Vegetarianism – Part 2


I made some big claims in Part 1, and caught your attention I hope. In this second part, I am going to discuss some of the sticking points you may have had with my logic in part one. Then, I will address the anti-vegetarian arguments I’ve heard these last months, debunk them, and finally point to where all this is going.

There are a couple points that I am sure came to mind as you read part one. The first was probably along the lines of, “you sound like an arrogant purist and a little bit of a hypocrite.” How could I write something like that without realizing that people are just trying to do the best they can with what they have. Making ideological choices is a luxury for most people. Plus, if I start stripping things out of my life for idealistic reasons I won’t be left with anything, never mind anything fun or interesting.

To carry out my logic I have to admit that I am implicated by living and functioning in society in general. I can’t just pick and choose where to take the moral high ground. Its the same case where I work. I have to bring in a salary, so I have to separate my ethics from how I make a living.

In a way, that is the point of a moral case. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be a problem. Moral character is all about doing what’s right even when it’s tough. Furthermore, it is true that we are all implicated by our social lot, and since I don’t have the power to stop raising cows in CAFE’s, or end wars, or switch the world off oil, I have to use what I have to take my part of the responsibility. I can vote, preach, work, create, and consume. So that’s what I use. It is all a choice, and all has implications.

This moral case involving food is a difficult place to live, because I am responsible for a certain part of societies problems, even if I don’t have the power to affect them. My claim in part one is that I am better than most, because I struggle with the moral implications of eating, and doing right by them, not because I live a pure life.

The second point I am sure you considered while reading my first part was that not all food is created unethically or immorally. In fact there is a growing food movement that is overturning many of the ills I laid out. I concede this, gladdly. In fact if you are going to eat meat, and live in the SF Bay Area get it from Prather Ranch. It is the only producer in the Bay Area that I have found that does things right. (They sell at several local Farmer’s Markets besides the Ferry Building in SF.)

Before becoming a vegetarian for years, I actually ate very little meat; probably around 5-10% of my food intake. That translates to one or two meals a week on average. What I realized in that time was that I actually was using up a lot of energy deciding whether I should eat a given piece of meat, and then not enjoying it much when I did. I spent a lot of time explaining to family and friends over and over again how I did eat meat, but not necessarily the specific piece that was in front of me. I was a meat snob to the Nth degree.

In addition, nowhere outside my house could I be confident that I was getting a “good” piece of meat, so there was an endless search for information. Every waiter or waitress was asked a litany of questions, and friends and family got annoyed with my pickiness. It got old.

My ultimate stand on ethical meat is nuanced. I concede that animals can be raised well in every sense of the world, but it is rare. As a result, it is expense and time consuming to find and acquire that meat, so it is a luxury. If then I am eating meat as a luxury I must then question why I am eating it. Do I need it? Is it for pleasure? Is out of a sense of social tradition or obligation?

The answer to “need” is clearly no. Eating meat solely for pleasure doesn’t sit well with me, nor do I think it is ethical to take life for pleasure. (If you know me, you know I am a fly fisher, so there is a bit of conflict here. That defense is for another post, but let’s say I know what it is to take life, and I know where I draw the line in doing it.) So, that leaves social tradition.

I will get into this in a few paragraphs, but generally speaking, humans do have a lot of blood traditions. Most culture in fact have many feasts and ceremonies that revolve around animal slaughter and communal meat eating. The problem is that those acts are so diluted and overwhelmed by daily food habits, that in contemporary society they are virtually meaningless. Again, that could be a whole other set of writings, but put simply, since contemporary humans aren’t dependent on growing or raising food for survival anymore, nor is food expensive in a any way, food has lost its sacredness. Being a vegetarian, it has become so for me again.

Most of the arguments so far are fairly theoretical, so let me get into my experience with people challenging me. Here are some generalized statements I have heard. They aren’t exact quotes, but represent a class of peanut-gallery comments that came up repeatedly:

I will be hungry all day long.
If I ate just vegetables, I probably would be hungry all the time. Since being a vegetarian doesn’t literally mean eating just vegetables, I have some options. Really, all my stomach is looking for to feel full is fat and protein. All the other stuff like carbohydrates and fiber pretty much get digested in a blink. There is balance to look for here, because what I need is different than what my stomach wants.

Hunger goes back to those pesky instinct thingies we have. For most people, there is a proto-homo sapien urge left over that drives us to overeat and pack on body weight. It comes from the fact that our caveman ancestors didn’t have grocery stores and could never count on having a decent meal, so when they had food they ate it until there was literally no food left. And that is how humans respond to a plate of food (There is a study out there to this point, but I don’t think I’ll be able to come up with a link.).

I need “hard” or “complete” protein.
Everything has protein in it. Again the key is finding foods with the right balance. For example, I could technically live off of broccoli. It has all the protein and other things I need, but the problem is those nutrients are not in the right balance. I would have to be like a cow, growing a few more stomachs and eating all day long to get enough calories out of broccoli. The same sort of thing holds for the other end of the spectrum. If I ate meat alone, I would have to be like a wolf, developing an ultra-efficient stomach, and sleeping 16 hours a day.

The other thing to note here is that I am not a vegan. I do eat eggs and dairy. My choice has to do with not eating flesh. Once I add yogurt, cheese, eggs and bread to my mix, there is little doubt I will get enough protein in the day. Plus I like nuts, beans and tutu, too, so I probably get a surplus on most days to keep me healthy in an active lifestyle.

This “protein” claim is an old world argument that doesn’t line up with today’s vegetarian pro football players, and vegan fighting champions.

