Death by Veganism: A Response to the NYTimes Article (Food Post III)

May 27, 2007

As many of you know, I am a wanna-be vegan. Not quite there yet, but making good progress. This is something my partner and I have researched and read quite a bit about. Wolfgang is practically a walking encyclopedia of vegan nutrition and animal and environmental facts. Thus, you can imagine our horror when we read a very poorly researched and irresponsible article about veganism in the New York Times titled “Death By Veganism. ” You can read it, in all its inaccuracies, here. Please also take the time to read the letters to the editor which respond well to the article’s problems.

Her argument is, in short, that “You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.”

I’ll respond to what I see as three main problems with the article:

First, as far as I can tell, she is not arguing against a vegan diet, but rather against vegetarian diet. On top of arguing (with no supporting evidence) that eggs and milk offer complete proteins, essential fats and vitamins (that, I assume she means you cannot get from plant sources) she argues that kids need fish to be healthy because of the Omega-3 fatty acids. First, tons of kids never eat fish anyway. I hated fish growing up and it just isn’t a regular part of lots of people’s or kids diets, especially in less developed places where people don’t fish and it can’t be imported. So if you want to make the argument that fish are essential, and that somehow ground flax seeds, flax seed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, canola oil, soy products, soybean oil, hempseed oil, and wheat germ are not adequate sources of omega-3 fatty acids (although I am not aware of any evidence that demonstrates that they are not), fine. But that seems largely unrelated to veganism and vegetarianism, and is more just a general question of what is and is not included in a healthy diet. (She also doesn’t mention the huge problem with fish being very contaminated and that children and pregnant/lactating women need to be careful about this). She also refers throughout the article to the need for things in meat. I suspect that she frames this in terms of veganism, and not vegetarianism, because vegetarianism is becoming more mainstream and accepted and she doesn’t want to step on the many toes of vegetarians that read the Times. I imagine “Death by Vegetarianism” would not be well received by many. Rather, she picks veganism because she sees it as a relatively easy target. People still see this as a bit extreme and she runs with that.

Second, I think her science is just wrong. She claims that “dairy and eggs” are needed “for complete protein, essential fats and vitamin.” She also says that “animal proteins and fats” contain “essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio. This is not true of plant proteins, which are inferior in quantity and quality.” She writes that “soy inhibits growth” and finally sums it all up by saying, “A vegan diet may lack vitamin B12, found only in animal foods; usable vitamins A and D, found in meat, fish, eggs and butter; and necessary minerals like calcium and zinc.” So there you go. But, I’m not really sure what studies she is referring to. You certainly can find studies that show a set of vegans lack a certain vitamin or this or that. But, um, you can find just as many showing that omnivores lack certain vitamins or enough of this or that. It isn’t like I would sacrifice my health, or the health of my future children, so I could eat a vegan diet. Nor would all the other very conscientious vegan families. As far as I can tell, children can do just fine with well-planned vegan diets (you can see lots of examples of them here). I think, perhaps, she confuses a vegan diet with a poorly planned vegan diet which, like any poorly planned carnivorous diet, can be harmful. (She also fails to mention the very direct link between the Standard American Diet (SAD) and a range of cancers and health problems. I mean, if you are so concerned about kids and their diet, the concern is that too many of them are overweight and suffer from childhood diabetes. The number of vegan children is minuscule compared to the number of kids with health problems because of eating a SAD diet. But I digress.)

Finally, the third problem is that she refers, very irresponsibly, at the beginning of the article, to a baby that died being fed only apple juice and soy milk and whose parents claimed to be vegan. However, feeding your baby only apple juice and soy milk has absolutely nothing to do with being vegan. These people were criminals who killed their baby by starving him. It is as if you fed your infant only hamburger meat and then when he died people said, “Well, see, a carnivorous diet kills babies.” And the author should have known this. I cannot imagine she didn’t. If she didn’t, it is another indication of how poor her research was. If she did know what she was talking about, and used it anyway, it shows her desire to portray veganism as something that it isn’t. One google search would have confirmed that this terrible death of a baby had nothing to do with veganism or the science/nutritional aspects of veganism.

