Nine days ago I embarked on an experiment in extreme eating: no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products for four weeks. (My husband and sons are not part of the experiment. It’s hard enough to get my sons to eat any vegetables, much less an entire diet of them. And my husband is perfectly happy to make his own food choices.)
I’ve known plenty of vegans and vegetarians, and there are as many reasons for the diet as there are people who have adopted it. By good luck, most of the people I know who prefer to eat plants do not proselytize about their choices. When asked, they offer information, and I will try to follow their example.
So, why am I trying to give up meat, which I like, and cow’s milk-based foods, which I adore? Even, in fact, eggs, which are pretty darn handy in baked goods? Alicia Silverstone made me do it. Her book, The Kind Diet, sparked my conversion experience with its nonjudgmental, informative, sensible and evidence-based approach. I rarely make a big decision without doing a fair amount of research. Ms. Silverstone, a longtime vegan, logically lays out the drawbacks to Americans’ consumption of industrially raised and processed meat and dairy products: the ill effects on human health; the degradation to the environment; and the considerable suffering imposed on the animals we consume.
Many people argue with the conclusions of such authors as T. Colin Campbell, who wrote The China Study, a book that promotes the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Less easily dismissed are the environmental problems caused by the amount of resources (grain and corn, water, land) devoted to U.S. meat and dairy production and the release of largely untreated animal waste into our groundwater and waterways.
For me, Ms. Silverstone’s vegan diet began to make even more sense after I finally made myself watch the movie Food Inc., which depicted the horrific conditions in which most food animals are housed and slaughtered in this country.
Yes, there are exceptions. For some time now, I’ve been buying eggs (which I don’t eat much except for baked goods) and ground beef from a farmer at the Central New York Regional Market, who clearly raises her animals with a lot of care. However, it’s pretty easy for me to limit my already minimal consumption of beef and eggs–which would be quite expensive to purchase at the farmers’ market in large quantities.
Where I run into problems is with cow’s milk, which I love in all its forms. What I had to acknowledge, seeing the words in Ms. Silverstone’s book, is that milk cows are mammals that are forcibly impregnated on an unnaturally frequent schedule so that their newborn calves can be taken from them. Then the cows lactate in order to provide people, like me, with their own milk, which their bodies make, naturally, for their own babies. The conditions the cows live under radically shorten their natural lifespan, from 25 to an average of five years. As a fellow mammal, one who has given birth to two babies and nursed them, I felt for those cows.
And there’s really no way, short of me raising my own milk cow (or sheep or goat) in my postage stamp-sized backyard in the city, to minimize the cruelty inherent in dairy production. “Organic” milk still comes from cows made to gestate and lactate on an accelerated schedule. Nor, really, can I afford to buy milk from a small-scale, especially caring dairy farmer on a regular basis.
So those are the reasons. The “big” reasons, that is, the ones that might resonate with a lot of people.
Beyond those are my individual reasons. One is that last year I lost 20 pounds and I’d like to lose an additional 25 to reach a normal weight, one that will give me a better shot at being active and healthy well into my boys’ adulthood.
But I am something of a compulsive, unconscious eater. If I’m making my sons grilled cheese sandwiches, I’m likely to eat a slice or two of cheese. By giving up dairy, I am forced to be much more thoughtful about what I put in my mouth. And before this experiment, I had a lot of trouble with limitation and moderation. For me, it’s easier to go without certain problematic foods, instead of allowing myself some in moderation, a state I never seem to achieve.
In addition to the niggling nibbling problem, I think I am something of a milk-product addict. I may be constitutionally incapable of having “a little” ice cream/yogurt/whipped cream/Brie.
And I question the dehumanizing effects on the people who work in the meat packing industry–the ones who kill the animals and cut them up. I ask myself what it would be like to kill living beings all day, every day. I ask what it might feel like to slice them up–when I already find it distasteful to handle ground beef or to strip the flesh from a rotisserie chicken.
As an eater of vegetables, I can stop supporting the meat-production industry, which is inextricably connected to both the dairy and the egg industries–because all the animals not used as milk cows or laying hens become hamburgers, chicken wings or some other “protein product,” one that is often ground up and fed back to some other animal.
That said, I don’t know how long I can last on this diet. I used to say I’d eat practically anything (though I’m no fan of fast food, I have never gone to someone’s house and conducted an inquiry into the menu). Now I’ve added myself to the list of picky eaters for whom I prepare food. I don’t want to be one of those people with elaborate food prohibitions. I don’t want to be “demanding.”
Why keep going, in spite of that? This way of eating allows me to live in accordance with my values. I feel lighter in spirit because, for once, I’m not just talking about the environment or factory farming or animal cruelty, I’m actually doing something. Yes, it’s a small thing. But it’s something.
Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Life site
Have you struggled to make your appetite match your ethics or your health needs?