I don’t want this blog to be about me, but I’ll tell you a bit about myself here because the evolution of my thinking will provide context when you read my entries. The account below is accurate to the best of my recollection, but the time frames and event sequences may be inexact.
Back in the mid-seventies, without any external influence that I’m aware of, I began to feel that I would prefer to live without killing animals. At the time, I did no further research and didn’t discuss the idea with anybody in order to get feedback. It was just a vague notion, but it was enough. I gradually transitioned to a vegetarian diet over a period of two and a half years. I had, prior to the decision, eaten a diet heavy in animal products, and light in whole plant foods. I didn’t like vegetables. In those days, we didn’t have the vegan analogs for animal foods one finds today. I didn’t know any vegetarians, and it didn’t occur to me to try to seek any out. After I completed my transition to lacto-ovo vegetarianism, it took me another two and a half years to go vegan—which brings us to 1980. (I believe I would have made my transitions a lot faster if I had had some information and social support. The socio-cultural influences that shape our food choices are of great interest to me, and will be topics for my blog posts.) Cheese was the last thing to go, as it seems to be for almost all who make the transition to a vegan diet. (I was about to say that cheese is addictive, so just now I went looking for a web page explaining this, but to my surprise, I found instead compelling evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, there is something about cheese that makes it very hard to give up.) During my transition from vegetarian to vegan, I was influenced by the American Vegan Society, particularly the writings of Jay Dinshah. After going vegan, I subscribed to the health philosophy of the American Natural Hygiene Society, now the National Health Association. I went vegan because all of the arguments in favor of vegetarianism (ethical, animal welfare, environmental impact, health) seemed to find their fruition in veganism.
I became an animal rights activist, participating in and even organizing demonstrations. Once, I organized and led a walking “funeral procession”—with a coffin I borrowed from a mortuary—from one fast food franchise to another. I did a brief stint as an intern at FARM, which back then was still Farm Animal Reform Movement; the “R” now stands for Rights. I decided that my greatest contribution would be to write a book, but it didn’t work out because I kept changing what I was writing about, as my philosophy changed. At first, the book, which I was going to call The Train to Veganville, was going to be about both animal rights and animal welfare. I wanted to compare and contrast the positions, at least superficially, with my goal being to persuade readers to go vegan, but for those who were unwilling to do so, or who didn’t feel compelled to embrace veganism immediately, I would expose the welfare problems they could try to address by inquiring about the welfare of the animals raised by those from whom they bought (or were considering buying) animal products. Then I went hardcore abolitionist, as I accepted Gary Francione’s position: “The animal rights position must be that we cannot morally justify animal exploitation and, if we agree that animals have moral significance, we are committed to veganism. There is veganism and there is continuing to participate in exploitation that cannot be morally justified. There is no third choice.”
I might point out that most people who would describe themselves as proponents of animals’ rights care little for philosophy, and that’s true of me as well. Philosophers are nit-picky, like lawyers. (Francione teaches law, and has an M.A. in philosophy.) I haven’t the patience to wade too deeply into the bottomless lake of philosophy. I like to keep it simple when I can, and I find ahimsa to be a more approachable philosophy than animal rights—although the two are not incompatible. If you want to spend a few minutes reading an overview of the arguments of the three main animal liberation philosophies, this one is excellent. (The philosophical discussion is about the morality of using and killing animals, but being a moral person (and/or being a moral person in a rational, secular way) is one of many human values, and not one that has primacy for everybody. This (mostly unconscious) prioritization of values is a huge barrier to changing people’s dietary habits. I plan to write about this.)