Veg Family News has compiled a great collection of responses to this poor article, and also includes lots of links to medical articles from normal, reputable sources that affirm the health of vegan pregnancies, babies, and children. You can see it here: http://www.vegfamily.com/news/op-ed-nyt.htm

I didn’t plan for this to be The Weekend of Food Posts. I just have more time now that school is out and they sort of came up.

Yay for summer finally being here! Makes me so happy. More soon, I hope.

Much peace, Elizabeth


Scott Wells on Good Food (Food Post II)

May 26, 2007

Well, it seems like this is the weekend for food posts. I suggest you go over to Boy in the Bands and read Scott Well’s a healthy, sustainable diet (i.e. buying locally, eating good, whole foods). I think I underemphasize this in my wanna-be-veganism. Since a big part of my eating thoughts and practice have to do with the environment and wanting to be more gentle on it, I should point this out more. Buying organic Spinach from California uses a darn lot of gas to get it over here to MA, not to mention the fertilizer trucked in from who-knows-where. Anyway, local is good. Whole food/real food that you actually have to buy and then cook yourself is harder work than veggie rice bowls from Trader Joe’s (ahem, note to self).

There is a chapter about this in The Simple Living Guide (chapter 9 cooking and nutrition), a book which is really great at being reasonable, yet encouraging about living a simpler life. It is one of the few books that makes it seem do-able, rather than just overwhelming.


Over at Trivium: More on Ethical Eating (Food Post I)

May 25, 2007

Over at Trivium, Jaime Goodwin writes about how annoying he finds it that most of the food at church events is dull – that is, vegetarian or vegan, and that he feels like those who make this food are saying that they are better somehow better. He notes that “he has a hard time with the ethical eating concept.” It was interesting for me to read, given that I am working on a post that responds to the New York Times op-ed piece irresponsibly titled “Death By Veganism” and I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately. (More on the NYTimes article very soon.)

I appreciated Jaime’s post – it gives me pause to reflect on the way I go about my life and how I can most lovingly and gently share my excitement about the potential for veganism in terms of compassion for animals and environmental friendliness, while at the same time bend over backward to be non-judgmental and empathetic to the choices and trade-offs we all make in doing our best to live out a life that balances high ethical standards with the realities of life in today’s world.

A few thoughts:

Jaimie writes:

Again.. my respect for another’s beliefs is why I have such a hard time with Ethical Eating as a concept. To me the concept is this… I made a choice to eat a certain way, I like my choice, now I am going to point out that everyone else who has not yet made this choice that they are not as good of a Unitarian Universalist as I am. I care more about Health and the environment than they do, and my life has become much better than theirs because of this choice.

What? You say… you do not mean to send this message? I believe you. I know that you do not MEAN to send this message, but you are sending it… to me. I would imagine to others as well.

This relates to a dilemma for vegans and vegetarians. Granted, there are some that are over-zealous and who literally do say, “I care more about health and the environment than [meat-eaters], and my life has become much better than theirs because of this choice.” But I think most don’t say this or think this. It seems to me that the very fact of being vegetarian or vegan is often understood to send the message that other ways of eating are not adequate or good enough. But, when I foster kittens, no one understand this to mean that they should foster kittens or are bad because they don’t help stray animals. Or when I drive a fuel efficient car and tell people how much I like it, this isn’t interpreted as meaning that they should drive a Scion or feel bad about the car they drive. Yet, these are the exact reasons that I am vegan (or, more honestly, an almost-vegan) – the desire for animals not to suffer and the environment. As I have asked before, is there no way to share my excitement about veganism or the benefits I see to it (like I do with kitten rescuing or fuel-efficient car-driving) without it being interpreted as judgemental? I ask this just to point out that it is a difficult balance, and that all of us on every side should be understanding about the difficulty in balancing this and how food and food choices go very deep, no matter what our choices are.

