(Answer: Baby, Bunny, Apple)
Before I can answer the question, “Why vegan?,” or at least “Why am I vegan?” I need to go back in time. About 25 years ago, (long before I had even heard of veganism) I decided to change my eating habits and become “mostly vegetarian.” For me, that seemed like a really big revolution at the time.
I did this because I had been struggling with a number of chronic health issues including fatigue, low immunity, head aches, allergies, weight problems — you name it. I got sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time even though I was still fairly young and had what I thought was a healthy lifestyle. For instance, I might have had an occasional glass of wine or mixed drink but had never smoked or experimented with drugs.
I also eliminated the idea that my health problems were due to a sedentary lifestyle. I felt I got a good amount of exercise — walking, hiking, swimming, dance classes — and my work running a warehouse and driving a fleet van for a toy company could be fairly strenuous.
But if lifestyle and lack of exercise isn’t the problem then the next thing to examine is diet. You are what you eat and if what goes in doesn’t truly nourish and sustain you then what comes out as your body and your life will likely be filled with all the health problems I have described and more. This simple fact seems so obvious and yet it can be so hard to recognize that the way you (and everyone around you) have been eating all of your life is unhealthy and is making you sick.
This is hard to recognize, yes, but not really surprising. I understood that diet and health were inextricably linked back then, and how could I not? Even 25 years ago the media, TV, bookstores, magazines, drug stores, almost every place you looked there was some form of public broadcast obsessing about food and health. Almost daily it seemed that new diets and diet fads, health experts and gurus, books, programs, seminars and celebrities were proclaiming that food and diet were the problem and that they had the answers, whatever their particular brand of ‘answers’ might be.
Weight loss diets? Seems like I tried them all: Low calorie, high protein, low protein, high carb, low carb, high fat, low fat, no fat… I managed to lose weight with Atkinsons, South Beach and Weight Watchers, but they didn’t help me feel better. They also made eating and cooking an onerous task of having to keep to their plans and count the carbs or calories and give up foods I loved without replacing them. Besides, weight loss wasn’t all I was looking for.
Then one day, a quarter century ago, while browsing at a garage sale I picked up a paperback written by a couple called the Diamonds (Fit For Life II by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond, Warner Books, 1988) and I recall that the little book set out an extremely simple plan in terms of diet:
All you eat each day should be at least 70 per cent fruits and vegetables.
They had a few other bits of advice such as don’t mix carbs and proteins at meals and they were very ‘anti-breakfast.’ They actually promoted the idea of eating nothing or only a small amount of fruit for breakfast and skipping coffee altogether and drinking nothing but water until noon.
Skipping breakfast and skipping coffee?? The Diamonds and their books were booed off the world stage but not only for advising people to forego the sacrament of coffee. They also had the temerity to suggest that animal meat was not the best source of protein and that dairy products were definitely not a good source of calcium for humans.
Public authorities and pundits attacked the Diamonds (along with some other nutritionists, doctors and scientists who thought along the same lines) for daring to suggest that plant proteins were better for humans than animal derived proteins because plants contained less or none of the saturated fats, cholesterol, bacterial contaminants and other detriments of animal meat.
And the Diamonds also made another undeniable (and therefor infuriating) point about dairy products derived from cows and the supposed boon of calcium that they provide: It’s the wrong kind of calcium.
The calcium that is abundant in cow’s milk is a type called casein and nature never intended it to be consumed by humans. Obviously the casein in cow’s milk was meant for calves, to help them build sturdy bones as they grow into adulthood. Humans are not built like cows and do not derive the same benefit from consuming the casein in the mother’s milk of cows. Dark leafy greens and a number of other fruits and vegetables provide a much more digestible and beneficial form of calcium for human beings.
The dairy industry does not want people to know that they don’t need the casein calcium, or the saturated fats, or the lactose, or the etc. etc. that is found in animal derived dairy products. Despite the research and case studies long attesting against the use of animal dairy products, the dairy industry has deployed hundreds of lobbyists and millions of dollars to defame, cut off funding, and shut out anyone who would raise the alarm about their products.
But the Diamonds didn’t stop there. Though they did not completely disavow meat consumption, they had another good punch in store for the meat industry and big agriculture. Guess what, folks — it is not particularly healthy and it is not natural for humans to eat the flesh of animals.
In fact, I know from my days studying anthropology and archaeology at the University of New Mexico, it has been overwhelmingly proven that hunter gatherers, even during “paleo” times ate on world average 90% plant-derived foods and 10% animal-derived (and that was mostly fish, shell fish and insects.) During the early evolution of humans, consumption of large or small animals was far more rare than Hollywood, psuedo-science and Big Ag funded punditry would have you believe.
