Sunday, 22 June 2014

Why I gave up veganism after 8 years

In August 2005, I read a book that changed my life: "Meat Market: Animals, Ethics and Money" by Erik Marcus. Enticed by the striking cover image, I picked up the book an unconscious omnivore and put it down a staunch vegetarian, soon to be vegan. Up to that point in my life, I'd never considered what went into creating those neatly shrink-wrapped packages of protein that one purchased at a supermarket. I had never seen an animal butchered let alone killed one myself. Suddenly the weight of all those lives hung heavy on my shoulders. As I read more into it, the environmental impacts of livestock production struck me as illogical. Why would I support an industry that produced 18% of global CO2e emissions (citation), degraded our soils, polluted our rivers and caused untold animal cruelty through factory farming all so I could enjoy a cheap chicken breast? Having an all or nothing mentality, I immediately cut meat out of my diet, followed by all animal products whatsoever (cheese was hard to give up!) and didn't look back..until last year.

When veganism gets painful
In October 2013, I ended up in Monash Medical Centre with severe abdominal pain, vomiting green bile - an indication of a bowel obstruction. This came after two weeks of daily diarrhea (sorry for the graphic info!) The medicos were concerned and ran a battery of tests (ultrasound, blood tests, colonoscopy, endoscopy). They couldn't find a clear answer but did raise the possibility that I had coeliac axis compression syndrome (not to be confused with coeliac disease). The diagnosis fitted most of my symptoms but did have the downside that 30% of healthy adults show signs of coeliac axis compression but without any pain whatsoever. I wasn't too keen on going for the only treatment option (open abdominal surgery) with that kind of a false positive rate!

A crisis of faith
Things settled down a bit after the five day hospital stay but I ended up with diarrhea and vomiting at least once per week. When I was hit with a bout of the same kind of pain that wound me up in hospital around Christmas time, I decided it was time to look at my diet. I've got a wide array of food intolerances. I can't handle gluten, soy, fruit (of any description) and certain nuts. This meant my diet was extremely limited. The only protein options I had were legumes. I started to wonder whether there might be a link between eating legumes and my GI issues, especially after reading "The Vegetarian Myth" by Lierre Keith. Whilst I didn't agree with some of her reasoning (she seems to cherry pick citations), I was intrigued by her anecdotes of ex-vegans who had battled GI issues for years before finding that they were pretty much cured after re-integrating animal products into their diet.

So on Boxing Day 2013, I braved my fear of being outcast by all my vegan friends and had two eggs for dinner. Much to my relief, I didn't have an anaphylactic shock and my stomach felt pretty good the next day. So I started substituting cheese and eggs for legumes in my meals (I was literally having legumes four meals per day including for breakfast) and found I felt a helluva lot better.

My pound of flesh
The next big hurdle was eating flesh. The idea of consuming meat had always been slightly distasteful for me (as an 8 year old, I called myself a half vegetarian because I would only eat sausages and mince) especially after I learnt that the German word for meat was Fleisch. The whole feel of the word and particularly the raw product repulsed me. Still I wanted to give meat a try after reading about the Blue Zone study which found that the longest lived societies in the world tended to consume a little bit of meat. So in March 2014, I had my first bite of meat in over 8 years. I'll be honest with you, I didn't enjoy it. I bought kangaroo mince because I wanted the meal to be as carbon efficient as possible. It didn't sit too well with my stomach. I felt queasy for the rest of the day. I'm not sure whether it was the guilt of having vicariously shed blood or that my digestive tract wasn't producing the right proteolytic enzymes to break down the meat, but it was definitely not the mountaintop experience that Keith describes where "every cell in (her) body suddenly began to vibrate in tune and (she) just knew that this was what (she) needed" (paraphrased). Still I persevered and found that tuna was a bit more palatable for me.

The results of eating meat: 5kg of muscle
Three months later I now quite enjoy eating kangaroo. I still don't enjoy handling the raw fillets but figure it's good training for a first aid situation where I have to patch up someone's gaping wound. To offset my guilt, I say a little prayer before the first bite, thanking the animal for giving up its life that I might be better nourished. And better nourished I seem to be. Since adding animal products back into my diet, I've put on 5kg, most of which seems to be muscle because I've had two people compliment me on my upper body musculature in the last week:P I also feel a bit more energetic but it's hard to attribute that directly to animal protein because I've also been getting more sleep recently. The best part is I haven't had any major episodes of pain or diarrhea since switching over. Looks like it was a pretty simple fix!

