I've always loved food. Some people don't enjoy eating; they see it as a task of maintenance and are generally just looking for something that ticks the necessary boxes and 'fills them up'. I'm not like that. I look forward to eating and like taking time to enjoy a delicious meal.
Growing up, my parents fed me and my siblings well. My mother's main concern was that we had as much as we needed and that it was real food; normally meat, three veg and potato, pasta or rice. My father's concern was that we always finished our meals. If we didn't, we couldn't leave the dinner table, and that was a strict rule. We had healthy packed lunches for school and rarely ate fast food. We would look forward to getting takeaway on a Friday night, which was normally either Thai food, Indian or pizza. I didn't think too much about it; I just ate what tasted good. And I always finished my meals.
I started thinking more about what I was eating after I began working out at around age fifteen. Since then, my diet has always been very closely related to my training. Like most kids who become interested in improving their physical capacity, my first point of contact was a local gym, in which I encountered what was more or less bodybuilding, sometimes referred to as 'body composition training'. This approach is characterised by lifting more weights for more repetitions in order to get more muscle. As is the case with many things in our culture, this sort of training is grounded in an accumulation mindset; more is more, and what I have now will never be enough. And that meant more food.
I was told I needed more carbs and more protein if I wanted to get bigger. So I began eating huge amounts of food; often four of five big meals each day with snacks in between. I did a lot of exercise so I could eat as much as I wanted without putting on fat, and that's what I did. I saw myself growing and became hooked on 'making gains', which was closely related, in my mind, to eating a lot. I ate like that for five years.
Cutting Out Meat
In 2012, I started studying philosophy. In an introductory course, I came across Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher best-known for his thoughts on animal ethics. Singer is a utilitarian, meaning he believes that:
- The consequences of our actions are what matter, not our intentions;
- A 'good' action is that which maximises utility in terms of the interests of those affected;
- All interests ought to be treated equally regardless of to whom they pertain (i.e., my interests are not more important than yours, nor are those of my family, etc.).
In his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, Singer argues that animals also have interests that must be taken into consideration, claiming that the line drawn between animals and humans is arbitrary. In the same way that it's racist to treat white people differently than black people because of the colour of their skin, it's 'speciesist' to treat humans differently than animals because they belong to a different species. Given most of us agree that racism is wrong, speciesism is also wrong, so we must accept that animals have interests that ought to be taken into consideration when making moral deliberations. According to Singer, the only prerequisite for having interests is being sentient, i.e., able to feel pain. If an organism can feel pain, it at least has an interest in not experiencing pain. One can have much more advanced and complex interests, and humans do have certain interests that it seems other animals are incapable of having, given we have sense of self, aspirations for the future, and so on. But animals do have interests that deserve to be considered. We might say that a human's interest in being alive carries more weight than that of a cow, given the death of a human would likely damage a wider and more significant array of interests than the death of a cow. Most of us, however, don't eat cows out of necessity, but because beef is accessible and it tastes good. Singer's moral conclusion, then, is that we should generally avoid eating meat.
I found Singer's argument to be very convincing and toward the end of 2012, having written a couple of essays on animal ethics during the year, I was intellectually on board with cutting meat out of my diet. I then read a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (gifted to me by my brother, Ben, who was vegan at the time), which tells the story of a father struggling to decide what to feed his yet-to-be-born child and, in the process, learning everything there is to know about the factory farming industry in the United States. I did some research and found that the industry in Australia was not all that different. After finishing the book, I decided that my interest in enjoying the meat of animals reared through factory farming was strongly outweighed by those animals' interests in not being raised in horrifyingly barbaric conditions and then being slaughtered. I'll leave out the details on those conditions, given I don't want this to be another graphic article about factory farming; most people already know the industry is disgusting and 'inhumane'.
In principle, I don't believe that humans shouldn't eat animals. It's obvious, though, that what we're doing at the moment is unsustainable. Walk into any supermarket in a developed country and look at how much meat is on offer, then consider how many millions of supermarkets there are like that throughout the world. It's simply not possible to produce that quantity of meat the world over in an ethically sound way; it's too much! And that's typical of capitalism. Money is the only measure of value in a capitalist economy. Since a dollar-value can't be put on the suffering of animals, they're interest in not being horribly mistreated simply doesn't factor into the equation.
I used to eat meat and I used to love it. In fact, my first move was to look for more ethical sources of meat. But that was going to be too difficult and expensive, so I decided to stop eating meat as of 2013 (#newyearsresolution).
I was incredibly surprised by how easy I found it to not eat meat. The cravings vanished almost immediately. My body created new associations with different types of food; when I needed something a little more fatty, for example, I now craved nuts or avocado (which I hated as a kid) instead of a rump steak. I've since forgotten what meat tastes like, which probably makes it easier too. There are plenty of articles around about what to eat as a vegetarian, so I won't bother going into that in detail here (more eggs, nuts, dense vegetables, lentils, beans, hummus, etc.).
