The Ethical Politics of an Ex-Vegan

May 19, 2011

Have you ever changed your mind? I don't mean about what you want to eat for lunch: I mean Changing Your Mind about something that you've believed for an entire lifetime. Back in early April 2010, I unexpectedly embarked on a crazy journey that challenged me to do this. But before I tell you the whole story, I have to say a little bit about my old religion.

I ate absolutely no meat at all for the first thirty years of my life. I was an orthodox, die-hard, never-ever-change-my-mind, completely-and-totally-committed vegetarian. I was vegan for two years as a teenager, and ate minimal animal products thereafter, through two pregnancies, and while nursing two babies. I wouldn't eat something if it contained so much as a drop of fish sauce. I privately washed utensils before using them if I found out that they had touched even a molecule of meat. I told my husband-to-be, on just about our first date, that I didn't like kissing him after he'd eaten dead chickens. I thought that ethically and morally, vegetarianism was a Good Thing, and the only thing Better was veganism. Except, I convinced myself, being vegetarian for a _lifetime_ was an achievement that most people couldn't hope to match, and was definitely at least equivalent--from a moral perspective--to someone who, say, had been vegan for the past ten years but ate meat prior to their conversion. By this logic, I decided that it wasn't so bad for me personally to have minor lapses into dairy and eggs: I still came out ahead, as a Better Person Than Most.

Then came the spring of 2010, when, no matter how I tried to spin it, it was obvious that my then-six-year-old's health was plummeting--terribly, quickly, and in a very scary way. Vegetarianism and veganism had never helped him thrive. I was desperate, researching every cure I could find, until some blurry possibilities emerged. These were dietary protocols, with excellent clinical success, which we hadn't yet tried despite years of “special diets.” And each of these protocols, though varied in the details, were absolutely and positively based on animal foods. Did we have to do this? Could I possibly leave the Faith? Could I really feed myself and my child animal flesh and animal organs and animal fats?

They say that a mother will do anything if she thinks it might save her child's life. After very careful research, I concluded that we couldn't possibly not try.

And this is how, overnight, in order to support my son's healing, I became a carnivore in a very big way. We began eating animal foods at nearly every single meal. It took me six months to not gag every time I ate flesh. On April 10, 2010--The Day I Stopped Being A Vegetarian--my identity was shattered in way that, embarrassingly, shook the very foundation of my existence.

It was all so bizarre. For the first time in my life, I began to sort of blinkingly wake up to some old news: Humans evolved to be omnivorous. There are no other omnivorous animals that choose not to eat animal foods and meat for a lifetime. We have teeth and digestive systems that are capable of eating animals. Our bodies thrive on saturated animal fats and cholesterol, despite the ways that many mainstream doctors appear to be confused about this fact. I have searched high and low, hoping against hope, but I have found no evidence of _any_ longstanding vegan human populations who have reproduced successfully over many generations. Additionally, I have found scanty evidence that veganism can help restore sick humans (like my son) to blossoming good health and sustain this health in the long term. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide sufficient evidence/data to disprove current conventional nutrition and diet advice. But if you're curious about or skeptical of the basis for my conclusions, please read the books and websites I recommend. Then, let me know what _you_ decide.


This short-story-long explains a little bit about why I used to agree with people like Melanie Joy, who stands up for “All things vegan from an abolitionist perspective”… .

And it also explains why, at a lecture given by Melanie Joy on a wintry evening in March 2011, my presence in the audience was tinged with just a small amount of irony. After twelve months of dogged research, my former support for “animal rights'” and the “health benefits” of veganism had been replaced by a profoundly different belief system: Humans Have A Physiological Need for Animal Foods.

This may seem unrelated to Melanie Joy's moral and ethical quandaries concerning the consumption of meat. But of course, if Melanie Joy is right about Veganism being The Way, then that means my new conclusions are wrong. If I'm even lightly honest, I went to her talk in order to try to poke holes in her logic, the same logic which I had championed for the first three decades of my life.


Melanie's slide show began with photos of happy children, hugging and caressing and bonding with happy, healthy animals. Aren't the photos incredible? Melanie asked us. She was trying to show the natural connection that we, especially children, feel toward animals. She wanted us, she said, to notice their childlike sense of wonder and understanding.

Melanie said her work centers around one key theme that encompasses freedom of choice, personal empowerment, and social and ecological justice. This theme is, “Making The Connection.” Our food choices, Melanie announced, are some of the most important and frequent choices that we make in our lives. Many of us have a disconnect that allows us to act against our instincts, and make choices that promote violence. What is this disconnection, this “Gap”, and how does it block our freedom of choice? What causes it? What is the solution to the Gap?

For a little thought exercise, and to begin contemplating this issue, Melanie Joy asked us to imagine: you're at a dinner party, and the host is well known for her pasta and meatballs. The PowerPoint slide flashed to a washed-out photo of pasta with meat sauce that looked disgusting. “Anyone think this looks delicious?” she asked. No one raised their hand. “Does anyone here eat meat?” I alone raised my hand. “Do you think this looks delicious?” she asked me.