I will suffer from malnutrition.
There is a chance, I suppose, I might go low on iron, but I eat right so it isn’t a problem. I also eat a fortified breakfast cereal a couple times a week, too, (the cereal is actually organic and natural. Cascadian Farms seems to be the only brand that does this,) so if I’m missing anything my body will squeeze it out of the cereal.

Really, the issue on this one is that everyone thinks they are a nutritionist in America. There are “experts” coming out the wahzoo, so people learn a little here and there, and then believe they have a grasp on what human bodies need. The truth is the science behind all the nutritionism is very, very thin. Most of what we hear is just conjecture and marketing based on a few studies that work on less than complete statistical models.

Boiling down our food health to a few groups of nutrients is flawed at its core, so making any sort of claim about one nutrient or another without the bigger picture is nonsense.

Compounds in food behave differently in combinations than when alone, and function differently in different parts of the body. Most of what Americans used to hold true about fat, cholesterol and sugar from the 50’s, for example, turned out to either be wrong, or just a partial truth. And yet, people today still make choices to avoid these nutrients. What about the other ten thousand compounds I eat on a daily basis?

The real numbers here show that there have been, and are BILLIONS of vegetarians who live strong active lives, and conversely BILLIONS of omnivores who have been and are malnourished, so nourishment has little to do with meat consumption, or individual nutrients.

I am biologically designed to eat meat.
I also have nipples! And I had wisdom teeth, a tail bone, and I have an appendix. So if my canines mean I need to eat meat, I must have done something wrong by not breast feeding my son, not hanging upside down in trees when I was a boy, or, well, I don’t know what my appendix was supposed to be for.

I concede, though, that our bodies do heal faster when we eat meat after an injury, plus give us some nutritional benefits not found in other foods. Meat does seem to pack a powerful dietary punch our bodies are tuned in to, but I am also going to add, that this should not to confused with food density. Meat is a highly concentrated source of energy and bodily building blocks, so it is bound to provide boost from that alone. What I am conceding is that there are some extra whole-is-greater-than-the-parts effects going on, too. Just as I can’t boil down arguments about nutrients, I also can’t boil down meat to its constituent parts without acknowledging that they exist together, and whose value isn’t totally understood.

This one is a minor argument for me, though. As I posted in part one, ethics and morals make me more than an animal. In that realization, I sacrifice some forms of pleasure and well being. The benefits of meat are tiny in comparison to the decisions I make about my animal nature and living a civilized life.

It’s not part of my food traditions.
Neither is anything else that Americans eat. In fact, my vegetarian organic habits are MUCH closer to what my ancestors would have eaten than the typical American diet. Americans are delusional about what they eat (There, I said it!) First, the typical diet is not made up of actual food. Secondly, American diets are not based on any sort of cultural tradition. Americans don’t cook, and when they do its not what their grandmother’s would have cooked. No traditions here.

Even if we say that hamburgers, hotdogs, and ice cream are traditional American foods, what Americans think those are now, isn’t even close to what they were fifty years ago.

Ice Cream is an easy one. Just look at the ingredients on any of the leading brands and you won’t see cream and flavors alone. You will see all sorts of chemical modifiers, emulsifiers and preservatives. And this doesn’t even get to the ingredients themselves, which are factory produced chemicals. Because it has the label “Ice Cream,” doesn’t mean it is actually iced cream.

Hamburgers and hotdogs are the same, but on an even bigger scale. With those you have to think about all the fillers, colorants, and “flavor enhancers,” plus all the stuff the animals are fed, too. A hamburger or hotdog fifty years ago would have been meat from animals that ate plants on buns made of wheat flour and yeast, with condiments made of vegetables. Today, who knows what they are made of.

My favorite comments under this type of argument went something like this,”Which peoples in the world are vegetarian? Indians? You’re not Indian. None of the people you come from were vegetarian, so why are you trying to be like someone you are not?” This was proclaimed over a dinner of lasagne, green salad, Reese’s Pieces, chocolate ice cream, and vanilla cake for dessert; all of which came from a whole range of cultures, with ingredients originating form all over the planet.

For that same dinner, my ancestors may have eaten potatoes (both the original South American type and the European,) whole wheat bread, gravy, winter squash and maybe hog meat in some sort of stew. Except for the hog, that sounds like a good vegetarian meal to me.

Over the last few months, I have felt like I have had to defend myself and my choices in a way I don’t think I every have. Becoming a vegetarian is a good choice for a lot of people, and for a lot of different reasons. That is challenging to many people. What I have seen is often a person being threatened by alternatives to the food mythology they accept. It is a case where those most invested in an American food delusion fight the hardest to protect it. They do so, even as the delusion itself crumbles around them. (Think of the Roman’s whose blood sports and wild extravagance rose at the times when the empire struggled the most.)

The American healthcare system is on the brink of collapse in part because of the junk that gets eaten year after year. Our “farmlands” become more depressed, polluted, and depleted year after year, because of the junk that is manufactured on them. And people are less and less satisfied with the junk that gets put on the pates. Yet, Americans still cling to the hamburgers, hotdogs, and ice cream, because it is all that they know.

I think my vegetarianism challenges people by proclaiming that I don’t struggle to eat my vegetables, and in fact I enjoy them. Americans have vegetable guilt, and when I throw my vegetarianism in front of them (not that I do that, but it usually gets noticed,) they just feel the guilt that much more. Guilt and delusions are very powerful things in this country. It doesn’t always pay to challenge them.

In the next part I will write about how and why I do it, things I’ve learned about myself, sources for info, and some final thoughts. You’ve made it this far, so stick around for the conclusion of my vegetarian saga.

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