Sunday, January 27, 2008

Choosing to Eschew Meat (and other animal products)

Picture: Floret Forest by Carl Warner

Vegetarian: A person who eats only side dishes.
- Gerald Lieberman

That quote p
retty much sums up most people's attitude towards vegetarians, and that's assuming they even acknowledge the existence of vegetarians. Most of us live in very meat-centric societies where the vegetables are arranged as sides (or worse yet, garnishes) to the large hunk of meat in the middle of the plate. At least in the U.S., the plant-based diet really gets the short shrift. Most everyone loves eating meat, and the societal mindset is that meat is an essential part of the daily diet. The tide is starting to change somewhat, but being vegetarian is still far from being mainstream.

I chose to become vegetarian midway through college. Why swim against the current when everyone else continued to eat meat? Though I really loved eating meat back then, two things inspired me to try going vegetarian. First my mom did it, so I thought I'd try it too. Also, I was a l
ittle chunky at the time, and I perceived going vegetarian to be a good way to drop the weight. I didn't start off with noble causes. I have to admit I went vegetarian largely for vanity.

Despite my selfish initial reasons, becoming vegetarian was one of the best choices I've made in life. It wasn't an easy choice since I was pretty addicted to meat and was surrounded by avid meat eaters, but then life isn't supposed to be easy. Initially, I just gave up beef. Then I cut back to having chicken only 1-2 times a week. When I finally gave up chicken, I slowly cut back on eggs. Little by little, I've been cutting as many animal products out of my diet as practical (I still eat yogurt and a little cheese). During my vegetarian transformation, I noticed that my weight indeed dropped significantly and I felt a lot healthier.

Nowadays, I continue living a vegetarian lifestyle. My reasons have become more complex (though vanity is still one of them) as I have learned about the health, environmental, ethical and moral aspects of vegetarianism. I try not to proselytize to my meat eating family, friends, and acquaintances even though many of them keep trying to convince me to eat meat and sometimes lecture me on how I am nutritionally deficient. Admittedly, much of it is in jest, but I worry about the ones who honestly believe I'm committed to an unhealthy, un-American, and unnatural lifestyle. In an attempt to purge misconceptions and explain why I'm vegetarian, I put
my spin on the arguments for eschewing meat and animal products.

Health & Nutrition
The beef industry has contributed to more American deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters, and all automobile accidents combined. If beef is your idea of "real food for real people" you'd better live real close to a real good hospital. -Neal Barnard

McDonalds announced it’s considering a more humane way of slaughtering its animals. You know they fatten them up and then kill them. You know the same thing they do to their customers, isn’t it? - Jay Leno

Despite what many people have been misled into believing, you can readily get all the nutrients you need from a plant-based diet. Meat has a higher density of nutrients which makes it easier to get your complete nutritional needs from meat, but eating vegetarian is by no means difficult. You just have to make sure to eat a well-planned and sufficiently varied diet to ensure you get all the essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. The average vegetarian gets nearly twice as much protein in their diet than is necessary to thrive. God only knows how much excess protein the average meat eater is getting. A full discussion of nutrition of vegetarian nutrition is well beyond the scope of this blog post, so I'll just link a few informative sites.

Studies have shown that diets high in meat lead to higher incidences of cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease. Vegetarians (the ones who know how to eat properly anyhow) usually live longer, healthier lives and get sick less often. A meat-centric diet, particularly when rich with high saturated fat red meat, doesn't do the body good.

Then there's the issue of eating low on the food chain for cleaner food. If you were awake in biology 101 (I don't blame you if you weren't. I thought it was a little dull myself and I majored in bio), you know that environmental pollutants concentrate the higher up on the food chain you eat. In today's world, there's a lot of environmental pollution to concentrate in those meat products. A good example of this would be mercury in fish. Also, most livestock is fed lots of corn laden with pesticides. Meat eaters would be well advised to at least consider eating higher quality meats (grass fed beef, organic and antibiotic free livestock, etc).

