Considering Carnivorism

14:05 Mon 20 Jul 2009
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(Actually, I’m considering a return to a wider variety of omnivorism, but that’s not as cool a title.)

I gave up eating meat about ten years ago. Since then I’ve been an ovo-lacto-pesce-vegetarian. Now, for the first time, I’m seriously considering eating meat again.

The two main ideas behind my rejection of meat were that I didn’t trust it health-wise, and that I had serious qualms about its economic impact.

Given the realities of modern industrial meat production, hormone and antibiotic usage, and things like Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, it should be clear why I didn’t trust meat in terms of personal health. I thought about trying to just eat meat from known good sources, but didn’t think I would have the discipline to do this, and that it was simply easier to cut meat entirely.

The latter, economic, issue has at its root the fact that using land for crops feeds significantly more people per square meter than using the same land for animal grazing. It takes more space and energy to raise animals for slaughter than it takes to grow vegetables, and hence I felt that meat was a luxury that it was more economically responsible, in a macro sense, to give up.

(I should note that while I abhor the cruelty prevalent in industrial agriculture, I’m not morally against killing animals to eat them as such.)

I still think those things are largely true.

So what’s changed?

I’ve been exerting more control over my diet recently, and I no longer think it would be difficult for me to restrict myself to just eating organic, pasture-fed, healthily-raised animals. After not eating meat for ten years, I think that I’ll be quite aware that I am about to eat it whenever I do, and that will make it easy to avoid eating dodgy industrial meat products. The discipline from having refrained for ten years is going to help keep me on the good stuff.

The economic issue is less clear-cut. I still have no desire whatsoever to support industrial meat production, but I’m no longer convinced that meat consumption and production per se is unsustainable. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I read a few years ago, pushed me at the time to reconsider that, as its depiction of the practices at Polyface Farm seemed quite sustainable indeed. That led me to think that framing the problem in terms of meat versus non-meat consumption was too simplistic, and it’s really about industrial versus non-industrial practices. That on its own wasn’t enough to make me think about eating meat again, but it’s an important strand.

Another strand is that I’ve been ignoring realities about what I do eat, specifically in relation to meat substitutes, primarily fish and tofu. I’m aware of the problems of sustainability relating to fishing, and have simply accepted them (while trying to only buy fish farmed sustainably). As far as soy goes, however, I’ve been wilfully engaged in wishful thinking, treating it as a kind of magical substance devoid of either ethical or health complications. I’ve known that I’ve been doing that for a few years, but I didn’t see much point in changing that (I mean, I have to get my protein from somewhere).

The strand that brought those three above together, and is pushing me to think about this more seriously, is that I’ve recently become much more physically active, and this has exposed problems with my diet. A key one is protein, and how much of it I’m getting. Two months ago I was eating mainly vegetablees, fruit, tofu, bread, occasional beans, and occasional fish. After talking to some of the people I do CrossFit with, I made a significant effort to add much more protein in the form of eggs and fish—and the difference was immediate. I had more endurance, and seemed to increase in strength more rapidly as well. Since then, they’ve encouraged me to eat meat too, claiming it’s a paramount source of protein. I’ve resisted, but I don’t think they’re misleading me. The evidence suggests that it is a better source of protein, and that it’s not easy (if really possible) to replace it with other sources and still get the same results.

That, in turn, has made me reconsider my classification of meat as a luxury. In a sense, anything I could survive without is a luxury, but that’s not how I meant it when I defined meat as one. If my health suffers as a result of not eating meat, it’s not a luxury. I don’t think my health has suffered much as a result in the past, but I’m now a lot more active and intending to remain so. I’ve also decided that fitness and health are more or less the same thing, and that fitness can be at least approximated by CrossFit performance. So if meat isn’t bad for me, and I need it to perform better at CrossFit, that means I need it to be fitter, and that means I need it to be healthier. At that point, it’s definitely not a luxury in the same sense as I meant it when I gave it up.

So I’m going to try eating it again. It’ll take me a little while to get there, and I’m absolutely not going back to industrial meat of any kind. I still won’t eat meat when I eat out, either. But, hopefully soon, I’ll get the practicalities ironed out and eat meat for a while, maybe a couple of months, and see how how it affects my performance. After that, I might try cutting it out for a while (substituting fish) to see if I can get a handle on how much of a difference it really makes.

The key point, though, is that sometime in the near future I’m going to be eating meat. On purpose.

15 Responses to “Considering Carnivorism”

  1. Jeff Fry Says:

    Very interesting!

    My buddy Alpesh coined the phrase “glorious exception” to describe his relationship with meat: something he chooses to eat when he thinks, “this is too good to pass up!” but not to have it be his default. In general, you’re describing /thinking/ more about what you eat, which I think has tremendous value in itself. Looking forward to hearing reports from your experiments!

