I finally decided to switch to a vegetarian diet a little over a month ago. It's been sort of a phase-in process over the past several years. Throughout my life I have rarely eaten any red meat, mostly because I simply didn't like it or I thought it was gross. I've mostly limited myself to chicken and fish. In recent years I've been trying meat-free chicken, such as Morning Star products. I found that I liked them better than actual meat. I also learned how to cook with tofu and I've found that most restaurants, particularly my favorite - Thai - offer tofu dishes. The final push came from my concerns about animal rights, but overall the focus was on my health.
I grew up in a very health-conscious home. My dad owns the most equipped gym in New England and is extremely careful about what he eats, although he is not vegetarian. He follows a diet called the Pritikin diet, which severely restricts meat consumption and closely resembles my goals in the Okinawan diet. I chose the latter years ago because the people of Okinawa, Japan have the best health and longest life expectancy of any population in the world. I also subscribe to the Calorie Restriction Diet, though studies are still underway to see if the life-extending effects observed in mice and other species will apply to humans. I have been counting calories since high school. I do deviate from my diet sometimes, but overall I am very conscientious about my health, which includes regular exercise, sports, and doctor checkups. It was only natural that I would finally steer toward vegetarianism, the healthiest diet choice according to research.
The American Dietetic Association supports vegetarianism and a good deal of research indicates that vegetarianism improves health and longevity. A 1999 study found that rates of heart disease - the leading cause of death in the U.S. - were 24% lower in vegetarians than in non-vegetarians:
"Further categorization of diets showed that, in comparison with regular meat eaters, mortality from ischemic heart disease was 20% lower in occasional meat eaters, 34% lower in people who ate fish but not meat, 34% lower in lactoovovegetarians, and 26% lower in vegans."
A couple of months ago I was on the website for the American Humane Society, of which I am a member, and there was a story called Billy's Legacy. It was about a small chihuahua that had been abused and neglected at a puppy mill. He was rescued by an AHS member and I highly recommend watching the story, as well as considering making a tax-deductible donation to the AHS. As the evening went on I researched more about animal abuse and discovered the ways in which farm animals are treated in the food processing industry. It was quite disturbing to watch. I'm not going to get into the gory details, which are readily available for anyone with web access, but suffice to say it was enough to finally convince me to stop eating meat.
Ultimately I decided that I'm not opposed to people eating meat in general, but that it's the way we process meat in modern industry that I'm most opposed to. Hunting, fishing, raising chickens free-range, and other methods that limit or eliminate suffering seem reasonable to me. A wild or happy domestic life and a quick death for food purposes does not really bother me. Many domestic animals live longer and happier lives than they would in the wild. Unfortunately, until recently I was fairly naive and believed that major meat processing facilities provided similar accommodations to their livestock, or that, at minimum, the USDA and other agencies regulated the industry to limit animal suffering. I was wrong - completely, living-on-another-planet wrong. I encourage you to conduct your own research. PETA can be a good place to start, though they can come off as hyperbolic. I recommend watching the video footage and reviewing some of the statistics on their site. The American Humane Society offers a more balanced perspective on animal suffering, including farm animals. They offer realistic solutions to phasing out practices that cause suffering.
One of the best articles I've ever read on this topic is Personal Purity vs. Effective Advocacy, by Bruce Friedrich of PETA, partially excerpted here:
"[W]e all know people whose reason for not going vegan is that they 'can't' give up cheese or ice cream...Instead of encouraging them to stop eating all other animal products besides cheese or ice cream, we preach to them about the oppression of dairy cows. Then we go on about how we don’t eat sugar or a veggie burger because of the bun, even though a tiny bit of butter flavor in a bun contributes to significantly less suffering than any non-organic fruit or vegetable does or a plastic bottle or about 100 other things that most of us use. Our fanatical obsession with ingredients not only obscures the animals’ suffering – which was virtually non-existent for that tiny modicum of ingredient – but also nearly guarantees that those around us are not going to make any change at all. So, we’ve preserved our personal purity, but we’ve hurt animals – and that’s anti-vegan."
