Foodbyte #6: Even eating less meat is a miracle, so become a Lessmeatarian

The recommended 5.5 oz of meat a day represents a 30% reduction from the average 8 oz American's currently eat

The recommended 5.5 oz of meat a day represents a 30% reduction from the average 8 oz American's currently eat

“Even eating less meat is a miracle.” I love that quote by Thich Nhat Hanh (see his Diet for a Mindful Society). In keeping with Buddhism’s Middle Way, it acknowledges that being responsible for our planet and our fellow creatures does not have to be an act of extremism. While I’m sure most animal rights groups would disagree with that statement, I’d like to look at this logically.

Let’s look at three facts about meat consumption:

  1. Meat consumption at current levels (about 200 lbs a year per capita in developed nations) is a tremendous strain on our environmental resources.
  2. Meat consumption at its current levels forces the market to meet the supply by growing meat in extremely inhumane conditions.
  3. Meat consumption at its current levels is bad for our health

Now, three facts about people:

  1. The vast majority of people eat omnivorously.
  2. The vast majority of people value their meat-eating experiences. To them there is nothing wrong with eating meat. Plus, meat-eating is a very pleasurable experience, gastronomically, emotionally, and socially.
  3. It takes a lot of conviction and self-denial to become vegetarian or vegan. Many people go in and out of vegetarianism. I know a lot of animal-loving, nature-loving people who tried to be vegan or vegetarian, and found it difficult to sustain.

To me, I think it’s a LOT more realistic to motivate people to eat less meat rather than cut it out completely. Not only more realistic, but perhaps accepting collateral damage in the animal world by asking our meat-eating friends to simply eat less meat instead of no meat would overall save animal lives, save water, save land, save our health.

Think about two scenarios: One in which 20% of the US becomes vegetarian vs. another in which the entire population of the country is motivated to eat 30% less meat.

Scenario 1: At the rate of 200 lbs of meat eaten a year, if 20% of 300 million people became vegetarian, that would save 12,000,000,000 lbs of meat or about 30 million cows (assuming all that meat eaten was beef and that each cow yields 400 lbs of meat.)

Scenario 2: Getting the same 300,000,000 people to cut down on their meat-eating 30% (for example, say you reduced your meat-eating by one meal, or about 2.5 oz of meat daily) you save 45 million cows.

But, which scenario is more likely? According to a Harris Interactive poll in 2003, only 2.8% of people polled in the US said that they NEVER eat meat, poultry, or fish–which is the basic definition of a vegetarian (recognizing that there are lots of different kinds vegetarians, according to how strict you are).

To get that 2.8% up to 20% would be a tremendous challenge, because of ingrained attitudes about meat that I mentioned above.    If you are vegetarian, you might feel encouraged by a rise in vegetarian restaurants in midtown Manhattan, but just travel to Kansas City and talk to people about taking their meat away from them.

Maybe you could convince those same people, however, to try eating meat at only one meal a day instead of two, or two meals a day instead of three. So, you skip the bacon at breakfast one day. Or the cold cuts at lunch on another. You could educate them into realizing that that small gesture can make a world of difference in terms of their own health, and the health of the planet.

Mark Bittman, the food columnist for the New York Times offers a challenge on his website.  The Food Matters Challenge (named after his book, Food Matters), asks people to pledge to become Lessmeatarian–and to make a commitment  (and sign up on the website, if a formal commitment will help you) to reduce  consumption of meat, dairy, over-processed carbohydrates, and junk food.    As a motivator, you might want to read a great article of his, published in the Times on January 27, 2008 called “The World–Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.”

He is not a vegetarian.  Nor is Michael Pollan, who explored that option in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.   They both recognize that moderation and prudence are good things when it comes to taking responsibility for ourselves, our planet and our fellow creatures. 

