Before we proceed, let’s be crystal clear about something…
I’m not here to pick on vegans or the vegan diet.
I will be writing plenty of articles about plenty of different ways of eating – especially those I’ve personally tried (like this one). It just so happens that this is the first one because it happened to be the first way of eating I adopted in my own search for optimal health, and because I’ve been hearing a ton about veganism lately.
Just because a vegan diet didn’t work for me – and that I think the reasons many use to justify practicing it are not sound – doesn’t mean I’m telling you what you should or shouldn’t eat. I’m not a doctor; I’m not a dietitian; and (most importantly) I’m not you. Those are the only three people you should consult when determining what you eat.
The intent of this article is for you to get to know me a bit better and to share my perspective on a popular way of eating for you to have more context to consider when determining what way of eating best aligns with your goals and values.
I think that the vast majority of vegans are well-intentioned, and I respect the hell out of people who choose this way of eating in an effort to improve their own health, improve the lives of animals, and work towards a more sustainable food production system.
If you read through this article, check out the resources provided, and still feel that eschewing animal products best aligns with your goals, values, and preferences, you’ll hear no objection from me.
You do you.
We’re all doing what we feel best aligns with our goals and values, based on the information at hand. There are plenty of credible resources that will directly conflict with every single thing I’m going to share here.
Also, much of my negative experience may not have been related to my eating habits at all. How we look, feel, and perform is the result of many more factors than what we shove down our pie-hole.
The vegan narrative
The vegan voice – along with the low-carb, “clean eating”, IIFYM, paleo, “everything in moderation”, and (recently quieting a bit) low-fat voices – seems to have always been one of the more prominent in the health and fitness nutrition world.
Recently, though, I’ve found myself hearing about and discussing the vegan diet a bit more often than normal. Much of this I think is an effect of the release of the popular documentary, “What The Health” (one thing vegans do very well is pump out documentaries (I mean that as a sincere compliment).
However, the vegan diet has had a strong following since long before the advent of Netflix, YouTube, FoodMatters.tv, and other modern forms of distribution making it easier for such documentaries to reach the masses.
Two factors stand out to me as perhaps the most significant reasons for the vegan diet’s long-lived popularity:
- Mankind’s tendency to seek out simple solutions (“stop eating meat”) for complex issues (“our health, our planet, and the way we approach animal husbandry are totally fucked”).
- Veganism is one of a handful of ways of eating that allow us to identify with a specific community, idea, or set of values – like religion.
I suspect it’s rising popularity as of late is the result of general growing public concern for the state of the environment, our obesity epidemic, and rising healthcare costs. Streaming video and social media have only made bringing these issues to the forefront of public discussion easier than it had been in decades past.
The vegan narrative tends to address all of these concerns – as well as animal welfare. However, it’s my opinion (yes, opinion – not fact) that the vegan narrative is misguided.
A Vegetarian in The Grand Canyon State
Rewind to June 2009.
During my final semester at Tech, I’d accumulated a bit of a spare tire as the result of a few too many late nights involving Busch Light, Rails, and Jimmy Johns’ Italian Night Clubs.
When I graduated and moved out west to Arizona to work for a mining company, I decided to start learning a bit more about nutrition (I am a huge nerd, after all). I already understood the concept of calories but wasn’t only interested in learning about weight loss and weight gain, so I dug a bit deeper into what eating habits contributed to longevity.
I soon learned all about the dangers of fat (particularly saturated fat) and eventually the detrimental effects that animal protein has on our long term health. This led to reading about animal cruelty and The China Study, which led me towards what I’d eventually settle on adopting as a way of eating – vegetarianism.
I would buy lettuce, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, low fat cheeses, lentils, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pizza crusts, oatmeal, almonds, eggs, nuts, and berries. I love routine, so I rather quickly got into a pretty steady rotation of oatmeal w/ nuts and cinnamon (kick off my love affair with cinnamon) for breakfast, veggie & cheese pizza and sandwiches for lunch, and boiled lentils and/or eggs for dinner.
This, combined with plenty of long, moderate-to-high intensity running and cycling (a subject for another post), led to the weight falling off rather quickly – if not, at times, a bit too quickly. I got leaner and leaner and leaner, so I figured that what I was doing must have been on the right track.
It didn’t occur to me at the time that much of progress probably resulted from not getting hammered 4x/wk. or eating whatever the hell I had in front of me at all times.
