Monday, March 07, 2011

Not Really Vegan, Again

I have been thinking about absolutism, community, and perfection lately. This applies to many things, but most pertinently here, it applies to my diet and the diet I feed my family. On the one hand, there is the horrible, cruel factory farming/livestock industry, plus all the health issues associated with the consumption of animal products, not to mention the allure of a sub-culture. Who doesn’t want to be a part of a club, especially when you really do agree with club members? On the other hand, there is the isolation of disagreeing with so many people that take an absolute stance as an affront, and the difficulty of social occasions, plus the risk of what my Catholic background calls the error of scrupulosity: focusing so much on the details that you forget the big picture, why you are doing what you do.

I have gone back and forth between strict veganism and a nearly totally Standard American Diet all of my adult years. The fact that I am allergic to cow’s milk has always made vegan choices safer for me anyway, and I do feel better when I don’t eat meat. The main thing that draws me out of a vegan diet and straight back into a standard diet is the community aspect, or what I have called the problem of eating at other people’s houses (and restaurants, come to that). I would slip out of my vegan diet for a meal or two, and then feel so guilty about abandoning my principles that I would just dive back in to the standard diet, not making any effort to moderate the health or humane-ness of my food choices. It was all or nothing—if I couldn’t be a real vegan, why even try? I would still make the occasional meatless meal with a recipe I particularly enjoyed, but I would eat lots of meat, buy my eggs from the grocery store, and even eat the occasional dairy product, although I knew I would pay for it later due to my allergy.

Lately, I have been trying veganism all the way once again, and once again, it really isn’t working for me. My kids are used to me being all about the vegetables and healthy foods, but they aren’t vegetarians, and they have been missing what I had cut out. They like fish and eggs and goat cheese. The like several of the vegan dishes that I make, but they missed the other things. Truth to tell, so did I. So, I am backing off the full vegan thing again, but this time I am doing it more thoughtfully. I am thinking about my reasons for my diet choices, and what I am going to keep from the vegan experiment, and what I am going to get rid of.

I really like that being a vegan helped me to focus on eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. Not all vegans or vegetarians do this, actually, but I had health benefits as one of my major motivators, so I really make the effort to include as many fruits and vegetables in my diet as possible. There is no reason this needs to change because I am adding in a few more animal products, we will still be eating a lot of produce.

The environmental benefits of eating low on the food chain were a big benefit of veganism for me. It started out as a nice little extra, and moved into greater focus as I started thinking about environmental issues in general more and more. My backyard garden was a great way to address both the desire to get more fresh produce in my diet and the environmental impacts. There is nothing that reduces food impact like being able to go out your back door and pick dinner ingredients. I have had the garden for two years now, and I am loving it! The first year I didn’t use as much as I could, and I still bought a lot of supplemental produce, but the second year I used a lot more of what I grew. I feel so good about what I did last summer that this year I am doubling the size of the garden, and moving my herbs up to a dedicated herb garden by my patio. I am also planting more fruit trees (fig and peach this year, and maybe apple and plum next year), and I am planning to learn to can my output. I am very excited about this! Again, there is no reason that this will not continue, and continue to grow in impact in my diet, no matter what else I eat.

The biggest reason I went to the stricter diet this most recent time was animal cruelty. I still hate what animals go through to give us meat or eggs or dairy, but I am just not there yet on completely abandoning the animal products. I did find several places where I can get eggs from chickens that are truly free-range, which makes me feel much better about that. When I read Eating Animals, Foer decided to forego the truly free-range chickens, because he believes driving down the total demand for eggs would reduce the factory chicken farms more effectively. At first, this made a lot of sense to me, and in some ways it still does, but on thinking further, I find that I want to encourage the people who do raise chickens humanely by showing that there is a market for that. The thing is, I am finding a local source for my eggs, and that takes me outside of the industrial farming system, which I like.

In fact, a lot of the things that I like about the vegan diet—the environmental benefits and anti cruelty aspects especially, but the health benefits to some extent, too—are also benefited by moving to a more local economy. I like to support my local community as much as possible in everything, not just food, but it is nice to see how it fits into my diet as well. By growing a lot of my own food in my yard and supplementing as much as possible with foods from local farmers, I reap environmental benefits from the reduced travelling of my food, I reduce animal cruelty by buying from small farmers who treat their animals well, and I get the health benefits from food that is very fresh. Plus, I support my local community rather than some rich corporation.

