Over this past year, I’ve experimented with a vegan diet. In the name of science!
I actually started out knowing little about the ethical aspect of it. In fact I hopped on the bus for the purported health benefits. It was a useful experiment. I stuck to eating mainly vegetables, grains and beans for next 6 months (essentially a Mahastastran diet without dairy) and learnt how to cook decent vegetarian food. But after a year, I’ve reassessed and am back to eating an omnivorous diet. Few reasons why.
1. Easy to lose weight. I want to try and gain muscle mass.
2. Certain micronutrients are missed out on a vegan diet.
3. The evidence behind some of the nutrition claims of the 21st century are hugely flawed. They are observational studies (very poor quality). The whole state of nutrition science is in fact terrible. Strange how we can send people into space, but still not know exactly what the best diet is to give them.
4. Nutrition exhibits genetic variation. How you respond to certain macronutrient splits is dependent on your genetic profile e.g. insulin sensitivity, tendency to put on weight (FTO gene +ve in my case). Some people may respond poorly to high carbohydrate diets which veganism tends to fall under.
5. Subjectively felt a lot better going back to eating fish and certain meats. (I pretty much mainly eat fish though)
I’m still not 100% decided on the issue and will try to read new information, studies etc as we grow our understanding.
However one aspect, I cannot argue against is the ethical argument of veganism/vegetarianism. It’s created a schism in the mind, and currently the cognitive dissonance of the ideas actually is making me think a lot about the issue (hence why I’m writing this).
Ethical Case for Veganism
It’s inevitable that half a century into the future, mankind will look back with reproach at how animals were treated for consumption; factory farming en masse. If you deny that this is happening, I’m sorry, you are simply misinformed. Fortunately, it’s likely in the future we will transition to GMO and organically grown meat rather than factory farmed methods. The fact is : that massive suffering and oppression of sentient beings is occurring in most first world countries in order to feed those who are already overfed. This is ludicrous.
Now diet is a sensitive issue for most. People often take a dogmatic approach siding with certain ‘camps’. “I’m vegan, all meat eaters are terrible people” or “vegans are just malnourished hipsters ” or “humans were meant to eat meat, you need the protein” etc. This sort of binary thinking is the wrong approach. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” as Yoda would say.
However : I don’t think that the only way to be ‘ethical’ is to become a vegetarian or vegan.
- It’s way too hard for the majority of the population.
- On a macro scale it probably won’t have the intended consequences
Hypothetically if we cut meat consumption in half and sourced it from ethical methods, that is 10x better than even doubling or tripling the number of current vegetarians. Reduction rather than replacement. We can’t expect the 1.5 billion people in China entering the middle class to become vegans. They will eat meat.
Would you rather have 10,000 people opt for 50% of their current meat consumption and eat more vegetables- or 100 people switch to vegetarianism. The latter just doesn’t have enough of an impact.
Even if you do become vegetarian, you simply switch to eating eggs and it’s arguable that egg laying chickens are the worst treated of all animals. In terms of animal suffering, the solution isn’t always so clear. It’s true we can never have perfect knowledge about the consequences of our decisions. But in this scenario, its clear what the ‘right’ thing to do is. Pretty much no one says that ‘factory farming is ok’. Yet we continue to support it.
How do we change? Most people are following a processed meat, dairy, egg heavy diet rather than a strict paleo or a vegan diet. It’s not feasible that they will go from 0 – 100 and end up sticking with it. What instead needs to happen is that the needle needs to moved slowly in the right direction with our consumer purchases. ‘Vote with your wallet’. Buy ethically sourced goods.
‘But what effect can I have?
You would be surprised by the first order effects of your consumer decisions. Companies are incentivised to provide for the consumer. ‘The consumer is always right’. It’s why you have more Walmart and fast food restaurants in economically deprived areas of the US instead of Whole foods. If instead those people went out and drove 20 minutes to buy ethically sourced products, companies will build stores closer to them. Its pure economics.
‘Its too expensive’
Yes. Expensive your environment. Expensive your moral compass. Expensive on your health. Sure, it might be expensive (arguably) on your wallet. You decide where your priorities lie. No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. But yes, I agree its expensive, but if you can afford it currently, you have no excuse.
On the individual level, switching to mostly plant based foods is the rational thing to do for your health. The general public is inundated with media stories about fad diets, ‘eggs are good’ ‘eggs are bad’ ‘veganism is good’ ‘drink more red wine’. This is all often backed up with pseudoscience and poorly conducted studies. Even with well conducted studies. Do I need a double blind RCT with a placebo group that getting an oversized Russian olympic weightlifter to roundhouse kick me in the groin is going to cause damage. No. *
Information overload is a problem especially in this day and age (it’s why I quit Facebook) . We know what is good : non factory farmed, ethically sourced products and plant based nutrition. Both morally and biologically. Diet is really the topic where the gap between ‘information’ and ‘action’ becomes so visible. We know but we don’t act. Instead the solution is to simplify. Replace ‘diet’ which implies weight loss for many with just ‘food’. Advise patients to eat food that they enjoy and is actually food. I love Michael Pollans’ (author of the Omnivore’s dilemma) advice on this :
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants
Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food
Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.
Rather than adopting a certain diet, what we need to aim for is making the correct moral decision. Buy the responsibly sourced meat or eggs, eat mainly vegetables, eat meat only sometimes. Learn to cook with fresh ingredients rather than buying packaged goods. The change happens at the individual level with your wallet. As Agent K said in Men in Black ’A person is smart, people are dumb’.
What we eat will always be an issue close to my heart. In this age of overmedication (insert cholesterol lowering drug here) instead of addressing the root cause, doctors simply end up adding more fuel to the fire. As Hippocrates said ‘Let food be thy medicine’. Ultimately eating well has not only physical benefits, but also considerable moral, ethical and ecological (didn’t even cover) impacts. It all starts with the food on your plate.
Rereading in 2019
*Reading this in 2019. Wow. I quoted Agent K from Men in Black?! Nice past me. Also what is the analogy about a Russian Olympic weightlifter kicking you in the groin?!*
2019: Haven’t changed opinion on this much. Still agree with what I’ve said before. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Don’t eat processed food, eat fish/meat in small quantities, and obviously exercise, move etc.