  2. Niall O'Higgins Says:

    On the subject of soy, I thought this was an interesting page: http://www.westonaprice.org/mythstruths/mtsoy.html

  3. Helen Says:

    Interesting, indeed! I’ve noticed much the same, to be honest; my gym performance has been dipping, and I have a strong suspicion it’s as a result of my low-protein diet, which was fine when I wasn’t training, not so much any more. Personally, I don’t want to start eating meat again, so I’m going to have to make a concerted effort to get more vegetable/dairy protein. Any tips? On the subject of soy, Niall’s link is v. informative, but I would like to add that the most environmentally damaging production of soy is the mass plantations being created for animal feed, not the far smaller amount that is actually farmed for human consumption.

    I think an emphasis on sustainability makes a lot of sense; I also note with amusement that it’s become much more modish of late. Straw polls among my undergraduates suggest that vegetarianism is almost unknown, but they do tend to think about where their meat comes from. Vegetarianism pure appears to be more and more the preserve of hippies, lesbians, punks and people of the Morrissey generation.

  4. 2BiT Says:

    Up the hippie lesbian punks! Fuck Morrissey tho.
    Go kill a chicken and see how you feel… no escaping where it all comes from then.

    You could always try roadkill…been readin Caro’s blog? :D

    Don’t go forgettin about nuts and beans/pulses as a protein source.

  5. Lev Says:

    Fascinating. This is a thoughtful, well articulated argument (I expect no less of you) but I’m not entirely convinced that carnivorism can be sustainable in the real world. The ideals presented in Omnivore’s Dilemma may in fact be the real luxury, since quotidian meat-eating requires compromises (Polyface Farm-like meat is still hard to come by). I’m curious- would you permit yourself only a meat meal that has rabbinically blessed by the Sustainability Priesthood? Regardless, I welcome you back to the delights of the flesh and would be happy to serve you an organic, sustainable grassfed steak.

  6. Tadhg Says:

    Jeff: I’ll keep you informed!

    Niall: That soy page is definitely interesting, although I’d like to see references for a lot of the information there.

    Helen: If dairy works for your body, it could supplement your protein; I’ve been trying milk from grass-fed cows recently, and it seems to do me some good. The traditional vegetarian solution of beans is regarded as highly suspect by CrossFit types because legumes contain high amounts of lectin… one of the reasons I’m going to try meat again is precisely because I couldn’t find good non-meat alternatives that provide lots of protein. I would try increasing the amount of eggs you eat, though, that seemed to do me some good. Oh, and organic cottage cheese might help too.

    I agree about soy for animals, and note that those are precisely the animals I don’t want to be eating!

    “Eating sustainably” is absolutely fashionable at the moment, but it seems like a good fashion. Interesting that vegetarianism per se is so much less prevalent.

    2BiT: Actually, I had a discussion with a friend yesterday about killing animals and how it seems like you should be able to do that yourself if you’re going to eat meat. I’m not sure where I land on this one—I’m not going to make myself kill a mammal as a prerequisite for eating meat again—but I think it makes a certain amount of sense, and I really think that being aware that an animal was killed to make your meal is important.

    I’m not going to try roadkill! I didn’t know that Caroline was blogging regularly, although I’ve heard tell of the roadkill before…

    Lev: I suspect you know that I’m not likely to outsource my decision-making to any priesthood! The entire concept of “sustainability” is quite complicated, and I’m not going to get into it in this comment. I will say that I’ll eat meat that’s from pasture-fed, reasonably-treated, organically-raised, preferably un-drugged animals; I suspect there will be overlap between that and sustainable practices. I might well take you up on your steak offer!

  7. Luscious Blopster Says:

    Don’t do it T! At least not at the moment. I think it would be a shame to start eating meat again, for the reasons you’ve articulated, and difficult to go back. More with 2bit on this one I think. And I don’t think it’s a fair comparison, as you’ve been working out without attempting a more protein rich diet from veggie sources, at least not very comprehensively. Also you eat out a great deal and don’t cook your own food (apart from eggs which I applaud) which is much more sustainable and could allow you to modify your diet much more. Also devil is in the details here – even with very sustainably farmed meat, it could only work globally at most if eaten once or twice a week – though perhaps that’s all your thinking of. I’m not a hardliner on this, I may one day eat meat again myself, in some form or at some times, but another issue is that being vegetarian is something we can all do where we have the luck to live, unlike much of the world, and it is a political act too. Sorry I don’t have time to answer this properly right now but looking forward to discussing further.

  8. Helen Says:

    LusciousBlopster – that’s a really good point about eating out. I suspect SF is different, but in the UK and Ireland, eating sustainably-produced meat in restaurants is prohibitively expensive. Cooking your own is by way the best way to control your diet. As for you, my vegetarianism continues to be political – though I also believe that a restricted meat intake can be a very positive step too.

  9. Tadhg Says:

    Luscious Blopster: Time to break out the point format!

    1. The moves I’m making with my diet are towards greater control over it, not lesser control. The only thing that’s going to make it hard to go off meat again would be if eating meat has tangible benefits for my health… in which case I would naturally question removing it from my diet.

    2. Over the last two months I’ve eaten out about twice per week, so I’ve had a reasonable amount of control over my diet in that time.

