I don’t remember exactly what happened that fueled my decision to become a vegetarian, but since I made the choice my life has changed in ways that go well beyond how I decide what to put on my plate. Over time my motive has expanded from basic ideals about health, longevity, and having humane relationships with animals to my knowledge of specific facts about the negative effects eating animals can have on one’s body, the environment, and the animals who live to die for human consumption. What effect does factory farming have on the earth, the farmers, the people who work on the factory line, the local businesses who chose not to carry factory farmed products, the animals who are raised in confined, abusive environments, or the children who eat the “wholesome” meat that has to be cooked just so in order to minimize the risk of bacterial infections and will still raise their cholesterol levels and cause cardiac problems later in life? Of course, not all “food” animals are raised in CAFOs and not all people who make hamburgers from the beef they buy at Wal-Mart will die of heart failure. Sadly, it is fair to say that a large percentage of them will. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (a division of the CDC), over 287 thousand people in the United States die of heart failure every year. Hospitalizations due to heart failure have climbed to a rate almost 300% higher than the rate of heart failure related hospital visits 30 years ago (1). Correspondingly, the number of factory farmed animals produced and purchased by Americans has increased at an even more alarming rate (2). Could there be a connection?
On my journey as a vegetarian, I have learned and continue to discover the benefits of eating organic, sustainable, and locally grown and produced foods. My diet has become so much more than eating meals without meat. However, being environmentally aware, health conscious, and compassionate toward all animals is about making choices – choices about what we put in our bodies every day. This is where I feel that my choices fail to directly coincide with my beliefs. All of my knowledge about how our diet can impact animals, the environment, and our bodies has lead me to practice just that – a diet. The thought process I go through when choosing what to eat is much more about what not to eat. A few years ago I made a list in my journal of my then current eating habits. I had noticed the positive effects my diet was having on my figure and wanted to record how I did it. The list reads like this:
no fast food
no fried foods
no cream based anything
no artificial sweetener
only whole grain/whole wheat
fresh fruit every day
fresh vegetables every day (always include greens and at least one other vegetable)
soy protein every day
plenty of fiber
as much natural, organic, preservative free as possible
and plenty of water
At the height of my watch-what-I-eat-to-keep-myself-thin phase, anything processed or sugary or high calorie (even if they were healthy calories), never found its way into my body. At this point, I was still occasionally eating fish and had not made an effort to completely stop consuming dairy. Once I made the decision a few years later to try a vegan diet (which I still fail to maintain completely), some of the foods I would have never touched when I was incredibly calorie conscious were now exciting to try because they were “vegan.” In short, I was making healthier choices when I was thinking clearly about what was going into my body rather than concentrating on what to avoid.
Luckily, I live in a town where the local bakeries and restaurants often have vegan options on the menu. Anything labeled “vegan” qualifies, in my head, as a food that meets all of the exclusions on my diet list. If I became a vegan to align my practices with my values about the environment, animal welfare, human rights, and personal health, making consumption choices based on nothing more than a “vegan” label is hypocritical to say the least. I’m a bad vegan.
A vegan cookie at the local bakery, for example, is full of vegetable shortening and soy, which means that it may have a higher caloric, fat, and pesticide level than some other non-vegan options. The southern cuisine place down the street from our house serves plenty of vegan items, including a delicious tofu option to top off salads or substitute for eggs in a scramble. Again, because this is a “special” vegan option, I often opt to add it to my plate when my husband and I dine there. I’m fairly certain that the tofu in question is soaked in soy sauce and then deep fried. The amount of sodium and oil trapped inside of each little soy cube should be enough to make anyone reconsider whether this is a healthy option. But, hey, its vegan!
I strongly believe that making even one positive decision one time is better than living oblivious to the impact our consumption choices have on all life. Even my Wal-Mart shopping, McDonald’s supporting brother-in-law (who I’m pretty sure thinks I am a radical hippie flower child weirdo) makes a point to buy dish soap whose parent company donates money to save animals who have been caught in oil spills. Yes, there are other consumption patterns he follows that leave much to be desired, but this one choice that he makes does make a positive impact. Ignoring the small choices we make, even when our overall choices are not environmentally sound or health conscious, is a mistake. In fact, praising each other when we actually think about what kind of companies our decisions support can encourage us to make more positive choices as consumers in the future.
Anyone who practices a vegetarian, vegan, or green lifestyle has experienced criticism for not being vegetarian/vegan/green enough. Those who do not practice these lifestyles, and even some who do, often use this kind of criticism as a mechanism to justify their own consumption patterns. If you point out to a vegan friend that the gummy bear he is eating is made with gelatin so (gasp!) he isn’t truly a vegan, are you saying this because you are actually concerned for him and his wellbeing? Or are you justifying the lack of healthy choices you make by pointing out that you believe no one can really live up to the ideals of your vegan friend? Silly vegans.
Although I know that many of the consumption choices I make are positive and that the diet I practice now vs. the diet I maintained as a child is certainly better all around, I am left feeling that there is a disconnect between the knowledge that has shaped my values and my daily practices which (mostly) uphold them. By sharing my thoughts here, I plan to hold myself accountable for my knowledge equaling my values equaling my practices. Being a vegan is not just about being thin, having low cholesterol, maintaining heart health, supporting farmers who make production decisions based on values I share, not supporting an industry that systematically tortures millions of living beings, avoiding pesticides, chemicals, antibiotics, and growth hormones, decreasing my ecological footprint, supporting crop diversity, supporting a living wage and worker’s rights, or using what Michael Pollan refers to as “Table Fellowship” as an opportunity to share knowledge about the impact our consumption choices have on all living things (3). Being vegan is about the intersection of all of these values. Starting today, I’m going to begin being vegan enough for me.
Through writing this blog, I plan to share my experiences as a vegan including yummy cruelty free recipes, creative ways to share meals with non-vegan friends and family, book suggestions for anyone who eats food, information about local and national companies with outstanding business practices, and progress on my garden (which we plan to start as we move to a new home without a landfill for a backyard). This is my life as The Bad Vegan.
1. “Heart Failure Fact Sheet” Division of Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/library/fs_heart_failure.htm
2. “Factory Farming” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factory_farming
3. The Omnivores Dilema, Michael Pollan
2 days ago