Vegan Life and the Just Diet

Awesome DishOver a year ago I converted from vegetarian to vegan. Since then I have had to explain my choice to countless people. Even after my explanation, many of them still seem perplexed about why I would refuse to eat meat. They treat veganism as a thing of mystery, as though those who freely adopt a different diet have decided to live silently with Buddhist monks on a mountaintop. Not all omnivores treat vegans with such scrutiny, but I defend myself more for my choice of food than for my low-paying career choice as a writer. Something is wrong with the popular perception of veganism, so I would like to briefly clear the air on our mentality and habits. Vegans are a motivated bunch, and we should explain ourselves in no uncertain terms.

The Food and the Myths

La Dolce VeganVegans eat no products from a living thing possessing eyes. This means no dairy or eggs, so no ice cream, no regular cheese, no traditional baked goods, and very few visits to popular restaurants. Still, we love it all the same. Going vegan encourages a person to go back to the basics of fruits, vegetables, and grains. I eat pasta frequently, making spaghetti or my own custom recipes for lunch or dinner. I often mix oil-based butter with nutritional yeast, soy sauce, and garlic salt, and stir that mixture into angel hair pasta: I call it “sticky noodles.” Vegan cheese (Daiya brand is best) allows for Mac ‘n’ Cheese and pizza, as well as mouth-watering Tofurky sandwiches and cheesy potato casseroles. Some of my friends believe veganism limits my choices to raw vegetables and rice, but with all the options and cookbooks available, variety is the least of my concerns.

Critics claim that the vegan diet lacks important nutrients, but this popular claim shows a lack of research. Yes, some people do fall ill on a vegan diet, and some have died from poor planning, but so do omnivores. As long as people don’t balance their diets, no matter the diet, they will certainly have health problems. I once had to visit my doctor for lightheadedness and discovered I had a vitamin D deficiency. I now make sure I get enough vitamins, and I have felt healthy ever since. Also, consider Annette Larkins, a 70-year-old woman who has lived on a home-grown vegan diet for 28 years and looks as old as 40. Some people have reported the remission of certain diseases when they went vegan. Those who eat right regret nothing. Perhaps small children do need more than a vegan diet to grow, but if that proves true, that does not imply anything for the rest of us who know how to make it work. It’s a shame people will blame a widely diverse diet for their lack of proper planning. First and foremost, understand your individual needs.

Once you know what you need, it takes very little effort to eat a balanced vegan diet. I have heard many rumors that vegans lack protein and B12. On the contrary, tofu, baked beans, bagels, peanut butter, and soy milk come fortified with protein. Various milks (soy, almond, rice, coconut) also contain B12, which otherwise only shows up in a few vegan-friendly foods. Of course, most health food stores sell protein and various vitamin supplements that can make up for any deficiencies. In fact, those vegans who get all of their vitamins often boast greater energy levels. A balanced vegan is a healthy vegan. I am happy to subscribe to that.

We Respect Our Cousins

Of course, if it were all about eating healthy, then many vegans would keep their animal-based options open. However, most vegans swear off animal products entirely because of their strong moral sense. The “save the animals” argument saturates the vegan debate every day, but it remains an important point. Vegans sympathize with animals as fellow creatures of nature. I agree. I’m not so sensitive that I hug trees or protest fly fishing, but give me a slab of ham and I will see a young piglet raised in cruel conditions for my convenience. I cannot think of this reality and clear my plate at the same time. My sympathies cause comparisons to violent PETA activists, but I don’t throw buckets of blood on people wearing fur coats. For man and animal alike, I live and let live.

Tamworth-pig-and-pigletSome think pigs (and other sources of our meat) do not have the mental or emotional capacity of cats and dogs, but I beg to differ. Not long ago, I heard a local news story of a woman in Colorado Springs who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her doctor suggested adopting a pet pig. The woman, willing to try anything to resolve her depression, took her doctor’s advice. It did not take long for her to see the benefits. Some days, when her PTSD bothered her most, she would pace around her home, crying. Her pet pig would stop her and push her toward the couch, forcing her to sit down and relax. This empathy surprised the woman. In time her symptoms lessened, and I doubt that she ever parted—or ever will part—with her snout-nosed friend. Even those buried in the depths of the meat business have noticed this friendly nature. A slaughterhouse worker once testified, “Pigs down on the kill floor have come up to nuzzle me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them.” Why do we reduce this emotional species to glazed ham?

