25 January 2011

10 things I’ve learned about being a weekday vegan (part one)

Based on the title of this article alone, I’d understand if your first reaction would be to dismiss me as yet another one of those fair weather vegans craving a little ‘Look at me! Look at meeee!’ attention. In all honesty, I have 0% interest in being a spotlight hog and -- despite what all of the Bloombergs and Us Magazines of the world are saying about plant-based diets being the number one ‘it’ trend – I chose to give it a whirl, not because it’s cool or because celebrities continue to sing its praises, but simply because I want to treat my body better.

That’s really just the tip of the iceberg for me, though. My motivation for test driving weekday veganism involves so much more than a concern for my own personal health and well-being. The first issue that weighs heavily on my mind is the factory farming industry’s utter lack of regard for the countless living creatures that are perceived as ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ commodities. Would it really require that much more effort to treat animals – even if they’re destined for the supermarket refrigeration case -- with simple compassion and humanity during their brief time on this earth (a la Temple Grandin)? It’s entirely doable…but Big Ag seems far more focused on meeting the never ending consumer demand for cheap animal products through a swiftly moving conveyor belt-like system than they do on tapping into basic humanity. Time is money after all, and it’s quite apparent that they regard a future burger as, well, you know.

Ultimately, the fast and furious livestock harvesting cycle is really an issue that falls squarely in the lap of the end consumer. It exists because – on the whole – our culture has grown accustomed to eating meat and dairy products at every meal. These perceived dietary staples also happen to be incredibly budget friendly compared to their more wholesome, plant-based counterparts, and when you’re trying to feed your family in the midst of a depressed economy, volume often wins out over health, environment or ethics.

But there's certainly another element that plays into the vicious cycle. Big Ag, our government and conglomerate food companies. Even with perennially cheap prices as they are, all of the mutual back-scratching that’s going among the big three ensures that fiscal bottom line(s) are always fulfilled, inarguably at the expense of animal welfare, human and environmental health. In order to produce the cheap food that we clamor for, this conglomerate trinity cuts as many corners as humanly possible, using high tech genetic modification, excessive hormones, pesticides and chemicals to swiftly generate meat and dairy products at a price point that keeps us coming back for more. Frankenfood though it may be, as long as the public is buying it, they’ll continue producing it.

We rarely contemplate the ultimate sacrifice that was made for our 16 ounce steak, the appalling conditions that pigs and chickens are forced to endure or any of the harsh slaughterhouse realities for that matter because we really don’t have to. The messy business goes on behind an iron curtain, and that’s just the way that we like it. When it comes to grasping what we’re actually eating – a formerly living creature – we’ve mastered the art of denial by ensuring that the final product appears as far removed from its natural state as possible. Presentation-wise, the meat and dairy products that consumers are exposed to in refrigerated supermarket display cases are entirely sanitized for our aesthetic appreciation, meaning that absolutely no ears, fur, eyeballs or unsightly appendages can be found staring back at us (except in certain markets with strong-stomached shoppers).

The shrink-wrapped cuts that we carefully scrutinize may appear neat and tidy, but underneath the cellophane, they’re often teeming with bacterial pathogens, whether due to the animal’s poor diet and chronic level of stress under intensive confinement or more likely the result of hurried slaughterhouse line processing and cross-contamination. As for the euphemisms we use to describe the animal protein of our choice, cow or pig-filled enchiladas are habitually referred to as beef or pork. Rarely do we call ‘em what they actually are, except in the case of birds like chicken and turkey.

What about our cultural obsession with ‘high quality’ protein? Some sources suggest that Big Ag and the US government are motivated solely by money, successfully convincing an entire nation through their mutually beneficial partnership that the only way to take care of the human body properly is by plying it with copious amounts of meat and dairy. The United States Department of Agriculture’s most recent Dietary Guidelines For America -- stating that both men and women aged 19 or older should consume 0.80 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, with 1 kilogram being the equivalent of 2.20462262 pounds -- translates into roughly 54 grams daily for the typical 150 pound adult. That’s a whole lotta burgers and milk shakes, which keeps both entities in the black.

Most people don’t realize, however, that they don’t have to plow through cholesterol, fat and chemical-laden pork chops, chicken breasts, cheese, milk, etc. in order to properly meet their nutritional needs. There are quite an extensive range of optimal protein sources (well beyond the animal-based realm) -- whether of the soy, tempeh, lentil, quinoa, sunflower seed or nut butter persuasion – that happen to facilitate far better overall heart health. An obvious green bonus of embracing a plant-heavy diet is that -- compared to the intensive resource requirements of livestock -- the cultivation of high-protein greens and grains takes a significant burden off of Mother Nature, resulting in fewer greenhouse gases as well as increased habitat and food for wildlife species.

But nothing that I've stated above really qualifies as a news-breaking revelation. You really just clicked on this article with the sole intention of getting a glimpse into the light bulb moments that I've experienced along my journey as a weekday vegan. Oh, you won't regret it...so let's meet up in this space tomorrow for the conclusion of this two-part series. I'll be the one with chia seeds stuck in my teeth ;)

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/castorciito