Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Spirituality of Veganism

I love hearing people’s success stories about switching to a vegan diet … how they lost the weight that had chained them down for years, or overcame their battle with diabetes or cancer by turning to a whole-foods, plant-based diet.

But more than those stories, I love to hear how people feel – perhaps for the first time in their lives – that they have found spirituality through their diet.  I am one of those people. 

While it may sound far-fetched that spirituality can come from your diet, it actually makes perfect sense.  When you start learning about the vegan diet, you’ll eventually learn about how the animals we call “food” essentially live their lives in concentration camps called “factory farms.”  The cruel and inhumane conditions that only end for these animals upon their slaughter touch in many of us a deep-rooted sense of humanity that we may not have known existed.  A sense of what’s right and what’s wrong springs forward, and we know beyond a shadow of doubt that we will never again contribute to the senseless cruelty and death that befalls millions of "food" animals every year.

And as we go forward into this new vegan life, many of us realize over time what has really happened … that we have come to recognize the preciousness of life – all life in its many forms – and we become a steward of life.  We realize that some greatness, call it God or whatever you want, runs through all life equally, and a human is not “better than” or “worthier than” or “more important than” a dog, a cow or a chicken.  We may have more cognitive abilities, but it doesn’t make us any more worthy of life. 

Interestingly, reverence for life is at the heart of Buddhism, which tells us that no sentient being should have to suffer, and that our mission on earth is to reduce the suffering of others.  Christianity, Judaism and Islam have love and peace at the heart of their doctrines – how better can one show love and peace to another creature than to choose not to let it live an entire life of hell, just for your lunchtime pleasure? 

So, whether we go vegan for health reasons, animal cruelty reasons or environmental reasons, many of us discover perhaps the best benefit of all – one that we never expected in a million years – that we have found God through our choice of diet.  We see it in the eyes of a cow, feel it when we pet a sheep, hear it in the peep of a baby chick.  And we know we have come home, to a place where love is at our core.

“Wings cannot carry you to God.
Only love can carry you there.”
~ Rumi

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Carbon Footprint Game: Local Foods vs Beef and Dairy

Although Al Gore surprisingly “forgot” to mention the incredibly detrimental environmental effects of raising animals for meat and dairy products in his epic film, Inconvenient Truth, the word is starting to get out anyway. 

It seems to me that more and more people are truly becoming environmentally conscious – not just because it’s trendy to be green, but because people are just really starting to care

One topic that has gained a lot of momentum in the green circles is the idea of eating local food.  Most of our food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches our plate, creating a significant amount to our carbon footprint.  Eating locally grown food (usually defined around ~150 miles or less) decreases the amount of gas and emissions used to get your food to your plate, and is a relatively easy way of lessening your carbon footprint on our planet.

However, what many people don’t realize is that transportation only accounts for 11% of our food’s carbon footprint – 83% comes from the food production process itself. Cows have an extremely high carbon footprint, not only because they emit a lot more methane but also because caring for them uses more emission-producing processes than other meats, like chicken.  Therefore, beef and dairy products are the worst things you can eat if you care about the environment.

A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology1, which discusses this topic in detail, concludes: Shifting less than one day per week's worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food."

Imagine switching not just one day a week away from beef and dairy products, but 3 days, 5 days, or 7 days!  Imagine if you also switched away from chicken, fish and eggs (which, while better for the environment than beef or dairy, are still much worse than an all-veggie diet.)  Imagine if you convinced many friends and family members to do the same.  We could really have a significant impact on global warming.

If you truly care about the environment but haven’t switched to a vegan diet yet – even if only part time – then you are contributing a lot more than you probably realize to our environment’s demise.  But once you know better, you’ll do better, so read more in John Robbin’s book, The Food Revolution.  For a serious dissertation (and huge eye-opener!) on the topic, read Livestock’s Long Shadow, a 400 page report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

1 Environ. Sci. Technol., 2008, 42 (10), pp 3508–3513

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Veg*n Activism

There are a few topics in our culture that get people mightily defensive about – religion, politics, and food.  Tell someone that we should/shouldn’t scrap the welfare system, and tempers will fly!  Suggest that there is/isn’t a god, and veins will start popping!  Tell people how that chicken got to their plate … unh unh.  Don’t go there.

If you are like most people, you bristle and defend yourself when someone states diabolically opposite viewpoints as if they were fact. For example, I am outraged when someone states that I can’t be healthy if I’m not eating meat. (This really kills me if they are overweight, which is usually the case.)  Similarly, when someone says that they don’t believe things can be all that bad in the factory farms because, after all, the government is overseeing the system, I just want to pull my hair out! AAAAGGGGHHHHHH!!!!

