Sunday, May 20, 2007

What Should I Eat?

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, was recommended to me by Antonia and made a good followup to The Omnivore's Dilemma. Some of the information in it is similar, but it also spends more time talking about things like free trade and economic considerations, and also explicitly addressing various ethical arguments about what we eat. So it did some serious work on the internal debate slowly going on in my head about whether I should become vegetarian or vegan.

First, here's my current situation: I eat beef and pork pretty infrequently, and fish only slightly more. The majority of the meat I eat is poultry, and I think even that is in reasonably modest amounts. A good portion of my meals are vegetarian already, thanks to the fine chefs at work providing veggie options. So why am I not vegetarian or vegan yet? I'll list my main reasons, and then further thoughts on them from reading Singer and Mason's book.

Human beings are omnivores. Why should I go against Nature?
This kind of a view may be somewhat supported by Michael Pollan's argument about domestic animals co-evolving into a symbiotic relationship with people. However, factory farms and such things go pretty violently against Nature, supposed symbiotic relationships or not, and it can be a lot of work to find and verify more humane sources of meat and animal products. And of course, just because we are something "naturally" doesn't mean it necessarily shouldn't be transcended. E.g. it would be right for a "naturally" belligerent person to learn to control his temper. So while I still do not feel that eating meat is outright wrong, in and of itself, there are so many other wrong factors involved in most meat eating today that I'm willing to let this go of this particular argument. It's just a lazy reliance on the status quo anyway.

Effort vs. Benefit
Vegetarian might be reasonably do-able, but going entirely vegan has always seemed like a great deal of work for me. Food is nice and all, but I've never really been interested in devoting much time or energy to it. That's why I've never learned to cook much and base a lot of my food choices on the "quick and easy" criteria. Being vegan seems like I would have to start allocating way more brain cycles, time, and effort into figuring what I can eat in any given situation, and I'm not crazy about that. It makes me wonder if the incremental benefit of cutting out animal products from one single person's diet is worth it, especially if I'm not a heavy meat eater anyway.

I'm still on the fence about this. However, there are a few points from The Way We Eat that can put the benefit into perspective. I will call them the three E's, just because I can.
  • Efficiency: It takes 21 lbs of plant food to produce 1 lb of beef. The ratio is less dramatic for other meats, but the fact remains that we can feed more people far more efficiently if we use more plants and less meats.
  • Environment: Due to all the factors involved in meat production, switching from an average American meat eating diet to completely vegan saves the atmosphere from 1.5 tons of CO2 a year. That's half again as much as the benefit of switching from a regular to a hybrid car.
  • Evangelism: The more vegetarians and vegans that omnivores see out there "in real life," the more normal it will seem, and the more the ideas and practices will spread. So there would be some amount of a snowball effect, beyond simply my own personal decision (though unfortunately we don't have a good number to measure that).
Practicality and Social Factors
This is perhaps just a more specific example of the "Effort" point above, and can probably be addressed by the same benefit arguments, but I'll list it anyway. If I'm visiting an omnivore who is kind enough to host and feed me, I don't want to put them to extra work just to accommodate me. If I travel somewhere, I want to try the foods the natives eat. For that matter, I want to be adaptable, and not thrown off by places that may not have a lot of vegetarian options. Now that I think about it, maybe there's actually some primal survival instinct at work here, making me reluctant to artificially restrict my possible food sources.

Food I Like
I'd like to say my will power makes this a non-issue, but really, there's stuff I'd be sad to stop eating. I'm thinking fondly right now of some salmon I had on Friday, but I could probably deal with cutting out meat, I think. (And yes, fish are animals.) Cheese might be more problematic. I wouldn't much miss milk and eggs in and of themselves, but they do go into certain wonderful things that would be painful to give up, and here my sweet tooth begins clamoring about ice cream and cookies, though other things could fall in this category, too. Unfortunately, I didn't get much out of the book to address this issue, aside from the fact that there are more and more vegetarian/vegan animal product alternatives available now than ever before. Having tried some such things, I don't necessarily find them all convincing, though admittedly I don't have a wide experience. Though do they really need to be "convincing" substitutes, or just good in their own right? As an example, I got to help make vegan ginger apple ice cream with Antonia this afternoon. To me, it still seems significantly different from "real" ice cream. It was, however, very good. (Thanks, Antonia!)

None at this time. However, I am going to start experimenting a bit, first by paying more attention to how many things I regularly eat that contain animal products, and second by seeing how many of them can be eliminated without too much effort. (I'm thinking all meat here, at the very least.) At that point, I'll need to take another look around and see what kinds of things are left, how much of them I'm consuming, and what my alternatives are. We'll see where this takes me.


