February 12, 2010

my conflicted food journey

This whole "vegetarian thing" began as a challenge to myself. In fact, I call it that because I don't feel that I've earned the merit badge to call myself a full-blown vegetarian yet. It's been a year of tackling physical things I didn't think I could: an 85-mile bike ride, a sprint triathlon, and this weekend, a half-marathon with my fiance (I realize I shouldn't go touting its completion when the day has yet to arrive; consider this self-motivation).

So it seemed to follow suit that this would be the year I took my diet to a new level. In the last couple of years, I've been phasing out things I knew were bad: fast food, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, etc. And since I've made those changes, I've noticed big differences in my physiology. Mainly, my formerly-debilitating headaches don't come around very often any more, if at all. I feel an absolute and measurable difference.

The more reading I did, the more food documentaries I watched, and the more I heard about the impact of meat-eating on the environment, I decided that maybe I could make a stand for all that was right in the world by becoming a vegetarian. It felt like the morally respectable thing to do. It's so cool to say, "I'm a vegetarian, for ethical, environmental, and health reasons." So... pious.

I gave up meat almost four months ago, deciding to herald in the holidays with a no-meat goal. I passed up the Thanksgiving turkey, but failed a little in New York with organic salmon the night we got engaged (and less impressively, with a bite of an authentic NYC hot dog from a street vendor). And then I had a bite, given to me by my concerned grandmother, of prime rib at Christmas.

But the fact that I can count on one hand the number of meat-eating instances in the last four months is pretty impressive, at least for a girl who grew up on a farm and knows what it means when a cow has gone missing from the herd. My dad has been supportive of this decision, but a few weeks in (when he realized it wasn't going away very quickly), asked incredulously, "You did grow up on a farm, right?" Yes. I was raised on the most delicious grass-fed, organic beef you could get your hands on. The cows ate grass and hay from the pastures in our backyard and were butchered at the shop a quarter-mile down the road.

And that's just the thing. I know how sustainable meat is farmed. It's delicious, and my siblings and I are all smart, healthy individuals; surely that's partly a result of the diet we were fed growing up. I can't decide if I'm being a vegetarian to make a point, or because it truly is better for my health, the environment, and ethics.

Sure, eating less meat is good for your body and the environment, especially if you cut out factory-farmed meat, eggs, and dairy. Like Michael Pollan says, ideally, we should, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Our bodies, right down to the length of our digestive tracts and the shape of our incisors and molars, are created to enjoy an omnivorous diet.

Quite honestly, it's not the thought of eating flesh that bothers me, but as another author (Jonathan Safran Foer) puts it, the thought of ingesting "tormented flesh" that truly bothers me. If you saw Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., you know exactly what I mean: the cows and chickens and pigs raised in the despicable environment of a feed lot and fed a completely unnatural diet: that is the kind of flesh that disgusts me.

And now, I'm venturing into another food book: "Real Food" by Nina Planck. Thirty pages in, and she's got me worrying about my protein levels (when, after reading a book by the inventor of the Gardenburger, I wasn't worried in the least about getting enough protein--that's what beans are for). She's got me asking, "Why am I not, at least, a pescetarian?"

I haven't reached a conclusion yet, but I do feel that being educated about nutrition and food, for many reasons (nutritional, environmental, and ethical) is making me a more well-rounded person. For the first time this week, I tried quinoa. I made black bean "burgers" from scratch. I incorporated whole grains into homemade burger buns. But I also stared down a craving for bacon, and felt my mouth begin to water at the thought of baked salmon on a bed of fresh wilted spinach.

To say that one's body "craves meat" may not be the right phrase here; for one thing, it sounds so very carnal and caveman-like. But surely the healthiest cultures, those that have made it through the past and continue to thrive today, have something to show for their omnivorous, whole-foods habits.

I don't think vegetarianism will stick with me, but not because I'll give in to bacon temptation; it won't be that I give up because I'm tired of being teased (happening more than I'd expected, surprisingly), or because I've made my family accommodate me enough (even my younger siblings were sure to buy organic vegetarian refried beans for their Super Bowl party!).

When I do return to meat-eating, however, it's not going to be the willy-nilly meat-eating of my past. I plan on following extremely strict rules. If I don't know where the meat comes from, I won't be ingesting it. There's a fine line to walk between sustainability for earth and body, and ignorance of nutrition for body, soul, and mind.

I'm trying to find where that line lies for me.


Linda Lou said...

Just found your blog, and have been having some of the same thoughts...I saw Food Inc. and was blown away, living in San DIego there are so many foods that we buy that are grown locally, but you can't do everything, but if you make some effort, you're better than a lot of people...I just made a recipe with Quinoa last week...it was quite good...Are you familiar with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver? I will be checking back in!

Wendy (The Local Cook) said...

Wow, so many posts with this theme are coming across my Google Reader! I have toyed with the thought of becoming vegetarian, but that goes against the Nourishing Ways. I think I just need to experiment and see what my own body reacts best too, while eating as naturally as possible.

Renai said...

I went through something similar, about two years ago. I stopped eating meat and dairy, but kept the fish (I work for a seafood wholesaler so I knew where it was coming from- my dad is also a commercial salmon fisherman). I did it for about 9 months, and took a few months to slowly taper back into eating meat and dairy. The idea for me was to get my eating habits back on track. I now only consume organic, local, and/or sustainable meat and dairy products, and eat a lot more healthfully all around.

And just an FYI- watch out for "organic" on salmon labeling- salmon can only be organic when it's farmed, which is still worse for you, and the environment than wild. The only way to 100% guarantee that you are eating genuine wild and sustainable salmon is to eat Alaskan salmon. :)

Don Wiss said...

It looks like you would make a good candidate for the paleo diet. I've defined it here:


amber said...

Thank y'all for all the insightful comments. It's encouraging to know that more and more people are struggling with the same questions: I hope it means a real food revolution is taking place.

The Lelands said...

I was a vegetarian for about a year until one day a basket of fried chicken fingers crossed my path and my willpower gave way.. :/ Do you perhaps know of a resource that lists grass fed beef farms? I really want to cut out purchasing any meet from the grocery store that comes from a factory farm, I just don't know where to find this information..

Sharon Gilmer said...

My husband just started a blog (sfsthogblog.org) for Slow Foods South Texas and in doing so found a great website called real time farms here is the web address http://www.realtimefarms.com/. It's a great source to get to know where your food is coming from. Hope this helps if you ever do decide to add meat back to your diet.