• Tawna Renee

If You Are What You Eat... An Examination of Different Diets and the Moral Obligations We Must Face

By Tawna Renee We all want what’s best for ourselves, but how do we know what “best” looks like or feels like? Is it possible that (gasp!) we all have different needs? Who are we to judge the choices people make for themselves, and what types of sensitivities arise when such judgments are verbalized or projected? In recent years I have watched veganism transform from a fringe-lifestyle, to a highly popularized and glorified trend of sorts. On the flipside, meat consumption was something that was seldom talked about but commonly practiced, and as of late it has been demonized and labeled as an “unconscious and cruel lifestyle.” When and how did this shift happen? Is it possible for us to coexist without contempt for the choices of others?

Let’s explore...

I spoke with a few friends and acquaintances who have specific dietary preferences. Rather than write an article simply in support of eating grass-fed, humanely-raised, pastured, local, and organic/non-GMO fed animal-proteins for optimal health, I chose to listen instead of just talk, something we should all practice sometimes. I asked people why they eat what they eat, and how that came to be, in hopes of breaking down barriers and opening up conversations around choice, shame, acceptance, and individualized health.

Vegan Diet Veganism is the practice of consuming no animal-based products, this includes milk products, eggs, honey and sometimes other surprising items like figs, natural flavorings, natural dyes and even some beers. The most common arguments I hear for veganism are ethics and health, with varying storylines behind them. Many of the vegans I spoke to for this piece, shared a similar story of being shamed into banishing meat from their plates. Some chose veganism because of studies they read on the health benefits of eating a diet devoid of animal-products, and others chose the lifestyle based on their ethical beliefs. Whatever the reason, there's definitely a movement happening.

Me: “Monica, I know you come from a background of meat-eating, what was it that shifted your diet to veganism?” Monica: “I went to college, and all the girls I lived with didn't eat most meats. I specifically remember one of the girls showing me these horrible videos of factory farmed animals, and it really emotionally affected me. From that point on, I shifted to pescetarianism, vegetarianism, and about 6 years go, I fully adopted veganism.

Me: “Do you feel you would have been treated differently if you had continued to eat meat during your time living with the other girls?” Monica: “I think at that age everyone is so opinionated and quick to judge, so yes, I think if I chose to continue to consume meat, it would have changed the relationship I had with my housemates. It felt like no matter what, there was judgment though, I would go home and my old friends who still ate meat would be weirded out that I was vegan, sometimes they’d kind of tease me. My family was the hardest to work with, they were concerned I would become malnourished without meat, and we often would argue when I would come home.

Me: “Would you ever consider consuming animal proteins if you knew the animals were treated fairly, fed healthfully, and given space to roam?” Monica: “Actually, over the last year and a half I have allowed myself some flexibility with my diet, and I honestly feel great. I often eat eggs, being a vegan and enjoying a healthful breakfast can sometimes be hard. You can only make so many tofu scrambles before you’re over it! The eggs are from the farm that I work at, so I get to see first-hand, how well the animals are treated and fed. I have also tasted and sampled meats and cheeses from sources I can trust, cheese doesn't settle all that well for me, but I have never felt really unwell after eating a little bit of meat. I would be open to adding certain animal products to my diet if the sourcing was ethical. I don’t know how to prepare or cook meat, so I probably won't be going out and buying it anytime soon, but I have noticed that adding eggs to my diet has improved my energy levels, I feel more full for longer, and my partner has also noted improved mental sharpness and memory.

Me: “Anything else you’d like to add to this topic?” Monica: “I think that no matter what you eat, whether that be meat, plants, or both, you should know where your food comes from and how it was tended. Vegans who eat conventional, GMO, mono-culture-grown veggies, or highly processed foods, are doing a massive injustice to the planet and often don’t even know it. I have totally shifted my diet to a local, seasonal, and organic one. I am fortunate that I work on a biodiverse farm and have access to such products, because not everyone does.

The argument of veganism can be highly compelling when we watch videos like “Meet Your Meat,” films like “Cowspiracy” and “Game Changer,” or follow popular accounts like @freeleethebanangirl. Testimonials about massive health shifts and how “our bodies don’t need meat,” can be highly stimulating yet controversial. Regardless of the validity or our personal feelings on the matter, plants can heal. They're loaded with micro and macro-nutrients, from cancer-fighting antioxidants, to immune boosting polyphenols, plants are amazing.

What needs to change in our perspective of and from veganism, is the judgment factor. Whether you’re projecting or receiving the judgment, it’s powerful and can deeply harm. As a vegan, be understanding that everyone is different and therefore has different needs, this doesn’t mean someone is an evil human because they eat meat.

