You Are What You Eat (Or Don’t Eat)

I used to be a huge supporter of the “live and let live” mantra, especially in respect to food — as in, what I eat is my business, what you eat is yours. And I still believe that. If there’s one thing I firmly and adamantly stand for, it’s personal freedom: the idea that everyone is entitled to choose their paths for themselves, to design their own lives. Of course, not all choices we make are good ones, but that doesn’t take away our right to make them. Similarly, while I do occasionally have feelings and opinions about things people do and their motivations for doing them (within the scope of this article, things food-related), I will never tell anyone what to do outright, because I don’t think that’s my place. I do, however, think they should know what they’re doing.

Recently, I made the transition from a nearly-vegan diet to a fully vegan one. I did this because I finally decided to pull my head out of my ass and approach consumption, of both food and other products, from an ethical perspective (also, I may or may not have watched Earthlings and sobbed). Earlier, when I adopted a mostly vegan diet purely for health reasons, I treated it exactly like a diet: I was on it and then I was off it. Everything was fine and pure and lovely until suddenly oops, I’m drunk and there’s a piece of Jumbo Slice inexplicably stuck in my facehole. But things aren’t like that anymore. I know what happens to “food” animals and, as a result, when I look at a burger I no longer see just a burger. (Obviously I still get drunk sometimes, but nowadays I get my pizza with non-dairy cheese.) (And before you start the hate engine on that one, non-believers, I urge you to try some Daiya cheese first. Seriously.)

Now, I realize that not everyone feels this way, or even understands where I’m coming from. That happens. There are people who have never given the origins of their food a single thought, and there are also people who fully acknowledge the reality of animal suffering for human consumption and don’t give a what about it. But as with everything else, there are varying levels of conscience and consciousness, and I’m not about to pass judgment on everyone for everything ever, that’s not the point. I’m not a saint, damn it, I’m just a girl with some questions

Mainly this one: to what extent do our beliefs influence our actions?

I was thinking about this while reading Krista Houstoun’s recent essay, in which she discusses the steps one can take to optimize “cheating on” their professed vegetarianism. While I found it to be funny and well-written overall, there was one thing I couldn’t quite grasp: why would a serious advocate for animal welfare, who has also apparently been one for many years, even want to eat meat? (And don’t even start with those “bcuz its so delicious duh!!!1” comments, you guys — you’d be amazed at the faux meats veggie geniuses have come up with. If my Eastern European family can’t tell the difference, neither can yours.)

To clarify, I’m not trying to judge Krista or demonize her in any way. I am legitimately wondering: what is it about our psychology that gives us the ability to hold a staunch belief, and then willingly act in opposition to it? We do this all the time, and not just with eating — do we give ourselves days off from our philosophies, or just set them aside when they get inconvenient? “Awareness is pivotal to eliciting change,” Krista writes, and I agree. But then, what kind of role does self-awareness play? If you’re an advocate for change, doing all you can to lead by example and have a clear conscience and all that, how does eating meat actually make you feel? Do you just forget about what it is for a minute, or…?

I mean, it’s okay. It really is. No one is going to kill you for being a sometimes-vegetarian. That’s better than most people do anyway. But ultimately, the choice is about more than a diet, I’m pretty sure — if you make it, it’s about your life, your ethics. It’s about holding certain beliefs and acting in accordance with them. And no one ever said that was easy; in fact, it can be really difficult, as getting rid of cognitive dissonance usually is. But that’s part of growing, and learning. You learn to get better. You get comfortable with yourself; you learn how to build your life in accordance with your beliefs and you learn how to live it that way. It’s not the easiest journey but, provided you’re really into what you believe in, it’s one you should be happy to take.

Eating meat does not make you an inherently bad person. Not eating meat does not make you an inherently good person. Given that we are largely defined by our choices, however, what we choose to consume says something about us, for better or worse. And unless you are in one way or another incapable of making it for yourself, what you eat is always your choice — a choice that, like all others, you should ask yourself if you’re making for the right reasons. TC Mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • http://gravatar.com/onyae onyae

    I love ths. Especially this part

    “You learn to get better. You get comfortable with yourself; you learn how to build your life in accordance with your beliefs and you learn how to live it that way. It’s not the easiest journey but, provided you’re really into what you believe in, it’s one you should be happy to take.”

    I needed to read this. And yes it is our own personal choice. Great article

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.mceown.3 Tim McEown

    One of the things about ‘growing’ and ‘getting better’ is there is probably a drop-off in smug, sanctimonious pronouncements about how people could be so much better if they just lived their principals as opposed to simply espousing them. Even Gandhi was a prick sometimes.

