Archive for the ‘Food Choices’ Category

Food Rights, Food Duties, and Obesity

» May 27th, 2016

Despite a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that childhood obesity was in decline, the numbers?—?when properly interpreted (and supplemented with more recent research)?—?confirm the opposite. As they have for decades, children between the ages of two and 19 are, in fact, becoming overweight or obese at a steadily increasing rate.

Today, 33.4 percent of kids are considered overweight, with 17.4 percent of them qualifying as obese (defined as having a body mass index [BMI] of 35 or more) or severely obese (a BMI over 40). To put these measurements in perspective, a healthy person who is 5’9″ and 150 pounds will have a BMI of around 22.

These numbers intersect with an especially compelling sociological observation: As childhood obesity becomes commonplace, parents are increasingly unable to recognize the condition in their children. Writing inScientific American, Jane Ogden explained that, “as populations get fatter, the new normal has become overweight and therefore invisible.”

Read more. 

Quinoa Not Corn

» December 9th, 2013

In the November 11 issue of The New Yorker, Michael Specter (one of my favorite staff writers) has a superb piece on crop insurance. I know, it sounds dull but, trust me, this piece is a thrill. My intention here is not to summarize the piece, but only to highlight the critical thoughts presented by the piece’s leading character, a man named David Friedberg.

Friedberg began a company called It uses high tech algorithms and information technology to predict climatic factors that bear on crop yields. He builds insurance policies on this information. Friedberg is a man obsessed with numbers and seems deeply knowledgable about the intersection between farming and the environment. It thus caught my eye when Specter wrote, “He would like to open a restaurant that serves only quinoa.”


Listen to Friedberg:

The ratio of protein to energy used to produce quinoa is the highest of any food source . . .  The net energy utilization of the protein production of beef in fifty to one; for fish it’s ten to one; and for chicken it’s four to one. Soybeans are two to one—they’re pretty efficient, but quinoa is less than one and a half to one, and quinoa grows in all these drought-hardy conditions. There is all this land that’s undeveloped—in Saskatchewan, in Colorado, in large swaths of Peru—and the yield that you can start to get on quinoa if you start to invest in production would be substantial.

Specter writes that China ate half the world’s pigs last year–500 million of them. In response to this fact, Freidberg says,

We need to change that or we are not going to get the eight hundred million people out of starvation that are starving right now. Think of it: we are sending millions of tons of protein to China to feed hogs. we should really just skip the hogs and grow the quinoa.

So, sensible words from a sensible guy who was raised by vegetarians. But, before you get carried away and think the food world has a new voice of agricultural wisdom, do note: Friedberg just sold his company to Monsanto for a cool billion.


It Was Meant to Be

» October 24th, 2013

Grass-fed beef advocates are always going on and on about how cows “were not meant” to eat corn. They were meant to eat grass. This might be true, barring any investigation into how genetics might have structured cows to eat corn, or how grasses and genetics match up. This is might be true, I suppose, if we want it to be true, and the media says so.

But let’s just say its true. So, if cows were meant to eat grass and that is why advocates of grass beef support this form of production rather than corn based, feedlot production, we can logically conclude that those who eat only grass-fed beef—again, because it’s more natural, and because this was how it was “meant to be”— don’t drink milk or eat dairy products.

Huh? How did milk get into this discussion about beef? Well, if we’re going to make a fetish out of what’s natural, we have an obligation to ask: is forcibly impregnating cows, kidnapping their offspring, and drinking their milk natural? Isn’t it natural for a mother to feed her offspring her own milk? Actually, is anything more natural?

Ask this question next time you hear someone justify some form of animal exploitation or another on the grounds of what nature intended. Make them answer. Force them to answer. Because there is no right answer.

Power Vegan

» September 12th, 2013

“But how do you get your protein?” Yeah, yeah. It’s the most common questions asked of vegans. It’s also the most annoying question asked of vegans. Uh, like, you know, legumes and vegetables and tofu?

I say we direct future protein queries to Patrik Baboumian. Baboumian, a German strongman (is there a better word for this line of work?) recently earned the honor of hauling the heaviest load—550 kg of weights– ever yoked to a human being. He accomplished this feat last week at the Toronto Vegetarian Food Festival. He lasted for 10 meters.

