Going to Extremes

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.

Further Reading:

Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Life site

Nutritionist Marion Nestle on vegan eating

So-called “real men” go vegan for health

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) on the dairy industry

Have you struggled to make your appetite match your ethics or your health needs?

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18 responses to “Going to Extremes

  1. Dear Reid,

    Your plan is well thought out and I would only say that I have avoided watching Food Inc because I thought it would be so upsetting. I did however read and own Mark Bittman “Food Matters” and he is all about this in a slightly less extreme form. You might find it interesting. I share your issues though with moderation and it is easier to just give up something than to be moderate. You are inspiring me to carry some of what I already have been trying a little further. Almond milk agrees with my system better at my age so I make smoothies with that. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to your journey.

    • I, too, am drinking almond milk as my milk substitute. I wish I could get away from feeling I need any “milk,” because it’s really not milk at all. It’s a highly processed beverage not much different from a sugary Starbucks coffee liquid. But as a dairy addict, I guess the almond milk is my methadone. I hope eventually to wean myself from it, but at this point I like to have something to put in my coffee. And it avoids the reputedly more plant-estrogen-filled soy milk.

  2. I’m interested to hear how it goes. Part of me questions the wisdom of taking advice of any kind from Alicia Silverstone, but I guess her book is generally well-regarded. Personally, I’m devoted to Sandor Katz, who I first read about in a New Yorker you guys brought here when you were visiting. It’s funny how much anxiety there is now related to food–not just one’s weight, but what it means to eat healthily. Ethically, I think veganism is the best choice. Personally and intuitively, I think one should try not to eat too much soy.

    • You’re right about soy, from what I can tell. Though the Wikipedia entry on “phytoestrogens” or food estrogens lists many others beyond soybeans, including other legumes and whole grains. Soy milk is considered a particular danger, from what I’ve read, because it is more highly processed than, say, tofu, and it enjoys a reputation as “healthy,” so people overindulge. And, yes, I was dubious about the authority of Ms. Silverstone, but her book was amply footnoted, and most of the facts and studies she cited seemed to be reputable. In some cases, she talk about spiritual and ethical matters, and those are naturally not supported by studies. Much of one’s health is highly subjective anyway, and readily influenced by our mental state. I’d say that if you’re very conflicted about what you eat, that probably affects your digestion and overall well-being. Once you start eating in a way that aligns with your personal values, the absence of that conflict or stress could, potentially, aid your overall health.

  3. Brava, and good on you! As always, your decisions are well-reasoned and insightful. I ran through much the same thought process and values evaluation as you when I gave up meat in the 1980’s…and I continue to think this way even though I’m a recalcitrant omnivore. Speaking of omnivores, if you haven’t already read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” pick it up. Reading that reinforced my resolve to be thoughtful about what I eat and to choose carefully, but absolved me of my guilt over eating meat and dairy. (I’m not advocating for you to give up your commitment to veganism!) Keep it up and keep us posted.

    -C

    P.S. And I’m with Dake: one should try not to eat too much soy!

    • I’ve read everything Michael Pollan’s written starting from and including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (so also the New York Times articles and both “An Eater’s Manifesto” and “Food Rules”). And I watched his appearance on Oprah’s recent “vegan” episode. He doesn’t really say much about the dairy industry at all, that I can tell. Sadly, we can be conscious eaters, as Pollan advocates, and carefully source our eggs, meat and cow’s milk, but consumption of any animal product involves participation in a system that causes animal suffering.

      Getting our animal products from small farms just changes the degree of suffering. Nutritionally, most of Americans’ needs can be better met (more upsides, fewer downsides) with whole, unprocessed plant-based foods. And Americans’ insatiable desire for meat, milk, cheese, butter and the like simply cannot be met by a series of small farms, in any case, which might be the more environmentally sound solution to untreated animal sewage fouling our water sources.

      However, food is just one aspect of Americans’ dangerous consumption; as a recent New Yorker article pointed out, cheap manufacturing of all our commonly used products creates a lot of human suffering–it’s just abroad, where our computers and cell phones (for example) are made and then, later, disposed of. I highly recommend Juliet Schor’s book “Plenitude” for a look at the dangers of overconsumption of manufactured goods (that are not food).

  4. Dear Reid,

    Wow, what a thoughtful, thorough and well-written post! What else would I expect from you?

    I was sickened to hear all the inhumane treatment of animals and its repercussions. I guess I knew this one day, but I chose to look the other way. Because, I guess, like you I love cheese and milk in my coffee, etc.

    However I’ve never been in love with meat or anything that looks or feels vaguely alive (tails on shrimp, for ex.). Hopefully avoiding that, and as the cook of the household, subtly steering my family that way will help the cause.

    But really my reasoning is a cop out. You have taken a courageous and admirable move.

    I wish you luck and hope that you can continue your diet in whatever way feels right to you.

