Tuesday, December 11, 2012
A story of experience
I first became interested in matters of food and health during my freshman year of college, when I realized I knew precious little about either cooking or nutrition. From the campus book store I acquired two books to begin my dietary education: a quintessentially 70s tome entitled Cooking With Love and Wheat Germ and a little paperback called Diet for a Small Planet. The former introduced me to granola-hippie whole-grain whole-foods cuisine; the latter, to the idea that a vegetarian diet was the best thing I could do for my body and for the planet. Ten years and many books later, after much experimentation with vegetarian meals and vegetarian foods, I made the leap and adopted a wholly vegetarian diet.
For most of those years my diet still included eggs and dairy, eliminating only meat and fish. For a year or two, however, I did try a wholly vegan diet. Having read that dairy foods can worsen respiratory allergies, as well as having encountered a popular wave of "plant-based diet" writings in the 90s, I cut out all animal products in anticipation of the soaringly vibrant health that a plant-based diet was supposed to bring.
One thing I learned from my dietary adventures is that some common ingredients in meat-free and dairy-free diets are hazardous to my health.
Nutritional yeast makes me feel ill and gives me a bad case of thrush. Most soy products affect my digestive system in ways that nobody really wants me to write about. As for wheat, that "healthy" whole grain which played a central role in my diet for a couple of decades, especially in my vegetarian and vegan years? Of all of the dietary changes I've ever made, eliminating wheat from my diet created the single most dramatic improvement in my health and well-being: I went from being semi-crippled from severe inflammation in my knees to being able to walk and move about in a normal manner for hours on end. Respiratory inflammation, all but gone. Mornings with lungs and nose full of gunk, gone. Gurgling stomach and other digestive troubles nobody wants to read about, gone.
While attempting to live on a vegan diet, even one that included plenty of vegetables, I felt enervated and gained a lot of weight. The diet was too low in protein, too high in carbohydrates, and too full of foods that made me sick. Experiencing improved well-being by reintroducing animal products into my diet, I later learned that the forms in which some vitamins and minerals occur in plants are not necessarily absorbed by the body as well as those occurring in meat and other animal foods.
I am healthiest when I eat a balance of both vegetable foods and animal foods, excluding wheat and yeast, minimizing dairy, and not going too heavy on the carbs. You'd think that would be a safe statement to make in discussions of food and health.
Yet it's not. Do a search on stories of ex-vegans and see how much venom has been directed towards anyone who writes anything, however politely worded, that is remotely critical of the diet. Saying "I tried veganism and it didn't work for me" seems to make die-hard advocates of plant-only diets even more angry than if they were confronted by a club-swinging cave-dwelling carnivore simply drooling at the prospect of a blood-dripping hunk of dead critter.
And, being the inquisitive, philosophical soul that I am, I ask: Why? My own focus is on making the choices that are best for my own body and my own health, not on telling anyone else what's best for them. Likewise for most of the others writing on the subject of returning to an omnivorous diet for health reasons. Why should anyone feel threatened by people simply relating their personal experiences?
I think back to why vegetarianism and veganism appealed to me in the first place. First and foremost, I sought to be healthy, and these were supposed to be the optimal diets for human health, well-being, and longevity. I wasn't particularly idealistic about the matter of killing animals for food, probably because even the most rudimentary understanding of Ecosystems 101 tells us that life and death are intertwined, but if helping myself also helped avoid harm to other animals, so much the better. I did find raw meat aesthetically unappealing to cook with, and used to joke about being an "aesthetic vegetarian." As for having a "taste" for meat, I could take it or leave it. Were it possible to live on vegetables and hummus without any nutritional deficiencies or other health difficulties, I could probably do so quite happily, as long as I had a reliable supply of chocolate on the side.
Yet even my health-oriented rationale for vegetarianism had an ideological aspect to it. A meatless diet wasn't just a diet, it was an ideal, a vision, the cutting edge of human evolution, the wave of the future for a more enlightened human race. It was associated by some authors with a simpler, more holistic, less materialistic way of living. Who doesn't want to be on the cutting edge, riding the crest of the wave into the future? Who doesn't find it appealing to believe they have found Ultimate Truth about some fundamental aspect of living?
It was the story about the meaning of vegetarianism, as much as the vegetarianism itself, that attracted me and committed me to pursuing that way of life.
And this concept of story, I think, is the key to understanding the hostility with which the personal experiences of former vegans and vegetarians are met. Saying "it doesn't work for me" undermines the story upon which the vegan ideal is founded: that killing animals for food is wrong and therefore all human beings can and must thrive on a vegan, or at least vegetarian, diet. If the conclusion is not true, then the truth of the premise upon which the conclusion is based is called into question.
Someone who is overtly adversarial--the critter-craving carnivore flaunting meat-lust in front of a plant-based crowd--is still reinforcing the fundamental paradigm of Good versus Evil. The conviction that Plant Eaters are on the side of Ultimate Good remains secure against the attacks of Meat Eater heretics rebelling against what, deep down in their heart of hearts, they really know to be The Truth.
On the other hand, a former vegan or vegetarian who attempts the amicable agree-to-disagree approach, saying, "If it works for you, great, but your way doesn't work for me," is challenging the other person's deeply held conviction that their way is the One True Way for all people to follow.
The reality is that sometimes the One True Way simply doesn't work for someone. And that means accepting that the One True Way is not, in fact, the One True Way, just one way that happens to work well for one particular person. And that means separating our way, the thing in itself, from whatever stories we have created about the meaning of that way.
There may be some ways in this world that are worse than others--junk-food diet, hate-based religion--but there is no single right way that will fit every single human being on the planet. Instead of expecting the diet that works for us to work for everyone else, we can recognize and respect each person's right to make their own choices for optimal health and well-being and create their own stories based upon their own experiences, rather than attempting to make their experiences conform to someone else's story.