As a vegetarian, I felt healthier and less sluggish. I was, however, still eating shitloads of food. I didn't make the classic mistake of replacing meat with crazy amounts of cheese, milk and piles of pasta; I was intelligent about my diet and had done my research on what sorts of things I should be eating. But I still got ridiculously hangry if I didn't get food when I expected it. I would freak if I was forced to miss a meal. In a sense, I was enslaved by food, and remained that way for another two years.
The same sorts of arguments that applied to avoiding meat also applied to avoiding other animal products like milk, cheese, butter and eggs. The dairy and egg industries are equally as fucked up as the meat industry in most parts of the world. Obviously dairy cows must constantly be lactating, and the most financially efficient way to achieve that is to artificially inseminate cows, take their calves away from them the day after they're born, impregnate them again as soon as they stop lactating, and continue the process for four or five years until they can no longer produce milk at the same rate, at which point they're slaughtered. Needless to say, not all milk is produced like this, but this is the sort of milk that costs $2 per litre. I felt like my interest in consuming dairy products came a distant second on the moral scale to the interest a cow has in not suffering such cruelty.
Most people know how horribly mistreated laying hens are in factory farms. Caged hens and those kept in barns do not have enough space to flap their wings, nor can they go outside. They go crazy because of the confinement and start attacking each other, so their beaks are cut off. There's an unfortunate lack of regulation around 'free range' eggs too; the term basically seems to mean the hens have access to outside spaces. They are, however, still rammed into those spaces. Although independent organisations like Australia's Free Range Farmers Association define 'free range' as no more than 750 hens per hectare, it's possible to use the term 'free range' in Australia to describe eggs produced by hens kept at anymore up to 20 000 hens per hectare. Regardless of how free range the hens are, all male chicks are ground up alive, gassed, or suffocated to death as soon as they're sorted from the female chicks, given they can't produce eggs. People tend to assume that the male chicks are used for their meat; that seems to make rational sense. But that's not how our system works, because it doesn't make sense in financial terms to raise those chickens for slaughter and sell their meat. Laying hens are a genetically modified species, specifically designed to produce lots of eggs (today's hens lay six times as many eggs as they used to) and broiler chickens are an entirely different animal, genetically modified to grow and produce as much meat as possible, as quickly as possible. So male chicks are slaughtered at birth. There's no need for me to labour the point and, in fact, it's kind of odd for me writing about this, given I find it so obvious that the industry is inherently bad, that the animals it exploits deserve our consideration and that we shouldn't support the level of cruelty accepted as normal in the production of meat, dairy and eggs in factory farms.
So, six months after eliminating meat from my diet, I cut out eggs and dairy as well. All my nutrition was now coming from plant-based products. I became much trimmer over the following six months, in large part because I no longer ate any sort of dessert, other than perhaps fruit or dark chocolate. Most chocolate contains milk, lollies contain gelatine (which is made of animal skin, bones and connective tissues), and almost all baked goods contain eggs, butter, milk or all three. I've always had a sweet tooth so this was a big change in my diet. Cheese is another classic fatty ingredient found in unhealthy meals, meaning all those meals were gone as well. Basically, it's incredibly difficult to be an overweight vegan.
My diet wasn't the only thing changing; so was my training. It's hard to say I lost size only because of my diet, given I'd started taking a more 'functional' approach to my time spent at the gym. My training was something like a mix between powerlifting and calisthenics. I had overcome the addiction to getting bigger muscles, and found a new addiction; increasing my max bench, squat and deadlift, but I'll tell that story another day. People always asked how I got enough energy to exercise and enough protein to recover without any animal products. I never really found it to be a problem. I was still eating a lot of carbs - pasta, potato, rice, bread - and, in the beginning, I did take rice and pea protein supplements (which tasted like shit). I felt really good. Looking back, though, I still think I was letting food control me and my decisions in a significant way. I had the control to avoid eating the sorts of foods most people consume several times a day, but I still lost my shit if I was denied one of my four or five daily meals, even if just for half an hour. Vegans can get hangry too.
In early 2014, nine months after becoming vegan, I took a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina to travel for nine months in South America. I'd been warned that it would be difficult to be vegetarian in South America and impossible to be vegan. The latter was definitely true; I ate a delicious spinach and ricotta ravioli dish on my first night in Argentina. I welcomed dairy and eggs back into my diet on that trip and even ate fish once or twice when I knew it was freshly caught by locals and not the product of bottom trawling or fish farming.
Being able to adapt my diet to what was available taught me another valuable lesson about food. I discovered the difference between freedom of food - being able to choose which foods I wanted to consume - and freedom from food - being able to go without eating for long periods of time. I encountered situations on that trip in which I didn't have access to food for significant parts of the day, and my mindset on eating completely changed. It's not cool to be hangry all day and then refuse to eat most of the things available because they contain meat. So I just relaxed. I'd always been told I had to have three good meals a day and, after I started training, that I needed to eat even more. I was completely sold on this and so was my body; it had grown to expect that amount of food and panic when it wasn't provided. But hunger (for someone in my economic situation) is controllable. I made a conscious decision to eat less and let my stomach shrink back to a normal size after several years of being swollen from eating a lot and very often. Most people are familiar with the experience of devouring a massive meal and then feeling hungry half an hour later. That's what I felt like most of the time.