I’m not terribly big on encouraging people to go vegan because they can carry loads of iron. But, even in more educated layers of society, the myth persists that vegans are in some way or another malnourished weaklings. Somebody such as Baboumian—not to mention thousands of other world class athletes—effectively spread the word that veganism, when done right, can be a diet that maximizes our health and, for those who care, strength.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Baboumian justifies his public display of super-human strength in rather inspiring terms: “One day, I just thought, if you see a bird with a broken leg, you really have the urge to do something about it and help the bird,” explained Patrik. “Then, at the same time, you go to a restaurant and eat a chicken or something. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Nice. I’m happy to be on his team. Haul away, Patrik.

Note to readers: Some sort of mysterious website  malfunction led to nearly 100 subscribers disappearing from my list yesterday between 1 and 3 pm CST. Now, had I written something particularly offensive, I wouldn’t be surprised. But, as it turns out, I had written nothing. So, if you are here but were not prompted with an email, please re-subscribe. Sorry for the inconvenience. I will happily compensate you with a free subscription.

Why Are You Not Vegan?: Part II

» June 12th, 2013


I was really pleased to find such a strong response to yesterday’s post regarding “why are you not vegan.” A correction and clarification is in order. The correction is that the respondents were not only Professor Kazez’s students (as I mistakenly wrote), but professional philosophers as well. Relatedly, the clarification: this sample is obviously not a representative sample of the general population (or even an academic population), and I’m sorry if I suggested otherwise. It goes without saying that 65.9 percent of the population does not think it should be vegan while finding it too difficult to do so. What is critical, though, is the phenomenon itself: wanting to be vegan but finding the daily logistics of doing so to be too daunting.

In any case, the survey also included reasons for why people actively rejected veganism. Here’s Kazez’s summary of those respondents:

The most popular reasons (26.1%) was that “consuming animals is natural.”  Another 25% gave a Kantian reasons for not being obligated to abstain–I don’t believe I am obligated to abstain from animal products because animals are not persons, so I can use them as a means, as long as I am not gratuitously cruel to them. 20.5% think animal products are nutritionally necessary, and therefore ethically acceptable–I don’t believe I am obligated to abstain from animal products, because they are nutritionally necessary, and we can’t be obligated to abstain from something we need for our survival. 19.3% have their energies focused on problems they consider more important. I don’t believe I am obligated to abstain from animal products because there are many other problems in the world and my energies are currently directed at problems I consider more important. 30 people selected “other”.

These results are, in my opinion, both encouraging and depressing. They’re encouraging because they are relatively easy to topple with stronger arguments. One need not be a professional philosopher to complicate the notion of “natural” as it bluntly used above, to question a reliance on a pre-Darwinian view of humanity, to cite evidence for the health benenfits of a vegan diet, or to reject the “hierarchy of problems” hypothesis (sorry, I refuse to help the old lady cross the road because children are starving in Rwanda). At the same time, these answers are a bit depressing because, despite their flimsiness, they are held by highly educated people as a justification for behavior that directly contributes to unnecessary animal suffering.

More interestingly, here are some “other” justifications. Those involved with vegan ethics will find that some sound rather familiar and one or two to be less common (oh, and you’ll spot the philosophers). Either way, well worth reading:

I am not vegan because the ethical satisfaction I would derive by going vegan again would be minor to nonexistent, and so provides little to no motivation for me now that I enjoy eating animal products. If I got nothing out of eating animal products, and could achieve even slight ethical satisfaction from being vegan, I would be vegan — but that’s not the case at the moment. Also possibly relevant is that I don’t believe in moral obligations (although it is of course possible to want to be vegan for ethical reasons without believing in moral obligations).

It’s too exhausting to try to eat completely the “right” way. The rising demand for quinoa is apparently detrimental to the farmers who grow it ( Brown rice has arsenic. Unless you grow your own food, which I have neither the knowledge, skills or desire to do, you’re hurting someone, somewhere. So I try to buy local, consume animal products in moderation (and pay extra for humanely raised, cage-free, etc. etc., to show that there is a market for these products instead of abstaining entirely), and live my life without constant anxiety and second-guessing at every meal. It’s the best I can do right now. I also believe that everyone eating half as much meat would be the same as half the people abstaining entirely, which seems more realistic.