I wanted to include a lot of nutrition information in the book, as nutritional misinformation or bad dietary habits leading to ill health would be obstacles to the creation of the wave of new vegans I envisioned resulting from my best seller. I set out with the assumption that a good vegan diet was optimal for virtually everyone, but I learned that there are advantageous and disadvantageous properties to plant foods and to animal foods, and that for some small percentage of people, the nutritional disadvantages of plant foods are sufficiently problematic that they can’t enjoy optimal health, or even good health, on a well-planned vegan diet. Please watch this 18-minute video and then rejoin me. I find nothing to disagree with in Dr. Klaper’s theory that some who were not raised as vegans are maladapted to absorbing nutrients well from plants, and I’ll add this tidbit from 1907, reporting on some 600 autopsies. It says that there are considerable variations in the length of the human small intestine. The author notes that, in early childhood, both diseases and food choices can affect its length. Surely the diseases would be treated in developed countries today, so we can dismiss their role in shortening intestines where treatment is likely, but I wonder about the role of food. I couldn’t find any modern studies investigating this, but it’s an interesting question. It’s also possible, I might add, that some don’t thrive on vegan diets for genetic (rather than epigenetic) reasons. People who are raised as vegans from birth or from early childhood usually have parents who are successful vegans. Some people can digest the milks of non-human mammals, others can’t. What if an Inuit baby were raised as a vegan? How would that work out? I don’t know. In any case, if, say, one percent of people can’t, for whatever reason, thrive on a good vegan diet (and I suspect the number is larger), the proposition that we should no longer engage in animal agriculture is a tough sell.
Perhaps someday we’ll figure out how to make meat artificially. One company has come up with products that are an excellent imitation, and in this video meat eaters mistake Beyond Meat for the real thing. Alas, the products’ main ingredients are soy and pea protein isolates. The company also uses food grade titanium dioxide, about which this study concludes, “Until relevant toxicological and human exposure data that would enable reliable risk assessment are obtained, TiO2 nanoparticles should be used with great care.” These analogs aren’t “real” foods to me, but I’m okay with eating them now and then at a restaurant. I can’t see myself buying their products to prepare at home, however. This is mainly because I prefer natural foods, but also partly because of my bad experience with protein supplements, which we’ll get to momentarily. As to the prospect of such products causing an enormous decline in meat sales, we can’t assume that social, cultural, economic, and, sadly, even gastronomic forces would allow any processed meat analog to supplant the real thing. We have plenty of plant milks available, and vegan cheeses (which have improved a lot lately), too, but the widespread availability of these products isn’t coming close to portending the abolition of dairy animal production.
As I was working on the nutritional part of my book, I developed an odd, and still unexplained health problem. Before I tell you about it, I should explain that I hate doing physical exercises for their own sake, and always have. If you were to tell me that I could extend my life by five or even ten years by going to a gym twice a week to exercise for an hour, I’d tell you that I’d rather die sooner. The only way I’ve ever exercised consistently is by engaging in an activity that I enjoy, and I haven’t found many of those. In my adult life, I’ve enjoyed aikido, bike riding, walking, and hiking. That’s it. I quit aikido a long time ago. The bike rides were a delight, and of great value to me. I’d get exercise, fresh air, sunshine, and a feeling of accomplishment. Before I got my bike, I used to run into an acquaintance, an avid bike rider, from time to time. When I saw him on his bike in foul weather, I admired him for his dedication. Then I got my bike and suitable clothing, and I was pleased that I was doing what I had admired in him.
I had been taking bike rides on a bike path to a certain spot, but I found that I could no longer ride that far. I shortened my rides, but then I was unable to go the shorter distance. I had no problem walking or hiking, but there was something different about the continuous motion of pedaling. My muscles just couldn’t do it. I added an electric motor to my bike, but over time, it failed to provide enough of a boost. Riding my bike even short distances became too difficult, and the motorized assist, while of utility in getting from here to there, couldn’t correct the bigger problem, which was that pedaling was no longer enjoyable, so eventually I sold the bike.
To determine what the problem was, I had blood work done. It showed my protein levels as being below normal—which may have had nothing to do with it, but I used hydrochloric acid to improve my protein digestion, under the care of a nurse practitioner who was, at the time, my primary care physician. (Later, I talked to my gastroenterologist, who was adamant that hydrochloric acid (HCL) is not a significant factor in protein digestion.) I followed the nurse practitioner’s instructions for taking the HCL, and developed digestive problems as a result. It took me a long time to recover. There was a part she left out, she told me later, about how to reduce the dosage faster. My advice: use HCL supplements with great caution, if you’re going to try them. I wouldn’t. I might also mention that she practiced Functional Medicine, of which I now have a low opinion. My impression of it is that these practitioners use bogus tests or misinterpret (or over-interpret) legitimate tests to find evidence of “problems” that they think are common (thyroid issues, candida, gluten intolerance, toxins), and then use questionable remedies, which produce improvements in their bogus tests. I’m not saying that they have bad intent; I think they mean well, but they have mixed in a lot of health-guru-based pseudoscience and weak theories with real science. That’s my two cents.