    3. I have definitely made an attempt at eating more protein-rich foods within my ovo-lacto-pesce-vegetarian bounds. A critical point here is that I’ve consulted fairly heavily with the other people I know doing CrossFit, and looked at CrossFit recommendations on diet generally, and the CrossFit consensus is anti-legumes on the basis that we’re really not very good at actually digesting them and extracting their proteins. Further, consensus (including among people who were vegetarians for years) is that meat is simply a really excellent source of protein, and that there isn’t some magic substance out there that can replace it.

    4. The question of “what can work globally” is extraordinarily complicated. Let’s assume for a moment that it would be simply impossible to sustain global meat-eating based on sustainably farmed meat. I don’t know if it therefore follows that I should not eat meat. First, because meat eating is only a single aspect of the Western lifestyle that is so clearly not supportable on a global scale and it’s not clear to me that it’s the part I should cut out; second, because I have a responsibility to myself to be healthy, and if meat is a necessary part of my diet for optimal health then that benefit (highly significant to the individual in question) might well outweigh the disadvantage of theoretical harm I’m doing by adding meat to my diet.

    5. I could equally argue that eating organically is the critical issue, not being vegetarian, and that as I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I can take advantage of (and, currently, afford) organic food, I have a political obligation to do so. This again comes down to “is it meat consumption that’s bad, or industrial food production that’s bad?” If you separate the former from the latter, I’m not convinced that it’s morally wrong, and hence that it’s politically wrong.

    6. I currently eat fish. Fish is definitely (I know this from the difference in how I’ve felt over the last month or so) a critical source of protein for me. Fish is also an unsustainable food source, and some people consider eating fish more harmful than eating meat. If I switch over from eating fish (which is as organically and sustainably produced as I can get) to eating fish and meat (which would be as organically and sustainably produced as I can get), why would that be “worse”, in terms of its impact on global sustainability? I don’t think it would be; I think that the difference is much more symbolic (I would no longer be a pseudo-vegetarian) than practical. Sacrificing even minor benefits to my health (and I don’t think the benefits under discussion would be that minor) for symbolic purposes is not something I should be doing.

  10. Sarah Milstein Says:

    Don’t recall whether we’ve ever discussed this, but I’ve been vegetarian for about 30 years (lacto-ovo now, though I was vegan for a couple of years approx 100 years ago). I’m always a bit skeptical when former vegetarians say they have more energy when they eat meat–but I don’t think a single one of them has ever tried to go back and see how they feel eating vegetarian again. Now that would be really interesting.

    Very much looking forward to hearing what you find in your experiments!

  11. Helen Says:

    Ad 4: Well. According to the UN livestock is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, and enormous environmental degradation (http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/0612sp1.htm). It’s not great, even if sustainably produced. And you know that I think that eating fish is worse than eating meat, for several reasons. Not eating meat does make a difference on a global scale. But like Sarah and the rest of the commenters here, I’ll be interested to see what happens!

  12. Tadhg Says:

    Sarah: I don’t think we’ve discussed it, interesting to know. What made you switch from vegan to ovo-lacto-vegetarian? I’ve tended to be skeptical about the “more energy” line too, but my perspective is different now that I’m working out more. I’m pretty curious myself to see what happens!

    Helen: I can definitely believe that meat production is responsible for many ills. But the clash between my responsibility to the world and my responsibility to my own health remains. It’s not, I feel, an easy question to resolve. (Also, given that raising livestock is responsible for so much of the problem, maybe I should go out a-huntin’!) The issue of fish is still tricky, particularly since given my experience over the last six weeks I’m even less willing to than before to cut both fish and meat out of my diet. If you’re right about fish being worse than meat, cutting some meat out for fish may be a net gain in terms of sustainability. I will of course keep you informed as to how things go!

  13. mollydot Says:

    Have you considered replacing some carbs with more proteiny grains, like quinoa? Not instead of meat, but just as another protein source.

  14. Tadhg Says:

    mollydot: Right now I’m trying to minimize my grain intake; I’m trying out a non-strict version of the “Paleo” diet and seeing how that goes.

  15. mark Says:

    a few points… i’ve been vegetarian for 3+ years, and vegan for 1.
    i’m 40 years old, and play ice hockey and soccer on a regular (2-3 times per week) competing with and against carnivores. i certainly havent found myself to be detrimentally affected by my diet- on the contrary, i feel lighter, quicker, stronger, and more energetic than when i was eating meat and especially dairy.

    my advantage stems from the fact that i’m married to a lifelong vegetarian- who is a fantastic cook with an encyclopedic knowledge of food ingredients. when i turned to a vegetarian diet, i did not DECREASE my menu, i INCREASED it thanks to her. there are many different sources for protein beyond ‘soy’ beans. the average carnivore/omnivore eats a very limited variety of foods- leaning on their meat as a nutritional crutch. eating is important, and requires more effort than most people dedicate in terms of researching new ingredients and recipes- and taking the time necessary to learn how to cook them.

    i encourage you to rethink your move back to eating meat- there are plenty of good reasons to do so, which i’m sure you are aware of. the basic fact of the matter is, with the world’s growing population- eating meat is unsustainable.

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