Part of me feels very good about all of this, and like I am continuing to live my life in a way that supports principles that I feel strongly about. Part of me feels like this is all a cop out, and if I really cared, I would be 100% vegan all the time. However, I need to be realistic about what I want to do, and what I can do, and not beat myself up for not being perfect. So many times, we think of issues in extremes, as if any decision is all or nothing, and that there are no benefits to going partway. I don’t think this is a healthy way to approach life, though. Eating vegan 75% of the time and being conscious about finding more humane sources for the animal products I do eat reduces animal cruelty quite a bit over eating a standard diet. Similarly, sourcing my foods locally as much as possible and eating fewer animal products (and less of them) reduces my environmental impacts, even if I keep buying oranges and coffee and avocadoes and other produce that won’t grow locally, and continue to eat some animal products.

Forgiving myself for not being perfect is a healthier way to live, and one that allows me to continue to do a lot to promote local economies, animal welfare, the good of the environment and good health without the danger that I will give it all up as being too difficult. American culture has a strong puritan streak that often causes us to view large sacrifices as good for us, and people who cannot make those sacrifices (especially if they just don’t want to) as weak. I do agree that self-discipline and training myself to do without everything that I want right when I want it is important for a healthy lifestyle in so many ways. At the same time, making myself miserable by trying to make such sacrifices permanent isn’t healthy either, and just sets me up for failure. For me, being a strict vegan is too much self-flagellation. I know, that is a strong word, and it definitely does not apply to all vegans. Many people are perfectly happy to be vegans, and I say more power to them. But that isn’t true for me, and I don’t think it makes me any crueler or less dedicated to the environment or my health than people who go all the way. I’d even go so far as to say that if a majority of people changed their eating habits to be more like mine—with a big reduction in animal products (even if they ate meat other than fish, which I don't plan to do), and an attempt to eat locally whenever possible—a lot of the problems with our modern food production systems would be reduced, if not eliminated, without people having to entirely give up the things that they enjoy. It seems to me to be a much more sustainable choice for society as a whole, and one that I can feel good about supporting.

Getting back to the point about community, I have been writing this post for over a week now. Part of the reason for that is that I wanted to think this through thoroughly, and really articulate what I am thinking. Part of it, though, is that I strongly suspect that many people who look at this blog for vegan ideas will consider this a total copout. I feel like I am totally on the edge of the vegan community, and this won’t help. I know that I do not participate in vegan groups as much as some, because I have many other interests that take up my very limited online time, too. But I do love reading the vegan blogs and talking to the people I have met online through veganism. I suspect that I am writing this blog mostly for myself anyway; although sitemeter tells me that I get a steady stream of visitors, most of them seem to be looking for a vegan African peanut stew recipe or vegan camping ideas. So, this won’t likely change much, and all the people I like to read seem like nice people who won’t care anyway. This probably gets back to my feelings about perfectionism more than anything.


Susan G said...

Susan, I love this post. I struggle with many of these issues myself. I remember one time being at a church picnic and watching all the happy people eating hot dogs, and thinking it would be so much easier for me and especially my kids if we were like everyone else.....I don't think I will ever be completely vegan, but I agree that we just have to do the best we can and try not to beat our selves up over the "other" times. Plus there are so many animal products in everything, not just food. It would be impossible to function in the real world if we truly avoided all animal products. Keep up the good work!

Susan G said...

P.S. check out this blog for another take on this .............

Susan said...

Thanks, Susan! I am heading over to check that blog out now...

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Helen in Denver said...

I had never heard the word "scrupulosity" before, so I googled it, thanks to your post. Wow, what a concept. You wrote that it's getting lost in the details and forgetting the big picture, but the definitions I saw were also about extreme focusing on one's own sin. The psychological definition attaches it to OCD. If one makes a connection between eating choices and guilt, and throws in a little self obsession for good measure, then wow, you've really got an interesting soup going, don't you? I totally agree with you about how difficult it is to be a vegan away from your kitchen, out in the world. I've decided to just do my best and figure it will work itself out in small increments. Cheers!