Also, consider this: meat actually rots in your intestines before it's digested. While we humans (I hope we're all human) are omnivores and can eat meat, it doesn't necessarily mean we should. Our digestive tracts are better optimized for a plant based diet. I'll make some concessions to this line of reasoning for people who do extremely physically demanding things where the nutrient dense meat makes more sense, like with hardcore bodybuilders or people that do consistently do very strenuous physical labor. However, the vast majority of people can't justify a meat-centric diet based on their level of physical activity. Bill Pearl (former Mr. Universe) and Carl Lewis (U.S. Olympic multiple gold medalist) were both elite athletes and both vegetarian. Most meat eaters (despite what their egos might tell them) come no where close to the same level of physical activity as a competitive athlete.

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet. - Albert Einstein

Meat production has huge environmental impacts. It takes a lot of resources and results in significant environmental pollution. Most of the agriculture in the U.S. is actually devoted to growing corn, soy, and other grains as livestock feed. Those crops require a lot of fertilizer and pesticides, both of which are usually synthesized from petroleum. Large amounts of water are required to grow the crops, which is particularly appalling in a time when large portions of the country have water shortages. Then the fertilizers and pesticides used on the crops run off into our water supply, polluting our limited pool of potable water. And that's just the consequences of the feed production.

Industrialized meat production typically involves packing the largest number of animals into as small amount of space as possible. Just think of how much excrement you produce and how pleasant your sh... ahem... waste products are. Multiply that up by several thousand animals in a factory farm, and consider that large animals like cattle will outpoop a human by quite a bit. It's no surprise that concentrated livestock growing results in large lagoons of excrement which really stink and are rather unpopular with communities living nearby. With that much waste from animals fed pesticide laden feed and doped up on antibiotics, it's nearly impossible to prevent leeching of unwanted chemicals in the environment and the water supply. Add to the fact that the waste lagoons are often not sufficiently well managed, and you get unpleasantries such as waste runoffs during heavy rains. I don't know about you, but streams of poo flowing through the environment around my community doesn't seem like a particularly good thing.

Remember those antibiotics I mentioned a few sentences ago? Because the livestock animals are packed in unnaturally cramped and unsanitary quarters, they have to be pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from dying off from disease. Basic genetics and microbiology tells us that high antibiotic levels will favor bacteria resistant to the antibiotics. You may have heard of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the news. You can thank antibiotic pollution from factory farming for contributing to that problem.

To make matters worse, the issues I just described are just considering the domestic problems with factory farming. We have quite an appetite for meat in this country, and cheap meat at that. Consequently, we have to import meat from other (poorer) countries. That's wasted oil shipping livestock from other countries. Even more disturbing is that in order to grow cattle overseas, rainforests are often cut down for farmland to grow the grain necessary to feed the cattle. Cheap beef for the U.S. comes at the cost of rainforest destruction.

You'd think from the number of times I've heard "what can you eat?" that meat is the only food in the world. The truth of the matter is that the culinary possibilities with a vegetarian diet are far more varied than a meat-based diet. Meat has a pretty distinct and strong flavor, which precludes a lot of culinary possibilities simply because the meat flavor would overpower everything else in the dish. If you need to ask what a vegetarian eats, just check out Michael Bluejay's website for a small sampling of what a vegetarian eats.
It's not that vegetarians are eating a limited and unnatural diet. More likely, it's meat-centric thinking that is skewing people's views and limiting their perception of all the culinary possibilities.

Vociferous defenders of carnivorous eating often argue that eating meat is natural and that meat is really tasty. Neither of those statements has any inherent truth; eating meat is both an acquired behavior and taste. Poet Douglas Dunn once humorously said if you give a child an apple and a chicken, he would naturally play with the chicken and eat the apple--while a cat, presented with the same choices, would eat the chicken and play with the apple. I've known plenty of people who haven't liked certain types of meat. There is no intrinsic quality of meat that makes it any tastier than any other food. It's all meat industry propaganda and social conditioning that makes the taste for meat so prevalent.

