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ROUND TWO: 5 Smart[ass] Answers to Dumb[ass] Questions About Veganism

11 Jun

Well folks, like most things, it took a bit longer than anticipated for us to post our next round of 5 Smart[ass] Answers to 5 Dumb[ass] Questions About Veganism. Thankfully we had a very good excuse. “What great excuse?” you ask? Well for starters, we had some laundry to catch up on, and there was a Golden Girls marathon.

Question 1: I have a friend who went vegan and she had to stop because she got too sick.

The Smart Answer: I’m sorry to hear that, especially since the vast majority of people who switch to a plant-based diet actually report feeling better — which shouldn’t come as a surprise given how much fresher, lighter, and healthier most vegan food is.

While it’s unfortunate she got sick, I have trouble believing that not eating hamburgers and milkshakes was the cause. A review of basic nutrition will show you there’s nothing in meat, eggs or dairy you can’t get from plants. Even the conservative and industry-funded American Dietetic Association has gone on record stating that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

Unless your friend’s “vegan” diet consisted solely of Coke and potato chips, the most likely cause of her mystery malaise is the ‘nocebo effect’. In medicine, the nocebo effect occurs when a subject’s pessimistic beliefs about an otherwise inert drug produce harmful or unpleasant symptoms. In the world of plant-based eating, the nocebo effect occurs when a non-vegan’s pessimistic beliefs about the adequacy and safety of a vegan diet make them think they’re getting sick.

 Think about it for a moment: from our earliest years we are taught that animal foods are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Beef is “real food for real people”, milk is “nature’s perfect food”, fish is “brain food”, and eggs are “nature’s perfect protein”. From industry-funded food guidelines to marketing agencies positioned to look like public health organizations (Beef ‘Council’, Dairy ‘Council’), the animal food lobby works day and night to make sure its products stay seen as the only reliable sources of protein, calcium, iron, and a host of other nutrients vital to human growth and health.

Is it really any wonder, then, that a small percentage of people who try eating vegan pull a ‘Portman’ and claim that doing so made them feel unwell, like something was missing? The truth is, something was missing: some basic nutritional information, a little willpower, and a lot of empathy.

The Smart-Ass Answer: First of all, if you had a friend who went vegan and stopped, she was never really vegan in the first place. Being vegan is staying vegan, ipso facto. You can’t ‘stop’ being a vegan any more than you can ‘stop’ being a feminist or anti-racist. That’s because veganism isn’t about food, it’s about empathy. Once you’ve made the conscious connection between human and animal suffering, there’s no going back.

I think what you meant to say is that you had a friend who ate like a vegan for a while, then stopped because she thought it was making her sick, a phenomenon we like to call the Double Down Double Standard. The Double Down Double Standard happens every time a vegan gets sick and an ignorant non-vegan blames it on the vegan’s diet, often while simultaneously slobbering over an artery-clogging, immuno-suppressing, cancer-promoting deathfest like the KFC Double Down.

Of course when a non-vegan gets sick, it’s chalked up to germs, overexertion, or just plain bad luck. Never mind that most flus and food poisonings originate from animal farms, or that vegans live an average of 8-10 years longer their non-vegan counterparts. I mean, who needs science and statistics when you’ve got folk nutrition and a bunch of self-supporting hunches?

Question Two: Where do you get your calcium?

The Smart Answer: That would make for a pretty long list, but here are a few: soy milk, kale, almonds, broccoli, green beans, romaine lettuce, tofu, tahini, fortified orange juice, molasses, bok choy. It’s really not difficult once you know where to look.

What I find more interesting is why you assumed it would be hard for me to get enough calcium. Do you realize that plant foods are the primary source of calcium for most animals, including cows, horses, elephants and our fellow great apes? The only reason you automatically associate cow’s milk with calcium is because the dairy industry has spent billions of dollars making sure you do. They’ve also spent billions of dollars making you sure you don’t associate cow’s milk with some of its other key ingredients, like saturated fat, cholesterol, lactose, casein, dioxins, hormones, and antibiotics.

Think about it for a second: if humans are really meant to consume cow’s milk, then why is 75% of the world’s population lactose intolerant? If dairy products are necessary for strong bones, then why do the countries that consume the most have the highest rates of osteoporosis?