I was weighed down by my need to consume copious amounts of food each day, and started feeling liberated as that weight was lifted. I learnt that more isn't necessarily more. The more we have, the more we want, and the less we have, the less we need. Food was just one example, and had taught me this incredibly valuable lesson that I could then apply to other areas of my life.
Dogmas and My Diet Today
How do you know if someone is a vegan? They'll tell you within two minutes of meeting them. When I stopped eating animal products, it was all I could talk about. I wanted everyone to become vegan. I realised, though, when it became more or less impossible to be vegan during my time in South America, that I'd become dogmatic about my diet. Veganism was part of my identity and I had something of an identity crisis when I had no other option but to eat at least some animal products. It was a classic case of cognitive dissonance; I believed I shouldn't have been eating animal products, but I was eating them. I realised that my diet was a bizarre thing about which to have an identity crisis; people who don't eat olives don't have identity crises when you put olives in their spaghetti bolognese.
That's when I realised everyone has their own project. Some people protest against sweatshops, or gender inequality, or the economic disparity between the rich and the poor, or factory farming. I came to understand that I wanted to be a person that acted on what I believed in, and that's what I hoped to see in the people around me. They didn't need to act on what I believed in, but I wanted them to act on something. Veganism was one of those things, and I'm glad I made that move. Today, I'm vegetarian. I have other projects and my focus has shifted toward them. Not eating meat has become completely normal for me and I have no desire to eat it again. I never really think about it; when I go to the supermarket, I ignore the meat aisle in the same way that someone who isn't a parent ignores the nappy aisle. I don't need to ask myself every time, "Do I need meat?"; it just doesn't come up. Although I think a lot less about this aspect of my diet, I still strongly believe that reforming our food industry should be very high on our society's list of moral priorities. It's patently clear that the suffering animals go through on their way to our plate overwhelmingly outweighs the pleasure we derive from eating their flesh, and that's not okay.
I have recently made some other interesting changes to my diet. On the advice of a good friend, I now avoid most 'fillers' - pasta, rice, potato, bread, etc. - unless I really feel like I need them. I'm trying to make things as easy as possible for my digestive system. Back when I was 'making gains', I used to think if I just ate lots of everything, my body would be able to take what it needed from the endless supply of food it received. My thinking has changed on that; my focus is now much more on quality over quantity. I try to eat foods that are as real as possible - you might call them 'whole foods' - hoping I can digest them properly and take everything I need from them, rather than simply flooding my body with nutrients and assuming it can sort through the rubbish to find what it seeks.
In a sense, it's about stripping back the layers of separation between food and me, eating things in their most natural and pure state. Ideally, I'd eat all organic, local produce, but sometimes it's just not available. I stay away from canned and packaged foods where possible, buying fruit and vegetables individually and without the plastic that so often comes with them. As is particularly the case with meat, I feel uncomfortable with the massive disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from; most of us have no idea what's in the food we eat, where it grows, how it's cultivated, why it's good for us, and so on. We often genuinely forget that meat is animal flesh. Instead, we just shovel everything into our mouths until we're sated and hope our digestive system can figure the rest out for us.
I now eat 2-3 substantial meals a day and generally don't snack. What feels best for me is something similar to 'intermittent fasting'; eating only within an 8-hour window each day (e.g. first meal at 11am and last meal at 7pm) and 'fasting' for the other 14 hours (inc. through the night). I like doing that with a piece of fruit or two when I wake up for some extra energy before a morning workout. This also means that if I get into a situation where I'm forced to 'fast' for several hours, my body is used to it and I don't get that crazy panicked feeling of hunger. I don't get hangry anymore and, if I feel some hanger might be coming on, I just drink water and chill out.
With this approach, I feel a closer connection to my body's needs. I'm more in touch with my cravings and what they mean. It turns out gluten, for instance, doesn't sit well with me. I suspect my body can't process it, so there's not much point eating it. Nonetheless, if I eat a significant amount of bread one day, I'll crave bread at the same time the following day without fail. Our bodies develop mini-addictions like this all the time, and when we pay close attention rather than flooding the system, it becomes much easier to notice them.
I wouldn't tell anyone that they should become vegetarian or vegan or paleo or anything else. I just think we should all consider what we're eating, how it affects the world around us, and how it affects our bodies. Scientists might tell us that we need 23 grams of protein after every workout, but what about how we actually feel? I strongly believe that I know more about my body than a stranger in a white lab coat who conducted studies on thirty other strangers whose bodies are completely different from mine. In short, it's about getting in touch with my own reality and that of the world around me in a way that's only possible through self-experimentation and personal research.
Being dogmatic doesn't help. Neither does trying to determine other people's projects for them. I have principles that I like to follow, but if you invite me around to dinner and you've spent the last two hours preparing pizza, I'm not going to throw it in your face and say cheese is cruel and gluten makes me shit everywhere. That's not the point; confrontation rarely yields lasting results.
Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
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