Ethical & Moral
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. - Gandhi

The eating of meat is not particularly ethical by most standards. It's pretty rare for someone to starve to death (especially in the developed world) from not eating meat. But people do starve to death every day all over the world. Malnutrition and lack of food is still an unsolved issue in the developing world, and eating meat doesn't help matters. The grain used for livestock feed could feed up to 5 times as many people as the meat produced from the livestock. With cattle, it can take 16 pounds of grain protein to generate 1 pound of beef protein. Growing meat to feed people has a really poor nutritional efficiency. Compounding matters is that grain grown in other countries is often used for or exported as livestock feed instead of being used to feed the poor and
malnutritioned locals.

Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds theirs. -Leonardo da Vinci

Then there's the whole issue of animal suffering. Factory farmed animals just don't live pleasant lives. From birth to death, factory farmed animals are brutally mistreated. The list of atrocities is far too long to list, but I'll just give a few examples. Chickens have their beaks cauterized (while fully conscious and unanesthetized) so that they can't peck at each other while being jammed into overcrowded cages. Quite a few of them die from the traumatic shock of the process. Animals farmed for meat are usually slaughtered in pretty gruesome ways. Chickens are hung upside down (often still conscious) and mass killed with a spinning saw blade. Cows are killed by having electrodes shot into their brains or are tasered (electrically incapacitated) to have their throats slit. The measures taken to knock them out don't always work, so they are often conscious while they are being killed and skinned.

You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fewer people would eat meat so enthusiastically if they were to witness the horrors of a slaughterhouse. I'll wager that most people would even get queasy with the thought of a "humanely" butchered animal. There's a fundamental disconnect of people from their food. People have no understanding of where their food comes from and absolutely no respect for the sacrifice of a living thing to provide that meat entree on their plates.

Then there's the human cost to the meat industry. Meat packing is one of the nation's most dangerous yet lowest paid jobs. Combine fast production lines, lots of sharp objects, numerous power tools, heavy livestock carcasses, and lots of low paid illegal immigrant workers crammed into close working quarters, and you've got conditions ripe for a multitude of accidents and injuries. Of course, because of the high percentage of illegal immigrants in the meat-packing workforce, there is little to no political voice to spur any real change.

Spiritual & Religious
The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion. -Buddha

I don't claim to be a devout Buddhist, but I do firmly believe in respecting all living things. Eating meat when it is largely unnecessary goes against my deeply rooted personal beliefs. A meat-centric diet causes a great deal of environmental and social harm, and results in unnecessary suffering for man and animal alike. Continuing to eat meat without need in light of that knowledge can only arise from selfish desires and flawed rationalizations.

Living in a predominantly Christian nation, it's not unusual for me to hear the argument that God gave man dominion over animals as justification for eating meat: "
Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:28). How this is supposed to rationalize eating meat baffles me. The only thing that passage tells me is that God made man stewards of the Earth. Jesus preached a message of love and compassion. There's nothing compassionate about factory farming. Eating meat causes significant human suffering, adds to world hunger problems, and shows no love for your fellow man. Finally, factory farming is bad for the environment; it essentially defiles the very creation man was commanded to oversee.

Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight. ... Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering. -Rev. Andrew Linzey


Lastly, there are economic reasons for being vegetarian. It's usually pretty cheap to eat as a vegetarian. A lot of meat eaters I run into usually disagree with that assessment, and to be fair, they are partially correct. It is actually easier and cheaper to not be vegetarian in the U.S. But that requires buying lower quality meats and lots of rather unhealthy food items. So, I will qualify my statement a little more precisely: a proper well-planned diet is cheaper when it's largely vegetarian as opposed to meat heavy.