However, is it possible that you are causing the same reactions in your friends and family?  If you ask with disgust, “Do you have any idea what that poor chicken went through to get to your plate???”  Or, “I never eat fish anymore.  Let me tell you about how the fishing industry is ruining our oceans…”  Chances are that they are ready to pull their hair out too.  If you commonly find yourself in arguments or full-scale wars about your veg*nism, chances are, my friend, that you are starting it.  It’s not always the case – there are definitely people who will attack, simply upon hearing that you are veg*n – but my experience is that that’s very rare.  If you are commonly getting into arguments, you are probably being seen as either proselytizing or coming across as better-than-thou.

Instead, try compassionate activism.  Compassionate activism has three steps:
1.    Never assume that your way is the right way for everyone. 
2.    Set a good example that exemplifies your beliefs
3.    Spread your beliefs using peaceful methods and means.

Here is a fantastic example:  There was an article earlier this week about some Buddhists that set 600 pounds of lobsters free that were destined to become dinners1.  Did the Buddhists steal the lobsters and set them lose?  Hijack a boat and throw the lobsters overboard?  Scream about the injustices of lobster farming to passersby?  No!  They saved their money, bought the lobsters, and then set them loose in a beautiful ceremony … smartly letting the press know about it beforehand.  Pictures of the lobsters belly-flopping their way to freedom made it all over the press, with an explanation of how Buddhists believe all life is sacred, all creatures should be free from suffering, and that they were celebrating a particular holiday that focuses on doing good deeds.  Kind of makes you want to look into Buddhism, doesn’t it?

This is the type of compassionate activism that I believe we vegetarians and vegans should strive for.  Positive, uplifting and inspiring activism.  Setting an example that people really want to follow is one of the best things we can do. 

If you are interested in making a difference, try this idea that came across my inbox this morning from FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement) – they are setting up booths in busy places that offer people $1 to watch a 4 minute video about the horrible treatment of animals on farms2.  What a fantastic idea!  As a volunteer, you can be there to compassionately talk to the people after they are done watching the video.  No doubt, many will be in shock, and ready to make some changes.

PETA, FARM and many other organizations can use your help.  Or, you can always come up with your own creative ideas for reaching out and making a difference.  Whatever it is, go for it, using the tenets of compassionate activism. 

Just think … for each person you turn vegetarian, you are saving over 100 lives a year for the rest of that person’s life!

2 http://www.farmusa.org/PPV.html

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Food Attachments and Addictions

The most common type of e-mail I receive is from people who seek advice about what clearly seems to be a food addiction (although they often don’t know it.)  The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines “Addiction” this way:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry … This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. The addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships … addiction can involve cycles of relapse and remission...”

Hmmm.  Sounds like many of our relationships with food, doesn’t it?  Re-read the definition, keeping your eating habits in mind. 

Why am I bringing up addiction in a vegan blog?  Because in a 1995 Vegetarian Times article, David Herzog, Director of the Harvard Eating Disorder Center said that the percentage of his patients that called themselves vegetarian was about 33%.  This number is way higher than the national average of vegetarians, which is under 5%.  And what many people don’t realize is that eating disorders are a form of addiction.

Please do not think I am claiming that vegetarianism or veganism can cause eating disorders –that couldn’t be further from the truth.  What I am suggesting – as are the experts – is that people with eating disorders sometimes hide their restrictive diets under the guise of vegetarianism.

But I digress – even if you do not have a bona fide eating disorder, you could be one of the millions of people around the world that suffer from food addictions.  If you crave certain foods, at certain times or in certain situations, this is probably you.  For example, I recently decided to give up alcohol for a while and see how I feel.  I am not an alcoholic, but was very surprised at how difficult it was to forego that one glass of cabernet at dinner that I liked to enjoy with my book at my favorite vegan restaurant.  I may not be addicted to wine, but I sure am attached to having that glass at that restaurant as I read a book!

The first step to overcoming any hurdle is to acknowledge it.  If you can see that you have an attachment or addiction to food, then you can do something about it.  For example, you can seek a professional therapist that specializes in addictions or eating disorders, or for a less expensive route, simply read books or go to professional Internet sites to learn about the subject.  These small steps can be your first step to freedom from food.

The goal is to be able to get back to life.  This is, perhaps, the most liberating experience:  To break away from food addictions, and live life without thinking about the next meal, or what you shouldn’t have eaten yesterday that you did, or what you’re definitely not going to eat today; to go to your son’s soccer game without obsessing about what’s being sold at the concession stand, or to go to a movie without missing the plot because you’re trying to hold yourself back from the popcorn seller.  … To go out and live, free from attachments and addictions. For those of you whom this description fits, ask yourself if it’s time you finally got the burden off your back?  Is it time to get help?