A BALANCED PERSPECTIVE
A lot of things influenced my decision. For most major decisions in life, I like to be as informed as possible. My health was a primary concern and my first thought was, "If I stop eating meat, will I become deficient in certain nutrients or even get sick?" Fortunately, a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients a person needs (as a side note, this is not true for vegans, who must take supplements to obtain all nutrients, which seems unnatural to me). From an animal rights perspective and as a Buddhist, I had to seriously consider the amount of suffering that modern industry causes to animals and how responsible I was for that suffering if I continued to eat meat. Along those same lines of logic you will discover that meat consumption negatively impacts the environment and exacerbates food shortages. I was also concerned that being a vegetarian would isolate me from enjoying meals with family and friends. I had a lot to think about.
My education and degree is in biology. I do my best (and I am somewhat obligated) to think critically and look at things from a scientific perspective. In my opinion, animal suffering is a difficult topic for biology because suffering is a subjective experience and there is a broad spectrum of capacity for pain in the animal kingdom. Information about such pain capacity in "lower animals" is somewhat limited and continues to be subject to debate. That said, there is little controversy concerning the fact that humans evolved to be omnivores - we have fangs and we digest meat. I had a nagging thought that apparently also occurred to Benjamin Franklin years ago - if one animal eats another animal and humans are animals, why should we not eat animals? Yet would I be willing to eat meat if it were not prepared for me, if I had to kill it and eat it like a non-human animal?
If I had to slaughter every animal I ate instead of having it neatly processed and prepared for me, would I do it? For me, the answer was no. For others, particularly hunters of wild game, the answer is yes, and I can respect that. For some species, hunting actually reduces animal suffering. In wild deer populations, for example, hunters help control population growth that would otherwise cause famine among those populations, not to mention considerable environmental damage. One might argue that humans supplanted wolves and coyotes as natural predators, but whether the meat ends up in the stomach of a wolf or a human is of little importance. A bullet may be a more humane way to die than an attack by a ravenous pack of wolves. Mother Nature invented cruelty long before humans discovered it, though that doesn't mean we are exempt from our awareness of animal suffering, nor our responsibility to limit it.
In any case, I'm not really talking about hunters or the old ways of obtaining meat - what I'm talking about is our modern methods of processing meat, with tightly caged chickens who have had their beaks seared off with hot metal, pigs that are strung up alive and left to bleed out, or baby calves that are kept in small boxes, unable to move until they are slaughtered for veal. In addition to disturbingly cruel living situations for most livestock, modern industry employs many artificial means of increasing meat yield and profits. Such things as growth hormones, antibiotics, poor-quality or chemically-enhanced feed, and excessive processing have become commonplace. These additives and alterations to the animals are still there when we eat them. What's bad for them is also bad for us.
As for seafood, I may change my mind, though the relatively small level of potential suffering and health considerations lead me to believe that consuming small amounts of seafood is acceptable for me. The way in which a fish or shrimp is killed by humans is likely equally humane or more humane than how they would be killed by a non-human animal. Maybe I'm still naive. I'm not sure such a direct comparison is at all relevant. An interesting article by Christopher Cox, Consider the Oyster, argues that oysters may be the most ethical, environmentally friendly food item, even better than plant agriculture. When it comes to animal rights, the issue is not to end meat eating, but rather to eliminate unnecessary suffering.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
The Okinawan diet consists of about 80% complex carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables, and fruits) with a small amount of fat and protein, usually from fish and sometimes pork. The thought of eating pork has always made me nauseous (red meat is also carcinogenic), but I'm still deciding whether or not to eat fish. I haven't eaten any fish since becoming vegetarian, though I did have some shrimp at a local fair recently. In that case I'm more pescetarian vegetarian. PETA may abhor my decision to continue eating very limited quantities of seafood, but I believe it's the best option for my personal health and ethics. I can't really say I'm ovo-lacto vegetarian since I'm lactose intolerant and I dislike cheese except for pizza. The use of animal rennet, often listed as "enzymes," in cheese (google it!) means I now look for products that use rennet from plants or bacteria instead of baby cows. I use Silk Almond Milk for cereal - it doesn't upset my stomach, it's really low in calories, tastes better than dairy milk, and it's more nutritious. Currently I'm looking for ways to further improve my diet by reducing sodium and added/refined sugars. There was a great article in National Geographic this month about the toxicity of added sugar and why it's implicated as the top cause of obesity.