There's also the fact that meat in the U.S. is highly subsidized. The federal government gives enormous subsidies for growing corn (which is ultimately fed to livestock). As a result, the price of meat is artificially lower than it should be. Taxes are the only reason meat-based diets are so affordable, and consequently why people are able to overindulge in animal products to the detriment of their own health. Furthermore, factory farming of meat largely gets a free pass on the vast amount of pollution it dumps into the environment. If companies were fined for their pollution of our waterways, the cost of meat would be vastly different. In essence, we're paying for meat directly in taxes and in indirect health and environmental costs.


So, there you have it. My long-winded and many faceted reasons for being vegetarian. I've spent a long time thinking about my reasons for being vegetarian and think I have researched them pretty carefully. I'm honestly not trying to proselytize, but it is a subject I feel strongly about, so it's difficult for me to totally eliminate the proselytizing tone. My goal was to simply present my personal reasons for being vegetarian and hopefully sparking some thoughtful reflection for anyone who cares to read my post.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Uncluttering slowly but surely

Moving for my first real job and then subsequently moving into a small apartment has shown me one really important fact: it's really easy to accumulate a lot of stuff. I don't even own a house yet, and I still managed to have a crapload of things I just managed to accumulate over the years. I used to involve myself with lots of projects and hobbies, and consequently bought lots of items for those pursuits. Having to move shocked me into realizing just how many things were tucked away in my apartment. Ever since I've been sporadically trying to offload the unnecessary items from my life. Online sale and trade forums and websites (Craigslist, Anandtech forums, Ebay, etc.) along with Freecycle and various local forums have been my primary vehicles for ridding myself of the extra stuff.

I will say that it is pretty time consuming to post my available stuff and deal with inquiries and shipping. However, I think in the long run that having fewer possessions will be to my benefit. While I probably had fun with a lot of the items I amassed, they are no longer serving any purpose in my life. I try to follow a model more akin to the simple living manifesto posted on unclutterer. I don't want to be bogged down by my possessions, so I'm selling or giving away the stuff I don't need. At the same time, I'm trying to be a lot more selective and smarter about acquiring things. Falling into the consumeristic trap just results in more useless tchotchkes cluttering up my life. In the end, the simplicity of just having fewer possessions helps you perceive the truly important things in life: your family, your friends, and your happiness.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Feat of Frugality

Today we went on our long discussed trip to Target. I'd usually just stay local and shop since I don't relish the thought of driving 20 minutes to get stuff that I can mostly get at the walking distance stores around me. But occasionally when we need to buy enough stuff, a trip to a lower priced big box store is justified. This is especially true when we've managed to amass a good number of gift cards from doing HarrisPoll surveys and for using one of the promo offers from Verizon when we signed up for DSL.

We had intended to just pick up groceries, toiletries, and cleaning supplies. Fortunately, Gen astutely noted 75% clearance racks in the clothing sections. She picked up 3 cute shirts, and I snagged one pair of pants and a new sporty gym outfit. All together, the tab came out to $79.37. Of course, we wouldn't in our right minds spend that much at Target. Ok, that's not entirely true. I probably could spend that much at Target getting stuff I "need." But I've reformed from my consumeristic habits (honestly!).

Anyhow, we worked our magic with coupons from Whole Foods to discount the price on the groceries and used the gift cards to knock off more. So, the number breakdown:

Initial price$79.37
Gift cards:-$65

I haven't yet topped Gen's feat of buying $35+ of soy milk and toothpaste for $0.38 by combining sale prices with double coupons. But this outing wasn't too shabby.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One resolution down...

Apparently, I didn't set the bar very high on one of my New Year's resolutions. I had thought it'd be like 2-3 months before I could jump rope for 10 straight minutes. It was pretty humbling when I first started jumping rope regularly about a year ago. Back then, I was tired after just over 30 seconds of skipping. Today, I left work in a tired and pretty irritated mood today wanting nothing more than to go to the gym. After the warm up round, I just kept jumping and logged an 11 minute round.