Some of us may eventually evolve to eating less and less meat.  I did–in 1998 I determined to eat meat at only one meal a day.  Then I said that if I had the option, I would always choose the non-meat option.  Then I cut out meat and poultry entirely.  I do eat fish occasionally, and I do eat dairy.  On Thanksgiving I eat a turkey raised at a local poultry farm.  On St. Patrick’s Day, I eat corned beef and cabbage.

We all have our own paths to take and the path can meander.  God bless those who are dedicated to living out their convictions on a straighter, narrower path in terms of compassion for animals or concern for the planet.  But for most of us, maybe our commitment is to just cut down, and that’s enough.  That’s doable.

Doable–and a miracle in itself.

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Foodbyte #1: Questions to Chew On about Eating

4424752For my birthday last week, my daughter gave me a book by Christopher D. Cook called Diet for A Dead Planet:  Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.  I haven’t really started reading it in earnest yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  As I mentioned in my early post about Lent:  A Tool for Simplifying, reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma set me off on a Lenten challenge to give up high fructose corn syrup.  In addition, it really incited in me an interest in food politics, and it ultimately changed the way I eat.   In fact, when I quit my corporate job last year to become a consultant, part of the reason I left was because I recognized that I couldn’t change the way I eat and simultaneously work the hours I was working. 

As a person who once made instant mashed potatoes for her son believing that she was making him pancakes, I obviously do not approach this point of view from the vantage point of being a food snob.  On the contrary, my goal in eating, most of the time anyway, is to be able to check it off on my daily to-do list.  I have always been a complete failure in the kitchen and relied heavily on the nice assortment of fast food chains lining the main thoroughfare of my town.  So, I realized that if I were to take my diet into my own hands, it was going to be a huge challenge.   I had to go right back to the drawing board.  And I think that as a nation we are starting to think the same thing.   We need to get back to basics.

Undoing our bad dietary habits will not be easy.  It will be like untangling a pile of fishing line.  Or maybe it will be more like breaking up a bar fight—because food certainly is a passion for many of us.  The way we cling to our eating patterns–well, as the old cigarette commercial used to say, we’d rather fight than switch.  It’s amazing how primal our feelings about food are, and if we can’t address this fact, we are going to remain absolutely impotent before the forces that are doing us harm.

And the forces are many– to name a few: 

  • The outmoded policies of the Department of Agriculture
  • Every corporation with a vested stake in what goes on the supermarket shelves
  • Our dual income, acquisitive culture which puts time at work before healthy home-cooked meals
  • Our personal cravings and sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), which have been exploited by manufacturers for profit. 
  • The slippery slope we have been rolling down for decades which has permitted us to accept some really outrageous industrial practices, and take for granted others which simply don’t even make sense.

To effect serious and long-lasting change at an individual level, it will take a slow digestion (excuse the pun) of why are are where we are in America today.  That is, we are exploding in an epidemic of cardiac disease, diabetes, and other diseases that can be largely controlled simply by watching what we eat and exercising.   And we really aren’t aware of the silent puppeteers pulling our strings and making our efforts doomed from the start.

Last year (around the time I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma), I was conducting an interview with an endocrinologist, who, when asked if her patients are unable to control their diabetes simply because they are non-compliant with their therapy, she said, 

“The patients want to do what’s right.  But they are sabotaged by the supermarkets.  They pick up bread that says ‘whole grain’ but they don’t read the labels to see that they are really highly processed.  I’ve had to literally write a list of the specific products that they should be eating.” 

Because of the complexity of this issue, and also because I am not a nutritionist or a policy analyst– just a concerned citizen–my intention here is not to teach, but to ask questions, and provide possible resources for answers.  So, I will be writing ongoing bite-sized pieces of information that may be helpful in building awareness and understanding about eating as well as tools to aid in making changes.  

