The Vegetarian’s Dilemma

As you may recall, I did a 30-Day experiment in October where I cut out all meat eating.  I allowed milk and eggs in products, and had some cheese and yogurt, but otherwise I was pretty strict and opted for vegan options whenever possible.  I subbed soy milk for cow’s milk and ate cereal.  I didn’t add cheese to things except at Chipotle where they use vegetable rennet and I could feel a little better.  It turned out to be spectacularly easy.

At the end of 30 days, I wasn’t sure I could go back to meat, so I opted to continue my trial indefinitely.  I hadn’t made up my mind about fish, and when I went to pick up fresh bagels, I also got some lox.  It lasted a few days (in early November), but since then I haven’t consumed flesh of any kind.

Before my experiment, but after watching Food, Inc., I had begun reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  I don’t know if I was scared of what I might find out, but I slowed down my reading to a crawl during October.  Last night I finally finished the book.  I was hoping for some clarity on my own now conflicted relationship with food – specifically meat – but instead I walked away both more informed and more confused.  The more I read about food, especially the mass-market food available at the supermarket, the more I feel like I shouldn’t eat anything.  I suppose that’s why Pollan also wrote a book called In Defense of Food

I’m pretty sure I can’t go back to eating beef, turkey, chicken or pork (not that I ever ate much of the latter).  The way these animals are raised and processed in the vast majority of cases is pretty unconscionable.  PETA makes some pretty strong, if biased, arguments in their vegan/vegetarian intro packet as well.  So much so that even though I initially planned to eat turkey at my family’s Thanksgiving meal, I couldn’t do it.  I don’t regret that decision in any way, but I was definitely surprised by it.  I was willing to give myself a free pass, but I didn’t take it.  I couldn’t take it.

The most frustrating thing about the book is that I am more aware of what I’m eating, and I’m trying to do better.  But I believe even more than I did that the organic movement has some serious problems (mainly because you can’t do true organic or “beyond organic” without going straight to the source), which makes me feel like what I’m doing, or even attempting to do, is largely for naught just in terms of my own health and consumption.  Pollan touches on the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, but he doesn’t so much justify his own carnivorousness as he does make some broader excuses about the fallacies of what many vegetarians claim to be a more sustainable way of life.  His book is thoroughly researched, and for the most part I trust him, but I guess I was looking for something more definitive.  Something that applied to me, or at least more to him personally than generally, so that I could draw some conclusions from it.

Which brings me to the vegetarian’s dilemma.  Maybe I should call it the pescetarian’s dilemma.  I love fish – at the very least sushi and lox.  I’m a big fan of Chilean Sea Bass, but rarely get the chance (or have the money) to order it.  Seared Ahi is also a favorite.  In Los Angeles the majority of restaurants give me copious options I can take advantage of without sacrificing any of my precious morals.  But in some cases, allowing fish would open up a whole chunk of the menu as opposed to limiting me to a few select options.

But I’m not doing this for my convenience.  If that’s all this was about, I’d eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and try to take advantage of free range and grass-fed whenever I could.  I’m doing this as a lifestyle choice, and as a way to make the lives of even a few animals better and longer.  I don’t have any delusions that my opting not to eat meat will somehow save all of the poor animals in the world, but if I can raise the awareness of what really goes on in order to put meat on your table, maybe a few more people will make informed decisions.

I really don’t know how I feel about fish.  I shouldn’t give them any special classification because they live in water.  They’re still animals that live and breathe and feel pain.  PETA would have us call them Sea Kittens in an attempt to separate the verb – to fish – from the animal – fish.  I’ve held off for two months, but I’ve been feeling that itch.  While my life could still be complete without sushi or putting lox on my bagels, it’s really the only thing I miss about eating meat.

I took my girlfriend out to Shojin, a vegan Japanese restaurant, this past weekend.  They have rave reviews for a number of their dishes including a decent-sized sushi menu (in addition to many other vegan, organic and macrobiotic offerings).  We were really hoping it would satisfy the sushi void left in our bellies since making the decision to stop consuming meat.  We knew it wouldn’t taste exactly like the sushi of old, but we kept an open mind about it.

