It all seemed like a flawless conclusion. The world, its people and its animals are dying. Studies continually show the intelligence of nonhuman life, the scientific fact that plants reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide through respiration and the harshness and brutality of factory farms. What is a young, compassionate, educated person to do in this state of the planet and its imbalanced food systems? Go vegan. Plant-based. Perfect.
When I started college, I did just that. I lived the idyllic vegan lifestyle that would make PETA weep with happiness. My meals burst with lentils, beans, quinoa and avocados. I made protein shakes and smoothies with hemp, organic soy milk, maca, chia and coconut water. My Instagram overflowed with photos of fruit-filled oat bowls and my miles-long bike rides, and my Facebook trashed meat-eating and all who supported it.
When I started, I felt phenomenal. I had eaten healthy before the transition — lots of fruits and vegetables and never huge amounts of meat — but now there was this radical sensation of clean energy that pulsed through my veins. Everything was falling into place and I had the dream life I wanted … that is, until I woke up to an impending nightmare.
After being fully vegan for most of my college years, my body wouldn’t take it anymore. I was always tired yet I couldn’t sleep. Hunger was incessant; I felt like no amount of food would fill my being. I stuffed my face with food at meals only to feel physically full yet craving more. My stomach felt as if it were filled with lead and was constantly bloated. My digestion was either in a state of constipation or diarrhea and never in between.
My sex drive was gone. I lost all mental clarity and sharpness. I came home from lectures only to go straight to the kitchen to make meals because it was all I could think about. My academic performance suffered. My weight and muscle mass dropped until I was 109 pounds (I’m a 5’10” male, for reference), despite the fact that I ate well over 3,000 calories a day and “enough” plant protein.
I know there are vegans reading this and thinking in their heads, “Well, he didn’t do _____ right,” or, “He didn’t eat enough _____.” No. I tried everything. High carb, low carb, raw, cooked, juicing, intermittent fasting; you name it, I did it. I supplemented with B12, ate dark, leafy greens and almonds for calcium, made cheese and milk out of cashews and ate no processed junk. None of it worked. Finally, after years of abuse and depriving my body of nutrition it desperately desired, I caved: Stumbling into my favorite coffee shop, some survivalist instinct in me ordered a latte with organic, grass-fed, whole milk from a cow. Drinking it was like ingesting pure ecstasy. Immediately, my stomach pain subsided, my mind cleared and, after feeling physically satisfied for the first time in years, I calmly turned away from veganism.
While it is very true that large factory farms contribute to land use and methane emissions and that we have overfished some forms of ocean life, veganism isn’t a shining food practice either.
Since that time, I’ve studied history, anthropology and nutrition and have learned that while vegetarianism is beautifully edenistic in concept, it is unfortunately not sustainable for long-term health. Humans have biologically evolved and thrived as omnivores, mixing both the attributes of properly prepared plant foods and those of wild or pasture-raised meats, milk from cows that ate grass and fish that swam freely. No matter how many languages we speak, clothes we weave or buildings we erect, humans are still animals that consume other animals in the end.
The notion often pushed by vegans that “there is no humane meat” (a notion I once believed myself) is, in fact, a type of logical fallacy: the appeal to emotion. Plant-based dictocrats utilize guilt and fear-mongering about factory farms and animal abuse and equate these horrific practices to all forms of meat-eating and animal-raising, which is an unfair comparison. Humans cannot properly assimilate and absorb all necessary nutrition from plants and supplements, and to shame others out of perfectly normal nutrition is wrong.
Alongside cult-like guilt-tripping are complicated vegan claims of environmental and health purity. While it is very true that large factory farms contribute to land use and methane emissions and that we have overfished some forms of ocean life, veganism isn’t a shining food practice either. Almond farming — one of the most water-intensive crops in all of agriculture — has exploded in demand due to dairy replacements like cheap almond milk and nutrient-void fake cheeses and has sucked California of its already depleting water stores. Many exotic superfoods that have become staples to vegan diets such as quinoa, chia seeds, acai berries and goji berries, among others, have become such cash crops that the local populations of world producers can no longer afford to eat their own traditional foods being shipped overseas.
Much of the deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has gone not to meat production but to soybean farming, which, by the way, doesn’t create inherently healthy alternatives to meat; vegans will often push brands like Beyond Meat, Field Roast and Gardein as protein replacements when, in reality, they are heavily processed products filled with artificial chemicals, preservatives, colorings, sugar and MSG and are usually based in soy, which is a proven hormone-disruptor to men and women (known from personal experience). Combine all this with increasing scientific realization that quality animal-based sources of saturated fat, cholesterol and protein are, in fact, not detrimental to our health, and the façade of the vegan temple crumbles.
