Tales of a lapsed vegan

It seems that I’m not alone in being a lapsed plant eater. In trying to create a food philosophy I could get behind, I’ve been struggling with how exactly to voice what makes me uncomfortable about both omnivory and vegetarianism. Marissa Landrigan wrote in Paste Magazine:

For so long, I had assumed I was maintaining a diet that caused less suffering, but my vegetarianism had blinded me to the myriad other ethical dilemmas that were a part of my eating choices. I started wondering whether not eating animals was the only, or even the best, way to make such a compassionate choice.

This was exactly my goal when I decided to started eating meat again. I wanted to move beyond boycotting a food economy whose practices I found abhorrent, and move towards supporting what I see as a burgeoning food economy recentered on small-scale, local, sustainable farming, some of which does involve raising livestock animals. I decided that, by investing in these sources of meat production, we can attempt to offset the suffering implicit in any act of eating.

And it’s not just “lapsed vegetarian” writers who struggle with the morals of eating meat: “veganish” James McWilliams (PSmag) also gets into the complexity of whether or not eating animals is ethical.

…consider the untold numbers of sentient animals killed by combines and pesticides to grow the essentials of a vegan diet—edible plants. In 2003, Oregon State agriculture scientist Steven L. Davis created a dust-up in vegan camps when he calculated that the number of small animals killed to grow plant crops was high enough to justify using more land to raise large ruminants rather than edible plants. Because overall suffering would be diminished if we ate more large ruminants, he concluded, “humans may be morally obligated to consume a diet from plant based plus pasture-forage-ruminant systems.”

The philosopher Gaverick Matheny quickly (and convincingly) took issue with Davis’ numbers. But the essential fact remained untouched: A vegan diet requires harming sentient animals. A lot of them. So we can reject Davis’ flawed calculations, as well as his claim that we should be eating large ruminants raised on pasture, but the question he forces us to consider doesn’t go away: Are there sources of meat with a suffering threshold low enough to justify reducing our consumption of plants, and thus the number of animals killed to grow plants, by eating from those sources?

When I read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, a rather unbiased, un-preachy work revealing the state of modern meat production in the United States, I was flooded with emotion that I had blocked out since learning about global warming in the 3rd grade… and realizing nobody else really cared. I cared about it when I woke up in the morning, and it shaped my whole day; an adult had told me my world was gonna end but meh, there was nothing to be done about it… how could I ignore the sheer enormity of the problem of climate change? It’s obviously overwhelming to a 3rd grader to realize that the world is not going to be the same, and will likely change for the worse; on top of that, when I’d try to talk to people about it, adults and peers alike, nobody seemed to care. I started to think that maybe it WAS overhyped, maybe it wasn’t that big an issue, otherwise more people would be freaking out about it, right? It’s as if I were desperately asking an adult to do CPR on someone while the adult was walking away and saying, “look they fluttered their eyelid, they’re fine!”

I regret not having joined environmental clubs, student government, etc. I regret not working harder on communicating about these issues in a more informed, less alarmist way, so that I could feel like a more powerful entity despite my young age. But nevertheless, life DID go on, everything seemed fine, and if I were to really interact with people in a meaningful way, I had to stop bringing up climate change.

So then I read Omnivore’s Dilemma. I knew all of the facts already from discussions with people who did care about climate change, but the book hit this wonderful balance between emotional and rational arguments, facts and anecdotes. The author ate meat and therefore was able to say: “Look, this is something I care about deeply but I live my life just like you. I’m not on any moral high ground here.” It resonated with me, to not be condescended to while learning about issues I cared a lot about. Previously when other vegetarian friends would say why they’re vegetarian, I’d felt like it was a completely emotional, antisocial choice–I’d perhaps internalized much of that apathy and denial I struggled so hard against in childhood.

And despite Michael Pollan’s meat-eating habits, his book led me to question my own lifestyle for nearly a year before I too declared that I was going vegetarian. I did it to reduce my carbon footprint, to eat healthier, to stop my tacit support of factory-farmed meat.

My mom fussed over what she’d cook. Thanksgivings became difficult, even though when I passed on the turkey a cousin came out to me as a vegetarian also. My brother made me feel downright shitty about it: one time at a korean restaurant, which we tend to do family-style, he ordered meat for the whole table, and I had to fight to order just one vegetarian dish, at which he rolled his eyes and gave in so grudgingly I felt like I was choosing between family and eating habits. Vegetarian doesn’t go over well with many people.

Furthermore, I started training for a marathon. I was hungry a lot. It got to the point where I’d eat half a jar of peanut butter in one sitting, and I’d think about the resources that went into that half jar of peanut butter–raw material, packaging, transportation– and think, would one piece of chicken be all that bad compared to this?

After getting sick several times over the course of the year, I lapsed into meat-eating for a while. I tried eating meat-light but found myself having it more often than not. It felt good to feel accepted again, to be getting whole nutrition in simpler foods (no protein powders, supplements, etc.). I had more energy as well. But of course I felt conflicted about it, especially after seeing first-hand the feedlots of Kansas on my bike trip and starting grad school far away from family pressure. I gave it another shot.

