This spring would have been my 10-year anniversary of abstaining from meat. At about 12 years old, I gave up meat for Lent after seeing a classic PETA video. My fast from meat lasted longer than 40 days because I was learning more about the harm done to animals.
Whether to say this is where my struggle with food began or not, I do not know. There has always been something inside of me driving me away from food and for the past four years I have been in and out of treatment for a violent eating disorder. Throughout treatment, immense psychological, nutritional and medical focus was put on my diet choices and my vegetarianism seemed to come up as something doing more harm than good. But, to me, it was simply an ethical choice. The animals we eat are treated with utter cruelty and the factory farm complex is so harmful to the environment, the water and the air.
But after one too many fainting spells and feeling constantly lethargic, and not seeing any improvements in my dangerously low blood pressure and slow heart rate, concern continued as I was regarded a high risk for cardiac arrest. I decided to take a sabbatical from vegetarianism until I was feeling stronger. To be honest, I had been craving meat for months although I didn’t even know what it tasted like.
I planned a small barbecue at my house, surrounded by close friends who brought grass-fed meats to grill. I grilled pineapple, potatoes and corn. I ate only a small serving of chicken with my skewers of veggies. But that night I started to feel like a whole new person. I actually experienced, for the first time in my life, this chilling yet sensational high of being satisfied by food.
As a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, I try to maintain a vegetarian diet to reduce harm unto other beings. Realistically, I know that no diet, even vegan, can be 100% compassionate. Con-sider that vegans, whom I so respect and appreciate for their commitment to animals, are among the biggest supporters of the soy, corn and almond industry—I speak from experience as someone who is all about tofu, vegan lunch meat, vegan cheese, mayo, butter, the list goes on. All these vegan substitutes come from, you guessed it, soy. Vegans also tend to eat more breads and pastas that rely on flours from corn. These types of monocultured, subsidized big agriculture crops decimate ecology and create hostile habitats for the bees and other keystone creatures. In the article “The Oil We Eat: Following the food chain back to Iraq” (Harper’s Magazine, February 2004), Richard Manning explains in depth why he does not support veganism as an Earth-saving practice. “In rural Michigan,” he writes, “the potato farmers have a peculiar tactic for dealing with the predations of whitetail deer. They gut-shoot them with small-bore rifles, in hopes the deer will limp off to the woods and die where they won’t stink up the potato fields.” He goes on to call out vegetarians who live mostly on processed foods, claiming they burn 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of refined foods.
Vegan diet demands
Another thought came to mind as I was eating my organic cereal and almond milk. I have always abstained from cow’s milk for one of many oft-repeated reasons: Cow’s milk is for cow’s babies, not me. In that moment during my average breakfast, I realized that consuming almond milk at the rate I do in lieu of animal products, may be just as harmful. I did some re-search and found that it takes about 571 gallons of water to raise one pound of chicken and just under 1,000 gallons of water to raise a pound of beef. One almond takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow, so one pound of almonds would bring us to about 304 gallons. But there is a bigger issue here because 80% of almonds are grown in California, a state that is experiencing its worst drought in history. More people following a vegan diet might increase demand on these giant almond farms and increase their use of water that California so desperately needs to preserve. And then there are the bees. These little creatures have to be trucked miles across the country to pollinate almond orchards, submitting them to the insults of air pollution, stress and disease.
“Some philosophers have argued that the very open-endedness of the human appetite is responsible for both our savagery and civility, since a creature that could conceive of eating anything (including, notably, other humans) stands in particular need of ethical rules, manners and rituals,” writes Michael Pollan. “We are not only what we eat, but how we eat, too.”
I’m moving away from an all or nothing philosophy regarding food. Vegan, gluten free, organic only, local only, Paleo—all of it requires some form of restrictive eating: my most dan-gerous addiction. And while by eating meat I can no longer pretend that my diet isn’t directly hurting some living thing, I am starting to focus on the other side of the diet coin. Like Michael Pollan, I am beginning to think about how I eat. Can I find an neo-ethical way to eat food?
“We are how we eat”
As I recover my health and find a diet that best suits it, I am spending more time looking for the best ingredients to put in my body. I follow my cravings and give in to whatever they may be whether it’s a bag of chips or a bowl of kale. My research is leading me to get to know my local butchers, farmers and even cheese mongers. One of my favorite is Old Home Place Heritage Farms/McDowell Family Farms. The McDowells and the Dale Batty family raise pastured, grass fed meats. They have turkey, chicken, eggs, beef, pork, llama and lamb available and they sell them at the Winter Market (alternate Saturdays beginning November 5 at Rio Grande Station in downtown Salt Lake City). While you are there you can get to know local bakers, beekeepers and farmers who want to share good, well-sourced foods with their community.
“The label ‘pasture-raised’ is probably one of the better ones to look for today,” says Danny McDowell. “These animals are outdoors running around. The turkeys live off of grazing and bugs from the fields, but we also supplement their diets with non-soy, non-corn wheat feed.”
Rather than worrying about how a food is labeled, McDowell suggested that the best way to source “compassionate” food is by supporting a farmer whom you can call up on the phone with questions or get to know in person. “Just like you get to know your doctor and dentist, get to know your farmer,” McDowell advises.
Create your own eating manifesto
This Thanksgiving, we will create a compassionate feast. We will spend time giving thanks to the sacrifices that animals and plants make to keep the human race going. We will remember how privileged we are as humans. We will show our respect through how we eat.
Almost a year after relapsing and returning to treatment, I now have a stable heart rate, stable weight and I’m actually learning to enjoy food—something I can’t say I’ve ever done in my 22 years. Most nights I pour a small glass of wine and cook up whatever I find in my kitchen. I’ve become fascinated with finding the best ingredients from the earth which in turn are best for my body. I am having this awakening experience with food for the first time in my life and I feel the need to share what I know as I go along on this journey. Inspired by Mr. Pollan, I’m creating my own eating manifesto, leaving this disease in my past and being grateful for the experience. Because it brought me into the world of actually finding pleasure in food.
Jane Lyon is a senior in environmental and sustainability studies at the University of Utah, a former CATALYST intern and an intern for the Seven Canyons Trust. She also co-produces CATALYST’s Weekly Reader.