I think one day humans will stop eating meat completely, at least from living animals. Earlier this month the first lab-grown hamburger patty made headlines and last February an art display at the Royal College of Art ignited a discussion concerning the feasibility of growing headless chickens. Even further, 24-year-old software engineer Rob Rhinehart, has raised over $1 million for his Soylent food replacement shake. The idea is to completely eliminate typical food consumption and instead drink a shake that is designed to provide precisely all the nutrients a human body needs, nothing more, nothing less. While some of this sounds like something from futuristic sci-fi literature, I do believe that the human race is moving toward reducing violence and suffering among ourselves and animals. Like the abolition of Roman Colosseums, it seems the gradual movement away from meat consumption is a natural direction for a society that seeks to be more humane and peaceful. There is a parallel between animal abuse and abuse of our fellow humans - numerous studies and the American Psychological Association present strong evidence that animal cruelty is strongly linked to domestic violence.
We are at an interesting point in our history, an era of substantially heightened awareness about our impact on other people around the world, animals, and the environment. More than ever we are not only more curious about our individual impact or "footprint" on the world, but we also have unprecedented resources, such as the Internet, to pursue those curiosities and become informed. We occupy a special, perhaps even anomalous, place in the animal kingdom. That position brings with it equally special powers and responsibilities. That's what this post is about - I want you to inform yourself more about your health and how your everyday choices impact others, including those who can't speak for themselves. It would seem that what is good for us individually is also good for others, good for animals, and good for the environment as well.
The past month or so has been very easy for me. Perhaps that is because I've been subconsciously transitioning into this for years or maybe it's just because I happen to dislike meat, in general. I cannot find any downside to being vegetarian. I have eaten at several restaurants in the past month and gone camping with my family and I never felt like I had to choose between eating meat or going hungry. I feel healthier and I haven't had any cases of food poisoning, which used to be somewhat frequent for me when I ate meat. I believe my health will be better, too, because my actual diet is now more in line with what I consider to be an ideal diet, that of the Okinawans, the healthiest, longest-lived people in the world!
I feel better knowing my meals aren't coming from animals and that my diet choices limit suffering in the world. The other day my little sister commented something to the effect of, "Being vegetarian isn't going to stop the meat industry. People will still eat meat and animals will still suffer." She's right, of course, at least in the short term. In the long term, significant social change often requires many small changes that accumulate over time. I know that my choices will have some impact. Not only will I be healthier and live longer, but about 271 pounds less meat (the average American's annual meat consumption) will be sold each year. Over the course of my lifetime, that's about 30 - 50 cows or several thousand chickens. The average American eats more than 81 pounds of chicken every year. So, as you can see, one person's decision really can make a difference in the immediate future. Also, if more people were vegetarian, food costs would go down (vegetarianism is much less expensive meat consumption), global famine would be reduced and pollution, particularly greenhouse gases, would also shrink. Meat production generates more greenhouse gases than automobiles and transportation.
Some of my family members have been eating less meat because of my decision. My dad has always severely restricted his meat consumption due to his Pritikin diet, but recently some of my other family members have been limiting their meat consumption as well. My uncle has sometimes replaced chicken with tofu when my family goes out to eat or they've been trying things like Morning Star hot dogs, which are meat free and taste just like the real thing while being much more nutritious. My mom bought a meat-free "chicken" salad from our local CO-OP the other day. She said she felt better knowing that she wasn't hurting any animals with that meal. Some of my coworkers have also taken an interest in my diet change and it's given me an opportunity to educate more people about the benefits of vegetarianism. People tend to feel more comfortable about something foreign to them when they meet someone who possesses that attribute. This is how change happens. Biologically we evolved to be omnivores, but we are still evolving and it falls on us to ensure that the definition of human continues to move closer to humane.
"While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, 'It makes a difference for this one.'"