Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Thoughts on Vegetarian and Vegan Eating

As I discussed in a recap of Week One of our 40 Days of Yoga Challenge, we decided to go completely meat free for the 40 days (note: this is not a requirement for the program). The meat-free challenge was really no hardship because we already ate solely vegetarian meals at home and only ate meat a couple times a month at restaurants.

Now that the 40 days of yoga are over, I have given a lot of thought to whether I want to return to eating meat once in a while, and I have decided that, for now, I am going to stick to a vegetarian diet. The reasons? Well, there are several, and to arrive at them I asked myself a series of questions.

Did I miss eating meat over the last month and a half?
No. Not in the slightest. There was not one instance when I found myself pining for a meat dish at a restaurant. I admit that maybe my answer would be different if I were living in the U.S., where meat and fish dishes can be better cooked and thus more appealing on restaurant menus, but I do not know for sure.

What I do know is that this result did not surprise me. Over the last few years I have found myself naturally gravitating towards a plant-based diet. Given a choice between a tray of roasted vegetables and a slab of beef, chicken, or pork, I will take the vegetables hands down. When you take meat out of the equation, I think that cooking can be a lot more creative. In a good meatless meal, vegetables, grains, and legumes no longer suffer as the overlooked sideshows but rather become the stars of the plate, often in very inventive ways. Most of my very favorite recipes from the last couple of years have been vegan creations (they have been a hit with non-vegans too -- my raw cashew "cookie dough" balls keep getting asked back to parties).

Do I get enough protein in a meat-free diet?
Yes. Like many people, I long believed that I needed a dedicated protein source, usually in the form of meat, fish, eggs, or dairy, with every meal. Protein is surely an important component of any diet, but I have since learned two important things that have caused me to change my tune.

First, I realized that I was overestimating how much protein I actually needed. The current U.S. recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, translating to a range of about 45 to 65 grams for the average adult.

Second, I learned that there is ample protein in plant-based foods. Sure, I knew that beans are an excellent protein source, providing, on average, about 15 grams per one cup. I did not realize, though, how much protein is in whole grains and fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens like collards, spinach, and kale. Turning your nose at the idea of a heaping serving of kale? Well, until you have tried for yourself kale chips, "massaged" kale salads, and kale-banana green smoothies, don't knock it.

Finally, if an ultramarathoner like Scott Jurek can get adequate protein on a vegan diet, then I think I can manage too.

How do I feel about the meat industry in general?
I freely admit that I have never been particularly swayed by the vegetarian's argument that eating animals is inherently wrong, and even now, as I find myself dipping my toe into this world, I do not find this reasoning personally compelling. I also admit that I still have a lot to learn about this subject, so maybe my opinion will change over time.

For now, my main qualms with meat consumption center around the meat industry, not the act itself of eating meat. After reading books like The Omnivore's Dilemma, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the meat industry for its gross inefficiencies that have both environmental and human impacts. Compared to the process of growing vegetables, raising meat requires far greater amounts of water, fossil fuel, and land area. And the human impacts? Well, they extend beyond our own country's borders. Farm subsidies for products like corn -- which has become the unnatural but nonetheless fastest way to feed cattle, poultry, and even fish -- serve to discourage more efficient producers in developing countries, such as many in Africa, where they cannot competitively export their own goods and, worse, end up importing food rather than growing it. So when there is a supply shock abroad, they cannot afford to import the food anymore and have a food shortage crisis on their hands. It is inefficient economics.

After learning more about these issues, we started scouring our local markets in Chicago for meat that was organic, humanely raised, locally sourced, etc., etc. The verdict? It exists, and in plentiful amounts at places like the Green City Market. But we could not stomach the prices. Given the choice between, say, a free-range organic chicken (and I know enough to know that "free range" rarely means much better conditions than those for conventional chickens) and a couple of yoga classes, or, well, saving money for our move to Nepal, I'll forgo the chicken. So instead of buying cheaper, conventionally-raised meat, we pretty much just stopped buying meat entirely.

How do I feel about vegetarianism versus veganism?
Because I do not eat dairy, I eat an almost vegan diet, with one exception: eggs. I know -- it's a big exception. The thing is, I really enjoy eggs, and I know that I would miss them much more than I miss meat. For now, I will keep them in my diet, but I will consider eating them a little less frequently, at least here in Nepal, where I think they are just as factory-raised as conventional eggs in the U.S.

What about when I return to the U.S., for a visit or permanently? Will I want to eat meat then?
Well, I don't know. And I'm not going to make myself decide at the moment. My thoughts about eating meat have changed significantly over the last couple of years, and they may well change again. All I know is that I am happy with a meat-free diet right now.

My intention with this post is to share my personal and evolving thoughts and actions when it comes to meat-free eating -- not to offer an argument on either side of the debate and definitely not to offer up myself as a model for anyone else.

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