The next time you feel compelled to ask a vegan where they get their calcium, stop and think about who taught you to ask this question in the first place. If it was the Kale Council or the Bok Choy Board, your next soy ice cream is on me.

The Smart-Ass Answer: Where do you get your questions? Let me guess: a full page ad in Good Housekeeping featuring some sell-out celebrity with fan-blown hair and a slimy white mustache?

If I had a dollar for every time some unwitting mouthpiece for the dairy industry asked me that question, I’d have enough money to take out an ad in Good Housekeeping myself. Except instead of “Got Milk?”, mine would say, “Got Acne/Allergies/Bloating/Diarrhea/Obesity/Diabetes/Cancer/Heart Disease/Death?”

Question Three: My grandpa ate bacon and eggs every day and lived to be 95.

The Smart Answer: I’m glad your grandfather lived a long life; I hope he was healthy and happy for most of it. That said, I’d be careful about using isolated anecdotes to defend bad eating habits when the overwhelming majority of evidence has shown that a diet centred on animal foods leads to heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and so on. My grandmother smoked 1-2 packs of cigarettes per day and lived into her late 80s, but her good luck doesn’t in any way discredit the decades of research that prove smoking causes cancer.

Are you aware that The China Study — conducted jointly by Cornell, Oxford, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine — concluded there is no point at which an increase in animal foods does not lead to an increased risk of degenerative disease? And that, conversely, there is no point at which a decrease in animal foods does not lead to a correspondingly decreased risk?

In other words, bacon and eggs are straight up bad for you. And not just for you, but for the animals and the planet as well. With so many important reasons to avoid animal-based foods, does it really make sense to draw attention to the small percentage of people who live a long time despite their unhealthy habits, rather than the vast majority who don’t?

The Smart-Ass Answer: Oh shit, really?!  Well if that’s the case, I guess I’ll head over to Denny’s and throw back a few Grand Slams. I guess I’ll also drive there drunk, because I’ve heard some people live to a ripe old age doing that too.

Look, if what you’re really saying is “fuck statistics”, I’m with you. ‘Science’ and ‘research’ means nothing to people like us, hard-living mavericks who know that if we don’t want to get sick, we just won’t. Nobody bosses us around, least of all some wimp-ass disease that’s really only there to weed out the weak so us Marlboro Men can take all the spoils.

Question Four: What would happen to all the farm animals if everyone went vegan?

The Smart Answer: For starters, even if this unlikely scenario were to occur, it would take place over a considerable period of time. What this means is that the farmed animals who are alive today would long since have been exploited/killed/eaten, with fewer and fewer animals bred to match the decreasing demand.

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but far from being allowed to reproduce naturally, today’s farmed animals are artificially (read: forcibly) inseminated as often as their bodies can tolerate. This keeps the females almost perpetually pregnant, ensuring a never-ending supply of offspring who are allowed to live only as long as it’s considered profitable to keep feeding them. Chickens raised for flesh, for example, live just 5-6 weeks before being stuffed into trucks and hauled off to slaughter. Pigs suffer the same fate at just 6-8 months. The lifespan of the average farmed animal is so short that even if the demand for animal foods dropped quite rapidly, there would still never be an ‘excess’ of animals because they would never have been bred in the first place.

In case you’re sentimental about the idea of there being fewer (than 60 billion) cows, pigs and chickens on the planet, consider that today’s farmed animals have been selectively bred, not for optimal health or happiness, but for optimal ‘productivity’. As a result, every single factory farmed animal alive today suffers from genetic weaknesses that make his/her life extremely difficult. Chickens raised for flesh, for example, commonly suffer from ascites, a form of congestive heart failure wherein the chicken’s heart and lungs can’t grow fast enough to keep up with his/her rapidly increasing body weight.

In other words, everyone going vegan would be the best possible thing for farmed animals. Not only would tens of billions of animals not have to spend short, joyless lives trapped in bodies and confinement systems that cause a great deal of suffering; those few that remained might actually be able to live out the rest of their lives in peace.

The Smart-Ass Answer: My apologies; I had no idea I was speaking with a farmed animal advocate. And here I thought the reason you ate meat was because you were conditioned to.

