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.