nina-keck-photo-1I can say the same of cows. These docile creatures feel pleasure like the rest of us. They also feel pain. Factory farm workers have reported countless incidents of botched killings, in which they do not cut the throat properly and the cow does not bleed out quick enough. These workers observe a slowly dying cow, kicking and groaning in agony as the butcher pushes his knife into the neck, slices from head to tail, and then tears away the skin from the flesh. This cow becomes part of a Happy Meal and a snazzy leather jacket. People in India (the #1 vegetarian country in the world) respect these cows, forming bonds that go much deeper than appetite and style. We in America have the means to respect cows and live with them peacefully, but we don’t yet have the moral conscience to do so.

While I try not to attack those who do not think as I do, I will not apologize for my opinions. I try to think more about my food than many omnivores care to, and so I feel a moral responsibility that I cannot ignore. Humans evolved from simpler creatures, and so other animals could have that same potential. Apes can learn sign language, and chickens can already count. We should nurture this development, not snuff it out entirely.

Before modern times, we relied on hunting for our own survival. I can understand this, given the context, and would certainly have done the same; however, we no longer live in primitive and savage conditions. We have the means to go vegan, to stay vegan, and to finally nurture the animals we have freely abused. Why should we continue to torture and consume our evolutionary cousins?

Yes, We Care About People Too

Cage Free ChickensWhile vegans care about the animals, many of us care just as much about our fellow man. This again leads us into the heart of the factory farming industry. Factory farms produce virtually all of our country’s meat. These farms, struggling to meet demand, cram thousands of animals at a time into small spaces. These animals see little sunlight and have no opportunity to develop naturally. Because of poor sanitation standards, they spend their lives walking in the collective feces and disease of this confined community.

Monsanto, the largest contributor to factory farms, genetically modifies the corn and soy used to feed the livestock. Monsanto also produces various steroids, hormones, and antibiotics that accelerate the growth process. Pigs that produce ham a few months early will create greater profits than naturally-grown pigs. The business model makes sense, but as a public service this practice is morally abysmal.

Injecting these steroids and hormones into our food will have detrimental effects on our own health. As Michael Pollan says in his book In Defense of Food, “you are what what you eat eats too.” Some research has suggested that consumption of steroids could contribute to various health issues, like early puberty, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. I imagine the hormones cause birth defects and encourage mixed genders. Although we do not consume these steroids and hormones directly, the animals do, and it changes them. How does that affect the meat, and how much does that meat affect us?

CrammedPigsJonathan Safran Foer reports in his book Eating Animals that representatives from the industry admit to injecting 17.8 million pounds of antibiotics into livestock, compared to the 3 million pounds of antibiotics used to fight human sicknesses. These factory farms would not need this plentiful supply of drugs if they did not create conditions primed for disease. Consider a pig raised for glazed ham. After a factory employee injects the hormones and steroids into the baby pig, it will grow so fast that its legs will not develop properly and may even break under the pressure of a prematurely-grown body. The pig will then lie in its own feces—and the feces of its companions—unable to stand. Laying on its stomach its whole life, this pig will develop lesions and wounds that become infected and spread germs and diseases. Now, rather than clean up their farm, the factory’s employees inject the antibiotics into the pig, hoping to keep it alive long enough to sell a few pounds of ham. This situation does not apply to pigs alone, however; all factory farms operate under these conditions, whether they raise cows, chickens, or anything else people call “good eating.” I can’t help wondering what I really ate, back when I enjoyed ham sandwiches.

Injustice

Whatever bacon aficionados may say about us, vegans are not senseless rebels against society. Actually, we promote society whole-heartedly, encouraging the peace and well being of man and animal alike. We vegans go into comically angry fits occasionally—fueling unfortunate stereotypes—not because we are irrational, but because we are rational. We see a society voluntarily blinded to its own horrific habits, feeding its endless hunger for convenience and complacency. We see inexcusable injustice, to the pigs, to the cows, and to ourselves. We just want to end this cycle of cultural sadomasochism.