I even ate predominantly vegan for about 8 months, foregoing cheese and eggs 80% of the time.

What happened then? Why do I eat meat now? A big life change was moving into Manhattan and out of the bubble of small-hippie-town life. I had a few reasons for going back to carnivory:

  1. I was hungry a lot, and left unsatisfied by my vegetarian diet. While I was struggling with mental health issues, feeling hungry definitely didn’t help stabilize my mood or breed good body image: when I’d celebrate that I was hungry, I knew that wasn’t good.
  2. I had begun doing it to try and lose weight: a veggie burger clearly has fewer calories than a bacon cheeseburger, and vegetarianism was a convenient excuse for choosing lower-calorie options. Again, not great for my mood OR my body image.
  3. New York is full of food. Even street carts have amazing food. I hated to pass up on bone broth ramen or pork soup dumplings; I wanted to try everything, and the vegetarian Smorgasburg fare was not quite enough to satisfy my curiosity. I did really miss the social and culinary experience of eating new foods, even if they contained meat.
  4. The social aspect did grate. Eventually I felt like, what’s the point really, when everyone’s eating this meat? Why not eat some myself? This is the reason I’m least proud of. It’s just my cynicism and my inability to stick by my morals.

    The culture wars are real.

  5. Those were just excuses: The issue comes down to corporate responsibility. Individual actions make me feel good, sure: I feel good every time I bring my own coffee mug and forego a coated paper or styrofoam cup when I go out for coffee, when I use reusable paper towels at home, a handkerchief instead of paper tissues, a menstrual cup and reusable pads over disposable menstrual products. But ultimately, when I walk right by the paper towel aisle in the super market, if 90 customers had just bought paper towels that day my actions are futile. If those corporations were held responsible for the end-product of the waste stream of their products, then real change could start to happen. By opting out of eating factory farmed meat while everyone else is, I’m not actually making a difference; the most I can do is support initiatives to increase government regulation of these industries. I don’t know. “Vote with your dollars” is a way to make lower- and middle-income consumers feel empowered and also guilty for their consuming habits, while corporations could drown out 10,000 of your donations with one of theirs. As Williams (again, a vegan himself) says in “Do we really vote with our forks?” about an individual’s influence on, say starting a Walmart boycott:

    Of course, there must be a numerical threshold for change. There must be a theoretical number of boycotting consumers who would, in their collective abstinence, deliver to Walmart a message loud enough for the system to adjust. But, despite the great unlikelihood of such an event, it’s simply implausible that such a massive number could be attained through the moral suasion of individual choice. Instead, something external to individual choice—such as a spike in price or a food safety scare or maybe the classification of bacon as a carcinogen—would have to drive such a comprehensive transformation.

    While deflating, the message delivered by causal impotence shouldn’t deter the vegan from giving up veganism any more than it should deter the environmentalist from trading in the Prius for a Porsche. Symbolism matters, as does the personal satisfaction of knowing that you live your life in accordance with the ideals that you espouse. Plus, lots of symbolism can sometimes inspire a movement capable of effecting change from the top down, as Naomi Starkman recently suggested. But it is simply inaccurate to quantify our impact in terms of animal lives saved. Sometimes those making personal sacrifices for a larger cause—yes, even vegans—need to find another way to think about progress.

    That is to say, individual action sadly does not matter; voting with your dollars does not matter; but symbolism does. Neither way of approaching ethical eating is more “correct”; it’s just important to keep both of these extremes, hopeful symbolism and cynicical practicality, in mind when making informed decisions.

  6. I don’t know how much I believe in consumerist elitism. The fact of the matter is that, food waste aside, factory farmed meat is cheap enough for the “masses” to afford, which is a good thing. People aren’t just getting the cheapest food they can get so that they can afford a new iPad; we genuinely benefit as a society from spending less of our money on food. Back in the day when you had to farm all your food, food expenditures pretty much took up a family’s entire paycheck. Think about what it means if we only have to spend 10% of our paychecks on food. Now, I’m aware that people in poverty continue to struggle to put dinner on the table, even in the U.S., and we have a lot of work to do to miminize this inequality, but to pine for a time where everyone produced their own food is to ignore the huge progress that these new habits of consumption represent. This comes at a cost to animals and the environment; we just need to fix the regulatory system that allows a more optimal tradeoff between cheap and ethical/sustainable food production. So who am I to say I’m above participating in this food system? Does it make me a mindless sheep if i do participate?

What to eat has been quite a big struggle on my part: to balance the fact that, now that I know what meat production for a growing world population and a modern society entails, do I believe that opting out is truly the ethical choice or is it just a feel-good tactic to keep my feelings of guilt for existing as a human on this planet at bay?

I have no answers. Only questions. All I know is that the struggle between eating meat and not eating meat poses a much more complex moral dilemma than I initially thought when I went vegetarian.

From Landrigan’s article:

“It’s easy to say ‘all life is death and suffering’ …but for me, all ethics are something I struggle with almost daily,” Malchik says. “The important thing for me is not to bury the facts behind how I live and the choices I make. Facing them is a lifelong effort.”