It also didn’t occur to me that I may have been losing weight beyond the point of looking healthy, and started battling anxiety and depression a bit. Oh, and then there was also the also the incessant hunger (which i figured was normal when losing weight).
These negative effects happened so gradually that it was kinda like the old analogy of putting a frog in water and turning up the heat slowly instead of dropping a frog into boiling water – I didn’t really notice what was going on. Then again, I’ve never really boiled a frog, so I can’t really say one way or the other
For about the next year, this is how I ate. There were times after parties, nights out, other social functions, or special occasions or when I’d eat meat, but for the most part I ate mainly veggies, grains, and some dairy.
The weight kept dropping, the anxiety kept building, and the feelings of loneliness and despair became increasingly “normal”.
From vegetarian to vegan
I left Arizona in 2010 to take an opportunity teaching high school in Tennessee (I’ve had a bunch of random-ass jobs in my day).
I was still devoting plenty of time learning about nutrition and training, had been eating vegetarian with some lean meats like chicken breast for about a year, but felt that I could do better. I do have perfectionist tendencies, and also easily fall into the “more is better” mindset.
When I wasn’t shaping the minds of our future, I was watching a lot of Netflix – mainly Dexter, The Office, and South Park (pissed that they no longer carry that one). Eventually, I came across the documentary, “Food Matters”, a highly successful film about the benefits of a “plant-based” (vegan) diet.
Determined to kick ass and take names with my health and fitness, I decided to go full vegan.
I read blogs, watched YouTube videos (most by PETA), and learned more and more that solidified my belief that a vegan diet was the right choice for me. I learned about how animals were treated in the industrial farming system, how they’re production impacted the environment, and started to “understand” that cholesterol would immediately clog my arteries.
I nixed the cheese, chicken breast, and fish, eating only nuts, seeds, veggies, beans, and whole grain products (NOT whole grains). I vegan’ed FN hard, at one point even becoming a raw vegan – not cooking anything. In case you were wondering, eating raw sweet potatoes kinda sucks. Well, actually, it really sucks.
Over the course of a couple months, the wheels started to come off the bus.
My feelings of depression were deeper and more prolonged. I had no physical energy to workout beyond any movement required to go to and from work and home. I lost my sex drive. I would binge regularly. My weight continued to drop. I lost all desire to do things that I once enjoyed. There were days when I would curl up in a ball on the floor overwhelmed with anxiety and dread.
Worst of all, I got really tired of telling everybody I met that I was a vegan (JK).
The return of flesh
One day, I realized that all of these symptoms indicated that something that I was doing was NOT good, and decided that SOMETHING had to change. I started by trying to take walks outside to feel a bit better and get some fresh air, but barely enough energy even for this. Eventually, I just kind of “felt” that I needed some meat.
I did some reading on these symptoms, and learned that a vegan diet does have some downsides and requires quite a bit of extra care – ensuring adequate intake of the right kinds of amino acids, supplementation for vitamin B12 and other nutrients that are hard to come by without animal products, and decided that the juice of health and environmental sustainability just wasn’t worth the squeeze.
I started eating fish, and noticed within days that I felt much better, even though I still struggled a bit some of the emotional issues. Noticing an improvement, I started incorporating a little bit more lean meat like chicken breast, and some low-fat dairy like cheese and yogurt, into my diet regularly. I took some solace in the fact that I was eating minimal fat, minimal animal flesh, and plenty of whole grains.
While I could still tell that what I was doing wasn’t quite ideal, one thing seemed clear – reincorporating meat into my diet was a positive move, and a vegan diet was not for me.
Things with my eating and training were not all “hunky dory” from this point forward, but I’ll have to cover the rest later. For now, I’ll wrap this up by sharing with you…
Why I’m still not a vegan
When it comes to the problems facing our food choices, our health, the environment, and animal welfare, I’d love for the answer to be as simple as “don’t eat meat”, but I’m afraid that I just can’t stand behind that explanation.
Let’s be clear before proceeding – I’m not in the business of, or qualified for, writing research reviews. Also, I completely recognize that for every point I make and resource I share below, there are plenty of compelling points to the contrary.
That’s totally cool.
As stated above, all we can do is make the best decisions we can considering the information and experiences that shape our world view. Every single one of us has been exposed to different information and experiences, which is why we have to deal with that pesky little thing called… “disagreement”.