Granted there were a lot of missed jumps in that round since I was distracted from being in a bad mood. Then again, I wasn't completely exhausted after that round (just winded) and felt like I could have kept going. I'll see if I can do it again later this week before I call it total success. But for now, I'll say that one resolution is down. Now if only that wretched body fat analyzer would stop telling me that I'm obese...

Positive Message for Change

I'm a firm believer in an environmentally friendly, socially conscious, morally responsible, and minimally materialistic lifestyle. Of course, being human means I'm not perfect and don't always live in a way commensurate with my ideals and principles. I don't beat myself up for not meeting my lofty standards. I just mindfully recognize my shortcomings and strive to overcome them. I also try really hard to avoid forcefully imposing my principles on others, in spite of how much I disagree with their ideas or actions. We already have enough bellicose zealots running around spouting off their views and trying to out-shout, wear down, mudsling, or otherwise prevail via negativity and antagonism. There is no need for me to join their ranks.

I do however approve of using gentler, positive, and encouraging methods to nudge people into changing the ways for the better. There is already too much opposition and clashing in the world. Relying on criticism and focusing on negatives is a surefire way to make people dislike you and ignore your words. Not that using the stick is never called for, but the carrot is usually more effective.

That's why I really enjoyed The Story of Stuff. In my opinion, the 20-minute video clip did an excellent job of interrelating many important themes (environmentalism, social responsibility, ethics, conservation, the pitfalls of rampant consumerism, etc.). It didn't use any sensationalist or alarmist messages. The urgent topics were made non-threatening by using friendly animation rather than just spouting scary statistics or displaying shocking photos. Most importantly, it ended on an upbeat note by presenting a positive message for change.

If you've got 20 minutes to spare, I highly suggest watching the video: The Story of Stuff

Friday, January 11, 2008

Engagement gift

Gen and I got an engagement gift from her grandparents the other day. It was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. The top part of the box is engraved, and the bottom half has a cool spinning globe with a clock embedded in one hemisphere and a photo insert space on the other side of the sphere. It's quite a nifty little present.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Ongoing goals

The New Year brings a convenient marker for us to reassess our lives and make adjustments to our earthly journey. Truthfully, resolutions could easily be made any time of the year. Perhaps the time off during the holidays allows us to ponder and reflect. By the time the annual reset rolls around, we can take this perceived opportunity for a fresh start to make changes.

I've already posted on my New Year's resolutions for 2008. I also have a few ongoing goals which I started last year and plan on continuing this year. They aren't resolutions since I already incorporated them into my life last year, but I'll reaffirm my commitments (in the dedication sense, not the white straitjacket sense... I have those voices in my head well under control, thank you very much).
  1. Declutter - I continue to live a nomadic life, moving to a different apartment every year. I've moved 5 times in the past 2 years (cat-sitting gig, moved for job, etc.). Now, I live an apartment with something like 500 square feet of space. I learned quickly that having lots of unnecessary stuff is a real drag.
  2. Learn Mandarin Chinese (學中文) - I started around the end of grad school to seriously pursue proficiency. I'm still a long way from being fluent (right now, I'm barely a functional speaker), but I understand it's a long-term process.
  3. Smart investing - I've been maxing out my Roth and recently my 403b contributions while I'm still relatively young and don't have kids sucking away my income. With the help of my parents and finally having a real income, I've actually racked up enough savings that I'm annoyed at having to pay the regular tax rate on the interest. This year I'll start putting more money into carefully researched mutual funds which should earn me a higher return while incurring the lower long-term dividends and capital gains tax rate.
  4. Stay healthy - While I already lead a relatively healthy lifestyle, I've fallen out of the habit of doing a few things which I plan on re-introducing: qigong (氣功), yoga practice, and meditation.