As I have noted before, to me, my vegetarianism/veganism is one way that I try to live out the values that are important to me – care for the environment, love of animals and the desire that they not suffer. BUT, I do SO MANY not good things or not good enough things. I drive too much. I fly too much (especially bad). I use a hair-dryer too much. A clothes dryer too much. Too many paper towels. Don’t buy enough local food. Could foster more cats. Could volunteer more. The list goes on. To me, vegetarianism/veganism is where I feel like I am able to make a difference. But it is just one way to make the world a better place. It is the way I do it. Others do it their own way. I think we need to both call each other to be our best selves – to do our best – and yet understand that we are all struggling along in this world together, doing the best we can. It is a hard balance. We don’t always all get it right. I guess what I hope is that I can do my part in sharing vegetarianism/veganism as one option, while also making clear that it is just one option and that we need to all support each other in a range of choices we make, particularly as a faith community.

Jaime also writes, “personally I think vegan eating is dangerous and unhealthy.” I will address this in my post on the NYTimes Op-Ed piece on veganism, but I just hate it when people don’t want me to judge their food choices, and then go and judge mine. A well-planned vegan diet is neither dangerous or unhealthy. There are many studies that confirm this. Many examples of healthy vegans. Just like any diet, vegan diets need to be well-planned. There is quite a bit of evidence that meat-heavy diets can be very unhealthy. If you eat all steak and eggs and bacon and whole milk and fried potatoes, you are going to be in trouble. Just like if you drink only soy milk, eat potato chips, drink pepsi, eat cashews, and cucumbers for your vegan diet.

But more on all this later.

In short, thanks for your honest post, Trivium. Vegetarians and vegans out there! Try to be FRIENDLY, LOVING and EMPATHETIC. Maybe I’ll start a FLEUNJVV movement – friendly, loving, empatheic, understanding, non-judgemental vegetarians and vegans…


Read Reader Responses to UU World Ethical Eating Article

May 16, 2007

Some may remember a discussion that took place about Amy Harringer’s Ethical Eating article in the UU World a while back. Here is the original article: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/11130.shtml

And now UU World has printed a nice selection of reader responses: http://www.uuworld.org/issues/23517.shtml

If interested here are some of the posts that mention the ethical eating article:

My thoughts on it. Some follow up thoughts.

Philocrites writes on it. And Katharine does too.

Finding my UU Soul writes about the article and vegetarianism here.

And I could swear there was a post on Debitage on this topic but now I can’t find it.

So there you go.


Elizabeth’s Little Blog Hits the Big Time

May 15, 2007

Well, at least by my standards. The blog and my attempts to think through vegetarian questions and UUism were mentioned by Chris Walton in “Blogs and UU World” column on the online UU World. How about that! Thanks to Chris and UU World for the mention. Go here to see the article http://www.uuworld.org/issues/23520.shtml


Sigh. I am SO trying to be such a friendly, non-judgmental vegetarian. And apparently not coming across that way.

March 7, 2007

I’m sorry to continue with posting about the UU World article on ethical eating. Skip if you are getting bored with it. It is just that my eating practices and care for animals are such an important part of how I understand my ministry – to all sentient beings, humans included! As I mentioned in this post, my response to the UU World article on ethical eating was mentioned at Philocrites here. A commenter on Philocrites post writes

It’s a great article… but a shame that the puritanical streak of vegetarianism ran off with it. People need to act and eat and live more responsibly. But being chided and naughtied and disapproved and shamed for where they’re at isn’t helpful.

Darn it, double darn it. I tried so hard to come across as appreciative of the article, yet disappointed with the conclusions. Does that make me puritanical?

My question: Is there ANY way for a vegetarian/vegan to suggest that vegetarianism/veganism is the best option for eating without it coming across as obnoxious proselytizing? I mean, it is one thing to make comments when people are eating or to do a dying chicken impression or something during dinner, but is it still obnoxious when it is a thoughtful response to an article? Or to gently share about your food decisions when people ask?

