Diet as Religion
Nearly six months have passed since I embarked on my nutrition studies, and I feel as though I’ve barely had time to blink. So much has changed this spring, both inside and around me. The education I’ve participated in this year has encompassed more aspects of life and healing than I ever expected. There is so much to question. So many paradoxes to embrace. In my first semester, one class considered how diets are similar to religions: sacred texts (The Bible/Eat Right 4 Your Type), prophets or founding saints (Moses/Dean Ornish), induction ceremonies (baptism/detoxifying cleanse), true believers (devout vegans eschewing honey and cochineal).
Part of this process was considering my own diet as a religion. Seventeen years ago, I declared my vegetarianism. At the age of 12, I just didn’t feel right about eating animals. As I trudged through adolescence, my vegetarianism held strong. I educated myself about the arguments for my dietary way of life, and everything from the resources wasted in large-scale animal husbandry to the criminally abhorrent practices of CAFOs to the health benefits of a plant-based diet rang true. The facts all lined up in agreement with my intuition, and vegetarianism was the closest thing to a religion I have ever known. I took my vegetarianism personally, favoring a one-on-one relationship with my diet-deity over congregating and evangelizing. I had a sense that no matter what else I did wrong in my life, because I was doing this one thing so perfectly, I would be saved.
And then I read The Vegetarian Myth.
I started reading Lierre Keith’s book with the same kind of open mind that a devout but scholarly follower of Judaism might crack open a loaned copy of the Bhagavad Gita. A certain amount of respect for another’s religious devotion was tempered by a measure of pity in the knowledge that their way was not the true one. Such an undertaking might also serve to strengthen my faith, like a rumspringa, or to allow opposing ideas to be better argued against. I fully expected that if I opened this text with an intellectual open-mindedness, I would close it a more faithful and devout vegetarian.
As I began to get a sense of the author’s personality and tone, I was certain that if anyone was going to convince me that I should eat meat, Keith would not be the one to do it. I found the organizational structure of her book lacking. An 80-page chapter rebutting the moral arguments for vegetarianism was broken into smaller sections only by line-drawn illustrations of cows, which Keith seemed to think could substitute for transitions and cohesion. I wasn’t sure whether these glib drawings were more offensive to my respect for animals or for the art of writing. Her sweeping generalizations about vegetarians were combative and ignorant. We do not all want the world to subsist on rice, wheat, and corn, and though I find it hard to believe that Keith never knew a vegetarian with a pet cat, we do not all equate domestication with exploitation. Her references fall short of acceptable academic standards, so her research comes across as lazy and incomplete. Very few peer-reviewed articles are cited, while Wikipedia is a go-to source. In the end, her logic is full of holes and boundless leaps, and the data she cites are unreliable. I declared her a false prophet.
But because a prophet is false, does that mean the word they seek to spread necessarily is as well? Despite my criticisms, my interest was piqued. My faith in vegetarianism was founded on the belief that it didn’t feel right to kill other animals for my nourishment, and it was bolstered by my well-researched understanding that I could achieve not only good but superior health on this diet. As I read Keith’s arguments about the death and destruction inherent in our agricultural systems, along with the health benefits of eating naturally raised meat, I started feeling uneasy. Her own experience of converting from a vegan to an omnivore resonated with me. That thing in my “gut” that had always told me not to eat meat was becoming unsettled.
I set out to do some additional research on Keith’s claims. I dipped my toe into temptation, considered taking a bite out of the serpent rather than the apple. I started mentally picturing myself eating meat and trying to predict my reaction. There would undoubtedly be tears and guilt, but I also imagined a sense of gratitude for and oneness with all the food on my plate. I fervently researched local farms to see how possible it would be to acquire meat that I would feel okay about eating. My body seemed to be sending me signals spurring me on—the same part of my body (my soul?) that had sent me the messages about vegetarianism almost two decades ago. I worried that I was allowing myself to be manipulated, that my faith wasn’t as strong as it used to be, that I was no longer a true believer, that I had lost my way. Surely, this was some kind of test.
Like the lamb sent to Abraham for slaughter in Isaac’s stead, if I sat down to a plate of steak, would the sky rain down soybeans as a sign? I began identifying with many of the stories I read about the health effects of eliminating meat and including soy in one’s diet. The yogic tradition of ashtanga includes ahimsa, the idea of non-violence and avoiding harm, including self-harm. If my goal was to respect all creatures, and the food I was eating was harming my body, then the creature I am most responsible for respecting and protecting—myself—was being overlooked.
I became a seeker. I read gospels from various prophets, the self-described “recovering vegetarians” who had experienced their own conversions. I meditated on the quandary and wondered where my identity would be without vegetarianism. I looked inward to that intuition that had led me to vegetarianism in the first place, and I asked it what it was hungry for. I bought it a steak.
While cooking the meal, I still wasn’t sure if I’d actually go through with it. My impression of Keith’s radicalism was that she merely traded the cult of veganism for the cult of paleo. Apocalyptic fear seemed to be the main driving force behind her dogma. I worried that fear was driving me too.
Mike sliced the cow’s meat thinly, describing the technique, the characteristics of the fat, the gristle. As part of my induction, he encouraged me to lift the slices into my bowl before pouring the boiling phở broth over them. I felt the tears well in my eyes, and I was also excited. I was leaving something behind, a part of my identity that had been central to my entire sense of morality. I was embracing something new that I felt would better serve that morality—that would better serve myself and the world around me that I so deeply strived to honor. I took a deep breath, and I took a moment alone with the beef. I brought my hands to my heart in the shape of anjali mudra and bowed my head. I offered gratitude for all the lives that had gone into the meal I was about to enjoy, asked the universe to accept me back into the cycle of life and death from which I had distanced myself, and honored the promise inherent in my body that one day my death too would feed life. With that prayer, I felt at peace, and I feasted.