"But it's not enough only to know what's right and wrong; action is the other, and more important half of moral understanding." (Eating Animals)
Herein lies the difficulty of my whole Yamas & Niyamas Project (besides the fact that I need a better name for it): when one takes on the difficult work of digging deep into ethics, of really figuring out what's right and wrong and why, those are just the first, easier steps. The hardest part is then contending with how one's actions either align with what one knows to be right or contradicts that knowledge.
When I started this project in Jan 2018 with Ahimsa, I was relieved that Deborah Adele's take on the concept didn't stress the vegetarian aspect that many yogis stringently equate with Ahimsa. My relief came not because it's that hard to be a veg or because I didn't want to be, but because I made the conscious decision to end my 13-year experience with vegetarianism in my late twenties and have never regretted it. I like being an omnivore--it's easy and enjoyable and I don't fall into the psychological trap of restricting my foods under the guise of a health or moral stance, because that's mostly what it was for me.
My History with Vegetarianism
I became a vegetarian when I was around 13 years old, but it wasn't because I loved animals and wanted to protect them, as you might assume would motivate a young girl to go veg. My reasons were fear, both of my genetic heart health and of FAT.
I was a teenager in the 90s, a time when fat was demonized and sugar a non-issue, the heyday of fat-free everything: desserts, dairy, meats, even butter, whose essential nature is fat. It was a mess and I fell victim to this cultural mentality, just like almost everyone else.
We didn't know better and were heavily influenced by the meat and dairy industries and media. Most people (mostly females) caved to the fear mongering over fat. For me, meat equaled fat, so it was out. I figured if I didn't eat any fat, I couldn't get fat. (We now know that unused sugars turn into fat) An equally strong influence on my decision was my father's heart episode and subsequent double (or triple?) bypass surgery. My sister and I were tested for some genetic flags, I guess, that would indicate our vulnerability to heart issues at a young-ish age (my father's father died of a heart attack in his early forties). From what I remember, My results showed elevated bad cholesterol (LDL?) and struck fear in me, supported unintentionally by my parents' own fears. Cholesterol is mostly present in animal products, so I immediately stopped eating them. And I figured I could stay thin by not consuming the fat in them. Staying thin was the ultimate goal, not staying healthy or alive. In a time where fat was the enemy, thin was and still is the queen. Being a vegetarian was a more socially acceptable way for me to severely restrict my food intake. When I finally decided to eat animal products again 13 years later, one reason was because I so sick of restricting so tightly what I ate, missing out on delicious foods, cultures, and experiences. It felt hypocritical to espouse the high value I put on freedom, but not experience it myself in this sensual and exploratory way.
So I knew that this time around of immersing myself in Ahimsa I'd have to honestly examine what I currently eat. One of the resources I used to do that was Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It's been on my TBR list for years as I've loved his novels and was curious how he would approach the controversial topic. I wasn't ready to read it until now because to read this book is to confront my daily choices and their implications, things easier and more pleasant to ignore. But I can't fully, genuinely, study Ahimsa and really apply myself to live by its principles (or the principles of yoga in general) while continuing to eat animal products. It's inconvenient to be both a yogi and an omnivore, but is it impossible? Unfortunately, I'm still not able to answer this question.
This book certainly accomplished, with me anyway, what it aggressively sets out to do: convince the reader through science, research, anecdote, and emotional appeal, to stop eating animals and animal products. Foer is relentlessly undiplomatic about his end goal. There's no, "Hey man, you do you, but here's some information about the meat industries that you might be interested in." He hits on all negative aspects of animal consumption (environmental, animal rights/abuses, human rights, health, financial, etc.) and then circles back around and hits on them again.
Why I was ready to re-explore vegetarianism now
In the past six months to a year, I've had a hard time recovering my muscles from hard and frequent workouts--I'm always sore, creekier in the joints, and just physically wiped out at times when I don't feel like I should be. Granted, I work out/run A LOT, but not much more than what has been my usual for the past decade. Was it just an aging body, or something else? I've experimented with lots of recovery modalities in the past year, but I just had this feeling that cutting out animal products, which require more energy to digest and disburse, could free up some attention for my body to work on muscle repair rather than breaking down animal proteins and all the extra shit (drugs, chemicals, additives) that comes with it.