Admittedly, I don’t try very hard. And clearly I don’t feel that omnivorism is very wrong, as wrong as other things I refrain from doing, like murder or theft, or I would be more motivated to comply with my moral reasons. Rationally I believe veganism is the only morally defensible position – however I don’t feel strongly enough motivated to comply with that, especially as I’m a lazy and unimaginative cook, and really love dairy.

– For ethical reasons I don’t eat sentient creatures. I doubt oysters feel pain, but still don’t consume them because of yuck factor of eating any animals. Most people would describe me as vegan, but I can’t see a serious ethical objection to silk or honey, so I guess I don’t qualify as a real vegan. Boo hoo.

– Very roughly: if for example I accept some animals have a right to not be killed or only to be killed humanely, then this should extend to wild animals too. If one takes a consequentialist type view that omissions are not that different from comissions, then we should maximize the welfare of animals in the wild, if it not too onerous. Since in fact, I think of the lifestyle of animals in the wild as the “baseline” good life, then a domesticated life at around that level is acceptable to me.

– There are upland areas of Britain (where I live) which are only suitable for grazing by animals. If there was no market for these animals, not only would the animals not exist, also the economy and environment of these areas would be detrimentally affected, along with the lives of people living there.

– I don’t believe I am obligated to abstain from animal products because not every ethical issue is a matter of obligation: still, it might be good to abstain from animal products, or it would be morally better to do so.


On that note . . .

Why Are You Not Vegan?

» June 11th, 2013

Why are you not vegan? That’s the question Professor Jean Kazez, who teaches an animal rights course at Southern Methodist University, put to 88 of her non-vegan students and philosopher colleagues. A series of choices were provided as answers, as they were to a follow-up question about why students did not feel “obligated to abstain from animal products.” The option of “other” was made available as well, eliciting several revealing remarks. Professor Kazez’s reason for conducting the survey was essentially personal. She wrote, “I am a vegetarian (20 years now!), but not a vegan, and have a longstanding puzzlement about why I cannot make myself go further.” The results were quite interesting.

Tellingly, 65.9 believed that they should be vegan. Reasons students chose for acting against their own belief were ” I find it too difficult to limit what I eat, so I am an omnivore” (25 percent) and  ”I find it too difficult and so I am just a part-time vegan or vegetarian or part-time vegetarian” (40.9 percent). It’s not entirely clear to me how these answers differ, but the real issue is the sentiment they share: eating as a vegan is, logistically speaking, too difficult an endeavor.

I find that vegans are overly quick to dismiss this concern. Conditioned as we are to the imperatives of our alternative choices, we forget that the world is not a vegan friendly place. In an omnivorous commercial culture most of us are quietly acculturated to take food choices for granted. Something, no matter where you are, will always be available, always be on hand to satisfy your desire, no matter how specialized or precious. For better or worse, this assumption is generally accurate. The modern commercial food supply might be easy to condemn but, in its availability and diversity, it’s a wonder to behold (especially when considered in historical perspective). When you go vegan, this security, this availability and diversity, shrivels. Suddenly, you have to do something you’ve never done before: plan ahead. Or even be prepared to do the unthinkable: forgo a meal or two.

The real conundrum is that the solution to this “too difficult” problem is stuck in neutral. On the one hand, there’s the commercial option of providing more vegan options, ideally to the point where vegan options are as prevalent as non-vegan options. Many entrepreneurs are nobly venturing into this territory. But the hard economic reality is that they are taking a risk,  one that hinges on demand catching up with the supply they’re providing. I think they’ll be rewarded handsomely in time, but the fact remains that the ultimate incentive to expand vegan options with confidence—hordes of vegans demanding tofu in the heartland— is not as secure as we might hope. On the other hand, that 65.9 percent figure does, however mildly , suggest that the demand is certainly out there. Incipient vegans are everywhere; they only lack the means of expression. For all we know, millions of consumers might be wandering the aisles of Kroger or A&P or Publix thinking “I wish I could be vegan but everything in this place is non-vegan.” For all we know. Thus, change moves glacially.

