While I was doing the Paleo Diet last year, an acquaintance suggested that I try eating vegan. In his opinion it was healthier, and he pointed out that some top athletes are vegan.
So last month I finally gave the vegan diet a try, and something happened that I never expected (more on that later).
Although the vegan diet can arguably be healthy, it’s of course possible to eat a very unhealthy vegan diet also. The only requirement is to eliminate animal products; there’s no requirement to eliminate junk food. So I could have eaten nothing but Oreos for the month and my diet would still have qualified as vegan.
But I decided to eat a mostly healthy vegan diet based on the book “Thrive” by Brendan Brazier and monitor the effects. I didn’t do a detailed analysis involving blood tests like I did with the Paleo Diet, but instead just weighed myself and observed how I felt.
I felt no different eating vegan than I did eating my regular (also healthy) diet. I felt good off the vegan diet, and I felt good on the vegan diet. No difference.
Sticking to the diet was easier than I’d anticipated. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything important and didn’t have any cravings for meat, milk, butter, or anything else that I’d eliminated. Of course it would have been nice to eat those things, but not because I felt I “needed” them.
I felt less deprived eating vegan than I did eating paleo, but the comparison isn’t really valid because when eating paleo I ate 100% healthy (nothing remotely processed) whereas on the vegan diet I allowed myself to eat some less than 100% healthy food – like Oreos.
According to the scale, I dropped 3 pounds. It’s possible that in normal circumstances I would have lost more than 3 pounds, because when I weighed myself at the start of the month I’d just been mostly sick and not exercising for a week so my weight may already have been down a bit.
Due to the small weight difference and my non-precise fat calipers (that I bought while eating Paleo), I’m not quite sure what types of flesh I lost. I’m going to guess that I lost some fat, some muscle, and maybe a little bit of brain also. Just kidding about the brain.
I decided to try eating vegan primarily out of curiosity – to see what it would be like and what effects it would have on my health. However, I think MOST vegans follow their diet primarily for ethical reasons rather than health reasons. So to have a more complete experience of eating vegan, I decided to investigate some of those ethical reasons more thoroughly.
I started by watching the movie “Earthlings” after a couple weeks of eating Vegan (you can watch it for free online at Earthlings.com). The movie has some major flaws (one example: they discount all animal testing as useless, claiming that results of animals tests aren’t relevant to humans). But despite its flaws and its unpleasant images, I think it’s an important movie, because if we have choices about how to eat, dress, etc (as we do), then I think we have a moral obligation to make ourselves aware of what we’re participating in. And “Earthlings” does a good job of making that clear.
After watching the movie, I spent many hours researching how accurately the movie had depicted the reality of how animals are treated. And I spent many hours thinking through what I’d learned, and debating with myself to decide how to eat going forward. For a few weeks there was quite a war happening inside my head. Below I’ll explain some of the issues I was considering.
In the end, I made a decision that I never expected would happen when I first started eating vegan – I decided to stick with it (mostly). I’m not eating 100% vegan now (more on that in a bit), but am pretty close.
Here’s some of the debate that I had with myself:
Meat Is An Unnecessary Luxury
Leo Tolstoy pointed out that if humans can live healthy lives without eating meat (and we can – just look at the millions of vegans who do it), then meat can be considered a luxury. If you like, you can check out this excerpt from an essay Leo wrote on that topic.
Can I justify killing an animal simply so that I can enjoy food that tastes good? I don’t think I can. To put it more broadly: Is it ok for me to cause suffering so that I can enjoy a luxury that I don’t need? I don’t think it is.
But the situation isn’t that simple…
Vegans Kill Animals Too
I learned from the Wikipedia article on Veganism that a guy called Steven Davis pointed out that vegans cause animals to die also. Many small animals (field mice, gophers, etc) are accidentally killed during the production and harvesting of the crops that vegans eat.
If you look at the numbers of animals that are killed, it can be reasonably argued that certain types of omnivorous diets cause less overall deaths than a vegan diet. For example, Steven Davis calculated that killing and eating pasture-raised cows likely results in fewer animal deaths than eating vegan.
“Pasture-raised” is important here, because typical cows sold in grocery stores were fed unnatural diets of grain, and that grain needs to be harvested. So eating grain-fed cows would have killed many more small animal deaths than a vegan diet, in addition to the killing of the cow.
Davis’s argument brings to light an unfortunate reality: We can’t live without causing death and suffering. But that fact doesn’t justify causing suffering willy-nilly. Of course it’s important to minimize the suffering we cause.
I think Davis’s argument is a strong one, and I think it comes pretty close to justifying the eating of some meat. Furthermore, I think slaughterhouse deaths are probably shorter and less painful than the deaths that those same animals would experience in nature at the teeth of their predators.