It’s so refreshing to see someone who has really thought this issue through and come to the obvious conclusion that the best way to help animals is to enslave and kill them. It’s funny, I proposed something similar to Amnesty International about helping child labourers in Bangladesh, but they never wrote me back. Some people just don’t get it.

Question Five: But we were meant to eat meat.

The Smart Answer: If by “meant”, you mean ‘designed by nature’, you couldn’t be more wrong. Nothing about our physiology points to us having evolved as meat-eaters we have no claws; we have no fangs; our jaw moves laterally for grinding plant matter; our saliva breaks down starch; our stomachs lack the acids to break down flesh; our bowels are long and require large quantities of fibre.

Epidemiology comes at it from a different angle: if animal foods are ‘natural’ for human beings, why do the populations who eat the most of them have the highest rates of diet-related illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and most cancers? Do you think lions or bears need to worry about their cholesterol or blood pressure?  If we were ‘meant’ to eat meat as you suggest, wouldn’t our systems have evolved to not only tolerate flesh, but actually thrive on it?

The fact of the matter is that our bodies have not adapted to eating meat. Nor have our minds. Despite the fantasy most people have about our ancestors feeling one with nature and at peace with killing animals, this was simply not the case.  Elaborate hunting rituals from all corners of the globe center on what anthropologists categorize as appeasement, atonement and guilt-reduction for violence the human psyche is clearly not comfortable with. Given our abundance of mirror neurons and immense capacity for empathy, it should come as no surprise that hurting animals who suffer like we do causes profound moral anxiety that only cessation or labyrinthine cognitive dissonance can assuage.

None of this is meant to deny that at some point in our history we did learn to hunt, which did allow us to survive in areas where our natural plant-based food sources were lacking or nonexistent. What not enough people realize, however, is that the only reason we ended up in such marginal areas is because we followed herd animals there. So even the argument that we had ‘no choice’ but to kill animals in those areas is moot, given that we ‘chose’ to follow them there in the first place.

The bottom line is that human beings have made some pretty big mistakes, and hunting and killing animals was one of the most colossal. Not only has it caused untold and immeasurable suffering to animals, it has also severely compromised our own physical and psychological health. Add to this the impact hunting has had on entire species (many hunted to extinction) and you have a full-blown ecological nightmare that ‘nature’ most surely would never have intended.

 The Smart-Ass Answer: So you fancy yourself a bit of a naturalist, do you? Nothing wrong with tradition I guess, unless of course that tradition happens to be evil, in which case maybe it should be cast into hell along with all of the other early-human ‘traditions’ we once condoned like rape, infanticide, genocide, and slavery.

I’m assuming that since you have such mad respect for your early hominid homeboys, you’ve decided to avoid cars, subways, airplanes, computers, smart-phones and anything else they didn’t use. No? You own three iPads, have 500,000 Air Miles and never miss an episode of Ice Road Truckers? I’ve got to admit I’m a bit confused. Hurtling through the air 30,000 feet off the ground would be totally cool with your hominid homies, but eating tofu and almond milk would somehow push them over the edge?

Time-traveling hypotheticals aside, the most embarrassing part of your assertion is that it’s patently false. Humans were not in any way ‘meant’ to eat meat, as even the most cursory glance at any person would show you. See any claws or fangs? Me neither. What about hands for picking fruit, or teeth for chomping carrots? Me too. You’d think that if nature had intended for us to kill and eat other animals, we would at the very least have been born with a set of vestigial barbecue tongs.

But we weren’t. And that’s really too bad for all of those ‘back to nature’ idiots out there who think killing and eating animals is an integral part of being human, because for most of them being at the ‘top’ of the food chain is just a subconscious stand-in for the actual game they are losing at: life.

5 Smart[ass] Answers to 5 Dumb[ass] Questions About Veganism

13 May

This is the first installment of ’5 Smart[ass] Answers to 5 Dumb[ass] Questions About Veganism’, a Q&A written by Veganomaly contributors in the hopes of offering some catharsis to vegans everywhere, as well as practical answers to those often loaded questions that can come out of nowhere and leave you unsure of what to say. And because the people asking them tend to either be genuinely curious or openly antagonistic, we’ve created separate responses for each. The ‘Smart’ answers are designed for the well-intentioned omnivore, while the ‘Smart-Ass‘ answers are reserved for the pseudo-curious interrogator who really only wants to get under your skin.