    Sincerely,
    Amy

    • Amy, thanks for stopping by and making such an honest comment. With my family still eating like omnivores, I’m really not doing anything especially radical. However, as the main meal planner and preparer, we are eating more vegan meals as a family, just to make life slightly (slightly!) simpler. I’m nearly four weeks in, and most of the time I’ve found it pretty simple to stick to the vegan diet. And I don’t beat myself up if I happen to stray a bit when I’m at my mother-in-law’s house for dinner, say. And I’m finding a lot of benefits to this way of eating, including not worrying as much about using up hunks of meat sitting in the refrigerator, because we’re buying less meat overall. I had some fried tofu slices last night while my family had fried fish, and the tofu (dredged in flour and Old Bay seasoning) was incredibly tasty; I used to be quite prejudiced against tofu. I’m now tracking down recipes online for seitan corned beef, because St. Patrick’s Day is coming up. My cooking skills have really expanded, and that, too, is a benefit.

  5. Hey Reid,

    This all sounds very familiar!

    8 or so years ago when I went vegan, it was on a lark. I lost about 30 pounds (mostly because I didn’t know what to eat other than apples and hummus and because I was overweight). Then I was scared to go back to “regular” food for fear of ballooning. Over the past decade, of course, I have known plenty of fat, unhealthy vegans.

    Started reading up and scaring myself with slaughterhouse footage. 8-9 years later I’m still not eating meat, despite growing up hunting and eating a pretty standard American diet. The reasons why are complicated, but I think you can boil it down to a few main reasons for not eating meat:

    1) Compassion: animals suffer or die for us when we eat meat/eggs/dairy. As you pointed out, even organic small-scale situations mean the animal is forced to lactate, held against its “will”, etc. I lump spiritual/religious stuff under here. Personally I want to at least look an animal in the eyes if I’m going to eat it. I respect animals.

    2) Environment/Food System Issues: Michael Pollan stuff. Meat uses more resources than veggies. Inefficient calories. World food system is stressed enough. We can’t afford to eat meat. Total disconnect from the food production for most of the First World. I don’t “vote with my dollars” much in this regard, but some day I’d like to be directly connected to the bulk of my diet, whatever it is.

    3) Taste: This is a less-common objection, I think. I have never liked dairy. Cheese tastes like feet, the heaviness and textures of cottage cheese and creams gross me out.

    The only meats I enjoy the taste of are “covered-up”, spiced ones i.e. pepperoni, sausage, etc. I have dressed a number of animals in my time, and the smell of viscera is unmistakable and unforgettable. All red meats taste at least slightly of that smell to me and I don’t enjoy it. I’ve also known people who can’t eat meat because they can’t stop picturing the live animal dying. Yikes!

    I like most seafood, but many people can’t stand the taste of even the most neutral fish or cephalapod.

    4) Health: There’s a perception that vegan/vegetarian eating is healthier in general. Truth is, people lose weight on any diet they follow, often because they can’t just eat whatever comes close enough to their snapping jaws. However, most of the research suggests that eating a greater percentage of fruits and vegetables than the average person leads to positive health outcomes. I do feel that there is a health benefit to having at least some animals products in your diet, especially for men and athletes.

    I applaud you for giving the veg thing a try. I don’t judge anyone for what they eat, but I do think people can learn a lot by “taking things to extremes” as you are. Even if you go right back to your normal diet some day, you’ll never forget the interesting recipes and wild ideas you learned in the process.

    • Justin, thank you for stopping by and describing your own evolution as a plant eater. I respect your views, especially since they are based on long experience and since you grew up hunting, which I did not. In journalism school a classmate once told me she preferred to buy chicken cutlets, as opposed to the whole bird, because they did not resemble the animal. And that’s where a lot of us are at. Which part of the turkey does the sliced deli meat come from? (Though I’m not 100 percent certain, I believe it would be “all parts.”) I am uncomfortable with the degree to which the food industry messes with animals on every level–their genes, their diets, their reproduction, their growth and life cycle, their ultimate sanitized (and yet often rife with bacteria) presentation in the supermarket. Just because human beings can do something, scientifically, does not mean that they should.

      Twenty-eight days in, I am planning on extending the “vegan experiment” for as long as I can manage it. I did go out with my family for ice cream on Saturday, and I ate some. (Well, a lot, if truth be told.) But as of this morning–even though I’ve found plenty of non-meat, non-dairy foods to gorge on–I have lost five pounds. And I’ve learned a lot of new cooking methods and am continuing to discover reasons why veganism makes sense for me. I can’t say I’ll do it forever, under all circumstances. (For one thing, and something Alicia Silverstone glosses over in her book, I am one of the women of childbearing age who is anemic. However, I take an iron supplement now and hope that will remedy the deficiency.)

      I’ll probably blog about this again. The vegan experience has been hugely educational, and that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed about it.