As Foer points out, when consuming a chicken (the go-to lean protein for Americans, especially the health-conscious) you're also consuming countless drugs, antibiotics, rampant and harmful bacteria, as well as the chicken's feces, infections, cancerous tumors,
fear, anxiety, sadness, pain and suffering. In fact, a percentage of weight you're paying for isn't even chicken meat, it's "water"-- quotation marks because it's FAR from pure water, as highly contaminated as it is (nicknamed 'fecal soup' by workers) the carcasses soak up in a communal tub to cool them after the searing heat applied to remove feathers. They're all just floating in there together, sharing contaminants. Lesson 1: buy air-chilled chicken only.
Besides my pursuit of muscle recovery, I was also ready to re-explore veg/veganism because I know that a plant-based diet is just healthier for all aspects of physical function and overall wellness: digestion, immunity, lower risk of heart disease and cancers, joint and skin health. And the devastating effects of industrial farming and over-consumption of animals on our earth is alarming. I do care about the health of our planet and try to do my part to mitigate harm to it.
One of the most compelling parts of the book is on flus in birds and pigs that either jump species to humans or combine with human strains, such as the now well-known H1N1 strain, which is a combo of these 3. A rather large section of the book is dedicated to explaining how this happens, causing viruses to trade genes to get even stronger and deadlier: "What's worrisome is that such gene swapping could lead to the creation of a virus that has the virulence of bird flu and the everyone-is-getting-it contagiousness of the common cold," (p. 129). This book was published in 2009. At that time, people in the know (I guess in medical animal management?) knew that a heinous strain of flu was inevitable the way things were and continue to be with factory farming. I was stunned to read multiple predictions of this nature while sitting on my couch during the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdown.
We all know the reason the flu vaccine has to change every year is to try to stay ahead of the strains changing to sidestep our antibiotics. When we consume factory farmed animals, we consume their antibiotics, but the real danger is in the water and soil runoff that is packed with these antibiotics (and other chemicals) which we consume in the plants grown from contaminated soil, as well as (in some places) the drinking water. It's just everywhere.
I highly recommend the book, not just to those thinking about going veg, but to people who are concerned about the health and viability of our planet and human (and animal!) species. And really to anyone who cares about things, big things that matter and the small things we can do to make a difference.
So did going mostly vegan change my life and fix all my problems? Not really.
I noticed positive changes in my body, energy and muscle recovery right away. It took a couple of weeks for my appetite to adjust to what I was giving it (I was extra hungry) and for my palate to stop wanting meat substitutes for texture. My belly flattened out and I lost those few extra quarantine lbs. I also felt more mentally focused and less groggy throughout the day. My runs felt good and day-after recovery felt better. I have no way of knowing if these results were real or if my subconscious wanted me to believe they were.
By month two I was in an easy groove, using vegan meal prep Purple Carrot for inspiration and experimenting with new recipes and ingredients on my own. It was a nice burst of newness and exploration. I didn't miss animal products at all; I liked feeling lighter in both my body and conscience from not eating them. My appetite evened out and energy remained high. I wasn't being too strict with myself, lest I fall back into bad habits of food restriction. I still ate eggs a few days a week and didn't beat myself up for a bite of my son's chicken finger. But I noticed my mind sliding into irrational thoughts surrounding what I ate and how sore my muscles were the next day, making nonsense causal conclusions. I took note.
By month three it felt like my body returned to its natural state, pre-veg experiment. The initial positive effects dulled, and I started to feel a little soft in the middle and heavy-footed from eating far more carbs than before. I also felt like I was missing out on 93% of the menu when I dined out. I was sick of the lunch quandary: what to eat that's fast, not an empty carb fest and not animal? I felt less happy and satisfied with my choices, so I eased up by eating a little chicken here and there. Then a little turkey. And I felt ok with that.
I remained mostly vegan for about 3.5 months. The initial positive effects eventually evened out and I returned to my physical baseline from what I could tell by my entirely unscientific experiment. I missed the convenience of being an omnivore, especially when I needed to eat something quick. I also started to feel a bit heavy, slow, and soft from consuming more carbs than I prefer.
So although I returned to being a sometimes-animal-consumer, I now do it with much more consideration and thought, and much less frequency. I think that going forward, adopting a veg/vegan diet for 3 months or so every year is a great way to give my body (and the environment) a break, a sort of cleanse. But my days of severely restricting what I eat are far behind me, thankfully.