The vegan diet and health
For starters, much of the reasoning for eliminating meat altogether for health purposes seems to be based on faulty research methods and/or interpretation.
- There are essential nutrients that we simply would not be able to consume in adequate amounts if it weren’t for eating animal flesh or supplementation made possible only through modern techniques.
- The China Study, upon which many of the central tenets of the vegan diet are founded, appears to be deeply flawed in terms of both methods and in terms of analysis.
- The significance of the recent World Health Organization report classifying red and processed meats as carcinogens, even if accurate, appears to have been overstated by the media. Headlines based on this report do not distinguish between the health effects of “processed” meats and unprocessed meat, and also do not consider the significance of the difference between absolute risk and relative risk.
- The recent – and one of the most popular – vegan documentary, “What The Health”, makes several health claims that are inaccurate at best, although I tend to think that they border on deceptive. I’ll bite my tongue regarding the smug attitude of the narrator.
- Finally, there’s the whole discussion on cholesterol, fat, saturated fat, and their impact on health. I’ll hold of on elaborating here, and also on providing links about these points at the end of this article, as I will be writing a separate piece about the whole low-fat/cholesterol thing.
Perhaps most tellingly, there does not appear to be or ever have been a human population that subsists or subsisted in complete absence of animal flesh or products. Even if we do find that there detrimental effects associated with consumption of certain animal products, I’m not convinced that we need to completely eliminate animal products from our eating habits.
That said, there do appear to be some people who find a vegan diet to be a bit easier than others. I’ll provide a link below in the resource area about why this might be, as well as a link to an article with suggestion for those of you who choose to continue to practice a vegan diet.
The vegan diet and animal welfare
Another reason I was drawn – and many others continue to be drawn – to a vegan diet is because the way we are raising and slaughtering most of the animals we eat is horrible.
We keep these creatures locked up in tight quarters; we feed them diets for which their digestive systems are not suited; we mutilate them, causing physical and psychological trauma; we keep them alive in disease-ridden environments with high doses of antibiotics; we take countless measures to make them grow at unnatural rates for no reason other than to turn a profit.
However, the problems described above are relatively recent progressions in animal husbandry practices, and most of us do still have options
There are a rising number of farms that allow their animals to roam freely on open pastures, living stress free lives, eating diets suitable for their digestive systems, and then killed swiftly and (relatively) humanely. There are cattle farms that allow their stock to roam about and graze on grass grown with nothing but sunshine, rain, and manure. There are poultry farms on which chickens eat nothing but grubs and other natural staples of their diets. These animals are free to live as they have for hundreds or even thousands of years, without experiencing the horrors of concentrated feed lots (CAFOs).
We are not forced to purchased animal products from CAFOs. Most of us can choose to incorporate only animal products from local farmers who raise and slaughter their animals in more humane conditions, or even hunt/take/fish our own food. There are also eggs and dairy for those of us who do not want to take a life. This is largely individual
The subject of killing sentient beings as a part of our food production system is a bit more nuanced.
On one hand, animals raised and slaughtered on more conscientious ranches and farms live pretty chill lives, munching on grass, getting fresh air and sunlight, and are slaughtered quickly and (relatively) humanely. Compared to how these animals die naturally – predation, starvation, thirst, and disease – living and dying on farms such as those mentioned earlier might not be such a bad deal.
On the other hand, there’s no way around the fact that eating animals does still necessitate animal death. While animals on more humane farms might have a significantly better life than those raised on CAFOs, they are still sentient beings, brought into existence solely to be slaughtered and eaten. The face-value ethical discussion of killing animals for food is a deeper philosophical and existential one than I am prepared to address in this article. I don’t have an answer for that, except to suggest that we all eat only meat from animals that we seek out in the wild and kill swiftly (more on this in a bit), or scavenge.
Buuuuuuuut I don’t yet really know of a better alternative.
Feeding the entire human population on grains, legumes, vegetables, and soybeans, does not appear to be any better. Countless field animals are killed harvesting staple crops of a vegan diet, and many of these crops necessitate mass deforestation – a major contributor to the accelerating decline of biodiversity on our planet as well as the death of countess sentient beings.
The vegan diet and the environment
The most common arguments in this area are that cattle contribute to climate change through greenhouse gas production and require immense amounts of water and other resources to produce.