I’ll save the review for Yelp at a later date, but let’s just say it didn’t allow me to definitively cut out fish from my diet forever.  The Dynamite Roll lived up to its name, and according to vegan website Quarry Girl is the proverbial cream of the crop when it comes to sushi.  It was good, and I’m not complaining at all, since I’m not sure how vegetables can substitute for the very specific tastes of various fish, but still… it wasn’t sushi as I remember it.  I felt better about eating it than I might have knowing that I contributed to the death of countless fish, and the proliferation of fishing practices, but it didn’t change the way I feel.

I have no plans to give up my vegetarian lifestyle any time soon.  Whether I shift to pescetarianism I cannot say.  Many vegetarians, and even more vegans, seem radically opposed to the idea of anyone consuming flesh or animal products of any kind.  But many vegans think vegetarianism or its many subsets that allow things like milk or cheese are bullshit.  The more you look into this, the more radical the proponents and opponents on each side seem to get.  I’ve maintained that I’m not doing this for a label or to fit in with a group.  I’m just doing what’s right for me – my mind, my body and my health.  If I was okay eating fish, I wouldn’t care how people labeled me.  I’m not doing it for them.

But I’m not sure I’m okay with it.

For now I’m continuing without fish.  I’m sticking to my diet of no meat and limited “other” products.  I’d like to eventually move away from yogurt, but need to develop some new smoothie recipes before I can make that a reality.  And I have a new book to read.  It’s called The Vegetarian Myth and is written by a former vegan of twenty years.  If I read material on one side, I have to read it on the other.  Who better to lay down some knowledge than an insider.  If I’m not tired of reading food (or eating food), I’ll move on to Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat.

30 Day Experiment: Going Vegetarian

Last night I took down a cheeseburger from In-N-Out.  It was the last meat I will consume for the next thirty days (conveniently leaving me to go crazy at a churrascaria on Halloween if I so choose).  My girlfriend recently became a vegetarian, and is very close to going full-on vegan.  She jumped in with no last meat meal and hasn’t looked back.  We’ve tried a couple new restaurants and a couple new pre-made dishes, with more experimentation and actual cooking in our future.

I like to challenge myself.  I’ve done various personal challenges ranging from twenty-one days to six weeks in the past, but I’m out of practice.  In addition to her going veggie, we’ve also watched Food, Inc. (which you can stream on Netflix), which has me thinking a lot more about what I’m actually eating.  I’m reading labels constantly and trying not to buy anything with ingredients I can’t pronounce or don’t know what they are.  If it doesn’t sound like a food, I don’t want it in my body.  Unless it’s flavonoids, which just sound awesome.  After watching the movie, I’ve also started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  It’s pretty fascinating, and I’m only about sixty pages in.

With all that in mind, and given that today is World Vegetarian Day, I’ve decided to see if I have the strength to give up one of the primary staples of my diet (meat), and what the benefits or downsides to going vegetarian are.  As a guy who eats chicken and beans for way too many meals, this is going to cause some serious restructuring for me.  And don’t even get me started on giving up lox…  I eat relatively healthy, so this isn’t Fast Food Man suddenly becoming Healthy Man, but it’s still going to be a big change.

For the next 30 days, I’m keeping it pretty simple.  The big thing is: No Meat.  This means I will not consume any meat (cow, chicken, turkey, pig, fish [aka sea kitten], etc.). I really debated about fish, as I love sushi and the aforementioned lox, but I feel that for the purpose of this experiment and given the mercury levels of some fish, I can do without for the duration of the experiment.  I’ll be opting for the lacto-ovo vegetarian experience, allowing myself dairy (mainly yogurt and cheese).  However, I’ll be consuming soy milk and will not add these items to any meals, I just won’t freak out if they’re in the ingredients or made in a facility or on equipment with it.  Hey, even the insanely delicious vegetarian brand, Morningstar Farms has products that contain dairy.  I may also make some pumpkin bread or muffins that contain eggs given that pumpkins are in season – or more accurately, that I just picked up a mix from Trader Joe’s…

I won’t be posting a daily log of what I eat or how I’m feeling unless things go really well or horribly awry, but I’ll definite write a recap at the end of the month and figure out what my next step is in terms of my diet.  With that I’m off to contemplate my meat-free lunch…