      • Another health concern to watch out for is B12. My dad is a meat eater who had a B12 deficiency that caused him some serious nerve damage. My ex-girlfriend was a long-time vegetarian and she also ran into health problems due to low B12. I think it’s one of the more common problems vegans run into. Meat, by virtue of its bacteria content, has a good amount of B12, so vegans need to supplement or eat nutritional yeast or something like that. You might either have an inability to absorb it (diet agnostic) or you can have a dietary deficiency (vegans).

        A funny anecdote my friend shared once: He got into an argument with a friend’s wife who didn’t believe that meat was animal muscle.

        “Well, what part of the animal do you think it is, then?”
        “I don’t know…the ‘meat’ part!”

        The disconnect is unbelievable sometimes. I remember writing a story about an urban farming program for kids and the director telling me that most of the kids didn’t know that carrots were plants that grew in the ground!

  6. Not sure I could do it, but interested to find out how it goes. If I were vegan, I’d use it as a way to justify my eating copious amounts of potato chips and guacamole. I’m pretty sure that’s not the point. We recently bought a pressure cooker and I used it to make a great curried lentil recipe, so who knows, maybe I’ll give it a try too. I like how you’ve put a time limit on it–it makes it seem more achievable, and there’s no pressure to stick with it for the rest of your life if you don’t want to. Good luck!

    • Yes, compulsive eating can be a problem no matter what kind of an eater you are. I have a bag of fig cookies in my desk drawer that parade into my mouth without stopping, if I’m not paying attention. (Which, alas, I’m often not.) After 28 days, I’m extending the vegan experiment indefinitely. Five pounds lost and a clear(er) conscience–what’s not to like? And it wasn’t even particularly difficult, once I figured out the planning of mix-and-match meals that could feed my omnivorous family and my vegan self. Usually just a couple of vegetable sides and perhaps a tofu thingie and I’m good to go. And sometimes the men of the family can eat a stir-fry or beans and rice for dinner and not suffer too much deprivation (as long as there’s dessert!).

  7. I became a vegan in December to be in solidarity with my sweetie. He switched to deal with a health issue — Gout diagnosis. Amazingly, in 3 months he’s dropped his uric acid level by half, making no other changes. No meds. So the sacrifice seems worth it. One thing we’ve noticed is that he’s a more efficient carb burner, so we need to gear the diet more to protein, e.g., beans and legumes so I don’t get fat. Also, I get hungry when the diet slants more towards carbs. For some reason carbs fill him up, but not me.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Susan. I’m not sure which carbs you’re eating, but a lot of unprocessed grains are delicious, filling, and not especially caloric (depending on how you prepare them). I like quinoa, millet and long-grain brown rice, among others. And you can eat quite a lot of leafy greens without putting on weight. Alicia Silverstone is a big fan of bok choy and collards–neither of which I’ve tried yet. Good luck finding something that fits the bill for you.

  8. Wow–great post and lots of great comments. I’ve also been trying a vegetarian diet for a few weeks now–for the sole reason that my doc says if I do not get my cholesterol down I have to go on the meds. It is much more difficult than I expected–and I’m not even going extreme. I eat fish once a week and I’m still doing dairy, though much less of it and low- or no-fat when possible. I didn’t eat a lot of eggs anyway.

    Anyway, it’s made me much more conscious of what I put in my mouth, like you said, and has improved my shopping and label-reading habits. I also enjoy the creative process of coming up with satisfying vegetarian meals that make up for the loss in protein and aren’t too complicated for a single girl who doesn’t much like to cook.

    • Sorry to hear about your cholesterol, Gienna! If you don’t like to cook, there are plenty of tasty meat-free prepared foods, like Amy’s Burgers (which I love). Whole grain pasta with a vegetarian sauce (prepared or tomatoes from a can with a bit of oregano, basil, garlic and olive oil) can be quick, filling and delicious. In fact, I’m constantly inventing new pasta sauces that involve every item (seemingly) in the refrigerator and can in the cupboard (cannellini beans or chickpeas often); sometimes they’re really awesome and I’ve failed to write down any of the ingredients. Whoops. If you like mushrooms, portabellas sauteed in oil make a quick, yummy sandwich…

      Honestly, the whole “complete protein” concern is a giant misconception. The standard American diet (abbreviated by some as SAD) is wildly oversupplied in protein–which can lead to problems including excess weight. Protein deficiency won’t be a problem for you unless you’ve become a triathlete–and that would probably take care of your cholesterol issue, at least. However, high-protein foods do tend to be more filling. But then so are whole vegetable foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage. I don’t much like complicated foods either; I don’t have a lot of time to cook except on the weekends.

      I will say that vegan cooking tends to demand more planning and a lot more chopping. And it requires a brand-new mindset about what constitutes a meal–no longer is it a giant cut of meat (of whatever animal) with a dollop of a starch and another of a green vegetable. And, in that way, it’s more involved. But every person I know who’s successfully addressed health problems related to diet has managed to change the “meat and potatoes” answer to what’s for dinner.

  9. SAD. That’s funny. 🙂

    xoxo

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