One thing that’s really changed: now I wish I ate vegetarian around family just to annoy my brother. Because if you’re policing others’ eating habits, I have no patience for you. Maybe that will make the social part a little MORE fun, and I will start re-introducing vegetarianism into my life from there. So, thanks big brother. I’m eating this tempeh for you.


7 thoughts on “Tales of a lapsed vegan

  1. I became a vegetarian (really a pescetarian) after my first trip to India. It was so easy to eat vegetarian there (except that they consider eggs to be meat) – and the vegetarian food was varied and delicious. But what sealed it was an encounter that I had with a very friendly cow in Jodphur – and I looked at the cow and wondered what it would be like to think that cows were holy – that they were my social superior – and I looked at the cow and I knew I wasn’t going to be eating beef for a long, long, time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • How can anyone look at a cow, or any animal really, and not believe that they deserve compassion? It boggles my mind when people don’t believe that animals have “souls”, whatever that means to a person.

      This is the biggest internal conflict I have with eating meat, and there’s no real counter argument here.

      When I was vegetarian, Indian food (as americanized as it may be here) was my absolute favorite cuisine to eat. That, and Mexican.

      I may start transitioning over to pescetarian: it would allow me to indulge in fresh coastal seafood on beachside trips with my parents, substitute shrimp for meat in more mainstream dishes, and still enable me feel like I’m living more consistently with my beliefs.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Very interesting read.

    I grew up on a farm. I loved raising the animals, and hated that I had to help round them up and go to the slaughterhouse to bring them to their very frightening deaths. It was a hard, traumatic thing for a child to experience year after year. I vowed if I had a farm as an adult, it would be no-kill. And I became a vegetarian. It took a long time for my remaining family to accept my choice, but eventually they did, and accommodated me at family get-togethers as an adult.

    Decades later, during my Pregnancy From Hell, by month five I had lost so much weight from my inability to hold down food that the brat stopped growing inside me. My ob-gyn group gave me the choice of eating meat-based protein or I would end up losing the brat. I agonized for several days and made the choice. I found locally-raised organic poultry and found I was able to hold down poached chicken meat and broths I made from the carcasses. The brat started growing again. The day after she was born, I resumed my vegetarian diet. My husband and the brat are vegetarians by choice to this day.

    I, however, have transitioned to pescetarian. On physician’s orders, as of a year ago. I was heading for a heart attack, and had to radically change my diet, lose a lot of weight through exercise, and reduce my stress. I have always loved fish. Fish Day once per week is much anticipated and enjoyed on my part. I am careful in my choice of fish, based on my ethics.

    I do have a farm. It is no kill. I don’t breed my sheep, I use their wool to clothe us, and the animals here live out the duration of their natural lives. Of course there are times when an elderly animal needs veterinary assistance to end suffering as compassionately as possible, but that transition happens in the comfort of their cozy stall, with their flock near, with their head in my lap as I stroke them and talk softly to them. It is as non-traumatic and gentle as I can possibly make it for them. These are the choices I can live with.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was an amazing read – it sums up so many of thoughts related to food. I’m what I like to call an ‘at-home’ vegetarian. My boyfriend is vegetarian, and we’ve been cooking together virtually since we met (we’re at uni). Therefore, I eat vegetarian at home. Every meal I eat at home (unless I buy a ready meal because I’m lazy) is vegetarian.

    But I eat meat when I’m at home with my family. And a lot of the time when I eat out I will order meat (although I’ve started to opt for vegetarian options more often simply because I really like them).

    I have a lot of struggles over whether or not I should fully commit to being vegetarian, but I come up against all the same issues that you do. My family all joke that we’re carnivores, and food is such an important part of my family (everything from celebrations to grief is marked with a big family dinner). I don’t want to alienate my family, and miss out on the rituals and traditions that are such a big part of my life.

    Similarly, I’ve had a lot of issues with eating in the past where I severely restricted my intake. Whilst I’m (largely) over that now, I too often find myself eating vegetarian when I’m out because it’s lower calorie. I find for me the only way I can maintain a healthy body image and stop myself slipping back into dangerous habits is by refusing to restrict what I eat. Once I start restricting myself from one thing, it’s a really slippery slope into restricting myself from other things, and then things get bad again. I need my eating habits to be fluid and based entirely on how I’m feeling in the moment, otherwise it gets dangerous for me.

    So for now I’ll stick to being an at-home vegetarian. Maybe one day I’ll stop eating meat all together, but I think for the sake of my mental health I have to allow myself to eat what I want in the moment, and if that means eating meat then that means eating meat.


    • Oh wow! I relate to so much of this. To be fair, most of the time I really don’t need the calories of a double bacon cheeseburger to fill me up; nor does it make me feel good to do so. Lower-calorie options, when I’m torn between forcing myself to finish my food or wasting half my meal, are not such a bad thing. But it can be a slippery slope, for sure.

      As for the “at-home” thing: I feel the same way, I cook vegetarian at home. No wonder my brother never wants to come over for dinner… 🙂


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