After not having a menstrual cycle for 3 years, it was the reintroduction of meat that healed my body and returned my flow. I conceived my children in-part due to a whole-some diet of both meats and plants. There are countless stories like this, so please do not assume someone lives a lifestyle of ignorance just because it differs from yours. The same goes for the omnivores and carnivores that tease, belittle, and mock vegans. There are many tales of illnesses, weight-loss, and inflammation being cured from shifting to a plant-based diet (similar accounts can be found when introducing grass-fed meats into one’s diet). Regardless of personal beliefs, people should have the right to choose their path without compassionless judgment, and should not be pushed to adopt or reject a diet based on fear. Eating food should be a nourishing experience, not something that gives us anxiety and guilt.

Ex-Vegan/Omnivore’s Diet Some people (myself included), tried veganism or vegetarianism for various reasons. In the long-term, it didn’t work out, but much was learned along the way. For myself and many others, the return to meat was for health-reasons, some people return following the escape from shame that often shrouds meat consumption, and others for various unmentioned reasons. Some individuals have always allowed for animal proteins and produce, opting to stay in the middle or occasionally sway one direction or another for health or desire-based purposes. This is the middle ground, the omnivore’s world. Me: “So you were vegan/vegetarian intermittently, for several years, a meat consumer prior to that, what were your reasonings behind the shifts in your diet?” Mary: “When I was younger, I was always in athletics and my body felt like it needed the protein, so I ate meat. I eventually shifted to vegetarianism for health, I had learned that a lot of animal products contained toxic, chemical, nasty ingredients, and ethically I felt bad consuming meat too. I believed animal proteins were not healthy for human consumption, so I cut them out of my diet.”

Me: “Do you feel there was a stigma that came with consuming meat? Did you feel better when you cut the meat out?” Mary: “Depending on who you talk to, when you tell most vegans that you eat meat, they look at you like an unevolved human, and oftentimes treat you poorly. They can make you feel really ashamed and like you have to be quiet about how you eat. Everything I was seeing and reading made me think meat was super bad for me, and I believed it. In the beginning I felt great, but over time I could tell my body needed animal products, which is why I could never stick to full-blown veganism for very long.”

Me: “What was it that made you choose to bring animal proteins back into your diet.” Mary: “I kind of had to. I had a blood test done and I was told I am anemic. I had always tried so hard to be vegan because in my mind it was the right choice, the healthy choice, and so much of what I heard and read affirmed that. But now that I have reintroduced meat, and I want to be clear that my protein sources are grass-fed, pastered, and ethically raised, I feel SO MUCH BETTER! Each time I tried to be vegan, some sort of weird health issue or imbalance would come up, this was finally the last straw. I was tired of feeling embarrassed about taking care of my body, forcing myself to not eat meat because it was something that became so shameful and frowned upon socially. I feel good about the choice I made because I feel good. My body feels stronger, I retain energy and mental stamina longer, and don’t feel ashamed by my choice because I choose meats that are raised ethically and I know this is what my body needs.”

What Mary expressed to me, is almost precisely what I experienced in my journey through vegetarianism, veganism, and eventually back to an omnivorous diet. I was plagued by guilt, swayed by promises of weight loss, better energy, and overall improved health, but mostly I was ashamed to admit that as a yogi, gardener, and lover of animals, who ate meat. There is an interesting stigma attached to those of us who work in Wholistic Wellness, an expectation of sorts that we all drive electric cars, never take Western medications, and certainly don’t eat meat. But as with everything in life, there is a spectrum of existence; a variance in how we express and pursue health and wellness. I personally believe in consuming a well-rounded diet that consists of grass-fed, pastured, local meats, as well as seasonal, local and organic produce.

Another woman I spoke with named Hallie shared a similar sentiment, “I chose veganism out of desperation, I was in a health crisis and it promised results. It wasn’t until my health actually worsened that I accepted the reality that this diet was not for me, and I reintroduced meat slowly. It’s been a process, I was convinced by the media that the fats in animal proteins were making me sick, when in reality my body desperately needed them. When I started eating locally raised pastured meats alongside my local and organic produce, I didn’t feel bad about my choices, I felt I was supporting local economies, families who cared and helped me heal by providing my body what it needed in that time of healing.”

What Hallie experienced is what many ex-vegans faced, unrealistic promises and unfortunate health consequences. The return to animal-products can feel like a return home of sorts, back to a whole-some state of being, balanced in nature and devoid of shame, yet for others the return can be emotionally painful, awkward and strange. Regardless of which diet we choose, ignoring clear internal and physiological messages denies us the most primal of needs, whatever it is that your body communicates, I urge you to listen.