  • Aaron

    Brilliant! And I also have the same existential doubt about some people I know.

  • Mercedes

    I was a vegetarian for five years (ages 12-17) until two years ago during my annual doctor’s check-up I was told that if I didn’t start eating meat, I would eventually become seriously sick. I was diagnosed with iron-deficiency anaemia and while that isn’t the same as being diagnosed with leukaemia, it had several side effects that I had a lot of trouble living with. Always being tired, having my pale skin turn into a sallow yellow, having poor muscle strength – at seventeen I felt like I was eighty. Of course I was heartbroken about the whole idea of eating meat, as I originally became a vegetarian because I didn’t like the idea of eating animals, but at seventy-three pounds and five-feet-tall, I wasn’t exactly given the body to abstain from eating it. In addition to this, having no job at that time and a mother who wasn’t supportive of my dietary choices, it was really hard to fork up the money to be able to afford all the vegetarian alternatives. Anyone who’s ever been vegetarian KNOWS substitute meat is A LOT more expensive than real meat. I mean, for the love of god, why is a commercial vegetarian burger almost five dollars more than a burger with real meat?

    • tiff

      you were 17?
      5 years.. so you stopped eating meat at 12?
      odd.
      anyway, some bodies are more prone to anemia than others. but there are ways to fight anemia with vegetarian sources of proteins. beans, legumes, dark greens, maybe a little dairy, some grains like quinoa. it’s all about priorities. It takes a little more preparation, effort (and yes maybe a little money) and you can beat anemia.
      When there’s a will, theres a way.
      and I would find another doctor if I were you. Doctors who aren’t t willing to find the best solutions to their patient’s concerns need to stop practicing.
      “you’re anemic so you have to start eating meat now” is the stupidest thing anyone can tell a vegetarian, let alone doctors.

      • Mercedes

        Yeah, in my post I said (12-17). Also, I am naturally skinny and I’ve had my doctor since I was three years old so he was only looking out for me. While yes, I’ve done my research and knew of all the ways to supplement the vegetarian lifestyle, with an unwilling mother it was a very expensive dietary change.

    • http://www.dianamn.tumblr.com diana

      Your best bet is to go to a place like EarthFare or Whole Foods, go to their Health and Wellness Department and talk to an employee about what supplements and vitamins you can take to replace your deficiencies. I tend to have low iron and my diet is low in B vitamins, so I take those supplements and I feel great!

      And yes, buying processed soy and “fake meat” is expensive, but it’s also unnecessary. Processed “fake meat” products should be treated like potato chips or candy bars- eat sparingly.

      • Mercedes

        I was on vitamin B12 and vitamin D for about two years and it did nothing for my anemia. :(

      • Fee

        How about iron supplements? I’m vegetarian and anemic, but ever since I took iron supplements I stopped fainting and feeling week. You might want to give them a try, they worked for me!

    • t

      okay seriously, so many people claim they ‘can’t’ be vegetarian…. it’s about nutrition. and if what you’re eating is fake meat, then you’re going about the nutrition route the wrong way.
      do your research. be healthy. make an effort, and you can do it.

      • Mercedes

        I didn’t just eat fake meat, I ate other things too obviously. Not everyone’s body is made for vegetarianism. It’s quite ignorant of you to assume I didn’t do my research considering you don’t even know me personally. Because HAD you known me personally, you would have known that my weight at the time was already too low for my age group so being vegetarian wasn’t exactly the best choice to make.

      • Mercedes

        As a side note, I also mentioned that my mother was not “okay” with me being vegetarian and thus did not buy me the appropriate food supplements. So yeah, reading – it’s kind of a thing.

    • http://gravatar.com/milajaroniec milajaroniec

      I have a similar story. I first went vegetarian at 12 as well and was also diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia; my mother didn’t agree with my diet and eventually pushed me back to eating meat. I gave it another shot in college and the same thing happened. I started taking an iron supplement 3 TIMES A DAY as directed by a (fucking horrible) doctor and almost gave myself iron poisoning. Not cute.

      The thing is, both times I had a VERY poorly structured diet – like, since I was vegetarian and not yet vegan, I would just abstain from meat and eat all the cheese ever. And bread. I didn’t really care about what I was eating, only what I was NOT eating (animals). So as a result, my health predictably went downhill.

      It’s true that when you’re vegetarian/vegan you have to try a bit harder to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need, but it’s far from impossible. A lot of foods are fortified with iron nowadays, but you can still get it naturally from dark leafy vegetables (spinach is a good choice), legumes, whole grains, etc. It’s so so important to educate yourself about nutrition when you go veg because if you don’t, you’ll just end up malnourished and give up on the whole thing.