The conversation continued something like this: “Honestly, no,” I said, “and definitely not the pasta. But if it were pastured and humanely raised, I'd eat the meat.”

“I guess you're not a vegetarian,” Melanie said.

“No,” I said, “but I was, for thirty years. Now I'm not.”

Melanie said, “Oh, it's good to have Diversity in this audience.” She didn't quite smile.

“Okay,” she continued, “for those of you who think this looks delicious...” Her next slide flashed, and it was exactly the same plate-of-pasta photo as before. “ does it look now? Especially if, when you ask for your host's secret recipe, she tells you that the sauce requires three pounds of USDA certified top-quality _Golden Retriever_. Does it still look delicious?”

Most everyone in the room kind of gasped reprovingly, and also kind of looked at me. And I said, “I'd think it looked just about as delicious as the cow.”

You see, I don't think that many people can imagine the way I felt, on that day in August 2010 when I ate a hamburger for the first time. Ground golden retriever just couldn't be a bad as that first horrible, chewy, greasy bite of Patty Made From Ground Cow.

Melanie didn't really look at me after that, and she just kept on talking, about how people classify certain kinds of animals as edible, and how their perceptions can change simply based on finding out that a type of meat isn't from an animal that they thought it was. Melanie thinks that it's important to ask ourselves: why are we _not_ disgusted by the 4 or 5 types of meat that our culture is conditioned to think are edible? Most people have no problem eating chicken wings, she said as she flipped slides...but they'd have a hard time eating swan wings. Leg of lamb, yes, but not leg of kitten. Beef stew, they'll eat, but not guinea pig stew. Cows' milk yes; horses' milk no. Hens' eggs yes; pigeon eggs no. Why some but not others?

Melanie Joy's argument, as best as I could make out, is that we are in denial about our role as killers of animals for food. She assumes that if we truly understood that we kill animals in order to eat dinner--and if we further understood Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) “farming” practices--we would be vegan like she is. “Carnism,” a term coined by Melanie Joy, defines an Invisible, violent belief system that conditions us that it's okay to eat certain animals, but not others. Carnism, Melanie said, teaches people how not to feel.

And then Melanie said: Eating meat is not necessary in order to live a long and healthy life.


As far as I could make out, Melanie assumes that A. Killing animals in the process of food production is optional to ensure human health; B. Killing animals is bad; C. Humans make choices concerning _which_ animals they deem edible simply because of guilty consciences, while trying to keep the damages minimal; and D. If humans truly had to understand that animals died for their plates, the only logical conclusion would be to become vegan.

A. *Is killing animals in the process of food production optional to ensure human health?*

I have searched and searched to try to prove that animal foods are unnecessary for optimal human health, but so far I must conclude that they are necessary, for the following reasons:

1. I can find no evidence of ANY traditional cultures who are/were vegan;
2. Even the few traditional vegetarian cultures that existed appear to have depended fairly highly upon animal products like dairy and eggs (and often bugs, which I think disqualifies these diets from being “vegetarian”), and the process of dairy/egg production is responsible for the deaths of millions of animals: approximately 50% of those born (i.e. the male and non-food-producing animals) must be slaughtered or otherwise dealt with;
3. Doing just about _anything_ has an impact on countless other creatures in our shared environment, and often results in death for those non-human creatures, even in the case of producing non-animal-derived foodstuffs (i.e. “pests” who have to be prevented from eating this food, or animals who live in areas where humans later decide to farm (and are pushed/starved out), or countless other animals who simply dig unlucky holes in the ground in the unlucky paths of the plows).

B. *Is killing animals bad?*

Whether one can say that killing animals for food is “bad” _or_ “good” depends on your answer to question A., above. Can we can be equally healthy with or without animal foods? If yes, then naturally we can debate the good/bad moral arguments till the end of time. But if it's true that eating at least some meat is physiologically necessary for health and/or healing, then no, humans killing other animals is not bad or good, it just IS. We don't say that lions are bad or immoral or making “bad choices” when they kill their prey; we agree that every species needs to eat in order to survive, and lions are obligate carnivores. This is why the seemingly small question, of whether veganism is actually healthy, is necessary to answer if you are trying to pass moral or ethical judgment on dietary practices.

C. *Do humans make choices concerning _which_ animals they deem edible, simply because of guilty consciences, while trying to keep the damages minimal?*

Well, yes, I think partly we do. But why would our consciences be guilty, if killing isn't immoral or bad (see B., above)? I have some theories on that, in a minute. Partly, I think that humans tend to make choices based on what they perceive other people are doing.

