Monday, April 27, 2009

New Year’s Resolution: Go Vegan!

by Joel Marks

Originally published on January 15, 2009, in the blog Vegging Out.

I am a recent convert to veganism – very recent, as this was my new year’s resolution for 2009. But I have been sympathetic to veganism for a long time, and it was a combination of factors that “pushed me over the edge” on January 1st. I’ll tell you what they were, and how it’s been since.

I am a philosophy professor by trade, and so it was natural for me to discuss vegetarianism with my students in courses on contemporary moral issues. Then one day a student, Cindy Casper, asked me, “So, are you a vegetarian?” She was no doubt moved by the persuasiveness with which I had been presenting the arguments. But my intent as a teacher had only been to stimulate my students to think for themselves, not to “impose” any particular position on them. So I thought her question irrelevant. Until I thought about it some more. As a matter of fact the arguments in favor of vegetarianism were utterly persuasive to me; and yet I was not a vegetarian. What sense did that make? Had I, perhaps, been using the supposed virtue of pedagogic neutrality as a screen behind which to hide my own lack of moral commitment? That would hardly serve as a model for my students to live their lives in accordance with reason, which was supposedly the justification for having them take a philosophy course in the first place!

That was the turning point. I became a vegetarian … or so I thought. For at that time – a couple of decades ago – I was very far from realizing what vegetarianism really means. Like many others, I’m sure, I thought it meant: don’t eat meat. Furthermore, “meat” meant mammals: cows, goats, pigs, etc. But I was still eating chicken and turkey … fish of every variety … eggs, milk, cheese …. Honestly, chicken and fish just seemed rather far down on the phylogenetic scale compared to mammals; and I had never even heard of veganism.

Eventually I came to appreciate the beauty and wonder of birds – for instance, while I took my daily beach walk in Milford – and gave up eating those as well. But -- so near yet so far! – the fish in the sea (or Sound) were still strangers to me: unseen beneath the surface. In the back of my mind I suspected that they were fully sentient beings as well, but … out of sight, out of mind.

Then a couple of years ago I began to study animal ethics more seriously in my professional capacity. In the course of my researches I happened upon Friends of Animals in Connecticut and struck up an email dialogue with their legal director, Lee Hall. She opened my eyes to the progress that has been made in the field since the pioneering arguments of philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan. That led me to Gary Francione, a law professor at Rutgers and perhaps the most outspoken and articulate promoter of veganism. After reading his articles, I arranged for him to speak at Yale, and after that meeting I could no longer remain content with mere vegetarianism (not to mention, ovolactopiscovegetarianism!)

The argument is simple: If you know the facts about factory farming, then there is no logical distinction to be made between eating animals and eating animal products, such as eggs and dairy, if your concerns are for the welfare and dignity of the animals.

Part 2

Having become convinced of the logical cogency of the argument for veganism, and finding it ethically compelling as well, I was almost ready to take the plunge. A little further dialogue removed the final hesitations.

My concerns were threefold:

1) Had the nutritional adequacy of a strict vegan diet been scientifically demonstrated?

2) If so, was it possible to acquire the proper nutrition without stuffing oneself?

3) If so, was it possible to do so without spending the whole day in the kitchen?

The answer to (1) turns out to be yes and no in very interesting ways. The answer is “yes” in that the American Dietetic Association, among others, approves a vegan diet. See for example . Indeed, a carefully designed vegan diet is considered not only nutritious but may also ward off various serious illnesses. The answer is “no,” however, in that nutrition science appears hardly ever to be definitive. We are all acquainted with the flip-flopping of dietary recommendations that shows up in the news from time to time. The reason for this is not that nutrition is a pseudo-science or that nutritionists are sloppy researchers; it is simply the nature of the subject matter. There are so many potential interaction effects in diet, and every one of them would need to be studied on groups of people for a lifetime to be sure of their efficacy and safety, that progress must forever be slow-going and tentative.

What makes this situation interesting, though, is that it applies not only to a vegan diet but to any diet, including our everyday omnivorous one. This telling point was made to me by one of my many helpful correspondents, Victor Tsou, who is affiliated with the new vegan organization L.O.V.E. at . So my special concern about the nutritional adequacy of a vegan diet may have been simply an artifact of my having to make the deliberate effort to adopt it; but in fact it could be nothing but a double standard to insist that veganism prove its health-worthiness beyond the level of certainty with which we know our everyday diet to be healthy.

I obtained a very satisfactory answer to (2) from corresponding with Caroline Trapp, Director of Diabetes Education and Care at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine at . She suggested that I might simply have been eating too much. Sure enough, when I turned my attention to serving sizes on food labels and diet charts I discovered to my amazement that in my regular diet I had sometimes been overeating by two or three hundred percent! It does not show on my skinny body for some reason, but I know I felt it in my belly. Although this observation pertains to any diet, vegan or otherwise, it directly addressed my concern about veganism that I would have to eat more than would feel digestively comfortable in order to assure myself of adequate nutrition from plant sources in lieu of animal sources. Not so!