Baby – Bunny – Apple: A Parable
To make this point, the Diamonds retold a simple little story, an analogy or parable of sorts that has been around a long time. As I recall, in their version of the story there are two adults arguing about meat consumption while they are standing near the play pen of a baby. (What follows is my remembered version of the parable):
One of the grown ups standing by the baby’s play pen comments that it is natural and simply instinctual for humans to eat animal meat. But the other grown up standing by countered that argument and stated that it was not normal or a natural instinct for humans to eat meat. And further, he said he could prove it:
“Look at that one-year-old baby in the play pen. He hasn’t had time to be taught or trained in any way yet, he’s a blank slate. Babies are pure instinct, right?,” the dissenting person pointed out and the other one nodded in agreement.
“Then let’s try an experiment. I am going to put an apple and a bunny into the play pen with the baby.”
“Okay…?” said the other.
“If the baby eats the bunny and only plays with the apple, I will buy you a new car.”
End of story.
That brief analogy has really stuck with me all of these years. But only in the last few years did the actual point of that story really hit home. It is not natural — and certainly in modern times — not necessary to rely on killing or harvesting animals in any way for food. People in developed countries have an unlimited variety of plant based sources to turn to for food. Realizing this, it finally occurred to me that I wanted to stop eating any and all animal meat and dairy.
But why did this revolution of thought and choice — the choice to not to eat or use anything derived from a (killed or ‘harvested’) animal — take so long to sink in?
Well, first of all, it’s because animal meat and dairy products are simply everywhere and are some of the most available foods there are. They are the main offerings at most fast food chains, restaurants, grocery stores and Mom and Dad’s table when you were growing up and at most holidays. You can’t get away from meat and dairy no matter what you do. Turn on the TV, flip open a magazine, let the center flyers fall out of the newpaper and what do you get? Ads and more ads for meat, dairy products and and a plethora of products that have meat/dairy in their ingredient list.
By the time you grow up, eating meat and dairy certainly does seem natural and almost a part of your identity. It is also a part of all the people that you know and it is infused in the surrounding culture which promotes and perpetuates the usage of meat and dairy and other unhealthy habits in so many different ways.
And so it seems that I needed to be ‘deprogrammed’ and more thoroughly ‘woke’ before I could become vegan.
Before giving up animal meat and dairy I had to watch horrifying documentaries like “Cowtopia” and allow myself to be pummeled by a host of websites, newsletters, YouTube videos etc. that illustrated egregious acts of harm and abuse of animals committed by dairy farms, cattle ranchers, meat producers and others. I had to become fully aware that I could no longer enable or partake in the cruelty, abuse and killing of animals by humans for any reason.
Cruelty to animals (or people or Mother Earth) is horrible and unthinkable and modern humans have absolutely no excuse for partaking in it. We don’t need to do this to create food or clothing, or for medical testing, or entertainment or for any other absurd, obsolete and inexcusable rationale.
And for myself, personally, I must put it this bluntly: One day I realized with great clarity that I too was an animal and and it felt to me that eating the flesh of other dead/killed animals was ghoulish and close enough to cannibalistic. I am aware that this statement sounds extreme but it is where I am on this issue. Everyday I pray for the protection of animals (humans included) with a little more passion, humility and determination.
That said, I also see and feel veganism to be not only a just and compassionate cause and for many a crusade to protect animals and the earth. I also understand it to be a joyful way of exploring life and coming to know the world in new, more compassionate, more creative ways. It has been great fun to discover how plant based foods can provide all of the food values necessary for a healthy life — proteins, fats, nutrients, vitamins — and also discover that plants can provide all the same tastes and textures that were once the sole province of meat and dairy.
Case in point: Creamy, melty, cheesyness poured over a plate of nachos doesn’t have to come from a cow! It can come just as deliciously (but with far fewer calories and saturated fat) from cashews, soy, pea protein and host of other “pretenders.”
A sizzling, smoky tasting, bar-b-que “hamburger” patty doesn’t ever again have to be made from animal flesh. Black beans, quinoa, seitan, tempeh, even veggies like eggplant can triumph in the role of hamburger patty and they can improve upon and easily replace many other kinds of meats.
It has been an amazing journey, learning how to cook and eat what I always used to eat in many cases, but without resorting to animal meat or dairy. This has caused the world of food to open up for me in ways I never thought possible. I now have my own food blog and I am an avid reader/consumer of all things vegan and vegan food from all over the world. I currently subscribe to a large number of food related magazines, food blogs, podcasts and newsletters, a growing number of which are Indian and Asian (many of these peoples have been practicing veganism for millenia).
Everyday I receive amazing recipes an articles in my inbox that show how to use chickpeas rather than chicken, cashews and quinoa rather than beef, and how to use almost anything to replace dairy milk: almonds, walnuts, cashews, flax, oats, rice, bananas, coconuts, soy…and have you tried flax eggs lately?
I see the world of vegan food as shined upon by the sun of a clear conscience and enriched and illuminated by some of the best cooks, chefs, nutritionists, scientists and culinary traditions on the planet. I believe there is just no longer any reason to be anything else but vegan.