I had the typical, albeit not healthiest childhood. I loved my orange Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, sugary Kool-Aid, and greasy fried chicken. I hated vegetables and tolerated fruit. I was the last one anyone expected to become a vegetarian. I never really thought about food in terms of what I should eat. I never connected what I ate to how I felt. I definitely never thought about who I ate. I didn’t think in those terms, yet.
I distinctly remember one afternoon in high school when I had a bad headache. I was sitting in the backseat of Jill, my best friend’s, car. Her mom was driving us to their house for a sleepover. I was sitting quietly, eyes closed, my head pressed against the glass. “What’s wrong?” her mother asked. “I have a headache,” I mumbled. “What did you eat today?” she asked.
“Um, a Snickers bar and a Coke,” I answered. “A Snickers bar and a Coke? No wonder you feel awful. You need to eat some food, dear.”
What? I thought that was food. I’d like to say that was my epiphany and that I was a very healthy eater after that. Not really, but it is the first time I connected food (or food-like stuff) and health.
Meat Is Murder
One of my favorite bands in high school was The Smiths. Morrissey’s lyrics and Johnny Marr’s guitar were the soundtrack of my youth. I was deeply influenced by them and it was the first time I thought about meat in terms of a sentient life versus just dinner. Jill and I tried to become vegetarians. It lasted about one week. It was too hard at the time. My family was not at all supportive. My mom worried that I would wither away and die. For a girl who thought that a Snicker bar was a meal, she had a point. I didn’t know anything about nutrition and I wasn’t cooking for myself yet. I never did look at meat the same way again and I always felt guilty eating it. To quote The Smiths, “This night has opened my eyes and I will never sleep again.” Not really what that song was about, but it still fits.
A Vegetarian Guy
Fast forward a few years to my junior year in college. I met my first real vegetarian. I was taking a life drawing class over the summer and met this cute guy who was feeding a stray kitten. I was already well on my way to becoming a cat lady, so I noticed this very kind behavior. I liked him, but thought he was with someone else. He liked me, but didn’t get up the nerve to ask me out.
We did start dating the following Fall semester. He was a vegetarian. I was not. Yet, I really respected it. I never ate meat in front of him, even though he didn’t care. After a few months and watching Diet for a New America on PBS, I realized that I was ready to ditch meat for good. That was over 20 years ago and that cute, sweet guy is now my husband.
Not all vegetarians or even vegans are healthy. Often the motivating factor for not eating meat is compassion for animals. It’s less about what you should eat and more about who you should not eat. We substituted meat for simple carbs and cheese; lots of deliciously, addictive cheese. By the time I was in my late twenties, the poor diet combined with a sedentary job resulted in a 25 – 30 pound weight gain. My cholesterol was over 220 and my doctor was rightfully concerned. She suggested cutting back on red meat and alcohol to bring down my LDL and my triglycerides. The only problem was that I didn’t eat meat or drink. She then suggested cutting back on simple carbs and starting to exercise. That I could do. I started keeping a food diary and exercising regularly. Within eight months all of the weight came off and my cholesterol was back down to 170. Who knew that a cup of broccoli is only 25 calories and 0 grams of fat and one ounce of cheese is over 100 calories and 9 grams of fat? (Oh, cheese, you evil temptress.)
When I ate meat, it was easier to not think about the animals and what their lives and deaths were like. When I gave up eating their flesh, I felt great about that decision and knew that it would be an easy promise to keep. However, I still didn’t want to look at the dairy and egg industry. I thought that if no animal died, then it was okay. I willfully refused to look at it more closely.
It was my health that motivated me to explore a vegan diet. I read the China Study and saw Forks Over Knives. I saw the health benefits of a plant-based diet to help prevent and possibly reverse heart disease, diabetes and maybe cancer. I feel the benefits of eating more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. My energy levels are up, maintaining my weight is easy, I have less allergy problems, my slow digestive system chugs right along. You get the idea.
However, I know myself well. If it were just about my health, I would slip. I have now taken off that last veil and can no longer support factory farming on any level. I saw a video of a calf being dragged away as his mother got up, crying and trying to follow. It broke my heart. I now acknowledge the brutal and short lives that dairy cows live just so I can eat cheese. As soon as they are old enough to breed they are forcibly impregnated. When their calves are born, they are taken away so humans can harvest the milk for their own use. If the calf is female, she enters the same horrible system. If it is male, he is chained in a tiny stall until he is slaughtered for veal. When she can no longer produce enough milk, she too is slaughtered for beef. She lives a life of abject misery. That is cheese, that is milk, and I can no longer be a part of it in any way.
For all the years I have been a vegetarian and now a vegan, I’ve always been very careful to let people know it is a personal decision. I absolve them for something they are not seeking absolution from. Since it is so out of the norm, I feel like I must justify and explain myself and above all not make them feel bad. And I’m done. I don’t need to apologize. This is your journey and your conscience. All I ask is that you take the veil off and look at what is really happening. Don’t hide out like I did. Educate yourself and make sure when you eat the flesh of another animal or drink its milk, that you are okay with how that animal was treated in life and in death. If nothing else, think about the pain, misery, and disease you ingest with every bite and question whether it is worth it? Maybe you’re not ready to stop, but maybe you can slow down and eat less. Life is a journey filled with many paths. Which one do you want to be on?