Here is how I responded to several comments that seemed to think that my response to the UU World article was  puritanical, self-righteous, obnoxious, or proselytizing…

I understand people’s concern with militant, judgmental vegetarianism. I think it is important to remember that everyone does what they can – some of us fly less, some of us drive less, some of us rescue dogs, help our neighbors, grow gardens, and some of us eat vegetarian. We can’t all do it all, and I hope by pointing out in my response to the article that I need to do a lot of things different in my life – drive less, fly less, etc. – that I made this point. We are all doing what we can. That said, what I was doing was simply expressing that I think that encouraging people to push themselves – when it comes to a range of our living practices associated with compassion, sustainability, and the environment – would be best, and would be what I would like to see from our denominational magazine. No chewing out. No finger wagging. Just encouragement about what is possible and doable, as vegetarianism seems to be for a lot of people. Of course it isn’t for everyone. We can’t all do it all. There are lots of friendly, non-judgmental vegetarians out there, and I certainly intend to be one of them and regret if it doesn’t come across like that. All the best, Elizabeth from Elizabeth’s Little Blog

Don’t worry.  This is not becoming a vegetarian blog. It is just a place where I try to work out difficult theological and social issues that I struggle with.  And this is one of them.

Humbly,

Elizabeth


Food Food Food – Questions About Where to Buy and How and All Sorts of Complex Difficult Questions

March 6, 2007

Just thought I would point out two cool posts on food – one at Peacebang’s blog Poverty and Sustainability and one at the Boy in the Bands blog The Healthy, Sustainable Diet. I think both posts help highlight the complexity of the pickle we are in with food and issues of sustainablity. I would like to write my own post, but now is not the time. Enough food blogging for me in the past few weeks. Glad folks are thinking about these complex, difficult questions.


Ethical Eating in UU World – A Short Response

March 5, 2007

Philocrites mentions the article in UU World on ethical eating and refers to my response to the article in the following way:

Elizabeth, however, thinks the magazine didn’t wag its righteous finger vigorously enough, and wishes it chewed her out for driving a car, too: “I want to read an article in the UU World telling me how unethical it is for me to drive my car in a city with public transportation. I want a faith that says, ‘Hey. Get tough. Small adjustments are not going to cut it in these times.’

While I am appreciative of being mentioned on one of the best UU Blogs around, of course, I don’t wish my denominational magazine to wag its righteous finger at all, or to chew me out. I only wish, that on a topic where the suffering of so many people and sentient beings involved, and with our environment in such a serious state, we were called to be our best selves. For me, it was like saying, “Gay marriage is good. But getting there is too hard. So here are some half-way measures.” I love how our denomination has taken the difficult, uncomfortable, unpopular stances on things that are of so much importance to humanity, and to our world. I just wanted that on this too.


UU World Article on Ethical Eating: A Disappointment

February 19, 2007

The cover story for this month’s UU World is titled “Eating Ethically.” As someone for whom eating ethically and compassionately is important, I was excited about the article. While I applaud the UU World and the author Amy Hassinger for taking on this issue, I was very disappointed by the tone of the article and Hassinger’s conclusions.

To summarize, Hassinger begins by noting that she, like many, has tended to like to buy the cheapest food, not the most ethically or sustainably grown food. But she says that this is changing and she has begun to reflect on the way her food choices impact the environment. She eloquently notes that “[Eating] may be the most powerful way we Unitarian Universalists have of experiencing our Seventh Principle, of participating in the ‘interdependent web of all existence.'”

She goes on to outline the “disaster of industrial agriculture,” and, in her section on “the seventh principle response,” she encourages us to consider our food choices and how they are related to the way that we live out our seventh principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. She writes,

Eating, of course, is an essential element of our everyday experience. If we can approach our daily meals with a sense of reverence, if we can recall each time we slip a forkful of food into our mouths the many miracles it took to cultivate, harvest, and prepare that bite, we will be moving toward truly living this radical principle.

She discusses steps that we can take toward eating more sustainably – both on an individual level, and at a congregational level. And it is as this point that the article becomes problematic. While Hassinger mentions that becoming vegan seems like the best response to ethical eating, she dismisses this option by noting that “I admit that going vegan feels extreme to me: I have a hard time imagining a happy existence without the pleasure of a good cheese.” To her credit, she spends one paragraph touching on the option of vegetarianism and veganism as responses to the question of ethical eating:

Inevitably, thinking about ethical eating means thinking about the animals we eat. The Rev. Gary Kowalski, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington…believes that “the greatest and most effective thing we can do to befriend our own bodies and befriend the environment and other living creatures is to eliminate meat from our dinner table.” In my conversation with him, Kowalski ran down a list of highly persuasive reasons to take this step. He told me that eating a 16-ounce steak is equivalent to driving about 25 miles in your car. Each new vegetarian annually saves three acres of tropical trees. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat and 25,000 gallons to produce a pound of beef. Clearly, the choice to become a vegetarian—or, even better, a vegan—is an excellent way to diminish your ecological impact.

