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I want to be a vegan. Please don’t stop reading – I’m just like you, I swear! I eat meat. I eat dairy. I’ve always eaten meat and dairy. I just ate a shrimp and feta salad about four minutes ago. But I want to stop. And if you knew what I knew, you’d probably reconsider what’s on your plate, too.
First, though, let me note some of the reasons that I don’t want to go meatless and dairy-free, the reasons it’d be a difficult or impossible task to commit to, the reasons that I’d never seriously considered it before, and the reasons I’d dabbled and yet still rejected this way of life.
Health – Milk is good for me, right? Don’t I need the calcium from dairy for strong bones? And if I’m not eating meat, how will I get enough protein in my diet?
Tradition – I grew up on my mom’s meatballs and chicken parm. I have fond memories of these family meals, and of these savory foods. No matter what your culture or ethnicity, it’s likely that, in some way or other, you have similar sentiments about eating as a shared experience. I mean, Thanksgiving dinner without turkey? Enough said.
Social situations – I enjoy cheese with my wine at cocktail parties, and I enjoy a burger at a sunny summer BBQ. I don’t want to insult a hostess by refusing her food. I want to be able to split a bunch of tapas with friends on a Friday night. I don’t want to be viewed as a “fussy” eater and I certainly don’t want to have to defend or explain myself at every meal. So you think you’re better than me? (To be said in an aggressive NJ accent) – I’m concerned that in addition to defending my choices (if I do become vegan), I’m going to have to proceed with caution in how I do so, so as not to offend people who do not share my opinions on this often touchy subject. I really don’t want to entertain the whole “vegetables have feelings too” debate. Fine. Okay. Whatever. Pass the steak. Just please stop talking.
Cravings/Habit – I’ve eaten meat and/or dairy almost every day of my life. It’s what I know, and it’s what I crave. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever craved a piece of lettuce, or a carrot, or some tofu. And I absolutely cannot imagine the day when I will be free of ice cream cravings. You’d have to rip out my taste buds and rewire my brain.
Vanity – The only way I’ve ever lost weight and kept it off (and believe me, I’ve tried everything) was from a steady diet of lean animal protein – turkey, chicken, egg whites, low fat cheese, etc. If vegan living is at all counterproductive to my weight loss and maintenance, we’re going to have a problem.
Cost/Convenience – Yes, technically I could survive off pasta and rice, but I’d probably gain a ton of weight and never get married. Meat is relatively inexpensive compared to quality non-meat foods. Plus, it’s not always easy to find a vegan-friendly option on restaurant menus. Usually it’s a super boring salad (see: cravings/habit) or a high carb white pasta (see: never get married). Be it meals, snack foods or desserts, the truth it that non-vegan options are usually cheaper, and are always much more prevalent.
Okay, so those are my concerns, more or less. And as I’ve vocalized these issues, usually in the context of other health and diet issues, I’ve received many responses, opinions, and literary recommendations from friends and family to help inform my view on veganism. The conflicting advice and opinions were somewhat overwhelming, so I decided to figure it out for myself. I picked up a book, and then another, and another, and one more, each addressing the issue from a different angle. In this order, I read: Michal Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Rory Freedman & Kim Barnouin’s “Skinny Bitch,” Alicia Silverstone’s “The Kind Diet,” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,” and in addition, viewed the 2010 documentary “Food Inc.” There is far too much information for me to retell, and I think that each of these books is worth reading, and the film worth seeing, so I will spare you a haphazard summarization. I will, however, use the information I’ve absorbed to address my concerns (the ones I suspect you might also have) in my own words, though I encourage you to pursue your own informational path, instead of just taking it from the girl who may or may not become vegan for an indefinite amount of time.
The knowledge that I gained from these books, this film, and my own research has opened my eyes to the horrors of factory farming and the environmental, ethical, and health detriments directly related to the food industry. I am not anti-meat; I am anti-factory farm. Unfortunately, factory farms are the source of nearly all (about 99%) the meat and dairy we consume in the United States. Unless you’re buying directly from your local farmer, chances are the chicken breast you ate last night and the butter you cooked it with came from a factory farm.