Also, I believe that within each of us exists conflicting desires: a physiological need to kill to live, coupled with a physiological aversion to killing. I have always appreciated the stories I've read about various native people who so revered and honored their food sources that they literally wasted nothing, and ceremonially killed and butchered their animals so as to provide maximum connection between the animal giving its life, and the human taking it. Sort of a near total acknowledgment of the paradox that lies in killing/living/life-giving/life-taking/eating/being eaten. These ceremonies might have been useful tools to keep both sides of our Human Nature in check; we need to kill, and we need to kill Not Too Much.

If we lose sight of this duality, then we can get consumed with guilt, and that's when we feel overly Bad (or overly Virtuous) and also forget that we are all capable of feeling emotions like these.

D. *If humans truly had to understand that animals died for their plates, is the only logical conclusion to become vegan?*

I think that is only the conclusion of a person who is out of touch with the duality/multiplicity inherent in the human condition, as I attempted to state above.


Melanie Joy said that the Invisibility of animal agriculture is why eating animals seems like a given and not a choice. She said that 19,011 farmed animals are killed per minute in the U.S., 10 billion a year. The average American eats 223 lbs. of meat per year. “How many animals have you seen this week?” Melanie challenged. “Where are they? Where are the animals?” ...they're all hidden away, she told us, living in unimaginable conditions, and dying in unimaginable conditions.

I was reminded of Nicolette Hahn Niman, who wrote “Rightous Porkchop.” Niman says that animal rights activists, like many of us, mostly never spend any time on actual farms, and the only exposure they have to animal agriculture is through the horrors of CAFO factories. So I can't help wondering: does Melanie really believe that animal agriculture was _always_ invisible? What about a couple hundred years ago, before factory farms existed?

I agree that the atrocities of CAFOS are almost beyond belief. These “farms” should be supported by no thinking human, and should be shut down immediately. And yet...this is almost beside the point, if you are trying to answer a basic question, which I am: is veganism an optimal diet, or even nearly optimal, for human health?


Yes, I'm just being rhetorical...and maybe I'm only transcribing Melanie Joy's talk because I take my own private pleasure in haranguing someone with whom I disagree about defining healthy dietary choices. And here I go again, asking my selfish question about whether veganism is healthy.

But after careful research, this is the realization that so surprised me, after all those years of believing that eating Meat Is Bad: if animal foods are necessary to sustainably maintain human populations, then passing moral judgment over killing animals for food becomes a pointless construct. Lately, I laugh ruefully (and squelch some wellings of regret) when I subject my former beliefs to scrutiny:

If we kill the microscopic mites on our eyebrows when we blink our eyes, do we castigate ourselves for performing this necessary bodily act? If somebody fasts indefinitely and drinks nothing but water and sits very still, eventually their body will be dust. If somebody eats nothing but carrots, those roots are consumed to give a person life, and will no longer be alive. Much like the hidden animals in CAFO farms, we don't see the millions of small creatures who are nevertheless killed in order to produce the grain that's used to bake vegan cupcakes. A cow gives its doe-eyed life in order to produce a steak for human consumption. Many scientists and researchers would argue that our very own human cells die, gradually, when continually deprived of all animal foods. Are any of these scenarios somehow different from each other, or different from eating Golden Retriever meatballs?

Yes. But I don't think they are different in quite the same ways that Melanie Joy assumes. In every possible scenario of humans living, many Something Elses are dying. In every possible scenario, at least up until now, and since life began, and until some cataclysmic event puts a stop to all this living, both individual life and Life in general continues to be sustained. We kill to live, each and every single one of us.

And so, I believe, there is another option besides denial of this truth, and dissociation from the reality of our place in the Nature of Things. It is to notice: that Life gives way for new life to grow, which then gives way. This is the cycle of birth and death and rebirth that has been around a lot longer than me or Melanie Joy or anyone in that room that night.

Vegans often argue that as long as you kill _less_, then surely that's preferable to killing _more_. But how can anyone possibly define the amount of killing that is okay? And, it is exceptionally difficult to explain exactly why life in the form of a carrot is quantifiably different than life in the form of a dung beetle, or a pigeon, or a chicken, or a goat, or a golden retriever, or a human. We like ourselves best, because that's what species have evolved to do. We appreciate and utilize and protect other species when they're useful for us, because that's what we've evolved to do, also. It is probably a good idea to notice these propensities and potential weaknesses, and if Melanie Joy's idea of “carnism” fosters this noticing, than that seems like a useful thing.

But if we're going to get moral about things as a species, maybe we can start arguing about How Can We Kill in the Kindest, Most Appreciative ways? Or, Are CAFO feedlots really the answer?: discuss. Or: Is it reasonable to adopt a diet that is potentially unhealthful, or unsustainable for maintaining generations of healthy humans? it even reasonable to suggest that not eating animals causes less loss of life in service to human food production?

Asking these questions is possibly crucial in order to understand where we stand on this giant whirling globe of impossibly decadent life. I don't know the answers, but I don't think Melanie Joy does, either.