During this time, as I was researching and writing about nutrition, and making a short-lived attempt, despite what I said above, and contrary to my nature, at exercising to add some upper-body muscle, I decided to boost my protein intake, since my blood levels were low. I tried some amino acid supplements, and developed an incredible thirst. I couldn’t drink enough. It was scary. I drank so much water that I diluted my blood electrolytes and had to add salt to my diet. (I’ll have some interesting things to say about salt in a future post.) Afraid that I had damaged my kidneys, or suddenly developed diabetes, I had more lab tests done. I even went to a nephrologist. My kidneys and adrenal glands were normal, and I didn’t have diabetes mellitus or diabetes insipidus. I wasn’t able to get a diagnosis. The acuteness of this abnormal thirst didn’t last long, but it took years for my thirst level to get back to what might be normal—I can no longer judge. I also went to a neurologist. He examined me, ordered lab work, and then referred me to the surgeon with whom he shares his office. She took a piece of muscle out of my leg. Everything was normal, normal, normal—so still no diagnosis.
I hadn’t given up on wanting to boost my protein absorption, so I later tried some plant protein powders in various combinations: hemp, rice, pumpkin seed, pea; those are the ones I remember. I again had intense thirst, but not nearly as bad as with the isolated amino acids. I was done with protein supplements of any kind. But I was determined to see if I my protein blood results and/or my bike riding problem could be remedied by consuming more protein. I was already eating a healthful vegan diet with lots of beans and vegetables, as well as modest amounts of soy, nuts, and seeds.
After about 30 years on a vegan diet, I decided to eat animal products. I went to the farmers market and asked the egg vendors about their practices. I also found a couple of other sources by word of mouth. I talked to at least a dozen sources, but I had a devil of a time finding anyone who could meet my humane standards. This was a lot of work, whereas eating a vegan diet was second nature to me, and no hardship at all. (In future posts, I’ll be discussing the ethical problems with locally or “humanely” raised animals.) I finally found limited supplies of some eggs that were acceptable to me. I ruled out the possibility of consuming dairy products, fish, chickens, or pigs for reasons that, again, will be the subjects of future posts, but I did eat small amounts of bison meat I got from a source whose practices were so humane that I couldn’t think of any way to improve them. My blood protein levels returned to normal—but they’re also normal now on a vegan diet.
I never ate much meat because I wanted to contribute as little as possible to the deaths of animals, but my bike riding situation didn’t improve, so one day, I decided to eat more meat than I had before. I had had a history of gout, which was “cured” surgically—until I ate the larger meat portion. (Meat has purines in it, and purines are broken down into uric acid, the over-production or under-elimination of which is the cause of gout. Interestingly, though, one can have gout symptoms with uric acid levels in the high normal range, as was the case for me. Beans also have purines, but plant purines were never a problem for me.) I felt a stabbing pain in my toe, which ended that experiment. Now, I only have toe pain if I get dehydrated. Then I drink some water, and I’m fine. I haven’t tried riding a bike since I sold mine, but perhaps I’ll give it a try sometime—and I’ll append this story if I do. I don’t feel any different, though, and I suspect my legs will still be ineffectual in pedaling.
The good that came of my dietary experiment is that I developed a wider view of the many factors that affect our food choices, especially in the realm of social psychology—not so much in an academic sense, but as I experienced it. Sometimes when vegans return to eating animal products, they report strong physical and/or psychological reactions. I had neither. My psychological/emotional response was subdued because the decision took a long time, and I accepted it as necessary. My vegan friends had a much harder time with my experiment than I did. The one interesting physiological occurrence was that eggs, especially hard-boiled eggs, tasted to me like the best thing I ever ate. I had had no cravings for them before, and have had none since. Vegan dietitian Jack Norris has discussed egg cravings from time to time. Eggs are high in sulfur-containing amino acids, which are less prevalent in plants. People describe gaseous sulfur emissions from the earth as smelling like rotten eggs. I noticed a big difference in the smell of my farts when I was eating eggs. I have gone from conventional eater, to vegetarian, to vegan, to eater of eggs and meat from thoroughly vetted humane sources, to vegan again. My internal struggles and my observations of and research about the sociocultural milieu in which we make our choices about food (and about other animal products), give me a perspective that allows me to approach ethical questions in a fairly neutral and non-judgmental way.