What is a factory farm? Well, picture a farm: Grass, hay, a big red barn, sunshine, pigs in muddy pens, cows mooing, fuzzy yellow chicks chirping, maybe a spider named Charlotte spinning her web on a weathered picket fence and sweet girl named Fern tending to a pet piggy, Wilbur. Well, factory farms are just like that, except instead of grass and hay, the animals are fed genetically modified corn and soybeans, lots of growth hormones and antibiotics, and the decaying flesh of their family and friends. There’s no big red barn or muddy pigpens. The animals are confined to metal cages full of their own defecation, blood, and urine. Squeals of pain and fear are deafening. And if you don’t like spiders, you’re in luck, because the conditions inside (yes, inside) these “farms” are too unsanitary and unnatural to foster any wildlife. Hundreds of factory workers (mostly illegal immigrants) are ordered to torture and kill, while they themselves suffer these conditions for nothing more than minimum wage. There are no gentle hands on pink udders, but instead metal machines yanking, bruising, and cutting the animals’ tortured bodies. So, in addition to the hormones they’re force-feeding these animals, you’re bound to get some blood and pus in your milk, too. Yum.
If you think this is horrific, you’re right. If you think this is an exception, you’re wrong. It’s common practice, a fair depiction of where you’re most likely getting your “nutrition” from, and an accurate account of the type of business you’re supporting and ethics you’re condoning when you choose to purchase meat and dairy from factory farms. The meat and dairy that we’re consuming from factory farms is not healthy, ethical or sustainable
Got Milk? I (used to) associate milk with happy cows grazing in green pastures and having their pink udders gently massaged over a bucket. I associated milk with dunking cookies at the kitchen table after school, or with frothy hot chocolate on snowy days. And I always assumed that milk was my primary source of calcium. But my research sparked a lot of curiosity in the matter: When we drink milk, what exactly are we consuming, and where did it come from? Did you ever think about the fact that humans are the only mammals that drink another mammal’s milk? Or the fact that all mammals stop drinking their mother’s milk somewhere soon after infancy, and yet we drink another species milk throughout our lives? And how did we choose cows’ milk, anyway? And why are so many people lactose intolerant? It’s important to look to nature and science instead of just doing something “because we’ve always done it.” I’m not going to get too scientific on you, because to tell the truth, my science jargon couldn’t fool a fifth-grader (Bunsen burner! Mole! Photosynthesis!), but the bottom line is that the milk you’re likely consuming is not necessarily natural or beneficial, and in fact could actually be quite hazardous to your health. Milk is a maternal lactating secretion, a short-term nutrient for newborns. Mammals wean their young, and would never drink other mammals’ milk, because drinking another mammals’ milk into adulthood is unnecessary and unnatural. We chose cows’ milk somewhat arbitrarily. It could have been cats’ or dogs’ milk, but cows are big (more milk) and docile (easy access). Problem is, cows’ milk is for cows. Cows are huge! The enzymes and whatnot (photosynthesis!) are meant to provide protein for their own species, not ours. No wonder so many Americans are fatties. And they’re only getting bigger (cows and humans alike) because of the growth hormones they (and in turn, we) are constantly force-fed.
The media has gotten it into our heads that milk is a health food, and that dairy is an excellent source of calcium, which helps prevent bone diseases such as osteoporosis. The reality is that countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis, including the United States, consume much more milk than countries (China, for example) where people eat much less dairy. Plus, there are endless non-animal food products rich in calcium, including tofu, most leafy greens, nuts and beans, just as there are endless non-animal food products rich in protein. The go-to defense of full-on meat eaters, anti-vegetarians, and recovering vegetarians is “I need meat for protein.” This is simply not true. Though most meat is, of course, dense in protein, it turns out that our bodies do not require as much protein as we think. In fact, many of us consume too much animal protein, and this excess can contribute to osteoporosis, kidney disease, kidney stones and certain forms of cancer. We can easily fulfill our daily intake of protein without meat (and the hormones that come with it) by eating vegetables, grains, nuts and beans, etc.
