Confessions of a vegetarian

Food.  Food is delicious, beautiful, mysterious, and most of all, completely necessary for survival.  Personally, I love food.  I’m obsessed with it and I would never try to hide or deny these feelings.  But of course, we all have an innate “love” for food because we need it in order to live.  But I have a fascination with food, an undying allure to the colors, the texture, the shapes and sizes, the smells, the origins and of course…the taste.

Colorful veggies straight from the garden

This [healthy] obsession has led me down some interesting paths and has got me thinking a lot more about food – where it comes from, how it’s grown and the relationship it has with our bodies – which has led me to such authors as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and T. Campbell.  This type of thinking is probably foreign to most Americans, and the time to ponder such questions probably non-existent.  Which brings me to my first point:  Despite our reliance on food, I feel like we (meaning the U.S. and most Western Nations) are no longer thankful (not the saying grace as a habit before eating a meal thankful, but I mean, really and truly thankful) for the food on our plates.  Today, only a small percentage of people actually maintain that natural and organic connection with food through growing, farming or raising food.  Instead of reveling in such phenomena as photosynthesis which helps our plant food grow, or the special relationship a cow shares with the grass it eats, we don’t even think twice about it.

Not thinking twice about it is somewhat understandable in today’s society when over 80% of Americans live in an urban environment and therefore don’t have the exposure to the origins of food like Farmer Joe in rural Vermont.



But the fact that our society has almost willingly become ignorant to basic knowledge about food raises a few flags in my head.  The first flag is that we have become so concerned with limiting the “bad” ingredients in foods, that we forget that the best way to do this is not by buying low fat ice cream or chips with no added salt but through replacing these foods with real food, like vegetables.  Mark Bittman, a contributor to the NYT Opinionator, frequents the topic of food and recently wrote an article about this highlighting the fault of the U.S.D.A. in carefully presenting the Dietary Guidelines so as not to upset the meat and sugar lobbies.  And we thought they were giving us the best information out there.

Which brings me to the second flag, as a result of being bombarded with studies proving this and discounting that in a contradicting manner, humans constantly turn to science to confirm any hypotheses about food.  I say sadly because I think it’s sad that we have come to need science to tell us what we should and should not eat instead of using our intuition.  For instance, have you ever wondered why tomatoes are red?  Or why they taste so damn delicious drizzled in extra virgin olive oil?  Most people just accept these facts because it is what they grew up eating.  Why would they question it when, a) it is a delectable combination and b) they’ve never gotten sick from it?  Michael Pollan covers this topic in The Omnivore’s Dilemma where he goes into great detail dissecting America’s food culture, or rather, lack thereof.  He believes this is America’s biggest problem.  Sure, it’s great that we take cuisines from countries all over the world, but we don’t have a cuisine we can really call our own.

Californian Olive

Most countries have very identifiable cuisines (I say sushi, you think Japan) that are completely connected to their geographical location.  Certain plants and animals thrive in different climates, which means that some climates will be more conducive to providing certain foods than others.  You probably wouldn’t find an orange tree growing in Maine, nor would you find an olive tree growing in Montana (naturally that is).  Olive trees are native to subtropic climates and are known mostly to grow in the Mediterranean.  Do you think that the Greeks and Italians consulted scientists to provide them with chemical evidence, or even nutritional studies, to support their consuming them?

The answer is obviously no and only begs the question, then why do we?  Why do we question the consumption of food that is fresh or natural?  Why do we blindly heed advice fed to us by organizations such as the milk industry, when it’s almost certain they are acting on behalf of their benefit, not yours?  Milk may be an anomaly in this situation because for as long as we can remember we have drank milk, and most countries drink it, and no one has really gotten sick from it unless it’s been contaminated (or unless you’re lactose intolerant like me).  But still, we welcome advertisements like the got milk? campaign, beaming with all the health benefits of milk which we assume are scientifically proven.  But do you know any other animal that consumes another animal’s milk after it’s passed the age of breastfeeding?  No other animal actively seeks out another animal’s milk, so why do we?  Maybe it’s because they use beef cakes like Hugh Jackman in their ads….

Beef cake

Through my reading I have discovered other, more reliable and consistent scientific evidence which begs to differ with the got milk? campaigns.  Notable researcher Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, is a proponent of a whole foods, plant based diet as a direct result of his own research, which has been supported by a number of other studies.  Milk, or the protein casein, has been found to not increase your body’s intake of calcium but deprive your body of it.  The casein makes your blood and tissues more acidic and so they use calcium in order to neutralize this affect, and essentially rob your body of calcium.  But again, as much as I believe in Dr. Campbell’s studies, I am relying on scientific evidence to tell me that milk is not as good for me as is widely believed so in essence, I’m being rather hypocritical.  Who am I to believe?

So this is where Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan enter the picture.  Though Michael Pollan contributes his fair share of scientific studies, he emphasizes the importance of food cultures.  Most countries have a specific cuisine that is unique to their location and which has followed traditional recipes and ways of cooking for centuries upon centuries.  So why have we suddenly begun to question the nutritional value of a tomato or of leafy greens?

Farmer's Market @ Courthouse

Probably because America has no sense of a food culture, and so we have no traditional way of cooking to rely on.  Barbara Kingsolver entertains this idea of a “food culture” based on geographical location, and challenges her family to live by it for one year – that is, to only eat locally produced food.  So the Kingsolver family grew most of their own food, and procured the rest of it from farmer’s markets or neighbors who had farms.  Barbara and her daughter write journalistic entries about their experiences during this “year of food life” describing both the benefits and the difficulties associated with trying to do this in today’s society.  She isn’t afraid to divulge in the details of killing, plucking and gutting a goose either.