      And as far as the fake meat goes, you shouldn’t use that as your main protein source (mainly because it’s expensive as hell, and also processed so not the best for you). Go natural if you can. Tofu, quinoa, seitan, nuts, tempeh…be creative with those. I promise when you stick to simple, natural foods and produce, the grocery bill goes WAY down.

      2 other important things you want to make sure you’re getting enough of: omega-3 fatty acids (found in flax seeds, chia seeds, etc.) and vitamin B12 (nutritional yeast is a good source of this, but if you hate that then take a supplement or make sure to get non-dairy milk that’s fortified with it).

      • Mercedes

        Yes, those are very good tips. I’m still anemic so I’m not going to go back to vegetarianism just yet, but I hope to in the future. In hindsight, being 12 and vegetarian wasn’t so good considering I was still going through puberty but I hope that in turning 20 that won’t be a problem anymore (haha). At that time, I was taking vitamin B12 and vitamin D3 supplements twice day as prescribed by my doctor and it did little to nothing in terms of affecting me health-wise. But yeah, just to clarify – fake meat wasn’t the main ingredient in my vegetarian diet, I was just expressing my distaste in its price (and I wish I didn’t know, because now all the angry vegetarians down there are shaming me for it! haha). My main go-to food during my vegetarianism was tofu-anything. Tofu yogurt anyone? Yum.

  • http://twitter.com/NoContactChamp johnny

    I think one justification is that “this poor dude has already suffered and died, might as well be eaten by someone who mostly minimizes meat industry profits for the benefit of his future brethren.” I’m pretty sure I vaguely think something like this when I sometimes eat meat. And with fish it’s like F them they eat each other.

    • ABA

      This pretty much sums up how I justify eating meat. If dead animal flesh is before me, it’s already dead so if I don’t eat it A) someone else will or B) it will be disposed of.

      • Johnny

        You ask if I understand supply and demand even though I clearly make a reference to it in my first sentence. Why?
        I eat meat like three times a year. Thanksgiving is one of those times. Me being a vegetarian doesn’t stop my family from buying a Turkey. Other times are when I’m at a gathering. Me being a vegetarian doesn’t stop friends from making dinner where there’s meat. I could be a dick and ask for a special vegetarian meal, but that’s not going to minimize the amount of meat that will be bought and cooked for a large group of people.
        But mostly I was making a point that I’m a fallible human who sometimes does things in direct opposition to his beliefs, and the justifications that I create to ease my conscience.

    • NYfrog

      “this poor dude has already suffered and died” because you’re willing to eat him. Haven’t you heard of supply and demand.

    • Cara

      This is illogical. They exist in the grocery store because people (you) buy it. Stop buying it, and it’ll stop (or reduce) stock. They’re dead because you buy them.

    • Guest

      If you could kill/slaughter the animal in your own backyard and then cook it to eat, then you should eat meat – otherwise this justification is ridiculous.

  • cat

    I love this, I love this so much. While getting ready to switch back to full veganism after living in Turkey (where I was once told I should write a book about being a vegetarian in the Middle East with the first chapter “Cheese” and the second “Bread”), I read somewhere that one of the best ways to make sure you stay on track and avoid “cheating” is to write a list of the reasons why you are vegan in order to keep yourself on track. Which I think is really helpful in ensuring that you keep in mind the why and just writing the list itself is a practice of questioning the practice and looking at your choices.

    Also as someone raised vegetarian, you can get the iron you need as a vegetarian without spending a fortune on fake meats. Its better to become really well acquainted with the nutritional value of different vegetables and consider doing things like taking an iron supplement/using molasses to sweeten your coffee if that’s not enough.

  • Guest

    I agree with the idea that it’s much easier to stray from your chosen diet if you’re not approaching it from an ethical standpoint. At that point, it’s more than just about witholding items from yourself. That feels like a punishment! If you do it because you feel like you’re “doing the right thing,” for various reasons, there’s rarely a desire to cheat. In my experience, at least.

    Sidenote: I wish people would stop using faux meats as a crutch in their vegan or vegetarian diets. They’re expensive and processed and they shouldn’t be used as a shortcut because people don’t know how to create nutritious meals out of, well, plants.

    • muffin.