So the question arises again: What is a young, compassionate, educated person to do in this state of the planet and its imbalanced food systems … a person who also realizes the biological needs of human beings? These are the steps I recommend and personally follow to live an ethically omnivorous lifestyle:
Accept that quality animal products are healthy foods: Animal rights websites, Netflix documentaries and a handful of nutrition “experts” continuously try to enshrine studies that laud animal products and their effects on human health.
After viewing them all and being witness to both sides of the argument, the herbivore side is the one that falls short; claims they cite are often dated, badly executed, intensely cherry-picked or base their conclusions on people consuming factory-farmed/processed foods. Obviously, if you take poor creatures, pump them with growth steroids, shut them inside massive warehouses, force-feed them grain-based slop and make them live unhappily in their own filth, the products derived from these beings won’t be healthy to humans.
However, when animals are allowed space to move and breathe, fed natural diets of grasses and insects and are cared for and loved until their time to be sacrificed for our benefit, we end up with the kind of nutrient-dense foods humans have thrived on for thousands of years. Where do you find such foods?
Buy locally and support proper production: Every Saturday morning, I go to the Santa Barbara Farmers Market downtown and get pasture-raised meat and eggs, milk from grass-fed cows and cheese from a local dairy. Confusingly, many factory farms will use deceptive labeling like “organic” and “free-range” when, in reality, they still use harsh farming practices. All one must do to avoid this deception is to educate oneself on farms and brands and buy from small-scale ranchers who knowingly treat their animals with care. Buying this way not only ensures you’re getting quality and healthy products, but it also puts money into local economies and food systems rather than supporting corporations shipping packaged superfoods. In Santa Barbara, local meats and cheeses can be bought at the Tuesday and Saturday farmers markets as well as at our very own Isla Vista Food Co-op.
Use the whole animal: Industrial practices that encourage ultra-pasteurized, lowfat milk, boneless, skinless chicken breasts and mechanically separated egg whites are not only extremely wasteful in their processing, but are also just plain disrespectful. An animal gave its life for your sustenance, and the least you can do is use as much of it as possible. I personally buy whole milk, eat whole eggs and roast whole chickens with the skin, using leftover bones to make soup and its organ meats in other meals. This isn’t a new concept: all historic human societies created dishes that utilized all of the animals they hunted or raised, as they realized the importance of frugality and wasteless living.
Support restaurants that buy local: Instead of frequenting low-quality chain restaurants like Starbucks or fast food, go to local spots that utilize quality meat and dairy. Some Santa Barbara examples include The French Press, Handlebar Coffee Roasters, McConnell’s Ice Creams, Savoy Cafe & Deli, Kanaloa Seafood, Barbareño and many others.
Only eat enough animal products to satisfy your body’s needs: I may eat meat, but I’m not sitting down to a 12 oz steak every meal. Most Americans grossly overeat animal-based proteins. Instead, I only eat a portion of meat the size of my palm at meals. This is a useful system for most people not only because you’ll hopefully never lose your unit of measurement (your hand), but it’s also naturally adjusted to your personal body size.
If I ever need more protein than that, specifically for athletic needs, then I turn to the vegetarian sources like beans or nuts for extra support. I relegate red meat to weekends or holidays because it’s much more land-intensive, and I never eat meat at breakfast, usually opting for grass-fed yogurt or eggs instead. I also don’t use protein powders, snack bars or “foods” in that vein, because they often support wasteful production and are heavily processed.
Eat your fruits and vegetables: Alongside my meat, I easily eat twice as much produce as my four housemates combined. Fruits and veggies provide beautiful color, variety, texture and flavor to meals or snacks and offer some valuable nutrients meat can’t provide. As much as possible, buy produce that’s fresh, local and in season. Frozen or canned may be more convenient, but they’re usually sourced from large-scale monocrop farming methods, and tropical fruits like bananas, mangoes and coconuts are shipped across the world from plantations that still utilize forced labor from both humans and monkeys. Local produce in peak season tastes better anyway and, again, is putting money into our local economies.
While veganism does get points about factory farming and eating less meat correct, its extremism is a lifestyle that isn’t inherently better for the environment or the long-term health of most humans. Stopping animal consumption isn’t the solution to our world’s food crisis, smarter means of localized production and consumption are. So at your next dinner, go ahead and eat some sustainably caught fish, a lot of salad and some bread with grass-fed butter. Just keep it local and quality, and relish in the fact that you’re nourishing yourself and a balanced world.
Austin Dalley hopes you see through the virtuous appearance of veganism.