Unless you live under a rock, you are probably aware of the sharp increase in the popularity of plant-based eating in recent years. According to Forbes magazine, there has been a 600% increase in plant-based and vegan eating in the last five years.
Veganism, which is defined as an ethical stance against harming or eating animals, has been around for over fifty years. It isn’t strictly about food; vegans eschew leather, using animals for testing, and using them for clothing. Often, vegan labels say “cruelty-free”. Strict vegans even avoid honey, the making of which may harm bees. “Plant-based” eating has emerged as a softer version. It’s less off-putting and positivist, I suppose. Many articles and mainstream new sources use “plant-based” and “sustainable food” interchangeably.
When a trusted friend and mentor confided that she was a vegan and it led to easy weight management and better health, it piqued my interest. I dove in, as I tend to do, headfirst. I got on all the vegan and plant-based websites I could. I watched Forks Over Knives, and What The Health. I followed Nutritionfacts.org, Dr. Ornish, Neal Barnard, Joel Fuhrman, and others. It was obvious that many people had turned their health around using a plant-based approach.
My interest was mainly in the purported health benefits but quickly I saw that I could lose weight effortlessly, reverse chronic diseases (I didn’t have any) and live in a cruelty-free way that was helping address climate change. I was sold. Plus, the food was pretty!
The notion that I was eliminating suffering grew on me. As soon as I gave up animal products, particularly dairy, I felt lighter and cleaner. I was already a fairly healthy eater, mostly organic whole-foods and clean meats. The fantasy that eating only plants would solve all my body issues was rearing its head. I wanted the Magic Bullet. This was the first sign something was amiss.
Giving up meat was only hard a few times, then it wasn’t. Eating out proved more challenging. I noticed that I had to make a lot more food to feed my family of five and this took extra time and I seemed to waste a lot more food. I bought loads of veggie and beans. My fridge was overloading. My husband, ever the renegade, had recently gone full carnivore in an attempt to heal his badly damaged gut. All the foods I was allowed to eat and relished eating– grains, legumes, greens, tofu– he wasn’t tolerating. This caused a strange and curious strain between us, a disconnect. I was slowly being convinced that his all-animal diet was going to kill him at any minute and that I had reached nutritional nirvana. He ate around 1 lb of grass-fed ribeyes or burgers twice daily and felt better than he had in years. He looked at my plate and I could feel his eyes rolling. We didn’t address it much, and when our kids would ask why were eating opposite foods, I would just say “This is what I like to eat. Daddy can eat what Daddy wants.” But in my heart, something was off. How could both of us be doing so well? But I knew I was right.
I eagerly snapped pictures of my plant-based colorful creations and posted them. I got accolades and this felt good. Not only were my creations beautiful, but they were #healthy and #plantbased. I felt a sense of virtue, and moral authority when I shared my plates. I began to look at my husband’s plate with disgust. I actually pitied him.
That summer, I felt a oneness with animals and, yes, I’ll say it, the Universe. I spoke with other vegetarian or vegan friends and we laughed about how silly others were that were still participating in cruel animal-hating ways. They just hadn’t seen the Light. My feet were slowly leaving the ground. I started to feel superior to others and to view eating animal products as a moral failure.
What had begun as a way to eat healthier was starting to make me a bit of an asshole.
A friend asked me why I wasn’t eating meat and I told him, “Because I don’t want to participate in suffering.”
Oh, that’s rich. Like as a human being I get a pass on suffering.
The context, of course, was my brother’s recent suicide. Anything involving death and pain I wanted to be annexed from my life. Perhaps this was understandable at the time. But as I grieved my brother’s loss, I was face-to-face with the reality that death is a simple fact of life. None of us escape it, and embracing death is an essential aspect of living fully.
My plant-based lifestyle had begun to go stale. One evening I made a roast chicken for my family, which I wasn’t going to eat. But one smell and a lick of my fingers became me standing in the kitchen, tearing at this chicken like a ravenous street dog. I binge-ate almost an entire roast chicken. And it was fucking delicious. I missed my animal nature.
I felt my wild woman within, crying out. It is the same feeling I get when I leave the city for the country; the elemental need for nature and trees, grass, dirt, and sun is powerful and gripping. I believe in listening to my body, my intuition and, yes, my animal instincts. Plant-based eating was becoming a struggle; I wasn’t losing weight anymore, I was gaining. I wasn’t feeling great anymore either. I was bloated, gassy and my joints and muscles ached. I began getting migraines again which I hadn’t had in years. I had four (!) cavities. Something was off.
I began to see that life cannot exist without death. We are all on this earth, all of us will suffer and will contribute to some form of suffering, consciously or unconsciously. This isn’t anything to feel necessarily good or bad about; it just is. I’ve hurt people I loved, and they have hurt me. Pretending we can get by without having an impact is foolish. We can lessen the impact, sure, but we are all accountable for our footprint in life.
The idea that humans can exist outside of the food chain, somehow consuming food or products that have no impact or cruelty involved I now find farcical. There are mono-crops of corn and soy decimating the topsoil. We can’t take ourselves out of the food supply, at least not without inflicting even more damage to the environment. But we can change the way food is produced.
When I began noticing my symptoms getting worse, I took a deep dive into the world of autoimmune disease (my son has Celiac). I found a trove of science, as well as a community, showing me how the consumption of high-quality animal foods can profoundly alter poor health. I had been so firmly indoctrinated into the meat-is-bad-for-you camp, I was stunned to find ex-vegans whose health only recovered when they started eating animals.
Another thing began to change. I recognized a strange liberal feminist tribe in the plant-based world. It matched my own political leaning and it felt right in the beginning. Meat’s association with masculinity is age-old; from the perspective of plant-based eating, meat is dirty and I noticed how much “cleaner” I felt without it. Never mind that my health was getting worse. It was becoming the opposite of wellness. But it’s clear to me that in a diet-mentality world, giving up animal foods can be a potent and socially acceptable way to actually just diet.
Eating animals involves killing living beings and dismembering them. These issues are not to be taken lightly; animals raised for meat should be treated well, and eat the food they need, and we should encourage this practice as much as possible. We should eat the whole animal nose-to-tail. Well-managed animal agriculture can help restore the topsoil and fight climate change by sequestering carbon. The truth is, we need these animals.
Eating animals should involve knowing where the animal came from. There is a kind of hubris in people eating animals until we realize that we are also animals. I don’t feed my dog vegan fare; I feed him what he was bred to eat: meat.
My experiment with plant-based eating was crumbling, and yet I am thankful for it.
As for my husband, he’s doing better than he has in years. He is still a full carnivore, except for a few bites of something extra, and his health is excellent. Watching his journey go in the opposite arc to mine has been profound. I have started to question basic assumptions I thought were facts. Not only do the arguments against eating meat seem academic and weak to me at this point, but meat is also one of the most nutrient-dense foods available, especially offal. I have started incorporating more meat, liver, fish, and eggs into my diet and avoiding grains and legumes, nightshades and dairy (an approach known as AIP). Many of the “healthy” foods like chia and hemp seeds I have stopped eating and I feel much better. My N=1 experiment is telling me to go ahead, eat the juicy chicken and the skin. I try my damnedest to source the highest quality animals products possible (read: I support local farmers!). And yes, I eat plenty of healthy fats.
There are dozens of arguments both for and against eating meat and each person needs to make his or her own choice. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to eat meat, just as there are for vegan diets. I’m not interested in any one-size-fits-all approach. I tried plant-based eating myself for over a year. In the end, I was heavier, less healthy, moodier and on my moral high-horse. Not a recipe for success for me, or my relationships. Though I have to admit, feeling better than others felt really good.