Fortunately, marketers are some of the savviest people out there. If anyone can sniff out mainstream demand before it becomes manifest, they can. And as far as the work of the everyday vegan advocate goes, the lesson here is clear: any and all efforts to get the word “vegan” or “plant-based diet” into the vague but powerful ether known as commercial culture will play a role in ultimately channeling more interest, and eventually more money, into the options that will make it possible for the 65.9 percent to put their ideals into action.

As a final note, I write this post from rural France. On the flight over, my vegan meal never appeared. Upon landing, I’ve was reminded that most of the pasta here is made with egg. Good luck finding a vegan baguette sandwich. Dried sausage and cheese seem to be as ubiquitous as air and water. Yes, as I know, one can live well on incredible tomatoes, French bread, lentils, apricots, and figs. But I can certainly see why a wanna be vegan would say forget it and opt for the foie gras.

Tomorrow I will continue my analysis of this survey, looking at the reasons people chose to rejecting the vegan option



The Healing Power of Vegan

» April 3rd, 2013

In December a woman from Dallas was riddled with malignant tumors. Doctors gave her a terminal diagnosis. Within two months, her tumors were benign. Medical experts can’t explain why, suggesting there’d been some sort of misdiagnosis. The woman’s daughter, whom I know, is equally confused. What she does know, however, is that when her mother was diagnosed with her terminal illness she left Austin to be with her. And while my friend was with her mother, she did something for her everyday, three times, and with the purest love: she cooked. Vegan.

And not just vegan. But healthy, macro-driven vegan. NO exceptions. When I asked my friend what her mother ate she simply said, “I know how to cook beans, grains, and vegetables, and that’s what I did and that’s what she ate.” And that’s what she’ll continue to eat.

My friend, humble soul, is taking no credit for saving her mother, who, it should be noted, ate a typical meat-based American diet before her daughter commandeered the kitchen. But it’s hard not to flirt with the logical sin of at least allowing cause and coincidence to flirt rather seriously.

It is perhaps the lack of a nutritional smoking gun that defuses the power of these sort of anecdotes to achieve permanence in the public imagination and, in turn, become a mainstream force for change. There’s so much quackery out there that it’s hard not to be drowned out by it when you think out loud about kale curing cancer. Having been trained from an early age to seek evidence, evidence, evidence—from the most reputable authorities—to buttress every belief and claim, I’ve been reluctant to make too much of these stories myself.

But here’s the thing: I hear them too often for there not to be some truthiness in there somewhere. And when you are facing death, and there’s the chance that a radical change in diet can save you, truthiness is pretty damn good.

My friend and her mother are celebrating their good news by going to Brazil next month. When I saw the happiness in my friend’s face as she told me this story, when I saw her hands tremble, I decided that it was high time to start listening more closely to these narratives, sharing and collecting them, and fighting harder than ever to condemn the food products that not only harm animals, but the decent and loving people who eat them as well.


Animal Foods: “Intrinsically Inefficient”

» March 4th, 2013

Environmental science is becoming more and more like Biblical interpretation. You can find in it exactly what you want. You want evidence that wind energy will kill too many birds and wreak ecological havoc on avian migration patterns? It’s there. You want evidence that rotational grazing of cattle will turn parking lots into fertile gardens and grass-fed beef will turn you in Superman? Sure, we can dig something up. Got clean coal? Science does.

I generally try to avoid getting overly worked up about highlighting this study or that because it seems every time I do that some cranky naysayer with too much time on his hands comes along with a study of his own to prove me wrong. Damn! Then I go and find a countervailing study. Then it’s his turn. Then mine. Soon we’re stuck in a downward swirl of dueling studies. Some people say “follow the funding,” and that’s a good point. Others, with equal legitimacy, say “follow the science” and that’s a good point, too. Problem is that it’s hard to do a decent study without external finding and I’m not a scientist and therefore have no choice but to trust the process of peer review. I’m sure there’s a study explaining why that’s a bad idea as well.