Friday, January 4, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

Most people resolve to lose weight and often fail to meet that expectation. I think I've resolved to lose weight one or two years in the past. I actually did succeed, but then again, I was a student then and had time to exercise like a madman. But that wasn't the entire reason to my success. An important factor in how I lost weight was a commitment to change my lifestyle. It wasn't just about a diet (which for the purpose of this post implies a temporary change in eating habits) or exercising more. At the time, I'm pretty sure I would have really pissed off my graduate advisor if I was spending more time away from my research exercising. I committed to making reasonable lifestyle changes that I knew I could probably maintain and readily incorporate into my life. Back then, those changes were drinking more water, being more consistent about getting cardio into my workouts, and cutting back on the fried food. Cutting back (notice, I didn't say "eliminate") on the fried food was a little rough, but it paid dividends.

You all (ok, probably just the two people reading my blog) have heard the New Year's resolutions tips that have been popping up lately: 1. Make specific, achievable resolutions, 2. have a plan of action for reaching your goals, and 3. Have only one or two resolutions. I'm sure there's plenty more tips floating around the media, but those are the ones I'm focusing on. It seems pretty obvious, yet so hard to achieve. I've put those principles into action in the past before, and I plan on doing it again this year. I have only one minor exception this year in that I have multiple goals. I'll limit myself to two resolutions this year, but I'll have several goals and ongoing targets which I would have pursued anyway regardless of this New Year's resolution tradition. So, 2008, here's what I have in store for you.

  1. Drop 1% body fat. When I went to the health fair at UPenn, they used one of those infrared fat analyzers that they stick on your arms to measure reflectance off of muscle vs fat tissue. I registered 11.5%. Not too shabby by most standards, but I'm not satisfied. I yearn for the days when I was still sub 10%. My plan of action:
    • Be more diligent about drinking sufficient water (control appetite, keep system clean).
    • Get enough sleep. This is a little tougher since I have stuff to do.
    • Try to spread my meals out over the course of the day better. Again, this a little tough since I'm now in the working world, but it's something I should be doing anyway to keep my energy levels and metabolism optimal.
    • Cut out the boxed cereal (too much refined carbs, and too tempting to eat as empty calories). In truth, I've already achieved this a few months ago.
    • Eat more fresh fruits and veggies. Or, as mom would say: 吃清淡一點.
    • Finally, ramp up the cardio. This ties right into my second resolution.

  2. Jump Rope for 10 continuous minutes. Over the past year, I've become addicted to jump rope. Skipping rope is great exercise. It trains agility, improves hand-eye coordination, is quite cardiovascularly challenging, can incorporate numerous variations and tricks, is usually relatively low impact, is ultra portable, and takes far less time than the cardio machines in the gym. My current best is 6.5 minutes from early December 2007. I'm pretty sure I'll easily get beyond 10 minutes this year. In the meantime, I'll be steadily improving my endurance and learning new steps/tricks with the rope.
So those are my resolutions. I think they are quite achievable. I'll detail my other goals for the year in another post.

The brave new blog

Well, it is a new year and I've finally decided to jump on the blogging bandwagon. I find it nearly impossible to keep up with all my friends and family since... well, let's just say I'm not terribly good at keeping up with the e-mails and calling people. Maybe having a blog will change that. At the very least, this will be an experiment and give me a chance to write out my thoughts.

I have a few ideas for keeping the blog interesting (for myself at least). This could quite possibly too ambitious on my part considering that I get rather busy at times, but I was thinking I'd use this blog to do a few things:

  1. Post news about happenings in my life.
  2. Discuss topics near and dear to me as they pop into my mind (including, but not limited to healthy living, frugality, Zen, living green, vegetarianism, etc).
  3. Link to interesting stuff I stumble upon while surfing.
Anyhow, we'll see what happens with this blog. It could quite possibly die of neglect as so many blogs often do. Hopefully, it'll blossom into a sounding board for my ever evolving thought processes.

Oh yeah, and "woo-hoo! First post!" I know, it's lame since I have to make the first post by default, but I never get the first post on anything.