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The shame-free buffet: food choices and the politics of vegetarianism

By: Cameron Sidhe, Managing Editor (cenos2@uic.edu)

Across the world, cooking and eating together is a basic human ritual. More so than nearly any other species, we love to prepare, share, discuss, and think about food, and we see it more as not simply a biological imperative, but a way to bond and to understand ourselves as people and as members of cultures or societies. But sometimes, all this openness about our diets gets a little too close for comfort, when discussing food becomes less about sharing – and more about shaming.

I’m talking, of course, about the self-righteous meat-free brigade. Wherever food goes, these folks follow, whether it’s a low-key wedding reception or a greasy spoon buffet. Even worse are those who spew their rhetoric on social media websites, viciously upbraiding anyone who enjoys ribs in their spare time, posting gory photos of factory farms, and patting themselves on the back for leading a saintly life fueled by sunflower seeds and pure self-importance.

This sort of behavior has gotten to the point where any time I tell someone that I’m a vegetarian, they hasten to tell me all the reasons that they personally cannot give up meat, assuming that I am about to begin a fiery polemic against their terrible, hedonistic, meat-eating lifestyle. In truth, any such polemic I had died many years ago, when I realized that a vegetarian or vegan diet is simply impossible for many people, and that there are as many reasons for this as there are recipes for dairy-free desserts. Some individuals cannot afford the time, energy, or money that it takes to gain enough calories from vegetables and dairy to remain healthy, for reasons such as working long hours, being disabled, or being poor. For others, fresh vegetables, fruits, and dairy are difficult to attain because of food deserts, a term which means that they live in an area where getting to a grocery store is impossible or impractical. And still for others, social, cultural, and religious requirements keep them from being able to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet without causing hardship or pain to their loved ones.

It sounds strange, but following an unorthodox diet such as vegetarianism, veganism, fruitarianism, and others is actually a privileged lifestyle.  I have the money and the means to attain fresh fruit and vegetables several times a week, to pay for “fake meat,” to cook healthy meals that satisfy my nutritional requirements without meat, and to have my health monitored to ensure that if I am not getting enough protein or iron, I can resolve this without causing myself harm. For a single mother of three children, working two jobs to keep the lights on and possibly relying on government food aid, this lifestyle would be impossible. Who has time to cook a full, healthy meal for four people, three of whom are likely picky eaters because of their age, when rushing between jobs, daycares, schools, and trying to show one’s children to love and affection they need? I could not fathom doing more than microwaving frozen chicken and throwing it in a pan with that kind of responsibility and time crunch. For someone with a debilitating chronic illness who requires a vast amount of energy to do even the simplest of tasks, a fruit salad isn’t going to be enough to get through the day. There are so many other examples out there, each one just as valid as the next, of folks for whom a specialized diet is not a possibility.

The most ardent of proselytizing veggie-eaters can find ways to shame anyone who eats meat regardless of situation or lifestyle, but personally, I don’t see the point. Humans have been eating meat since the dawn of our species, and there is not a single culture, a single society, in the history of humanity who has subsisted on plants alone. Simply put, if we were not evolved to eat meat, our bodies would not be able to process it, and we would be herbivores. Same as a cow cannot eat a fish fillet and a ferret cannot process spaghetti, our bodies show us exactly what we can and cannot stomach. This does not mean that everyone on the planet should be chowing down on a filet mignon every meal, but asking the whole of our species to entirely give up meat is patently ridiculous.

It’s true that many of the politically-charged vegetarians and vegans are such because they love animals and do not want them to suffer. I think most of us can agree that a living creature in pain is a horrible thing – but screaming at and shaming those who eat meat is not going to lessen anyone’s pain, much less an animal’s. Giving a smug look to someone eating a hamburger while you pick at a salad is not going to alleviate the suffering of a cow in a factory farm. What will is to encourage mindful eating practices for those who can do so. Meatless Mondays is an excellent initiative that asks meat-eating folks to have one day out of the week meat-free, and this is something that many people can conceivably do. Even just one day of vegetarianism can create proven health benefits over a period of time, and reduces meat intake, which can encourage farms to breed less animals. If you don’t care about the health benefits of vegetarianism but don’t want animals to hurt, support the Farm Animal Rights Movement, which lobbies for stricter and more humane farming practices.

And if you simply want to feel self-righteous about what you eat and to feel better than someone else because of your diet: find a new hobby.

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