But rather than noting that she has decided to reduce the amount of meat or animal products in her diet, or encourage her readers to do so and explain how others have managed to find happiness without cheese, she goes on to present buying “sustainably raised” meat as a response to the challenges of “eating ethically.”

My first concern is the off-handedness with which she dismisses vegansim (“extreme”) and even vegetarianism. She notes simply that “My family and I are meat eaters—my husband is allergic to so many foods that meat is one of the few things that he can eat.” And, while I understand that her husband’s allergy to vegtables is a unique case and perhaps requires him to eat animals and animal “products” to survive, I am disappointed that this exception appears to form the basis for her guidance on ethical eating.

Vegetarianism is becoming more mainstream, and veganism is becoming increasingly more pleasant due to the proliferation of lots of products that expand one’s options. Veganism and vegetarianism should not be wild ideas to call Unitarian Universalists to. They should, at the very least, be the focus of an article on ethical eating – not marginal possibilities, as they are in Hassinger’s article.

Let me be clear: I understand that everyone will not become vegan or vegetarian – that we all pick our battles, our areas to make a difference. I have made the decision to do all that I can to reduce my consumption of animals and animal-based products such as milk and eggs. Yet, I drive too much and I fly too much for various reasons. I would hate for someone who rides his or her bike everywhere to judge me for how I transport myself. I know that my flying to visit my friend in DC is much less ethical than taking the train. Driving to the store is problematic when I could walk. I need to work on this, among lots of other things. But, and this is the key point, I am not writing articles on ethical transportation. And this is the problem I find with Hassinger’s article. If she and her family have made the decision to eat meat, that is certainly their decision to make. But, the problem is then writing an article about ethical eating explaining how people can buy “sustainable” meat and then every Unitarian Universalist household in the country getting a vision of Ethical Eating in their mailbox via the UU World that involves consumption of animal products.

I need people to encourage me to get tough, and make the hard decision to radically change my transportation habits. Because this is what our world needs. We need people be making radical decisions about sustainablity and love. Love for our planet, for the future of the world, and love for sentient beings that are able to suffer just like our cat or dog. I want to read an article in the UU World telling me how unethical it is for me to drive my car in a city with public transportation. I want a faith that says, “Hey. Get tough. Small adjustments are not going to cut it in these times.”

Likewise, we need people to encourage us to make radical decisions when it comes to the food we eat. People transition to veganism and vegetarianism all the time. It might start with meat reduction or cheese reduction. It takes time to adjust. It takes will. But the point is that it is do-able. And, if it is do-able, I want to be called to that.

There is more I want to comment on as it relates to the article, but I don’t want to overdo it here. I will write a follow-up post with some information about how serious the situation of our planet is and why I think that it takes hard, difficult decisions to respond ethically to the situation, and I also have some additional thoughts on living a compassionate life and if and how that can involve eating animals or animal products when it is not necessary for our survival.

Much peace,

Elizabeth


Potential UFETA Cookbook

February 17, 2007

I set this up as a place for UFETA folks to post recipes for a potential UFETA cookbook. Please post your recipe with ingredients, directions, serving size (serves X people), name, and congregation in the comments. Of course, this is also open to other UUs who have great vegetarian or vegan recipes who want to contribute to a potential UFETA cookbook. Make sure it is a recipie you have tried and you know actually works and tastes good. If you have a special story to go with the recipe (it was your grandma’s or it is a favorite at church potlucks) please feel free to include. You can also email recipes to elizabeth199@gmail.com, although I thought it would be nice to have them all together here online too. Once we get enough recipes together, we can either put it online at the UFETA website or make it into a booklet and sell it (or give it out as outreach). If you have special vegan or vegetarian tips that you want to share, include those too and we can maybe find a way to incorporate them into a cookbook eventually. Thanks!