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From Veganism Back to (Almost) Sanity
From Veganism Back to (Almost) Sanity
My mom put the plate of chicken, fish and vegetables in front of me.
“What is this?” my thirteen-year old self asked, genuinely confused.
“I can’t eat this. We talked about this. I’m not eating meat anymore.”
I stared at the floor as I said this. My mom hesitated before speaking. “But…chicken and fish is different. It’s not meat.”
“Yes it is. It’s still an animal. I’m still eating an animal.”
She sighed. Her tone darkened. “I didn’t know this is what you meant. Give it here, then.”
She took the plate away, and instead made rice to add to the vegetables. I sat alone at our kitchen table while she used the kitchen utensils a little louder than was necessary. She sat down across from me after placing the plate down.
“I’m a little concerned about how you’re going to get the nutrients you need,” she said hesitantly.
“The book you gave me said this is healthier than eating meat.” I was referring to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being Vegetarian, which she had handed me the day before, amusedly waiting for my response. I just said, “Thanks,” dryly, then immediately opened it and began reading.
“I’m concerned that you won’t get enough protein,” she said.
It was a legitimate concern, but I simply rolled my eyes and for four years, didn’t look back.
Even the most tenuous of connections between my eating habits and the subject my classmates would be discussing was an opportunity to announce my vegetarianism.
“My goldfish died the other day,” a friend of mine would say.
“I’m sorry.” Pause. “You know, I don’t understand how people can feel bad for animals and eat them at the same time.”
“You don’t eat animals?”
“No,” I’d say, voice perking up. “I’m a vegetarian.”
Despite being knowledgeable about the importance of fruits, vegetables, and a variety of foods that addressed possible nutritional deficiencies, I assumed, as many who begin a new diet (particularly one abstaining from meat) do, that I was an extremely healthy eater, and my parents, still meat eaters, would have agreed.
At sixteen, I met a vegan at my high school who cycled competitively. Despite my natural thinness, I admired his combination of muscle and minimal body fat. He was a senior with large gauges in his ears and an “I don’t give a s***” attitude.
“Is it hard to be a vegan?” I asked him after he mentioned it one day.
“Not at all, dude,” he replied. “As long as you can tolerate soy, you’re good protein-wise.”
He didn’t mention that vegans not only abstain from meat, dairy, and eggs, but also cannot consume honey or anything with even trace amounts of animal products. Many brands of bread contain small amounts of whey or milk fat; restaurants frequently add butter and other dairy derivatives to seemingly animal-free meals.
In France, which I visited for a week, I did not consume cheese. I traveled with a group of about forty. There was one vegetarian. Thirty-eight people from my group consumed the same meal; I was given an entirely separate plate. In between meals, I mostly ate bread. I starved my way through Paris. Pictures of me in front of the Eiffel Tower show a pale, tired-looking, severely underweight sixteen-year old. My thoughts were not occupied with the beauty of the art in the Louvre, but instead obsessed over whether my dinner was going to satisfy me.
Despite this, I still believed just eight months ago that eating meat should be illegal. Today, however, I eat meat mostly-guilt free. I began with shrimp (I felt disgusted with myself when I found I loved the taste), then salmon, then, two months later, chicken. No pork or steak. And after feeding baby fawns from milk bottles, watching their skittish movements as they tilted their heads upward earnestly, I could never eat venison. I’ve seen them domesticated; it would be the equivalent to eating a cat.
While I type this, my cat is rubbing against my leg. The idea of eating him, or eating any cat for that matter, is absolutely repulsive to me, as it is to most. Our society despises animal abusers with equal vehemence as rapists (like the British woman who, more recently, threw a cat into a dumpster and received death threats) while overlooking the slitting of billions of cows’ throats every year for consumption, many of whom dangle upside down, still conscious until the blood pools on the floor.
The truth, however, is that humans cannot live on this earth without their food consumption somehow contributing to the pain of another living being. The legumes, vegetables and grains that form the basic vegan diet must be tilled, plowed, and harvested, destroying millions, perhaps billions, of animals’ natural habitats. No one wants to contribute to such animal holocaust, but taken to the extreme, veganism is not the answer: suicide is. PETA’s misanthropic founder and president, Ingrid Newkirk, would agree that that is a preferable alternative for most people.