This is a long-winded and caveat-studded way of introducing a new study. And, wouldn’t you know it, this one says exactly what I want it to say, namely that the vegan diet is healthier for the environment than a non-vegan diet. A good overview of it can be found here. Highlights of the highlights include the following: the GHG emissions of a vegan diet is over 40 percent lower than non-vegans; combine vegans and vegetarians and their collective reduction of food-related GHG emissions is 30 percent; a scientist said what I’ve always felt to be as true as gravity: “The conversion of plant-based to animal foods is intrinsically inefficient.” Love it all.

I’m sure people who consider themselves meat-eating environmentalists are scrambling right now to highlight the study’s glaring internal flaws and find data published elsewhere that contradicts it point by point. Or may be they’re just ignoring it as they do carbon footprint penance for having just flown to DC to protest an oil pipeline that, if nixed, only means Canadian oil will travel to the Gulf in less secure trunk lines (see my friend Robert Bryce’s piece here.) Whatever the case may be, for now at least, at this very moment, there appears to be some compelling empirical evidence that eating a diet based on compassion is good not only for animals but the environment we share with them. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Thanks to Karen Orr for the tip. 

Tomorrow: bestiality


The Karma of Kale

» December 14th, 2012

I’m writing this piece from the porch of Casa de Luz, my favorite place in the world to eat.  Vegan and macrobiotic, the food here does more than nourish the body.

After a week of thinking deeply and writing actively about a range of questions—why did a college in Vermont ever want to kill its oxen?; how do violent tactics fit into the animal rights movement?; how should we conceptualize the place of companion animals in our lives?—the food here, in its simplicity and honesty, reminds me that authentic, unthinking clarity can be found in a plate of green beans, kale, lentils, brown rice, and pickled cabbage. It’s a well-timed reminder.

The act of eating has always intrigued me. Even before I began advocating for ethical veganism, I’d been interested as a historian in why cultures ate what they ate, the meaning they imbued in their meals, and rituals in which they embedded this most basic act—one that’s up there with sex and sleep as essential to keeping us going.  I spent a decade of my life exploring these issues.

The more I look back on this work the more I’m struck by how the academic impulse was always to question and complicate, analyze and contextualize, to the point that the essence of the act of eating was buried in the expectations of professional imperatives. Think too much, conform to institutional formatting, and the most inherently simple topic can be pounded into academic mush. I turned out some mush.

Eating healthy, eating vegan, and eating intentionally are goals that really need not be over-analyzed, or even analyzed for that matter.  Their obvious benefits resoundingly speak for themselves. Perhaps less obviously, eating a plant-based diet can and should provide us with an anchor of clarity and hope in a murky sea of confusion and suffering. If we’re open to the experience, it can inspire.

I know that, as I write, animals are being slaughtered. Thousands before I even finish writing this sentence. I know that at least 18 children were killed today in a Connecticut school shooting. I know that a person close to me is suffering a terrible situation beyond her control. This is all so murky and depressing and it’s going nowhere soon and I could just wallow in despair over it all.

But I won’t.  My meal is my antidote, a very real one, and I have no problem allowing it to make me feel good about life, my fellow humans and non-humans, and the potential of goodwill to make small dents—and sometimes large ones—in the systematic suffering that easily overwhelms those who hunger for peace and justice.

I guess you could say I’m seeking convenient denial in the extra plate of kale I just requested. And I guess that sounds pretty lame.  But right here, right now, it’s working for me.



Vegan Conversion Narrative #5

» October 25th, 2012


Today’s vegan conversion narrative comes from Dianne Wenz, a holistic health counselor who blogs at Veggie Girl. A recent conversation I had with Jasmin Singer, on her and Mariann Sullivan’s Our Hen House podcast, led to me realize how critical these narratives are to the larger project of vegan activism. Essentially, they help us avoid burnout because, living in the carnistic world that we do, every small victory—such as a single vegan conversion—reminds us not only that we all take our own journey to veganism, but that this is a movement ultimately rooted in the raising of an individual’s consciousness. Witnessing an individual change on the personal level thus reminds us that collective change is more than possible.

My sincere thanks to Dianne for her beautifully told story (replete with reference to my all-time favorite band, REM):


I’m not exactly sure how I figured out that meat came from animals, but I remember being very little (probably about 6 or 7) when I asked my mom why we kept cats and dogs as pets and ate pigs and cows. To my little brain an animal was an animal and I didn’t see why some were for snuggling and some were for eating. I don’t remember the answer, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of, “Because that’s the way it is. We need to eat them to live.”

