Recovering from surgery the past few days has provided an unfortunate abundance of television time. And guess what everyone’s been talking about this week (“everyone” being the influential Ellen & Oprah)? The magic of being a vegetarian.
I’m listening to all this and thinking (pardon me, fellow vegetarians): what a bunch of boloney!
Yesterday, Ellen hosted Jonathan Safran Foer on her show. He wrote the influential book Eating Animals, and I interpret “influential” by the flocks of readers proclaiming their newly improved lives. Nine year-old girls and middle-aged men alike shared testimonies of their successful, healthier lifestyles since becoming vegetarian—after reading this book. Without exception, everyone was happier, more energized, living more harmoniously, etc.
Day Two of recovery, I catch the second half of Oprah’s show called Food 101. In her satellite interview with Alicia Silverstone (adorable in the 90’s satire Clueless), Alicia evangelizes about all the glories of veganism, as exemplified in her book The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet. If the title alone doesn’t suggest some awfully big promises, allow me to share some of her comments from the interview. Since becoming vegan, she has no more acne, bloating or fatigue. Alicia’s life is “brighter”, she has lost and maintained a healthy weight, and the “whites of [her] eyes are actually whiter”.
Perhaps I’m too skeptical for my own good, even for someone sharing in this celebrity’s passion for advocating healthy food choices. But I fear these narratives offer false promise setting up readers/listening/viewers/followers for certain disappointment.
There are a few things I want to say about my personal experience with vegetarianism, and I hope this is a safe venue to begin a dialogue on the matter. I really wish a vegetarian lifestyle offered the same success and transformations for me that it offers for Ellen and Oprah’s followers. But I have persistent acne, doctor visits as frequent as the next meat-eater, and worsening eyesight despite my carrot intake. It would be simple to be swept away into vegetarianism made to sound like the perfect, trendy diet. Truthfully, I object to meat for its taste and texture before principal. To cut meat from a standard diet anticipating dramatic life changes… well, I fear these motivations lead to ultimate disappointment.
I love my life as a vegetarian for endless reasons: I feel great about what I’m putting in my body (and believe I’m improving my longevity as a result), I generally have less concern about food safety, it’s little challenge to maintain a limited fat intake, my diet offers an abundance of variety (vs. 142 ways to dress chicken breasts), and I rarely experience “gross” satiety upon finishing a meal.
Though I gleefully spread my love for vegetables and fresh food throughout my social encounters, I wouldn’t ask, or even suggest, that the people in my life become vegetarians. To alter one’s view of certain foods as “sacrifices” and others as “indulgences” worries me. I’m writing my final research project this semester on the evolution of America’s relationship to food via home cooking trends, and surely will have more to say on the subject later. But for now, it seems to me that moderation of all foods (real, grown foods), and a variety of nutrient-dense foods offers the most fulfilling diet for many eaters. Do the foods we ingest not have more impact than the foods we restrict? Our bodies are not nourished by what we’re not eating, but what we are. Rather than “good food” and “bad food” labels that offer guilt or relief, I think altering our perception of food must be done in a way that values food for its benefits and quality in our lives.
While I’m on my soapbox, can I make a brief statement about Fake Meat????? When Oprah’s cameras followed Alicia Silverstone into the grocery store today, Miss Silverstone stopped at the freezer section to drool over breaded imitation chicken breasts, reminding her audience that these really, “aren’t so bad”. Thus, she continued, “giving up meat doesn’t have to be so hard”. For meat lovers seeking low-fat alternatives, soy burgers/tofurkey/fake bacon strips may be a feasible option. But, please shed light on this for me: How can a vegetarian find fake meat appealing? Even edible?? As I stated above, I have long eluded animal products because the taste and texture gross me out. Naturally, I don’t turn to vegetarian “tastes just like real chicken” alternatives because they have the same detrimental effect. For vegetarians who oppose the slaughter of animals, how can a product so similar in taste and appearance be acceptable? I would so appreciate input on this matter.
Vegetarians have all kinds of connotations and reputations, and I wouldn’t doubt there are readers who might overlook my blog for its vegetarian association. But I felt it pressing, in the midst of this “responsible food movement” to set out a few crucial talking points on the matter.
Please, please, please: if you can, eat your veggies and eat them in abundance. Choose fruits and whole grains, too. But enjoying your food, participating in its preparation, and demanding the delicious, is what I believe contributes to a healthy, fulfilling life. That’s just my take.
April 2010 update: the food blog Tigers & Strawberries had a powerful post inspired by Micheal Pollan’s comment that American women have stopped cooking. If you’re interested in reading (and I highly suggest it!), click here.