And (3) was answered at the same time. Because now that I saw how simple it was to meet my nutritional needs, it became a cinch to prepare enough food to eat without having to become a chef.

While the final roadblocks to veganism were thus removed, the main lesson I have learned from this experience is that a life-change like this is immeasurably facilitated by having a community of advisors and well-wishers. In addition to those already mentioned, I would attribute my turning of theory into action to many local animal activists it has been my privilege to know, including Justin Goodman, Chelsea Rhodes, Joseph Klett, and Wendy Horowitz. Also, I have received continual encouragement and support for developing my understanding of animal ethics from Carol Pollard, David Smith, and Wendell Wallach at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

Part 3

So what has it been like to go vegan? It has turned out to be surprisingly easy and enjoyable. My journey has only just begun, but the trajectory is promising and, indeed, exciting.

The main surprise has been the new physical energy and clarity of mind I experience. This occurred instantaneously: the first day. And it has continued now for the two weeks I’ve been vegan. I attribute it mainly to the reduction in the amount of food I have been eating rather than to the removal of animal products from my diet. But I can’t say for sure since those are two independent variables that have been operative at the same time. I suspect both have something to do with it since animal foods are more fatty and that could induce sluggishness. I am speaking impressionistically, however, and do not know, or care, which is the true cause. The bottom line is that going vegan, which I was motivated and, I believe, morally obligated to do anyway, has turned out to be a delightful experience.

Another offshoot of the reduced caloric intake has been feeling hungrier at meal times. You might unthinkingly suppose that that means I’m not eating enough. But a little more thought should convince you that, quite the contrary: it indicates that I am eating the right amount. For shouldn’t one be hungry when one sits down to eat? (Of course I am not talking about starvation.) Isn’t the point of eating to satisfy the body’s nutritional and energy needs? So if you aren’t hungry, why eat? (My grandmother used to go that one better; she had an expression, “Always leave the dinner table a little bit hungry.”) Furthermore, being hungry when you eat aids digestion.

Lastly, “hunger is the best spice.” This not only assures that one will enjoy eating, but it has particular purchase on the switch to veganism. For we would naturally miss foods from our previous diet and might even find some vegan fare to be unappetizing, at least in our mind. But I have discovered empirically that in very short order, feeling hungry makes that hummus/cucumber/tomato/lettuce/sprouts sandwich look and taste just as yummy as my previously accustomed grilled cheese sandwich did! So on Day One I had put together a vegan sandwich for lunch grudgingly. By Day Two I found myself enjoying it. By Day Three I was anticipating it with gusto.

It is also the case that as one opens up to seeking alternatives to animal foods, one discovers an endless array of plant foods. There is simply no excuse to find a vegan diet uninteresting or unappetizing. I have even found myself enjoying cooking again, which had become a boring routine I tried to get over with as quickly as possible.

Now everything is accelerating. I have become so eager to pursue this diet that today I am going “cold turkey” (so to speak!) by discarding all remaining animal food I had in the cupboard and frig. (Well, maybe I will donate it to the food bank lest the animals have suffered and died in vain.) Goodbye tuna cans! So long cheddar bar! It’s been nice knowing you, but, frankly, I’m already losing the taste.

Another trick of the trade, of which I was reminded by Glen Colello of the Catch a Healthy Habit Café in West Haven, is to eat slowly. (Grandma knew that too.) This not only aids digestion, but also allows your belly time to communicate to your brain when it has eaten enough. So you will feel “full” and stop eating before you stuff yourself.

Glen also emphasizes that changing what one eats is not simply a matter of diet but of lifestyle. How true that is. This may seem daunting at first; but ultimately, as a philosopher, I appreciate that everything that we do has a larger significance. In the case of eating, I have found that, the less meat in my diet, the more meaning in my life.

I would like to thank Allan and Janice Saltzman for their constant encouragement, Lana Golub for her consideration and her fabulous Georgian (Sakartvelan) cooking, Huibing He for showing me the joys of simplicity in the kitchen and of sautéing green vegetables (with salt), and Melanie Stengel for her example of caring and her company on this journey; and all of them for challenging me every step of the way. My further publicizing my resolution in this blog is intended to help keep me honest and persuade others to hop on board.

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven and a columnist for Philosophy Now magazine. His Webpage is . He wishes to thank Helen Bennett Harvey for her invitation to write this essay for her blog, Vegging Out.

For more information on becoming a vegan, check out my Website, "The Easy Vegan."