I was probably in 8th or 9th grade the first time I saw the word “vegetarian” in print. I’ll be honest and tell you where I saw the word to – it was in an interview with Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, and he had said he would be a vegetarian if he didn’t love steak so much. I’m not even sure if I had know that a “vegetarian” was a thing before that, but I remember thinking “A vegetarian! That’s what I want to be.” I never really liked meat and I didn’t understand why we had to eat it. I was would always scarf down my broccoli and then be stuck at the dining room table, forbidden to leave until I finished my pork chop.

After graduating from high school, I went to art school in New York City. I was happy to find that there were actual vegetarians at school, so I decided to give it a try. Once again, music was my influence. I knew that R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who I absolutely loved, was vegetarian, as were the members of another favorite band of mine, the B52s.  I gradually went vegetarian, first by removing beef and pork from my diet, and then phasing out tuna, turkey and chicken. Of course, I now know that chickens suffer my most of all factory farmed animals, but for some reason back then it seemed that by phasing out the larger animals, I was doing less harm.

In June of 1992, my grandfather took me to visit my aunt in California. We ate most of our meals at restaurants, which was probably the most I’d ever eat out in my life. To my surprise, there were vegetarian options everywhere we went! There were even veggie burgers! For lunch one day we went to a little dinner that served dozens of different flavors of burgers, and they could be made with a beef hamburger, turkey burger or veggie burger. I ordered a teriyaki veggie burger, which came topped with grilled pineapple, and I was hooked. There was no need for meat anymore. “This is going to be easy, I thought,” and I gave up all meat at some point during the trip.

When I came home, I realized that were even places in New York and New Jersey where I could buy vegetarian food! I used to live on pita melts with broccoli and cheddar cheese at the Land And Sea diner in Fair Lawn, and my favorite meal in New York City was Dojo’s soy burger dinner.

Back then the market wasn’t saturated with the vegetarian convenience foods that we have now. I used to have to go to the little closet of a health food store in the mall to get my favorite Yves veggie burgers, which were very expensive and only came in a two pack. Green Giant had frozen burgers that I could find at the local grocery store, but I’m pretty sure the box they came in tasted better than they did. Like most people who grew up in the 70s, I grew up eating food that came from bags, cans and boxes. Most vegetables weren’t fresh and those that were, weren’t very good. (Iceberg lettuce, anyone?) When I changed my diet, my mom would buy a bag of frozen cubed carrots, corn and cut green beans and try to serve it to me as a meal, and she didn’t understand that beef flavored Rice-A-Roni had meat it in. Family meals became a problem.  So I subscribed to Vegetarian Times, bought a copy of Peta’s The Compassionate Cook and taught myself how to make vegetarian food.

I was vegetarian for 9 years when I met Dennis. I had been looking around online, trying to find a vegetarian group to join, when I stumbled upon VeggieDate. On a whim, I placed an ad. (Hey, it was free!) I was really just looking for veggie friends to hang out with because I was tired of being asked “well, what do you eat””, and “where do you get your protein?”. After a few months, Dennis answered my ad, and even though I told him that I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend, we started dating a month or two later. Dennis suggested that I start a website as a vegetarian resource (there weren’t very many veggie sites around at the time), and was born! While researching the site, I read about the egg and dairy industry and couldn’t believe how horrific it was. Dennis and I decided to go vegan together. I had already given up eggs, after reaching for a hard boiled one a salad bar and then suddenly realizing exactly what it was. (I was horrified! How could people eat that?) I have to admit that giving up cheese was much harder for me than it was for Dennis, and I still snuck some when he wasn’t around. It happened to be a particularly humid summer that year, and I had one long sinus headache. Regular medicine wasn’t helping, so I decided to try acupuncture. The doctor told me that I needed to give up all cow’s milk because it was mucus forming, and my desire to be headache free, along with my new knowledge of the dairy industry helped me kick the cheese habit for good.

And that is that! I’ve been vegan for 11 years, and now I help others go vegan too.