This question comes up a lot.
A few years ago, for better and for worse, veganism was in vogue. Celebrities like Jay-Z and Ellen were going vegan, books like Skinny Bitch and The Kind Diet were all over bestseller lists, and there was a lot of buzz about documentaries like Food, Inc., Vegucated and Forks Over Knives. But like all pop culture fads, this one was fleeting. The past few years have even brought a cultural backlash- the cool thing now is to be as un-vegan as possible. The hipster obsession with bacon and pork belly has found its way all over everything from restaurant menus to t-shirts. And even within health and fitness communities, popular focus has shifted to the paleo, primal, Whole 30 and ketogenic diets. This means that rather than eating plant-based foods, the “clean eating” buzzword is now synonymous with cutting legumes (including peanuts), most carbs (potatoes, corn and all grains), most dairy, and instead eating a whole lot of meat, eggs and animal fat.
My intention here is not to just hate on the paleo diet and its relatives. I’ll admit that the return of the low-carb craze makes me want to tear my hair out, because science, but paleo is certainly not all bad. Cutting out dairy, refined sugar and processed foods will virtually always yield major positive results. For some people (myself included), cutting out gluten and processed soy can be incredibly beneficial too. But despite the popularity of the paleo craze, many people still have no intention in this great wide world of going back to eating animal products. So aside from “WHERE do you get your PROTEIN???” (from plants, y’all. Plants.) the big question I get all the time is “…Why? Why are you still doing this, and why did you start in the first place?”
Big Disclaimer: I’m 100% not here to be the kind of preachy, judgmental vegan who screams at you in the meat section of grocery store. I really don’t agree with that approach because I think it’s masturbatory and extremely counterproductive. But when people ask me questions about this lifestyle choice, I’m happy to answer. My answer to the big “Why” question can be broken into five parts, in no particular order:
1. The Environment
When I learned about the environmental impacts of meat, dairy and egg consumption, I was floored. It blew my mind to learn that that going vegan reduces your environmental footprint even more than choosing not to drive a car. And that animal agriculture is the number-one contributor to climate change. It’s not just the carbon footprint of animal agriculture that’s a problem (though that factor alone is huge)- it’s also the mass clearing of land and rainforest for livestock grazing, the large-scale methane emissions from livestock farts (seriously), the contamination of water from animal fecal runoff, the grossly disproportionate water usage amidst global water shortages, the nitrous oxide emissions…the argument that animal agriculture is in any way environmentally sound is, frankly, absurd. Scientists know it, the UN knows it, and it’s long past time that we made some drastic changes. And in today’s world of rapid climate change and resource depletion, all of this is more pressing than ever. Oppressed populations in particular are already facing the deadly realities of environmental degradation. For the sake of all present and future living creatures on this planet, we can’t afford not to care about this.
2. World Hunger
The production of meat, dairy and eggs is one of the leading causes of world hunger.
Let me say that again.
The production of meat, dairy and eggs is one of the leading causes of world hunger.
An animal-based diet can feed 35% of the world while a plant-based diet can feed 100%. This, too, is a multi-faceted issue: it takes exponentially more water to produce a pound of meat than a pound of plant food (if you want to use this one LA Times article to contest that, it was thoroughly de-bunked here.) And while you can feed many people with 13-20 pounds of plants, you can yield just a single pound of meat by using those plant calories as livestock feed. If you want to argue that grass-fed beef circumvents the world hunger issue, you have to confront the reality that livestock grazing causes soil erosion/desertification (rendering agricultural land no longer viable for growing crops) as well as habitat destruction and displacement that effects people and animals. There is just no way to make animal food production nearly as efficient as plant food production in terms of water use, land use and overall yield.
3. Animal Ethics
You knew I was going to say this. But let me admit something: when I first went vegan, my choice wasn’t particularly motivated by opposition to the countless forms of rampant, abhorrent cruelty employed in all branches animal agriculture from pork to leather. Like most people, I loved animals, and on some level I knew that there was cruelty going on. But I still held that classic disconnect that kept me from fully recognizing the realities of animal product consumption. We as a society have decided that it’s not weird to drink breastmilk as adults so long as it’s bovine breastmilk, and we’ve decided that eating one kind of animal corpse (like cow) is fine while eating another kind of animal corpse (like dog or cat) is barbaric. We’ve decided that yeah, animal cruelty sucks, but it’s ok to just not think about it because the taste of steak is more important. Like most people, I didn’t want to think critically about this.
Maybe it was the documentaries that made things finally click, or maybe it was the fact that once I stopped consuming said animal corpses and secretions, I lost hold of the illusions and disconnects that conditioned me to normalize them. I learned a lot, like the fact that even the labels “free range”, “organic”, “grass fed”, etc. are largely unregulated and largely meaningless in terms of animal treatment. I hear a lot of paleo folks waxing on about how they feel so morally at ease because they purchase products with these labels, while in reality they are purchasing nearly the same amount of suffering, just at a higher price. I’ll admit that I really don’t know how to talk about these atrocities in a way that people will listen, so I encourage you to see for yourself.