Vegans rock - I wish I could be one
I want to end this post by commending vegans. I respect anyone who can stick to the diet long term (and by that I mean 10+ years). I wish I could join them but my body just isn't built that way. In my mind, being vegan is still the single most powerful action an individual can take to reduce their carbon footprint. There aren't many practical ways you can lower your share of CO2e emissions by 18% but veganism is a pretty easy way to go.

In the end though, I question whether veganism is the right goal for our society to strive for. When I used to tell people I was vegan, they'd pretty much all say something along the lines of "I really respect you for taking action to reduce animal cruelty and climate change but I could never do it myself". In some ways, veganism feels like "inessential weirdness" as my friend Nick Allardice once put it. It's an act that is too hard to follow for the majority of people.

Why flexetarianism is a goal most people should strive for
What is possible for most people to do is to be more intentional about their animal protein consumption. I'd love for flexetarianism to become the new norm. Research like the Blue Zone study shows that we don't need to eat meat at every meal to be healthy and happy.

Nor do we have to go for protein options that unduly impact the Earth. My VA, Sarah, compiled a table of CO2e emissions from animal products. You'll note that Australian produced beef and chicken are ~7 times times worse for the planet than lentils. This is why vegans will always win any Greenie pissing contest. Nonetheless, it's possible to eat animal protein and not completely upset Al Gore. Dairy products are pretty good on the CO2e front, being only about 2x worse than lentils. Kangaroo meat also does pretty well though there are not yet any well researched cradle to grave analyses.

I have an ulterior motive in writing this post:P My goal is to offset my carbon guilt by encouraging even a few people to either reduce their total animal protein consumption or shift their consumption to more sustainable options (dairy products or kangaroo). What do you think? Could you adopt a ecovore diet and become more intentional about the CO2 footprint of your protein?

Extra questions
Why not just be vegetarian instead of flexetarian?
Great question. You know I'm rethinking this after doing some research to reply to this question. I was going to say that research shows that Mormons (who eat meat but avoid alcohol, tobacco and caffeine) live longer than Seventh Day Adventists (who don't eat meat and have similar dietary and religious practices to Mormons). However, this was based off a hazy citation from Lierre Keith which turns out to be suspect according to this analysis. It seems that vegetarians may actually have a lower risk of all cause mortality (i.e. dying) than even health conscious omnivores.

Watch this space - I may go back to vegetarianism (but not veganism):P

Don't you feel bad about eating meat from an animal welfare perspective?
I did until I read this article. The author essentially argues that Australian vegetarians cause more sentient deaths than meat eaters because the process of harvesting the grains (e.g. rice, soybeans, lentils) that are staples of vegetarian diets involves the deaths of hundreds of small animals (mice, snakes) that are picked up by combine harvesters that roar through the fields and slash their puny little bodies to shreds. Because the majority of Australian beef (and all kangaroo meat) is grass fed, meat eaters could actually be responsible for fewer sentient deaths than vegetarians if they avoid grains. That said, not many Aussie meat eaters avoid grains (a big part of why we have an obesity epidemic!), so the average health conscious vego is still probably doing better than a clueless omnivore.

What is your diet like right now?
Right now I'm eating meat (kangaroo and sustainably sourced fish) a few times a week as an insurance policy. It seems like there are quite a few nutrients that are only available in meat, e.g. Vitamin K2, Taurine, Carnosine. There are probably a lot of other as yet undiscovered micronutrients that contribute to wellbeing and longevity. I figure it's worth covering off these bases by having as varied a diet as possible rather than taking 10 different vitamin supplements.

A typical day for me consists of four pretty identical meals:
- 70g of potato
- 215g of cooked veg (usually beans, peas and carrots because they're the only types I can safely handle)
- 140g of animal protein (cheese/eggs/meat/fish) or 280g of red lentils (I can handle small amounts of red lentils)
- 2 tblsp of extra virgin olive oil

Works out to be a lot of food but I do about an hour of exercise per day, so need that much to keep me going.

1 comment:

Michal Huzevka said...

Great article! The biggest thing stopping me from going vegetarian is the fact that there are so many nutrients (some of which are still unknown) that only exist in meat.