Nutritionally, we’d all be a lot better off if we ate a diet rich in real, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. Instead, we’re consuming an alarming amount of hormones and bacteria from our meat and dairy. Factory farms are ideal breeding grounds for the increasing amounts of epidemics and pandemics (like H1N1) because, quite simply, viruses spread fast when you cram a bunch of pigs together standing two feet deep in the sludge of their own fecal mater. The contaminated products we consume from these factory farms is making us sick and, in some cases, killing us. As far as I know, no vegan has ever died from a protein or calcium deficiency.
The meat industry also has an astronomical contribution to the threat and decay of our planet. We’re breeding large animals at an alarming rate, animals that in turn produce massive amounts of toxic waste and gasses. The land we alternatively could be using to grow crops (potentially enough to feed the entire world) is instead monopolized to grow corn and soybeans to feed (and fatten up) these animals. Toxic waste and chemical fertilizers from factory farms detrimentally pollute our water sources and soil.
It’s a vicious cycle we’ve gotten ourselves into. We’re quite literally ruining the land that we’re running out of. Pretty soon, this soil won’t be fit to grow anything at all, and even if it’s not completely destroyed, it will take dozens to hundreds of years for it to replenish. If we can’t grow crops to feed the animals, we can’t grow animals, and we can’t manufacture meat. Then we’ll all be vegans, assuming we can still breathe, and if we’ve survived the pollution and destruction that got us to that point.
The meat we eat isn’t any more nutritionally healthy for us than a plant-based diet, and in some cases is actually making us sick. The meat we eat is destroying the planet and is therefore unsustainable. And lest we forget, the meat we eat was, at one point, alive.
In my experience, the issue of animal rights is the most controversial aspect of the vegan/vegetarian topic. There is too much evidence to argue against the fact that the meat industry is directly related to health concerns, and even the most skeptical carnivore wouldn’t be able to dispute the fact that factory farming is contributing to global warming. These are matters of science, and though one could argue the degree to which the meat industry is affecting our population’s health and the well being of our planet, one could not dismiss its responsibility altogether. On the other hand, the issue of humans killing other species for food is more ethical in nature.
I love animals. The cats my family rescued were family to me, not just mere pets. I’ve always been fascinated with nature shows, and growing up, my brother and I spent endless hours in the woods observing wildlife and following deer tracks in the snow. For a long time, I considered becoming a veterinarian. And yet I cannot remember a time where I really, truly considered the lives of the animals I was eating on a daily basis. I’m not sure why this is, but my best guess would be that the explanation is two-fold: Firstly, I’m pretty sure I was completely in the dark about the living and slaughtering conditions of my food. Secondly, I think I had an arbitrary disconnect between the types of animals commonly raised as pets, and those raised for food. Well, I’ve finally seen/read enough to have something shift in my brain.
The conditions in factory farms are inhumane. This is something we’ve all heard many times. But until recently, those words didn’t mean much to me because I didn’t understand that factory farming is the meat industry. Foolishly, I just assumed that the meat I ate wasn’t coming from some horrible “factory farm.” Mine was coming from a nice little farm where the animals were raised in the sunshine and slaughtered in the most humane way possible. Yes, I think I actually believed some version of this up until a few months ago. When I learned that my meat was, in fact, coming from a factory farm, I started to pay a little more attention to the aforementioned inhumane conditions. What I learned was horrifying: These animals are raised for one reason and one reason only – to make money. The more flesh, the more money. Bigger better faster more. The result is extreme suffering. Genetic modifications and growth hormones cause chickens and turkeys to grow so rapidly that their bones literally break, and they cannot take more than a few steps at a time because their legs will not support the unnatural weight. The animals, some of whom are so genetically modified that they cannot reproduce on their own, are kept in tiny wire and metal cages, in pools of their own urine, blood and feces, more often than not in the dark twenty-four hours a day. In an assembly line of killing, the slaughter is rarely quick, and it’s not uncommon for factory workers or their equipment to malfunction, allowing a pig or cow to arrive at the point where he is boiled or skinned alive. Animals are not just dying for us, they’re suffering for us. Their whole lives are suffering, their death is suffering, all so we can sink our teeth into a juicy steak to fulfill the superficial and fleeting pleasure of taste.