This will be a regular feature on my blog, and here’s the exciting part– YOU can send in any question/comment you want addressed. Got an uncle who likes hunting and insists on rubbing it in your face? How about a coworker who stares at your quinoa salad like you’re from a different planet? Or what about the 100′s of good-hearted people who seem to ask the same dumb-ass questions over and over again? Send them to us! We’ll do our best to craft a clever response and hopefully make you laugh while we’re at it! Just fill out the form at the bottom of this post, with the question or comment you want answered.

Question One: Where do you get your protein?

The Smart Answer: Lots of places! Whole grains, legumes, nuts, tofu, soy milk, hummus, falafels, veggie burgers, bean burritos, pad thai – just to name a few. It shouldn’t be that surprising to learn that plants offer up lots of protein; if they’re good enough for big, strong herbivores like gorillas, elephants and rhinos, why wouldn’t they be good enough for us?

The Smart-Ass Answer: Where do you get your nutritional propaganda? Kwashiorkor, also known as protein deficiency, is all but non-existent in the developed world; it’s unlikely you’ll ever meet anyone who has suffered from it, vegetarians and vegans included. The real issue at hand is where YOU get YOUR protein, as it’s most likely from the body of a sick, suffering animal raised for the sole purpose of selling cheap, unhealthy food.

Question Two: But I’ve been to family farms and seen animals that have a pretty good life. What’s wrong with that?

The Smart AnswerI don’t blame you for thinking that the farms you’ve seen are fair to the animals while reflecting an industry norm. After all, the animal foods industry spends tens of millions of dollars a year trying to convince you that modern animal farms are happy-go-lucky places where kind, old farmers attend to their animals’ every need. The sad reality is that 99% of the animals raised for food in this country are raised in factory farms, most confined their entire lives to tiny cages or stalls where the vast majority of their most basic needs (comfort, freedom of movement, foraging, socialization, access to fresh air and sunlight, and so on) are never met.

People want cheap animal products from healthy, happy animals, but few realize that the two are mutually exclusive. Over 10 billion animals are killed and eaten each year in North America; numbers like that simply cannot be sustained without treating animals like machines. That is why at the end of the day, it’s not really the meat or milk or eggs that need to be marketed, but the myth about how they were produced. This is why it is relatively common to be offered a free tour of a ‘friendly’ farm showcasing a handful of ‘happy’ animals, but completely impossible to get a tour of a factory farm. The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth, because the truth would bankrupt them.

The Smart-Ass Answer: People said the same thing about human slavery. That didn’t make it right, and the fact that some farmers are ‘nice’ enough to give their animals food and room to walk around doesn’t make their exploitation right, either. The bottom line is that in 99% of all cases, farmed animals are raised for the sole purpose of marketing their flesh, milk, eggs, skin or hair at a profit, and if anything gets in the way of that (vet bills, high quality food, spacious housing), it will always be the animals who suffer. That is why even on the most ‘humane’ farms, practices like castration, dehorning and tail-docking are performed without anaesthetic; unwanted baby males are discarded or butchered; unproductive (read: not productive enough) animals are sent to slaughter; and so on.

If it was really about the animals’ comfort and wellbeing, the animals we’ve selectively bred to maximize productivity (at the expense of their physical and emotional health) would cease to be bred (read: artificially inseminated), and those that remained would be allowed to live out the rest of their lives in peace at places like Farm Sanctuary. Anything less than this is exploitation and abuse in the name of profit, pure and simple.

Question Three: Why do you care more about animals than people?

The Smart Answer: Actually, I don’t. One of the most beautiful things about empathy is that we don’t get to pick and choose who we care about, we just do. In the case of farm animals, I can’t help but care immensely about their suffering, not only because it is so cruel and unnecessary, but because it takes place on such a massive, institutionalized scale. Another beautiful thing about empathy is that there isn’t a finite amount of it. The more you feel it, the more of it you have. Which would explain why most of the vegans I know are also human rights activists, feminists, environmentalists, and so on. Being vegan doesn’t consume all of your empathy; it liberates it.