But again there’s more to the story…
Considering Not Just Death, But Quality Of Life
When we eat meat, I think it is necessary to consider not only the fact that we’re causing animals to die, but also the conditions in which we’re forcing animals to live.
A field mouse lives a happy natural life before it accidentally gets sliced up in a farming combine. A typical beef bull on the other hand goes through dehorning, castration, and branding all without anesthetic, and then spends most of its life on an overcrowded feedlot living and sleeping in a carpet of its own manure, before being slaughtered at about 10% of its natural lifespan.
As Davis pointed out we’re going to cause animals to die whether we eat meat or not. So I think the new question to consider is: “Can I justify causing animals to live miserable lives so that I can enjoy food that tastes good?”
Again I don’t think I can. I think causing them to live terrible lives may be even worse than killing them.
So, if I can find meat from animals that I know:
- lived happy lives, and
- lived in such a way that they didn’t cause the deaths of other animals
…then is it ok to eat it? I think this is getting closer to the right answer. But there were a few more issues that I considered, including…
Levels Of Consciousness
I think most people would agree that the more advanced/complex a life form is, the worse it is to destroy it. So for example it is worse to kill a dog than it is to kill an ant.
I think what makes us more averse to killing dogs than ants is the fact that we’re aware that dogs have access to a wider range of experience and emotions. To put it another way, I think you could say that a dog is “more conscious” than an ant. And I think we have a natural aversion to destroying consciousness.
So if we’re going to be killing animals, I think it is best to kill less conscious animals (i.e. lower life forms). So if we have a choice between eating a pig and eating a fish, it’s probably best to eat the fish, all else being equal.
Humans Are Designed To Be Omnivores
Before I decided to try eating vegan, my primary justification for eating meat (which I’d never thought about deeply) was that eating meat is just the way things are meant to be. It’s natural. In nature, animals eat other animals. Looking at the human body, there are compelling signs that we’re designed to be omnivores.
Those facts led me to previously conclude that “there’s nothing wrong with killing and eating animals”.
After having thought through all the issues more thoroughly, my current response to those facts is: “Yes, I agree that humans were designed by an at least somewhat random process of evolution to eat meat, but so what? Society has advanced to the point where we do have feasible alternatives to torturing and killing animals in order to survive. And as a species we’ve not only evolved to eat meat… we’ve also evolved to the point where we can reflect on whether our evolutionarily-designed urges lead us to the most ethical and compassionate outcomes, and to the point where we have the freedom to choose our actions based on those reflections.”
The production of meat does many times as much harm to the environment as producing an equivalent quantity of plant foods. ’nuff said. You can do some searching online to confirm this for yourself. Environmental harm was another factor that I considered when deciding how to eat.
A Few Other Considerations
And there were a few other issues I considered that I still haven’t mentioned yet. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just list them off here in point form:
- Is it morally worse to intentionally kill an animal in a slaughterhouse (or require someone else to do so) than it is to accidentally kill an animal when harvesting crops?
- If I wouldn’t kill a pig or a cow in a slaughterhouse myself, can I justify requiring someone else to do it for me?
- What is the meaning and implications of Leo Tolstoy’s statement that “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields”?
- What if there is a God who intended us to eat meat?
- As a vegan I might need to drive farther to get my food, and I might buy more plastic (i.e. vegan protein powder comes in big plastic jugs). The plastic and driving both harm the environment, which indirectly causes animals to die.
- How extreme is too extreme? For example – How far can one go with attempting to analyze the precise level of harm caused by every action before doing so just becomes ludicrous? Should I wear a mask over my mouth 24/7 to avoid killing bugs or microorganisms by unintentionally inhaling them? (I think not)
The Final Decision
After pondering the issues for a few weeks, these are the foods that I’ve decided to eat going forward:
Anything Vegan – Of course.
Fish – A relatively low life form that lived a “happy” life in its natural environment.
Dairy & Eggs from happy animals – But happy cows & chickens are pretty rare. Even “free-run” chickens usually spend their lives crowded warehouses walking around in their own feces and never see sunlight. So although I’d eat milk and eggs from truly “happy” cows & chickens, they’re so hard to come across that I probably won’t do so anytime soon.
Despite its flaws, I have to credit the movie “Earthlings” with motivating me to more thoroughly research the implications of my diet, and to think deeply about how to eat in the future. I knew before watching the movie that I was causing animals to die and live unnatural lives, but I didn’t really know. To put it another way: my head knew, but my heart did not know. The movie helped my heart to know.
I’d encourage anyone who watches the movie not to make any knee-jerk emotional decisions about how to live, but to take the time to do more research and consider all relevant issues.
I Might Have The Wrong Answer
I’m not certain that I have the right answer about the best way to eat, and I don’t think everyone should eat exactly how I’ve decided to. I’m very open to new points that I haven’t considered yet, and to changing my diet in the future. So if you have anything to add to what I’ve written here (or have any disagreements), please let me know in the comments below.