      Mm, to the aside on faux meat: If my only reason for vegentarianism is discomfort with the way animals are treated before they are killed, and I have no other qualms against processed food, why should I not eat faux meat? This a question entirely out of curiosity, not intended as an attack, but I’d love to know why you feel this way :))

      • Cara

        Buying processed food is bad because it’s expensive, uses less than stellar ingredients (palm oil, isolated soy protein) and require more packaging and fossil fuel for importing.

  • http://www.dianamn.tumblr.com diana

    I just tried to watch Earthlings. The full documentary is uploaded on Google video (here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6361872964130308142) and I only got about ten minutes in before I had to turn it off.

    Animals are like children: vulnerable and exploitable. It’s deplorable that people take advantage of that and use it as an excuse to be cruel. God forgive us.

  • Hillary

    I understand, if have concerns about, the idea of not eating meat for ethical reasons. I even understand the idea of not eating mass-produced animal products for ethical reasons. But what’s wrong with eating things like locally produced animal products, or organic/free-range animal products? You’re not hurting the animals, you’re not contributing to any mass mistreatment, and even though it’s more expensive than buying mass-produced things, so is a vegan diet, especially since many have to supplement with vitamins and minerals.

    That’s another thing with which I take issue. Yes, you are what you eat to a certain extent, and I know that you say that you’re not doing so, but your article seems to belittle anyone who doesn’t stick to a struck vegan or vegetarian diet: “it’s better than most people do anyway”. Eating vegan is *expensive*, and is an option that’s not available to a generous portion of the population.

    • Cara

      Eating vegan is not expensive. I’ve lived in every kind of situation – food desert, rich suburb, middle of a city, in the country, etc and never had to spend more than $50-$100 a month on food – that’s less than I’d get on food stamps. Processed vegan food is expensive, whole vegan foods (lentils, frozen veg, rice, fruit in season) are not. “Slow meat” on the other hand is one of the most privileged ways you can eat, and there’s not enough land in the world to house the amount of animals we eat now. Sure, happy meat is a great ideal, but first you need to greatly reduce animal consumption to make it sustainable.

  • Molly

    fantastic article

  • Gabriella

    Are cigarettes vegan?

    • milajaroniec

      American Spirits are. The rest of them, I’d venture to say not likely – even if there are no animal-derived ingredients in the cigarette itself (which is almost impossible to tell, unless you call the company and ask for the origins of every ingredient in there), some tobacco companies still do animal testing. So in short, yes and no.

  • A

    How do you know when someone is vegan?

    Don’t worry, they’ll make sure to tell you.

  • http://notesonpassion.com krista

    Nice article! You raise good points. Convictions are important, definitely, but so is remembering to not be so hard on yourself when you blunder. Life is hard, mistakes are fact. People on the road to vegetarian/vegan are all at different points, with varying degrees of will power. While quitting meat cold-turkey (pun!) with 100% resolve might be ideal, it’s not usually that easy for people. The point is that people 1) gain awareness and 2) strengthen their awareness over time. But until a pure vegetarian/vegan conviction is perfected, a lot of people do chow down on a burger. And if they aren’t careful, they become self-critical or absorb social criticism to a toxic degree. This happens with everything, not just food. Self-guilt is a serious issue in the modern world. Learning to laugh at yourself/be easy on yourself is vital. That’s what my essay was about.

    And I wrote it humorously because humor makes people who are uncomfortable with certain topics more comfortable, and I want everyone to feel comfortable investigating/talking about food topics, not feel like it is a conversation saved for elitist foodies. As writers, we all reach people in different ways, and humor is my way of reaching people. For instance: Many meat-eating, republican-leaning people would have never given an article titled “you must be a vegetarian and never stray or else” the time of day. But they responded well to my article, and many of them asked me follow up questions, and many of them asked me food advice, and many of them are wanting to implement more plant-based changed to their diet based on those conversations. I was having food discussions with people who otherwise wouldn’t care, or would feel intimidated to do so — and that’s more important to me than receiving validation from the foodie world. A lot of foodie people took my article seriously and subsequently didn’t take me seriously. That’s a shame. I am nearly a raw foodist, I take food very seriously, but I, like many others, am not perfect, I slip up from time-to-time, and that article was my way of saying “Hey, don’t let slipping up stop you from making conscious food decisions — it’s not all or nothing. Trying your best is what matters. Don’t let anyone tell you you aren’t doing good enough.” Sadly the comments I received were just that: You aren’t doing good enough.

    OK, sorry for the novel I’ve written here!! But just wanted to say thanks for your article and asking important questions, I really enjoyed it.

  • Lo

    vegans who drive cars. there’s a lotta shit wrong with this world so judge away people.

    • s

      This is the most illogical comment ever.

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