In its own way, veganism is a slow suicide. Where the average person takes supplements to bolster their health, vegans pop them obsessively just to maintain a functional level of health. A vegan must obtain all of his or her Vitamin D from supplements and sunlight; I can consume a tablespoon or two of cod liver oil and not worry. Vegans must obtain B12 as a supplement, which many don’t. Even then, it’s an inferior way to absorb any vitamin. Americans are also as a people largely deficient in omega-3 fatty acids; with the absence of fish, which is the best and most easily absorbed form of such fats, vegans potentially miss out on an essential nutrient.
As a vegan, I addressed all these concerns. I exercised frequently, ate a variety of healthy, unprocessed foods, including substantial servings of fruits and vegetables. I took a multivitamin, B12 supplement, and flax oil pills for omega-3’s. I also found alternative ways to obtain Vitamin D and calcium (another possible deficiency with the absence of dairy). Still I always felt physically awful, though I told no one. I often attributed this to my depression, although when such symptoms disappeared after eating meat for a few weeks, I knew the real reason. I cannot look at pictures of myself that year without cringing at my underweight and anemic double.
If one raises these nutritional concerns with other vegans, they will often do anything to defend the diet without directly addressing the valid issues facing a vegan. Veganism is the “perfection” ideal, as many elimination diets are.
What this means is that if you eat according to the diet’s principles, and don’t cheat, you will feel good, and more importantly, look thin. If, after a few months on the diet, you don’t feel this way, it is because you are doing something wrong.
It would not surprise me if the type of person who is attracted to veganism is a perfectionist in other areas of their life, as I was. My room was always extremely organized; I’d beat myself up if I didn’t exercise a minimum of five hours each week. Everything was written down, categorized into lists, crossed out when completed.
Thus, ‘guilt’ is a word closely linked to veganism. Guilt that animals are out there, being harmed, and I’m sitting here selfishly living my life. Guilt that my eating still contributes, albeit indirectly, to their pain. But guilt, as well, about not being able to fit the vegan ideal.
Of course, many proponents of diets trying to gain legitimacy will falsely represent themselves in one way or another. But none do it as skillfully as vegans. Celebrities like Alicia Silverstone are constantly in the limelight, attributing their thin frames to veganism. PETA attempts to depict the diet as “sexy” with its “Go Bare” ads; the vegan authors of “Skinny Bitch” guilt their readers into cutting out all animal products from their diet, claiming to not do so makes one a “fat, lazy bitch.”
The the issue of animal rights is framed as black and white: either you eat animals or you don’t, which in the minds of many vegetarians is the same as love or abuse, whether they will vocalize this (as I did, loudly and frequently, at the dinner table and to anyone who questioned my eating habits) or not. Vegans take this a step further; I can still feel the condescension on my tongue when I spoke to vegetarians with questions like, “You realize that the egg industry is one of the worst examples of animal abuse, don’t you?”
About three weeks into being a vegan, after I discovered that the majority of my supplements were encased in gelatin (which is essentially animal bone), I stopped taking them immediately and sought vegan equivalents. While I waited for new vitamins, I looked at myself in the mirror happily: I definitely looked thinner.
But the feeling of uniqueness when I was the only one not consuming turkey at Thanksgiving soon lost its novelty, and even though I didn’t want to, I judged harshly those around me. Although I’ve always been lean, I’ve always hated my body, too. As soon as those Thanksgiving dinners ended I’d go to the bathroom and stare into the mirror. I’d examine my bony arms and wrists, wishing they were a little more muscular, then my legs, wishing they were just a little thinner. Eating meat hasn’t changed that.
I remember, too, weighing myself on the bathroom scale. The deep intake of breath before looking down. 120, 117, 124. In seventh grade, I told my girlfriend at the time that I was 115 but wanted to be 105.
“You’re too thin as it is,” she said, and I smiled widely. “You really think so?” I asked.
People always ask me why I went back to eating meat. I tell them I don’t know, but of course I do.
Once I spoke to a girl I liked at the time about my eating habits.
“The way you eat is okay if you’re a good vegan,” she said.
“You say that like I’m a dog and you’re patting my head,” I replied dryly.
She laughed. “Meat is healthy though. You’d gain weight if you ate it.”
A week later, I was eating fish. Not out of any sudden change in opinion regarding animal rights – which I realized was an illusory distraction from my real trouble with eating meat, the body shape aspect – but in order to see her smile of approval when I announced that I was having shrimp for dinner, and later that same smile when she said approvingly, “You’ve gained weight.”
Ultimately, I still love animals, and the sense of uniqueness veganism wrought, but chicken builds muscle, and I am selfish.