As someone who has vowed off of meat (including seafood – for the lay people out there, the technical term “pescetarian” is someone who vows off all meat EXCEPT seafood as the prefix pesce is derived from the latin word for fish piscis), I have struggled with my eating habits and their contribution to society.  By this, I mean that my decision to rid my diet of meat is a stand against industrially farmed meat for both environmental and ethical reasons.  Since producing your own food or producing food on a low scale can be considered to be beneficial for the environment, I often ask myself why I don’t follow in the Kingsolvers’ footsteps and vow to be a locavore instead of a vegetarian?  I justified my choices because at the time of conversion, I was living off of an internship stipend which would not be able to support the premium cost of locally or organically produced food.  I decided that I could make more of a difference by steering clear of meat.  Still, I run into the problem I talked about earlier how food is connected to location – so the orange juice I drank, and most of the soy products I ate, were being shipped several thousand miles just to reach my mouth.  Now that’s not environmentally conscious is it?  But I can’t deny that industrial farmed meat is extremely more energy intensive than mass producing and shipping vegetables.

A friend of mine wrote an article about animals in the industrial society which sheds light on the ethical and environmental implications of eating animals.  In regards to the latter point, he reveals some statistics that are hard to ignore – half of America’s water supply and 80% of its agricultural land is needed to feed industrial farmed animals (i.e. livestock).  Not to mention the soil erosion and inevitable pollution associated with it – that is, run off into the water table contaminating streams and our drinking water, and the enormous release of greenhouse gas emissions, which actually accounts for more than all the cars in the world combined.  Some of these statistics weren’t new to me after reading my friend’s article – as a concerned individual, I have sought out this information.  Also, my studies in sustainable environmental management provided some insight into climate change…

But alas, I regress.  I try not to “impose” my views on others but I can’t help but share some truthful facts about industrial farmed meat.  Sure, I have been criticized by others for not being a locavore since it helps support local farmers and not the industrial farms.  But, why have the mindset that if you can’t do it 100% don’t do it at all?  Any step towards limiting the number of people who support the disgusting “manufacturing” of meat from industrial farms is, in my book, very worthwhile.  But what boggles my mind most about this situation is why people get so defensive and sometimes hostile about the food other people choose to eat.  I’ve encountered a range of people who are just curious and ask questions.  My favorite question is “but where do you get your protein from?”

The inevitable protein question

Most of the people asking have no idea how much protein we actually need, nor do they understand the intricacies of protein which involve amino acids, 8 complete and 20-22 incomplete, nor could they tell me why meat is [falsely] considered to be the best source of protein.  But these people are the least of my worries.  It’s the people who want to impose their views on me because they don’t agree with my eating habits I find abrasive.  I’ve found that some people get very upset that I, or anyone else like me, doesn’t eat meat.  How does MY decision not to eat meat affect anyone else but myself?  Why do other people care so much about what I do and do not eat, especially when my choices are supposed to reflect my conscious decision to contribute to the environment?

A simple answer to this is probably because most people fear what they do not understand.  I briefly knew someone who publicly patronized a vegetarian because she felt victimized by the way he chose to project his opinions on her omnivorous habits.  In this case it seemed as though this omnivore had perhaps felt violated by the vegetarian imposing his views on her…yet her open criticism about him doesn’t stray far from his path.  I have found, in every encounter I have with people about eating habits, that people choose to eat the way they do because they wish, or hope, that others will do the same.  People hold an ideal for everyone, one that we subconsciously wish for all of society to follow.  In this instance, the vegetarian made an attempt to convert the omnivore to drop meat from her diet because in his ideal world, everyone would.  Likewise, the omnivore wanted her choices respected as she had respected his (before the public insult that is).  No one is perfect.

For the majority of the population, this works out well because they share similar omnivorous lifestyles.  But for those of us who veer off the path, we encounter people who view our eating habits as a threat to their ideal, and we are met with hostility.  I’m fine if you eat meat.  But please, don’t criticize me for choosing not to.  If you’re curious, ask questions, but don’t be surprised if I tell you some facts that you don’t want to know.  If you’re not curious, then please, spare me and don’t open your mouth.

Please, spare me.


About Zanna Leigh

I am a born Wisconsiner, native New Englander, short term (and wannabe) European, vegetarian foodie, good music lover, public transit enthusiast and sustainability devotee in the DC metro.
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One Response to Confessions of a vegetarian

  1. gmwestern13 says:

    First, please don’t dis Hugh Jackman, he is beautiful.

    Second, any interest in posting research & comparing (in numbers?) those exact differences in environmental impact of industrial meat vs industrial veggies…and then maybe even comparing LOCAL meat & veggies?

    I would say to include organic/free-range, however I understand there are so many differences and variables between farms…and that, even though some may actually be “organic”…they are definitely industrial in scale…so while they may be good for the local economy, they might not benefit the environment per se (as a whole…but definitely better than the inorganics & feed pens).

    I think this information is important to help people learn what to shop for…where they can and should spend the extra $$ and where they can cut corners. I believe I came across a website or link that contained the amount of pesticides that certain fruits and vegetables “held onto”..worth googling.

    Just something to think about…as a reader those were the questions that popped into my head…Teach a man to fish!

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