Spencer Caron ’20
Arguments in favor of a vegan lifestyle have been gaining traction lately due to celebrity endorsements and sensational documentaries. Evidence of veganism’s increasing, albeit still tiny following, is the ubiquitous nature of products like almond milk and tofu. Newer and more experimental foods like The Impossible Burger—a plant-based patty that contains heme, an iron containing compound responsible for giving meat its “meaty” taste—reflect a deliberate attempt to offer vegan alternatives to some of America’s favorite foods. The Impossible Burger, and products like it, are still niche and expensive, (niche because they’re expensive?) but one can imagine that demand for such a product in the future will welcome competitors, drive prices down, and normalize consumption of products literally trying to taste like their real meat counterparts.
I ate a vegan diet for roughly eight months, starting the summer of 2017. I was doing summer research at Holy Cross and had access to my own kitchen in Williams Hall. I had been reading a bit about veganism and could infer some of the health benefits that came along with cutting out red meat, cheese, and most desserts. I suppose because I did not think much about the decision, going “cold turkey” wasn’t terribly difficult. I simply bought all plant-based groceries for the rest of the summer. This is not to say that I ate entirely healthy; peanut butter was consumed regularly, basic bread products were not eliminated, and I even found vegan Ben & Jerry’s.
Throughout the eight months, I truly enjoyed the vegan diet. I was eating even larger quantities of food per meal, but still lost some weight in the process. The most dramatic (and unexpected) benefit from eliminating animal products from my diet was how quickly my skin cleared up. I have never struggled with facial acne, but I did have frequent breakouts on my legs and shoulders. Within two weeks, those incidents had completely stopped. My digestion greatly improved because of the increased fruit and vegetable intake, and I rarely felt bloated or sluggish. Also within the first two weeks, I started doing some more research into the purported benefits of eating vegan.
First, veganism, properly defined, is a lifestyle that necessitates the complete elimination of any animal products, or products that in some way harmed animals in their making. In other words, food is just one important piece of the vegan whole; cosmetics that were tested on animals, leather belts and shoes, wood glues derived from horse hair or bug carcasses, and so forth, are all not vegan friendly. Once I learned this information, I realized I really hadn’t been capital-V “vegan.” I had really been eating “plant-based,” as I continued to buy other products without considering their impact on animals. Such a comprehensive attempt to refrain from any type of animal cruelty whatsoever is fodder for a different conversation, but I did become more familiar with the undeniable brutality of the meat and dairy industries.
To put it simply, trying plant-based eating was for me, nothing more than a personal experiment enabled by my unique living situation. Once I looked into the details a bit more, I had all the more reason to continue eating that way. Even dairy, which does not require the killing of the cow, necessitates that her babies be separated from her at birth, some of whom will be chained to a floor, so as to keep their muscles soft before becoming veal. Videos of such mother-children separations are not hard to find if one so chooses. Pigs, smarter than nearly every breed of dog, are confined to too-small spaces and their screams in the slaughterhouse are indicative of their terrifying final moments. Though far from an environmental expert, I have yet to come across a study that suggests that the western world’s consumption of meat products are in any way beneficial for the planet. The acreage required to feed animals grain could be used to feed all of those lacking adequate food now, and the amount of water needed to keep these animals alive before slaughter is staggering.
And yet, in possession of this information, I have not been able to honestly claim to have eaten a plant-based diet for months now. While I do not experience anything like self-hate in the face of this admission, I do find it indicative of two troubling personal phenomena. First, so long as something is unpopular and viewed as “alternative,” the ethics underpinning the alternative decision is often not enough to compel one to make the ethical choice. In my case, though I felt the arguments regarding health, ethics, and sustainability were all on my side, the family gatherings, nights out with friends, and just sheer abundance of non-vegan food were altogether enough to derail my attempt. Second, even once one has succumbed to social pressure and critically thought about one’s situation, making the correct choices in future scenarios remains equally as difficult as refusing the temptation in the first place. Saint Augustine in his “Confessions” steals pears from a neighbor’s tree as a teenager. At first, the theft is akin to a peer-pressure induced adrenaline rush, but even after reflecting on the wrongness of such an action, Augustine finds himself stealing pears many times thereafter. One is reminded of Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” The atheist has a hard time denying the power of such a sentiment.
I do not wish to say that any consumption of animal products is unethical. This is a question philosophers and ethicists argue about today. However, in my own life, I felt a lot better physically and mentally when I was refraining from consuming meat and other animals byproducts. When close friends first said, “Hey, that’s not vegan,” I was faced with a strange feeling of guilt, not solely for having eaten cheese, but for having so directly acted in a way that I had rationally decided was something I wanted to avoid. This conundrum is not unfamiliar to the religious person, the struggling addict, and many other groups of persons. I now refrain from making pronouncements about my diet, for there are few feelings worse than being identified as a hypocrite. This said, the near impossibility of living ethically consistent calls for a liberal dose of understanding, for otherwise one would always be hurling, and be receiving, the indictment of hypocrisy. Thus, I see plant-based eating as the ethical ideal towards which I aim, knowing how difficult just eight months of consistency proved to be.
Photo Courtesy of Augustinian Vocations