Another thing to consider is how closely tied animal and human suffering actually are. The foods that cause the most animal suffering are also the foods that cause the most human suffering, by way of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. And it doesn’t stop there: studies have shown that people who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against humans. In short: I don’t care more about animals than people, I care about them all, together.

The Smart-Ass Answer: Since when does caring about animals mean not caring about people, as if the two are mutually exclusive? This is about as logical as asking someone who volunteers for the visually impaired why they don’t give a shit about the hearing impaired.

Question Four: But don’t plants have feelings too?

The Smart Answer: Actually, from what we understand at this point, they don’t. But while science has failed to demonstrate any measurable level of sentience in plants, it has become increasingly clear that animals not only feel and suffer like humans do, in some cases they feel and suffer more.  Anyone who has ever spent a reasonable amount of time with a dog, for example, knows how intense their feelings can be; most people recognize a dog’s happiness, loneliness, excitement, anxiety, fear, jealousy, devotion, and even empathy as similar to our own. And people who care for pigs, chickens and cows assure us that their range of emotions is equally broad.

If you’re still convinced that plants belong in the same ethical grouping as animals (and people), consider this:  all of the animals you eat EAT PLANTS — and lots of them. In fact, it takes 5-10 times more plants to produce an animal-based diet than a plant-based one. The process of cycling vast quantities of corn, soy and wheat through farm animals results in the loss of 90% of the protein, 96% of the calories, 99% of the carbohydrates, and 100% of the fibre. It would be difficult to design a more wantonly wasteful use of plants.

The Smart-Ass Answer: Wow, I would never have pegged you for a plant rights activist. And a botanist, bioethicist, and plant psychologist to boot. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought you were using pseudoscience to justify what you already know to be morally unjustifiable behaviour. I’m really looking forward to your forthcoming paper, “Assessing the Long-term Impacts of Refrigerator Crisper Confinement on the Emotional Development of the Common Eggplant”.

Question Five: What if your plane crashes in the middle of nowhere and all you can eat is whatever wild animals you can catch?

The Smart Answer: Life or death situations are ethics game changers, even if animals aren’t involved. Extreme situations can force people to choose not between right and wrong, but between wrong and less wrong. In the case where you are forced to choose between your life and someone else’s – or between two other lives – your decision will always be a difficult one, especially if the ‘someone’ in question is a person or animal you have a close relationship with.

Your question places me (a vegan) in a situation where I must kill animals in order to survive. The point of the question is to force me to admit that I either a) value my own life more than an unknown animal’s, thus ‘justifying’ your meat-eating, or b) value an unknown animal’s life more than my own, thus proving me to be the crazy, people-hating extremist you knew I was all along.

The bottom line is that it’s a loaded question, a bomb engineered to go off no matter how I approach it. The only honest way to answer the question is to say that I couldn’t possibly know how I would react in that situation, but I’m sure it would be very difficult. Unlike the situation we’re in now, where a win-win outcome (no one has to die) is not only possible, but as simple as opting for a veggie burger.

The Smart-Ass Answer: So let me get this straight: not only have I just been in a horrific plane crash, but I’m nowhere near a tofu factory? Talk about a double whammy of shitty vegan luck. First off, if all I can eat is what I can ‘catch’, I’m already in big trouble. I not only lack the claws and teeth required to take down a wild animal – I also lack the speed, agility, and strength. And even if I do manage to get ‘lucky’ and trap, say, a chipmunk (using the pack of almonds from the flight, which I somehow fail to recognize as a more direct food source), I’ll still die if it is the ONLY thing I can eat. Unlike true carnivores, who can survive solely on flesh, human beings require a broad range of plant-based nutrients like vitamin C, fiber and magnesium in order to survive.

Solid question, though. Kind of like the one about which I would rather save from a burning building: my partner or my child; my dog or a total stranger; my iPhone or someone else’s iPad. There’s nothing like a highly implausible hypothetical to defend a habit that has nothing to do with survival, and everything to do with lazy, ignorant, and arbitrary personal taste.

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