The Hesitant Herbivore, Part 3

In which I examine the pros and cons of cutting almost everything I like to eat out of my diet.

When we left off, I was on the precipice of making the decision that might fundamentally change my life:  Leap into the scary abyss of a plant-based diet or stay safely on the cliff of selective compassion, constant fatigue, and general digestive distress

In the cons column, I had: “I might starve” and “Is life worth living without the cheese and ice cream?”

On the pros side, I had “It might be worth it if I could fit into size 8 jeans again.” Yes, I am that vain. But amazingly, vanity wasn’t the factor at work here. Sure, I want to lose weight and I was hoping a new lower-fat diet would help me do that. But mostly, I wanted very badly to feel better. My forties have not been kind, and I’m still trying to learn how to live in my changing body.

Wouldn’t it be great if all cows, and people, got to feel as good as this one?

And that’s why, after all these years, I was willing to take the leap. Though I’d love to be able to say it was my compassion for farm animals that finally won out, in reality it was a completely selfish motive that finally gave me the edge I needed.  I have come to believe that the human body is not designed to process dairy products as an adult and that amount and nature of the meat we eat is not necessarily a healthy thing, either.

So with my odds of fully-functional longevity in mind, I started compiling my “pros” list.  Here are the basics.

Health:

–          Weight – I gained 50 pounds after I quit smoking 6 years ago, and it’s caused a whole host of problems for me from my aching feet to how I breathe when I sleep. And I’ve had no success at losing weight and keeping it off. According to the Mayo Clinic, vegetarians (especially vegans) usually consume less fat and fewer calories and have lower body weights that their meat-eating counterparts. No guarantees of course since there are still plenty of fatty, sugary foods I can eat but if I avoid those too, my chances are looking good.

–          Cholesterol – Mine is borderline high and I would really like to stop it there. Now the jury seems to still be out by how much this is controlled by diet and how much by genes, but the consensus seems to be, it’s a combination of both. So doesn’t it seem slightly insane to end up taking medication to control the adverse effects of your food when you can just change your food instead?

–          Type 2 diabetes – This is very possibly looming in my future if I don’t take extreme measures. See “weight.”

–          Your colon will thank you, said a vegan friend of mine who maintains that colon cancer is a big danger for dedicated carnivores. From what I’ve read, there does seem to be a positive correlation,

–          Recently, a long-term study by some Harvard folks that tracked the eating habits of 110,000 people over 20 years claims a high correlation between red meat consumption and early death.

–          Society – Can you imagine how much the cost of health care would drop if the population switched to a vegetarian/vegan diet and the numbers of people suffering from high cholesterol, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and a whole host of other diet or weight related maladies suddenly plummeted?

Humane reasons:

via Humane Society

–          Living conditions for domestic animals are appalling.  Meat and dairy are big businesses and everything is secondary to the profit margin. To produce meat, milk and eggs quickly and cheaply many animals are confined for their entire lives– in barns, in gestation crates, in veal crates, in stacked cages. The animals often have little room to move, aren’t allowed to forage or graze or go outside at all.

–          Conditions in slaughterhouses are often horrifying.  Again, the profit margin seems to demand speed over humanity. The animals are “processed” with little regard for the terror or pain that they feel.

Years ago, I read a book by Dr. Temple Grandin called Thinking in Pictures in which she describes her experience as a person with high-functioning autism as motivation and fodder for her work in developing humane livestock handling processes. If every slaughterhouse in the US was designed (and managed) by Temple Grandin, a woman who has championed the ethical treatment of animals I think I would feel much better about the method, if not the need, of putting food animals to death.

–          People insist on eating things which call for brutal practices. Ever heard of foie gras, for instance? It’s the liver of a duck or goose fattened to unnatural proportions by force feeding the birds by stuffing a tube down their throats into their stomachs. The French, the largest (though certainly not the only) producers and consumers of foie gras, even have a term for this barbaric practice. It’s called gavage. According to French law, “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France.” I think that’s a fancy way of saying, we’ve been doing it for a long time, so it’s okay.

–          And finally, if all this cruelty is practiced in the name of feeding people, consider this: The grain used to feed animals could feed hungry people. And the water used for raising food animals could be used for raising crops and for human consumption.

The issue of farm animal welfare is pretty huge and I only touch on a few things here. For more information about the treatment of farm animals and about health issues related to a meat-based diet, you can follow the links below.