Animal-Protein Based/Carnivore Diet

Consumers of meat often feel they could never go for very long without meat, some even shy away from greens and fruit altogether. A friend of mine named Jason once explained his animal-protein based diet’s logic to me, “Why would I consume things that are so difficult to digest, like raw vegetables. I rely on the animals I consume to do that for me, they have multiple stomachs for a reason, plant nutrients are hard to access. The meat I eat has the nutrients I need because the animals consume the plants they need, I am able to absorb and assimilate these nutrients via the meat I consume, far easier than if I were to try to receive them directly from plants.” Carnivorous and meat-based diets only contain these nutrients if ALL parts of the animal are consumed, from bones and cartilage to offal and fats, you cannot receive everything you need without eating nose to tail. Me: “What brought you to adopt an animal-protein based diet?” Bryce: “I have always been involved with athletics, so calories and protein was a major concern for me growing up. I tried a lot of different diets, and paleo was the one that came closest to meeting my needs. I have since adapted my diet according to what agrees or doesn't agree with my body, but for the most part my diet consists of about 80% animal proteins, some cooked veggies, and fermented and sprouted foods. I noticed when I would eat stuff like rice, I would become super sluggish and tired after I ate, yet after I ate animal proteins, I would be full of energy. This prompted me to shift my diet more towards animal proteins as my primary source of calories.”

Me: “How do people usually react when you tell them you eat a primarily animal-protein diet?” Bryce: “I am often met with remarks like, ‘OH MY GOD YOU”RE GONNA KILL YOURSELF,’ or comments about cholesterol and heart disease. I recently had my blood work done and the doctor’s remarks were ‘excellent bloodwork, you must eat a lot of salad.’ I think there's this big misconception that plants make you healthy and can meet all your nutritional needs, yet there are entire cultures that have sustained themselves successfully on almost entirely animal-protein diets, like the Massai in Africa, or the Inuit in the Arctic. To be honest, I don’t want to say I am anti-vegan, but I am certainly not going to promote a diet like that as a healthy way to care for your body. We have such an aversion to meat as a culture, yet in a survival situation, if you had the choice of meat or vegetables to sustain yourself, 9 out of 10 of us would choose meat. There's this ethical dilemma that was birthed from data procured by studying factory farms, not regenerative, pastured operations who feed and tend their animals humanely and healthfully. These concerns we have about cancers and poor health, stem from wild conclusions our scientific systems have consistently drawn from the wrong material, then provided health advice from that data.“

Me: “Would you be open to adopting a more plant-based diet?” Bryce: “At this point, no. I have tried so many diets, and I know what works best for me. Raw veggies don't settle well, my digestion is far better without grains and processed foods, and my body is what governs my health decisions. I eat a lot of organ meats and cuts that are unsavory to some, but show me something that's more nutritive, easily digestible, and bioavailable than a grass-fed beef liver, and I might just eat it.”

In the End... It all boils down to personal needs. Each of the people interviewed shares the same desire; optimal health. All of us can sustain ourselves in different ways, in fact we should. The seasons and life-stages we endure, should shift us. We should be flexible in our path, not unwavering and steadfast, because that only brings stress and guilt. Be kind with your body, listen to its needs. If you crave a fake-meat burger that bleeds, rather than a homemade black-bean patty, then maybe your body is telling you something. If your blood tests tell you that you're low on iron and B-vitamins, rather than swallowing a lab-synthesized pill every morning, maybe consider sipping on some bone broth. If these things are not to be considered for whatever ethical, religious, or personal reasons, then that's ok too, because in the end it's your choice. What I want to drive home for all of us, is that no matter what your diet looks like, it should be local, organic, seasonal, and fresh. If it comes out of a box and goes into a microwave before it enters your body, it’s trash, regardless of whether there’s meat and/or veggies in there. There should be no judgment that follows the individualized choices we make for our bodies, whether your vegan, carnivore, or somewhere in-between.

Here’s where I chime in with some personal beliefs and feelings on this matter... The impact conventional monoculture farms and food-waste in landfills have on the environment, is comparable to that caused by CAFOs (which I definitely do not support in any way), the difference is that only one has been widely socially publicised. It is easy to feel sad for an animal in a cage, but what about the massive swaths of land that are plowed, pumped with artificial fertilizers, sown with genetically modified seeds, watered with toxic runoff water, and dominated by non-seasonal, nutrient depriving crops, year after year. And just think about the amount of energy used to create synthetic meat products, dozens of ingredients harvested, shipped, processed and packaged, in massive warehouses that run on fossil fuels. If the argument is “vegan for the planet,” then you’d better be eating local, organic, biodynamic, and unprocessed produce. If your argument is “meat makes my body more capable,” then you’d better source your meat from ethical, pasture-raised, non-GMO farms.

Biodynamics promises a brighter future for animals, plants, humans, and our planet as a whole. Animals on pasture rejuvenate grasslands by providing bioavailable waste, they gently till the soil, these pastures then sequester environmental carbon, the carbon returns to the soil not the air, the grasses flourish from these nutrients, and the animals graze on the grasses and plants that thrive. A field that lays cover crops, co-plants, and keeps in mind the changing seasons, sells locally and without packaging, significantly reduces carbon emissions, waste, and damage to the environment. These farming and ranching methods require less human control and a deeper relationship with nature.

In the end, let’s all just do our part to be kind stewards of the land. Let’s support one another in our health journeys instead of judging or mocking someone for their choices. Be a good human, make good choices, support your local farm/ranch, and love your body the way it asks for.

Written by Tawna Renee for Da-Le Ranch

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