Here are some questions that I have been asking myself for a year now:

  • Does it make sense that most of the farms in the US have become monocultures, when crop rotation has multiple economic and environmental benefits such as avoiding the build-up of pathogens and pests, balancing the fertility demands of various crops; avoiding excessive depletion of soil nutrients and improving soil structure and fertility?
  • If we are such a compassionate society, how can we tolerate the deplorable lives millions of sentient beings spend in factory farms and feedlots?    
  • Why are farm subsidies actually hurting our farmers?
  • If factory farmers “finish” cattle (i.e., get them up to proper weight for slaughter) with corn and corn byproducts to make them fatter faster, what do all these ubiquitous corn products in our food, such as high fructose corn syrup, do to us?
  • What do we have to gain economically and physically by investing time and money in  “real” food?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions for sure, but I’m trying to learn.  So I will be sharing information.   My goal would be to try to come up with solutions that are forward-looking–not: all women should quit their jobs and go back to the kitchen, but solutions that are relevant for the culture we now find ourselves in.   To that end, I welcome dialogue for brainstorming, so please feel free to comment.  Look for “Foodbytes” blog entries about once a week.

In the meantime, here’s a great reading list from Treehugger.com:   9 Must Read Books on Eating Well

If you only have 20 minutes to spare, here’s an interesting Ted Talk given by Michael Pollan.  You can watch it at work while you’re eating lunch.

Bon Appetit!

Lent: A Tool for Simplifying

As Lent approaches, let me talk about how this time can be used as a wonderful tool.

First of all, I just want to mention that I am a lapsed Catholic. I do not participate in any other Catholic rituals, other than occasional visits to Mass and Weston Priory. There may be a time when I feel a call to return, but for now, I am what I consider to be a non-denominational spiritual seeker with strong Christian and moderate Buddhist leanings.   

But I have always found Lent to be a highly inspirational, instructive, and sometimes life-changing opportunity for spiritual practice. By making one small part of our lives change for the better for this period of roughly 40 days, we have the opportunity to become stronger spiritually, and set the behavior into our daily lives for good.

Last year, for instance, I gave up high fructose corn syrup.  A few days before Ash Wednesday, I picked up Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in the airport while on a business trip. I won’t go into why this book provoked this 40-day experiment. I would rather recommend you read this fantastic book, but as a direct result of this serendipitous pick at the airport newsstand, I had the opportunity to learn something valuable and life-changing.

By the time Easter arrived I had:

  1. Successfully eliminated HFCS from my diet for Lent. I now am much more conscious of labels and still feel that we are better off eliminating manufactured additives such as HFCS from our diet. Long-term change: Drastic reduction in consumption of HFCS.
  2. Greatly expanded my ability to cook with healthy foods. Because of the ubiquitousness of HFCS, I was literally forced to cook from scratch most of the time. Long-term change: Dare I say it? I actually enjoy cooking now. 
  3. Learned about all the local farms in my area and visited most of them. Much of these learnings came from great local food sites such as www.sustainabletable.org and its partner site, www.eatwellguide.org These two sites are fantastic resources for learning what’s available in your area, what foods are in season and when. Long-term change: I now have the resources and more knowledge so that choosing local foods is not a big mystery to me; I now plan trips to the farmers markets and local farms on a regular basis. 

I will talk more about food and this particular experience in later blog entries. But for now, I would like to set the stage for the next several weeks. To continue on the purgation theme already begun, this year will be the Lent of Letting Go. My goal will be to:

Reduce personal consumption and the number of my possessions and increase my mindful release of negative emotions such as fear, worry and anxiety, to allow me to be able to focus on the True North of my life: greater communion with God, family and friends, nature, and meaningful contribution to work and society.

That’s the journey. I will post the pathway on Ash Wednesday.

I’ll be drawing from the works of others who have  

  • Learned to thrive with less
  • Developed philosophies around voluntary simplicity
  • Have written works which both motivate and instruct. 

This means authors such as Richard Gregg, Duane Elgin, Jim Merkel, and Richard Foster. There are so many teachers to learn from in this area!

But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.  Next post:  Wednesday, February 25.