LKBM said...

I just typed a long comment and erased it by accidentally clicking a link. It was gone when I came back. :-( It was full of insight and wisdom.

So I'll write a new, similar one.

'Human beings are omnivores. Why should I go against Nature?'
The question you're asking is not 'Why should I go against nature?' You know why you should go against nature or you wouldn't be considering it. What you're asking is why you shouldn't, and the only response I have to that is that it's a little harder to get all our needed nutrients in a way our body isn't evolved for.

I've always hated arguments of the 'it's natural' sort, because it seems like most of humanity's faults are 'natural'. Certainly xenophobia and seeking revenge are, and I'd say murder and rape are too. 'Nature' works toward survival, completely ignoring moral issues. But you basically said this, so I'm being redundant.

Food I Like
When I went ovo-lacto vegetarian the only thing I recall ever missing was kielbasa one night when I couldn't have gotten one even if I wasn't vegetarian. (The fake ones are almost as good, anyway.) Desire for a particular food usually weakens rather than strengthens the longer it's been since you had it.

Of course, when my brother stopped eating meat, suddenly most of our meals were vegetarian, and when I stopped, even more were, so I rarely found myself eating bean curd while everyone around me was eating roast chicken. It's probably a lot easier of you don't have to smell meat at every meal.

Good luck if you do decide to go vegetarian/vegan. Remember: if you decide you can't stand it, you can always go back. (My sister went vegetarian for a week for my birthday. The week is now about four years long.)

Tandava said...

Good point about the phrasing of that first question. And thanks for the encouragement. :-)

Word Imp said...

Interesting questions about food. There are so many theories I sometimes feel that I'm drowing in too much information. As a mum of growing children I find this all particularly demanding on me as well. It's not just my health we're talking about here. It's theirs as well. An interesting programme on tv here in New Zealand last night studied the physical capabilities of vegetarians who tried adding meat to their diets for two months. Only one participant showed any significant improvement in actual ability physically but they all reporting feeling more energetic. That was interesting. The information that helped the most was about the benefits of snacking about every 90 minutes as opposed to eating full blown meals. This is thought now to be very beneficial for long term energy release. I tried it today and it worked marvellously - though I'm not sure what I would have felt like otherwise! My other big key discovery is the power of eggs for breakfast. Wonderful. Hope you find the answers you're searching for on the food front!

Tandava said...

This book specifically addresses questions about raising children vegan, as well. I'd recommend giving it a look. Interesting stuff about the more continual method of eating. I'd be curious to read some more info on that.

cristie said...

I also rarely eat meat, but will probably never go fully vegan (or even vegetarian, although I was unintentionally so for a year a while back). Generally I try to eat healthy, but let my body have what it wants, and that seems to work pretty well!

However, that said, I know some vegans, and have found some excellent vegan recipes in my food travels. Let me know if you want a recipe for vegan jam thumbprint cookies, that you can't even tell are vegan. :)

Also, this website is great - not a hugely extensive collection of recipes, but all the ones I've tried have been awesome!


Anonymous said...

The fundamental issue here, I believe, is whether one is making a binary decision (yes/no to meat or animal products) or, rather, shifting the consumption histogram (main lobe far away from meat or centered on it).

In the first case, one gets to call oneself something spiffy ("vegetarian", say); in the second case, one doesn't.

One's reasons for possibly being a vegetarian or vegan determine whether one should never or only infrequently eat meat or animal products. For example, if one views eating a single animal as bad--a religious belief, say--then of course one should never eat meat. But if one views the consumption of meat as bad for the environment, then it's not clear that one need entirely to stop eating it.

Why is that? Well, there are other things than just what one eats to think about: oil and electricity consumption (direct or indirect) rank up there. It would be nice if I never consume oil; I have settled for consuming as little as I can.

My view is that one should try to minimize one's negative impact in every domain one can think of (and maximize one's positive impact); but it is essentially meaningless if one never completely removes one's negative impact in any domain.

I am not a vegetarian: I eat dairy products and eggs frequently and fish on occasion, despite being well aware that dairy and egg production is highly problematic. But I almost never go to restaurants--they are energy inefficient--and I've never had a car. Of course I could do better, but at the moment I feel I'm doing almost well enough to turn my attention elsewhere.

Tandava said...

Yes, I agree, and that's pretty much what my "effort vs. benefit" point is about. Is the incremental benefit of going from mostly to completely vegetarian worth the personal time and effort? But that's why I'm just sort of experimenting with and recording what I eat for a while -- to try to get more data about where I am and what I can do with what effort.