 

For the scoop on lactose intolerance, see this article in USA Today based on a peer-reviewed paper recently published in PLOS Computational Biology: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2009-08-30-lactose-intolerance_N.htm)

For info on red meat and colon cancer see http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/Red-meat-and-colon-cancer.shtml

For the link between read meat and early death see this article in the LA Times:  http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/13/health/la-he-red-meat-20120313

For the information on farm animal welfare go to:  http://www.humanesociety.org/news/publications/whitepapers/farm_animal_welfare.html

For A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production:  http://www.ncifap.org/_images/PCIFAPFin.pdf

For PETA’s reasons to go vegetarian see:  http://features.peta.org/ChewOnThis/chewsheet.pdf

The Hesitant Herbivore

via National Geographic

I am a creature of habit, entrenched in my routines, glacially slow to alter my course. I cling to the familiar with the powerful grip of a 3 toed sloth and move toward any new direction with such incremental velocity that algae grows on my furry metaphorical coat. I don’t like change.

So for me to alter something as fundamental to my life and being as the food I eat took nothing less than years of passive contemplation and a growing a mountain of evidence that grew so high it finally fell on me. And I suddenly realized that becoming a vegan was not only the ethical thing for someone with my beliefs to do but the healthiest choice for my body.

via dummies.com

Six weeks ago, I removed dairy from my diet – a heartbreaking task for me. I believe cheese to be the glorious result of the most inspired bit of culinary resourcefulness the human race has ever displayed, a brilliant example of biotechnology born long before that term was coined. What a delightful variety of food we’ve learned to coax from the curd of sour milk – sharp aged cheddar and smoked gouda and herb infused wonders like Havarti with dill. Cheese is, quite simply, culinary wizardry at its best. And it makes the majority of the humans who consume it poot. Whoopsy.

I read an article about a recent study that found that sixty percent of human beings are lactose intolerant. Yep. Six out of ten. And here I was thinking all this time that the inability to process lactose was abnormal, and that only a few physically delicate nerdy-types can’t manage it (like the loveable but nerdy TV sitcom character, Dr. Leonard Hoffstater of The Big Bang Theory). In reality, the majority of us stop producing lactase, the enzyme necessary for breaking down the sugar, lactose, when we’re somewhere between two and five years old – presumably because we generally stop drinking our mother’s milk after that and don’t need it anymore. So the “abnormal” ones are actually those 40% who retain the ability to break down lactose and so drink milk or eat cheese without worrying about clearing the room later. Scientists call it lactase persistence and it’s the result of a genetic mutation.

Most commercial milk cows don’t get pretty meadows to roam in.

The funny thing is, I have known for a long time that cow’s milk is not a particularly healthy or logical dietary choice for me, but my love of cheese and a few other dairy delights (like ice cream!) clouded my judgment. Okay, so we aren’t designed to eat stuff made from cow’s milk, so what? It’s so good! So it’s high in calories and has a lot of saturated fat. It has protein too! And calcium that the dairy lobby says I must get from milk! And it tastes good! Really good!

But once a person hits a certain point in life (the one I’m apparently at now), digesting foods that our bodies aren’t ideally designed to process finally becomes an issue. I’ve gained weight and am having a hard time losing it. The cholesterol numbers in my blood work say borderline high and are creeping upward. And I feel bad a lot after I eat. I was tired of being tired and feeling crummy.

So I gave up dairy. I got used to drinking my coffee without creamer and actually like it that way, now. I got used to pasta not smothered in butter and cheese and am experimenting with spices and oils. I’ve found a mint dark chocolate with no dairy that I like better than milk chocolate now. And I can live without ice cream. Whoops. No I can’t!

Ice cream is right up there with cheese. I love it too much to ever let it go. And so was born the Friday exception. On Fridays, I get dairy because life is too short to live forever without ice cream and cheese. And the cool thing is that if you go six days a week without these things, small amounts of them are more than satisfying by the time I get to Friday. So my days of stuffing big soup bowls full of frozen dairy goodness are over.

But this was just the first step in my dietary revolution. Come back soon for part two about the conversion of a lifelong carnivore to a plant-based diet and get the answers to questions I know you’ll be dying to ask. How hard is it to give up meat? Is it worth it? What are the benefits? Do you have to start making your own granola, hugging trees, and/or wearing Birkenstocks?

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