Sunday, December 3, 2017

How to Eat Right

I've spent a lot of years exploring the ethics of eating.  I've read HUNDREDS of articles and books about the topic. 

There is a lot of back and forth regarding the best way to eat, and there have been some really strong voices on both sides of the argument. 

The founders of the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, Scott and Helen Nearing, were vegetarians, and they promoted a lifestyle that included no animal products, based on Helen's very vocal aversion to "keeping" animals.  The paradox, however, is that Helen had a pet (which seemed to contradict her very adamant attitude that animals should not be enslaved to humans), and the Nearings were also malnourished.  That is, they needed to be administered Vitamin B12 shots by a physician, because there was no plant-based product available to them that contained this essential vitamin.  Indeed the only commonly known plant-based source for B12 is seaweed (there are also some studies that show mushrooms might have some dietary B12 available). 

So that previous paragraph is all from memory of a study I read about vegetable sources for B12.  I don't have sources to cite.  My point is that I have done this research before, because I really do want to do what's best.

Unfortunately, people who eat non-meat based diets usually do so because of some professed ethical aversion to eating animals.  And that's fine.  I don't, actually, give a shit what other people eat, and I also don't care all that much why they've chosen that diet.  Don't eat anything with a face?  Good for you!  I won't feed you chicken, if you don't feed me GMOs. 

What I do give a shit about is being attacked because I have made different - well-researched and long-agonized-over - choices.  But I don't have the time or the energy or the desire (actually) to defend my dietary choices against an onslaught of misdirected accusations. 

As we know, though, I don't take this kind of thing lying down.  While I will often stop discussing it with the close-minded individual who accuses me of things I didn't say (because there are often other people in the conversation, too, but I get blamed for everything that's said) or just ignores what I am saying in favor of fueling his/her moral superiority about what they believe is my intent (without asking or without knowing anything more about me than a few words said about one topic), I don't stop thinking about it.

My goal, therefore, was to find a definitive answer to the question: What is the most ethical way to eat?

I was hoping that I could find a real study (not one sponsored by a vegan organization that says eating any animal-based product is bad or by the Cattle Association of America, which says we should eat more beef, because beef is good). 

We all already know all of the stories about how awful CAFOs are for the animals.  We know about the animal abuses in chicken houses in rural Georgia and how pigs are mistreated by Smithfield Farms.  No one, including me, is questioning whether or not we should continue to support these factory farms.  The answer is that we shouldn't, and the result of avoiding that industry, for my family, is that we eat a lot less meat, in general. 

There are a lot of articles that debunk the notion that a vegetarian diet is completely ethical.  There are also many articles that point out the fallacy in believing that a vegan diet is healthier.  Among the evidence is that 40% of the people living in India are vegetarian/vegan, but they have the same health issues that we, here in America, have. 

The two healthiest populations in the world are the French and the Japanese, neither of which follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.  In fact, anecdotal accounts of vegetarian tourists in Japan speak to the difficulty of finding foods that do not contain some animal product (usually fish sauce or the like). 

The French diet was dubbed a paradox, because the French have low rates of diet-related diseases and weigh less (compared to Americans), while eating a diet that seems to be rich in all of the foods that make Americans so sick.  Research seems to indicate that it isn't so much what the French eat, but rather how and how much (compared to Americans).

Health-wise a vegan diet is not superior, but neither is a vegan diet more environmentally pure.  This article lists eleven foods essential to a healthy vegan diet.  Things listed include: nuts (the almond industry in California uses a lot of water); soybean (first, more than 90% of the soybean crop is GMO, and second, soybeans are usually grown as a monocrop, which has been proven to be environmentally degrading); and lots of cereals and grains (which are also grown as monocrops).   The point is that while some vegans are taking this morally superior attitude about how horrible my diet is, theirs isn't more healthy or environmentally ethical, IF they eat the usual grocery-store purchased foods that everyone else purchases.

That's the caveat, though, isn't it? 

Maybe the bottom line has nothing to do with the individual components of our diets, but rather where we source those ingredients.

Researchers, like Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, puzzled over the question about what's the best way to eat, and that was his conclusion, as well.

If we're going to look for the best ways to eat with an eye on what's best for our bodies and what's best for the planet, we have to look at the entire package.  How was the food raised?  Where was the food raised?  How was the food processed?  How much packaging is required for that food?  How far did the food have to travel for it to get to me? 

All of those things are paramount to determining whether or not our diet is truly ethical, and if those factors are not taken into account, to take a superior stance regarding one's diet based solely on there being no animal-based products is arrogant, at best. 

After years of reading hundreds of books and articles, the definitive answer, for me, is that the only way to have a truly ethical diet is to eat food that is gathered from one's local environment by the person who will be eating it. 

I do not have a completely ethical diet, but neither have I claimed to, and neither do I fault other people for their choices. 

In the end, we can only live the best we can live, and my goal is to make conscious choices in my diet.  In my opinion, that's all anyone can ask of me.  At any rate, that's all they're going to get.


  1. I dislike being preached to by vegans as well. Some land here is amenable to raising animals that could not be used to raise soy/grains. We get all grain except rice grown in our fair state-- lucky! The best cornmeal!! It's easier here than other places to find local farm raised meat, too. And the cheeses. I had a tough time in Japan as I can't have either seafood(tragic!) or much salt. In France, I can eat all the food presented to me at a restaurant as the portions are reasonable; here, I usually have to take some home with me.

  2. Excellent post! I have wrestled with that as well. We eat less meat than other, but do eat mostly chicken. Unless you raise everything yourself you're operating in the dark. Great ideas! Nancy