another argument from my paleo days is that humans have killed off a lot of the predators around the world, so now we have to act as predators in order to give some balance to a system that is overrun with herbivores. This is more an argument in favor of carefully regulated hunting than it is in favor of breeding domestic animals for food. Either way I have no idea how valid it is, because it’s just something I’ve always believed, possibly due to the “people are the shepherds of the earth” idea that I learned from Catholicism as a kid. I think that if we leave the environment to its own devices and stop messing it up, it’ll be just fine without our shepherding.

As you can see, my environmental reasons are more guesses than anything, and they basically tie into morality anyway. That’s fine. Philosophy is my strength, so I will leave the environmental science to others.

Health

I was following the paleo diet because I believed that it was the healthiest way for humans to eat, so I was not sure what the right decision was here. What’s more important? The lives of animals that I could eat, or my own health? On blogs like Zen Habits and No Meat Athlete I learned that it’s possible to be healthy while avoiding animal products, so I put the question aside and decided to try it for myself.

So far, so good. The only noticeable change is that I’ve lost a significant amount of weight, going from 140 to 120 pounds during my year of transition, and now I’m around 110 since I committed to being vegan as a New Year’s resolution this year. I feel better now that I have less of me to carry around, so I think it was just fine to lose it. It wasn’t what I expected, though. I didn’t become vegan because I thought it would make me thinner and I don’t think that thinner is necessarily healthier. It’s just something that happened. People always seem to think that I eat this way for health reasons and that I can (nay, should!) “cheat” on my “diet” and indulge in cheese or something now and then. I try to explain that indulging is less indulgent when it makes you feel morally ill, but usually I have so little self-control that I give in to their suggestions, eat the thing I do not want to eat, and feel guilty afterward.

I did run into another problem when I learned that vegans usually have to take supplements, especially for B12. It feels wrong to me to take supplements rather than get my nutrition from the food I eat, but I caved, because treating animals badly feels worse than taking supplements. Maybe if I can find a farm that treats its animals well and only gets milk and eggs from them I will buy some and get my B12 that way. If I can stomach eating those things regularly again. Until then, supplements it is. My dilemma concerning the “natural” state of my body versus human interventions that may “improve” my life will have to wait for another time.

One great advantage to moving away from the Standard American Diet (SAD, aptly named) is that you start thinking about nutrition more. No matter what the change is — paleo, vegetarian or vegan, raw, gluten free, whatever — or what your reasons are for changing, you have to think about your food in a way you didn’t before. I’m certain that this will make me healthier.

If it turns out that I am just not healthy eating this way longterm, even with supplements, then I will reconsider. I do believe that you have to be kind to yourself first before you can be kind to others. Perhaps I will turn to the idea of reverence for the animals that provide my food, respecting my place in the Great Circle of Life and all of that, focusing on making the lives of those animals as good as they can be, maybe trying my hand at hunting instead of relying on farm animals. Who knows? I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it.

Taste

Ahh, taste. This is the barrier that most people claim to have. “I admire you,” they say. “I could never do that.” First of all, it makes me sad when people deny their own freedom that way, thinking that they have no choice. Second, vegan cuisine is awesome. Most omnivores have no idea what vegans eat, imagining us sitting down to sad plates full of leaves or something. Take a look at the Post Punk Kitchen and you’ll see that vegan cuisine has just as much variety as omnivore cuisines, and it has far more variety than the SAD. When you set limits for yourself, you have no choice but to get creative.

And you know, sometimes vegan substitutes taste better than the animal versions. I’ve heard it straight from the mouths of omnivores.

What I found was that as I started thinking about what I was eating and really paying attention to how it tasted and how it made me feel, I didn’t like animal products as much as I thought I did. I started to remember being disgusted as a child, picking out veins and avoiding lumps of fat and spitting out gristle, my gag reflex triggered by the fact that I had a hunk of muscle in my mouth. I’ve never liked the taste of cow’s milk and it makes me cough and sometimes wheeze if I have a lot, but I was told to drink it, so I forced it down. Eggs give me heartburn and the crispy stringy bits on the edge of a fried egg make me shiver with horror. I shoved all of this away, pushed through it, chewed and swallowed what I had been taught, convinced myself that I liked all of these things because I was supposed to like them.

Why? Why wasn’t I taught to trust my own body? Why do we eat so mindlessly, when food is one of the most important things in our lives?

I don’t dislike the taste of all animal products, though. I still love a lot of them. The smell of seafood makes me ache with longing, and whenever I am offered non-vegan cake I fight a small internal war that usually results in loss and guilt. Self-control is a muscle that I never built up, and people around me love to give me food. Fortunately there are excellent vegan cakes available. In fact, I haven’t come across any animal products I miss that don’t have good vegan substitutes. Maybe a decade ago options would have been more limited and self-control would be more necessary, but as it is right now, being vegan is easy and oh so delicious.

Come to the dark side, friends. We have cookies.

3 Responses to Food morality, part two: Eating with reason

  1. Enjoyed reading about your journey and your thoughts on all this, Jillian. I can relate to a lot of it, as I was vegan myself for 2.5 years.

    I recently moved back to vegetarian though. Reading a book called The Vegetarian Myth changed my mind about a few things. I’ve come to realize that this whole food thing is much more complex than I previously imagined, especially when it comes to the environment.

    I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll eat meat again some day, but I’m telling myself that I must be willing to kill an animal with my own hands first.

    • I started reading that, but the Google Books version stopped about halfway through so I never finished it. It’s one of the reasons it took me so long to decide what to do. Some of the things she said made a lot of sense, but some of it just seemed ridiculous, and I would have to do some more research to be comfortable believing all of it. I’ll have to finish it sometime, especially after living this way for a while.

      I’m not ruling anything out either. I hardly ever make promises about the future, especially to myself. I just go with the flow and do what feels right, even if I contradict myself a million times. (Happens a lot.)

  2. Wow, what a story! I’ve gone and done the veggie/grain thing 20 years ago – no meat. Like everyBODY, we’re all different physically, biologically, and emotionally. Fast forward 23 years to today, going “mostly Paleo” has fixed just about every issue with me and I look and feel better now than I did in my 20s.

    Like most, I have an issue with the sustainability. My thoughts? WE’RE FUCKED in the end. There is really no way to sustain our race. Polyface does a pretty good job. I’m seeing Joel next month in Chico, CA.

    Anyway, do what feels right, stay positive, do what you can to contribute positively to our society, etc.

    Good luck Jillian with your dietary travels.

    Craig

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