So if we know how horrible these conditions are, how can we continue to eat meat? This is where, I believe, the whole species disconnect comes in. If somebody treated our dogs and cats the way we treat cows and pigs, we’d be outraged, beside ourselves. Honestly, if you’re a pet owner, take a minute to think about how you would feel not only to eat your pet, but to know that he had a tortured life and horrific death. It KILLS me to think about anybody doing any harm to my cat, Maggettee. But hundreds of thousands of animals are crying out in pain right now and somehow that’s different? That’s okay? Many Asian countries eat dog, and in India, they consider it unholy to eat cows. It’s just a matter of one culture domesticating certain animals, and another culture domesticating others.
So what then are the standards that make it ethical to raise and kill animals for human consumption? There is a vast amount of research proving the intelligence and personalities of cows and pigs being comparable to cats and dogs, but does that even matter? Who says it’s okay for us to raise and kill any animal, much less in such a horrific manor? Maybe, if meat were a vital source of nutrients, I would feel more torn on the matter, but knowing now that I don’t need it for nutritional value (and, on the contrary, that it’s often a determent to my health), how can I even attempt to justify killing another living being just because it tastes good?
MOVING FORWARD – WHAT TO EAT?
Will I miss my Mom’s meatballs? Will I miss turkey on Thanksgiving? I would, except for the fact that I now know where that beef and turkey came from. Sitting down to the Thanksgiving dinner table, I wouldn’t necessarily be (actively) deterred by the environmental implications of eating the meat before me, but thought of the animals’ horrific and unnecessary suffering, and the impurity of the genetically modified, hormone infused, nutrient robbed flesh would, absolutely, turn me off. It’s just not worth it. Plus, the craving-inducing aromas wafting from the kitchen are rarely about the meat, but instead about the flavors associated with it: We react to the thyme and cloves baking into the turkey, or the garlic and basil simmering in the meat sauce. If you’re that rare (and creepy) guy who orders your filet “black and blue,” you might be an exception, but I think that most people who swear they could never give up meat haven’t actually tried consciously cooking without it, or given their local vegetarian restaurant a shot.
Many years ago – long before I had any vegan intentions – a friend dragged me to Vegan Glory, a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. It was, hands down, the best Thai food I’d ever had. Despite the fact that I continued to be a full fledge omnivore, this was my go-to for a Thai-fix, and in the rare occasion that I sought Thai food elsewhere, I was always disappointed and regretted that I didn’t opt for Glory. This was the first time, but not the last, where (completely unintentionally) I was able to, and preferred to substitute certain vegan foods for their meaty counterparts. This same friend dragged me to M Café, a macrobiotic restaurant in Los Angeles. She made me eat kale. And I promise you, as ridiculous as this may sound, the spicy peanut kale salad is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, and something that I crave often. The Big Macro (their version of a vegan burger) was also delicious. And though (unlike in the instance of my new favorite Thai restaurant) this meal didn’t directly take the place of a Kobe burger and French fries, it became a meal that I very much looked forward to, and very much craved. Also, completely accidently, I purchased Uncle Eddies Vegan chocolate chip cookies, and (you guessed it) they are my favorite store-bought chocolate chip cookies of all time – vegan or non (I’m kind of a chocolate chip cookie coinsure, by the way). These are just a few instances of discovering delicious vegan cuisine without even trying. With a little thought and effort, there are endless recipes and restaurant providing healthy, filling meals that even the most skeptic carnivore would enjoy if she’d give them a chance.
I know how daunting it sounds to give up meat and dairy. I just think it’s important to know where your food is coming from, and to be aware of the consequences before you make the choice to eat it or not. I have many bright, informed, animal-loving friends who continue to eat meat, and I myself cannot promise that I will never dabble again. But I would encourage carnivores to venture out of their meat comfort zone, if only because I know they’ll discover a delicious new meal that they wouldn’t otherwise have tried. Ultimately, if everyone cut out even a little meat and dairy, it would make a huge and positive impact on our bodies and our planet.
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Lauren Caltagirone was born and raised in Westchester County, NY, and has been pursuing a screenwriting career in Los Angeles for the past seven years. She enjoys red woods, red wine, red velvet and Red Vines, but has given up the latter in her quest to avoid high fructose corn syrup. When asked what she is searching for, Lauren answers, “Compassion, sincerity, peace, and a receipt for a J Crew dress that I should return.”