What shocked me the most about veganism were the massive impacts it had on my health. All of a sudden I had so much more energy and mental clarity than ever before, my immune system skyrocketed and I never got sick anymore, I got so much stronger and had so much more endurance and athletic capacity than ever (bragging moment: becoming vegan allowed me to become a triathlete and marathon runner), and the case of pre-osteoporosis that I’d developed as a teenager was reversed once I started getting my calcium from plants instead of dairy (no joke.) My healthcare costs went way down, which has made a huge impact on my cost of living. Going vegan unfortunately didn’t get rid of my pre-existing neurocardiogenic syndrome, but the improved overall state of my health meant I was no longer having cardiac episodes triggered by colds, viruses and general disruptions of medical homeostasis. My skin was clearer and brighter, I couldn’t believe how much better I felt, and I finally had a positive and liberated relationship with my body and food. After six years, I’m still enjoying the same benefits.
It’s important to note that there are countless different ways to eat as a vegan, and not all are healthy. You can be a gluten-free vegan, a raw vegan, an 80:10:10 vegan, a high-protein vegan…you can also be a vegan who just eats pasta, soy nuggets, vegan cookies and PB&J sandwiches all day. And while “junk food vegans” have the same amazing ethical impacts as any other vegans, they obviously don’t get the same health benefits. You easily can get all the nutrients and calories you need as a vegan, but whether or not you choose to is up to you; different vegans have different priorities and that’s ok.
At the end of the day, I’m not here to tell anyone what to eat or to disparage junk food vegans. But I will say that like for countless other people, choosing to eat and cook with whole plant foods has revolutionized my health and overall quality of life in ways I never thought possible.
5. Sociological Ethics
Weirdly enough, the event that led me to start reluctantly flirting with veganism was accidentally stumbling into a lecture about dairy industry advertising. Once I realized I was in the wrong lecture hall, I was too fascinated to leave. The lecture presented study after study that broke down the ways in which the dairy industry has spent the last century successfully convincing the American public that bovine mammary secretions (dairy) – which exist solely to turn baby cows into 2,000-pound mammals- are both appropriate and healthy for humans to consume. From taking apart every iteration of the “Got Milk” campaign and the “dairy can aid weight loss ” claims that were scientifically de-bunked and legally banned, to explaining the American government’s role in subsidizing meat and dairy corporations since World War I, to illustrating how the dairy industry bought its way into medical school textbooks and even grade school nutrition education, the lecture introduced me to a whole lot that even vegans don’t often mention. If you find this fascinating too, I highly recommend reading Marion Nestle’s Food Politics. If you don’t find it interesting at all, just know that the meat, dairy and egg industries have gone to (and continue to go to) wildly corrupt lengths to influence what we view as “healthy food.” At my last marathon, the Colorado Beef Council bribed a group of runners to represent them as “Team Beef” so as to help improve the image of red meat among health-conscious folks.
For me, veganism means standing in opposition to a lot of interconnected systemic problems that link the greed of corporations, government and healthcare systems to mass detriment in public health and wellbeing, especially among marginalized populations. There are reasons why low-income black and brown communities typically have very little access to food that isn’t heavily processed and animal-laden, and there are reasons why diet-related chronic health problems are especially prevalent among such communities (spoiler: it’s not those communities’ fault.) It’s nearly impossible for communities to be empowered without access to wellness, and it is impossible to have access to wellness without access to whole plant foods. Intersectional veganism opposes the institutions that enact oppression through food supply, it opposes the oppression of women through animal agriculture industries (for more info on this, check out Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat), and it stands for the rights of people and animals who are exploited by cruel and corrupt industries.
So I get it. There’s a lot of terrible vegan food out there (to be fair, there’s just as much terrible non-vegan food) and a lot of preachy vegans who make you want to close your ears, rip them off their soapbox and eat an entire steak right in their face. I get that veganism isn’t the “cool” thing to try anymore, and I get that it sounds really hard and potentially really miserable. I get that you really, really love cheese. But spoiler alert: if you do it right, you can end up eating and feeling better than ever and what’s more, you get to live in a way that’s aligned with your ethics on so many different planes.
I’m not someone who believes in any one-size-fits all diet; I’m a firm believer that different bodies have different needs (though again, veganism actually allows for a ton of flexibility to tailor your diet to your own body’s needs.) While studies have shown massive widespread benefits of a vegan lifestyle on public health, I’m not qualified and it’s not my place to make the claim that any singular diet is definitely best for every human body. Regardless, it is abundantly clear that veganism is the best choice from an ethical, sociological, humanitarian and environmental perspective, and there’s simply no getting around that. To pick on paleo and keto specifically, nothing can ethically or environmentally justify the consumption of that much animal product. This is a fad that draws in large crowds with pallid pseudoscience while having not an inch of responsible moral ground to stand on. As a chef, I’m not here for it. As a person trying to not be a crappy person, I’m not here for it. As an athlete, I’m not here for it. As a wellness nerd, I’m not here for it. And neither are scientists.