Vegan. It’s a strong word. Some wear it as a badge of honor. Some as an identity. The word might make some people roll their eyes. When I hear the word, alarm bells go off in my head.
When I was 18 and had just started college, I read a book called The Skinny Bitch. The book highlights the horrors of industrial livestock farming and essentially tells the reader that vegans are cool and skinny, and non-vegans are unhealthy, terrible, and fat. My young, ignorant mind of course wanted to be the former. The book goes further to give you advice on what you should be eating every day: raw fruit for breakfast, raw vegetables for lunch, and a mixture of grains and vegetables for dinner. You might read this and think this is a recipe for disaster and you’re right. But I, who had gained a few pounds since starting college, wanted to be skinny and cool. I remember sneaking containers into the food hall of my college to take raw fruits and vegetables out of the cafeteria. For dinner I would eat a sandwich that consisted of bread and raw vegetables inside. And you better believe I would stand up on my soapbox and sing the praises of a vegan diet. How it was the only healthy way to live, how it wasn’t killing anything, and everyone who wasn’t a vegan was morally inferior.
It wasn’t too long before I was sneaking snacks from my roommates stash and binging on them alone before hiding the evidence buried deep in the trash. I didn’t actually make the connection until I was interning at Polyface, and mentioned something about this experience, and Joel said, “Of course you were binging, you were nutritionally starving yourself.” I wish someone had said that to me then because I continued down this road for four more years. Although I would soon start seeing a nutritionist, I was still not being nourished as my body needed. I developed a full blown eating disorder where I would binge and binge until I absolutely hated myself, then I would stop eating for an entire week at a time. I would smile to concerned people and say, “I’m water fasting, it’s healthy.” And then when my week was up, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t, I would immediately start binge eating again. I would lock the door of my bedroom and eat entire boxes of cookies. I would buy croissants and hide them under my coat when I walked in the door of my apartment to eat them alone in my bedroom. Veganism is a great way to hide an eating disorder.
And while that was happening my health deteriorated. My spine degenerated. I broke a bone on a silly fall from my bike. When I broke the bone, the doctor asked me if I had an eating disorder. Oh how I wish I had said yes, please help me. My hair fell out. I was exhausted all the time. When I finally had blood tests run, I was deficient in B12, magnesium, Vitamin C, iron, and Vitamin D. The end point for me was actually a haircut. I had been getting my hair cut by the same person for my entire life. She was sort of quiet that day and before I left she said to me, “Katie, are you ok? Your hair is falling out, do you have cancer?” And so my journey back to meat, back to health, and finally to farming started.
I think the current environment we live in is ripe for extreme veganism for two main reasons. One is our separation from the natural world and two is our desire for a place to belong. We live in a world where we see almost none of the impact our lives have on things. We don’t walk outside and see the coal plants and oil refineries that power our homes. We don’t see the human beings working in horrific conditions who make our clothes and grow our food. We live in boxes. We drive to stores and buy things that we need or want. We drive home and use those things. We throw them in plastic bags when we’re done with them, often long before they’re worn out, and those bags get taken from our homes. We don’t have to put all the waste we create into a pile in our backyard and watch it grow.
Vegans operate under the premise that if they don’t physically consume an animal, that nothing is dying for their food. But it’s an illusion. Something is always dying for our food. Death has to exist for life to exist. We want to separate ourselves from the natural order of the world, but it’s just not possible. This illusion can only exist because we don’t see the effects of our actions. We don’t see the birds, the bees, the bugs going extinct because of the chemicals that are sprayed on our cropland. We don’t see the wildlife habitat destroyed to make way for more cropland. We don’t see the millions of small animals that get plowed or mowed to death every year in the production of vegetables. We don’t see the rivers and the oceans being polluted from chemical agriculture runoff. We only see the tofu and the tomato in the neat plastic package at the grocery store. Humans love to live in black and white because it’s easier. And the choice is there to live in the illusion. But it’s not helping anyone. And it’s definitely not helping the animals on this planet.
Come look at my farm. If you sit still and watch for a summer day you might see a bobcat, some deer, a coyote or a fox. You’ll see birds and bugs and butterflies. You will probably see the family of turkeys that has been growing up in the comfort of this land. The blue heron who visits the pond and the fish that swim in the stream. If you’re lucky you might even see a bear lumber through. You’ll see much more life than you’ll see on cropland. So yes, the cow might not be dying if you’re a vegan, but what else is dying? And what humans are being exploited to raise your food?
The second reason I think extreme veganism is thriving right now is because it’s more than a diet, it’s an identity, a place to belong. Our lives, probably even before Covid, are much more isolated than we’ve ever been. We are designed to live in tribes and in close-knit communities. People are so lonely today and absolutely craving a place to belong and a place to be celebrated. The vegan tribe, for better or worse, can provide that, especially in the age of social media.
When I finally admitted I was going to eat meat again, there was a lot of shame there. Why did I need to start eating meat again when everyone else was healthier than they’ve ever been on a vegan diet? The first time I talked about my journey from Vegan back to Omnivore was in an interview with Food52. And to my surprise I got so many messages afterwards from people who were vegan and felt like they needed to start eating meat again but they were ashamed to do so because of how judgmental the vegan community can be. It got me wondering how many people are out there, malnourished and only holding on to veganism so they can fit into a tribe. It’s why I have “Vegan turned livestock farmer” in my Instagram profile. So that those people can come to me knowing they won’t be shamed for eating meat and finding health again.
I woke the other day to countless comments and messages on Instagram comparing what I do to raping women. Calling me a sick and pathetic cunt. Calling me a demon, the ultimate betrayer, and calling on other people to come to my farm and hold me accountable for what I’ve done. One person went so far as to wish me dead. “Die, bitch,” were her words. It seems that even greater than their disdain for normal meat eaters, they are particularly offended by me because I used to be a vegan and now I eat meat. It’s interesting how violent these people are when they claim to be non-violent animal lovers and no wonder why people are scared to admit they need to eat meat again.
All of this to say, it doesn’t matter too much to me what you eat. But it’s time to take off your glasses and see beyond the illusion you’re hiding behind. If you eat from the industrial food system it’s contributing to poisoning the earth and the people on it. It’s burdening our healthcare system and killing people. And it’s exploiting most of the people who are working in that system. It doesn’t matter if you’re eating tofu, tomatoes, or beef. This isn’t to shame you if you are eating from the grocery store. It’s just to break the illusion. Not everyone has the means to remove themselves from the industrial food system. And that’s on our government and the pharmaceutical industry who also controls the agriculture industry. I’m not offended if you choose to eat meat or you choose not to eat meat. I just ask that you remove yourself from the illusion that if you don’t eat meat, nothing is dying for your meal. All life comes from the death of things before it. I think it’s dangerous to push extreme diets down people’s throats whether it’s veganism or a carnivore diet. We’re all different. Our ancestors evolved in different places on the earth eating very different diets. That matters. Our blood types matter. Many things matter. Our lives and our health will always be nuanced and complex no matter how hard we try to cram it into a few black and white boxes.
If you want to make a difference, listen to your body. Ask questions about where the food came from, who raised it, how the earth was affected by it. If you can, eat things that grow near where you live. Getting connected to my food has given me a new quality of life that I never even knew existed. That sick, 18 year old vegan in me wishes someone had given her this blog post before years of abusing her body. I firmly believe that we cannot heal ourselves without healing the planet and we cannot heal the planet without healing ourselves. It’s one big, messy, beautiful circle of life and death. And I’m here for it, are you?
Food For Thought: Grass-fed Beef- The Most Vegan Item in The Supermarket