As with the questions surrounding animal welfare and sentient death, there’s a bit of nuance to consider when one compares animal husbandry through CAFOs and animal husbandry that more closely reflects the natural grazing patterns of the ruminants.
When animals graze on open pastures on land suitable for grazing rather than crop production, the only real inputs are natural sunshine, rain, and manure. There’s no “net loss” of any input, as it’s largely recycled in one way, shape, or form. When the grazing patterns of these animals are managed properly, and regularly rotated from one area of the grazing area to other grazing areas, their presence can actually rebuild the topsoil – through dropping manure and stirring up the soil – in ways that the entire system becomes a net carbon sink.
Yes, properly managed grazing can act as a net carbon sink. Even with cow farts.
Industrial agriculture and animal husbandry alike deplete topsoil, and are only made possible through irrigation of water from outside sources and keeping soil fertile only through use of largely petroleum-based fertilizers. The inputs required to produce protein (not to mention any of the other nutrients available only from animal sources) from plants are sometimes estimated to be on par with the inputs required to produce protein from animals, at least when both are being produced in our typical industrial systems.
Furthermore, areas that have been over-farmed – or over-grazed – historically become deserts as a result of resource depletion. Eliminating animal husbandry not only fails to address this problem, but can in some cases make the problem worse by eliminating a factor of the ecosystem that keeps the soil healthy and “alive”. I’ll share a presentation by a dude named Alan Savory, illustrating precisely this point.
Not only does our current food production system (how we grow food) deplete resources, but our food distribution (how we transport food) system contributes to the problem, as it necessitates the burning of fossil fuels to transport food from the rural areas that produce our food to the urban areas in which the consumers live.
If we eliminate meat and live off nothing but plant harvests, we must still ship those plant products from areas of production to areas of consumption. Again, this is not so much an “eating meat” problem so much as it is a “population” and “urbanization” problem.
The solution to our problems
How do we feed the human population in a way that is nutritionally adequate, while not depleting earth’s resources faster than they replenish, and not causing undue suffering to animals?
I won’t even pretend to have an answer to that, as there are limitless possibilities as to what that might look like.
However, our current industrial agriculture, husbandry, and distribution practices do not appear to be viable solutions, regardless of the roles animals play in our eating habits.
From an environmental standpoint, it doesn’t appear that we have many (if any) options that don’t include animals. From a health standpoint, it appears the same way – at least not unless we find a way to supplement that doesn’t require vast resources to implement (I’m not up to snuff on this subject, though).
It’s my understanding that there’s just not enough land suitable for farming and grazing to feed our current population, at least not without heavy fertilization and deforestation (a system that will eventually collapse).
I hate to say it, but i think that we just have too damned many people.
That said, who knows what technological advances we might see over the coming years?
We might see major strides forward in efficiently farming crops with minimal inputs (hydroponics and/or vertical farming). We might see major steps forward in transportation efficiency, perhaps in the form of electric vehicles that recharge by plugging into electrical grids powered by solar, wind, geothermal, or some yet-to-be-achieved form of fusion.
My only hope is that we keep the discussion open, keep asking questions, keep thinking about this from a holistic point of view, considering all inputs, and keep in mind that we all (well, most of us) are doing the best we can with the information available.
Until then, all we can do is keep learning, keep asking questions, and keep making connections between seemingly conflicting ideologies.
“Absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is essentially your own.” – Bruce Lee
7 Nutrients You Can’t Get from Plant Foods, Atli Arnerson, PhD
Why You Should Think Twice About Vegetarian and Vegan Diets, Chris Kresser
The China Study: Fact or Fallacy?, Denise Minger
Who Says Bacon is Bad?, Reuters Investigates
Red Meat & Cancer – Again! Will it Ever Stop?, Chris Kresser
World Health Organization, meat & cancer, Zoe Harcombe
A Vegan Dietitian Reviews “What the Health”, Virginia Messina, MPH, RD
What The Health – Review, Martine (not sure of last name), Low Carb Vegan
What You Should Know About The Pro-Vegan Netflix Film ‘ What The Health’, Alexandra Sifferlin
Meat is Magnificent: Water, Carbon, Methane & Nutrition, Diana Rodgers, RD
This dietitian says eat MORE meat, Diana Rodgers, RD
AHS17 What if it’s ALL Been a Big Fat Lie, Peter Ballerstedt
If you are still set on adopting a vegan diet, here is a resource you might consider:
For Vegans, Denise Minger