Saturday, May 14, 2011

Five myths about vegans

Though former president Bill Clinton isn’t technically a vegan, his embrace last year of a “plant-based” diet with “no meat” and “no dairy” — and his accompanying 24-pound weight loss — made headlines for a small but growing movement. After all, only 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarian, and just .5 percent fly the vegan flag, eschewing all animal products and byproducts in their kitchens and closets.

But is veganism healthy? Emasculating? Difficult? Let’s get the skinny on this unusual lifestyle.

1. Vegans have trouble getting enough protein.

“Where do you get your protein?” is probably the top question vegans get. But protein doesn’t have to come from animals. Plant protein is neither incomplete nor inadequate — and it’s high-fiber, low-fat and cholesterol-free. Animal protein, which does not contain fiber, is high in fat and cholesterol, and it is associated with increased risk of heart disease, loss of calcium from bones and poorer kidney function.

Nutritionists agree that adults who consume about 2,000 calories per day should get about 50 grams of protein. What’s a vegan to do? Well, a half-cup of chickpeas contains 6 grams of protein. A half-cup of firm tofu contains 20 grams. A veggie burger has about 15 grams. We can get to 50 grams pretty quickly without meatloaf or bacon.

Any vegan diet that includes a variety of plant foods provides all the protein an individual needs. This is true for adults, teens and, according to pediatrician Benjamin Spock, even children. As nutritionists Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina explain in “Becoming Vegan,” the answer to that often-asked question is: “from all of the whole plants I eat.”

2. Vegans have countless rules about what can be eaten.

To vegans, it appears that meat-eaters are the ones with lots of rules. In the United States, people eat cows but not horses, and chickens but not cats. But among Hindus in India, cows are verboten, and in the Philippines and Korea, Lassie is on the menu. Some religions forbid eating pigs, while others don’t. In the face of these varying, often contradictory norms, vegans have only one rule: We don’t intentionally eat, use or wear anything from an animal — whether meat, leather, eggs, milk, wool, silk or honey.

If veganism seems to need an instruction manual, it’s because dead animals turn up in unexpected places. Most marshmallows contain gelatin, derived from animal bones. So do gelcaps and photographic film. Hostess fruit pies (but not Little Debbie’s) are made with beef fat. Dryer sheets have animal fat, too. Toothpaste may contain bone meal. And shampoo may have egg protein.

Sure, the list seems to go on and on. But at your chain supermarket, more products than ever are vegan-friendly. In 2011, it’s not hard to live up to veganism’s one simple ideal: trying to do the least harm possible.

3. Veganism is emasculating — real men eat meat.

In 1990, I wrote a book called “The Sexual Politics of Meat” to dissect the idea that eating animal flesh makes someone strong and virile. The myth gained steam in the 1960s when anthropologists Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey attributed the advancement of civilization to “man the hunter.” Today, cultural messages — from Burger King’s “I am Man” ad campaign to a Hummer commercial implying that a guy who buys tofu must “restore the balance” by buying a huge car — reinforce this myth. Even Michael Pollan, who details a boar hunt in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” falls prey to the idea that men must fell prey: “Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling.” For vegans, this cartoonish hunter porn is ridiculous. What Pollan sees as a dilemma, we welcome as a decision.

But if real men once ate meat, it’s not so any longer. Olympic track legend (and New Jersey state Senate hopeful) Carl Lewis is a vegan. Former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson is a vegan. Outkast’s Andre 3000 is a vegan. In Austin, a group of firefighters went vegan. But beyond the famous names who have embraced veganism for ethical or health reasons is the incontrovertible fact that eating meat doesn’t increase libido or fertility — and a vegan diet doesn’t diminish them.

4. Vegans care more about animals than humans.

Veganism is a social-justice movement that includes concern for animals but also many issues that affect humans. The food choices vegans make address the environmental costs of meat and dairy production, heart disease, public health crises tied to obesity, and, as Eric Schlosser pointed out in “Fast Food Nation,” poor conditions in slaughterhouses, where workers suffer more injuries than in any other industry. In fact, eating vegan one day a week lowers your carbon footprint more than eating local every day of the week.

The economic cost of systemic animal cruelty transcends shocking undercover footage taken at factory farms. Eating grain-fed cattle helps push corn prices up; high prices contributed to 2008’s food riots in Haiti, Bangladesh, Egypt and elsewhere around the world. Industrialized meat production allows infectious bacteria such as salmonella to sneak into our food supply. And treating a generation raised on cheap Big Macs will prove a fiscal challenge to Medicaid.

Caring about animals means caring about people, too.

5. It’s expensive and inconvenient to be a vegan.

Try veganism for a day and see what happens. Is it so difficult to substitute marinara sauce for meat sauce? To get a pizza loaded with veggies instead of cheese and meat? To fix a big salad and add garbanzo beans to it instead of turkey? To order a vegan dish at any of the ethnic restaurants rich with vegan foods — Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Italian?

One reason Patti Breitman and I wrote “How to Eat Like a Vegetarian Even if You Never Want to Be One” was to show people how easy it is to be a vegan. If you’re used to a steady diet of beef, chicken and pork, veganism can expand your options. You’ll start discovering the variety of ways to prepare tofu, seitan, tempeh and textured vegetable protein — along with more greens, grains and beans. In some parts of the country, some of these products might be harder to find than hamburger patties or sirloin steak, but they’re not necessarily more expensive. And if they are, they may save medical costs in the long run.

Non-vegans think change is hard. Not changing is even harder.

Originally published in The Washington Post, April 18, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

“She loved deeply and well; she believed in justice and worked for it; and she widened the circle of compassion wherever she went.”

Muriel Kathryn Stang Adams
August 2, 1914 - December 12, 2009

As we celebrate Mother's Day this year, I am thankful for so many women who helped to improve the lives of women through their work as activists and thinkers, advocates and politicians, writers and protesters. Among this group, I include my mother. She died a little more than a year ago, and her life (and death) remain close to my heart.

My mother grew up in a Norwegian immigrant community in Minnesota. During World War II, she worked with the Red Cross in Hawaii and there met my father. After helping to put him through law school, they settled in Western New York and raised three girls there. Mom and Dad brought us up believing girls were just as smart and able as boys.

During the 1960s my mother heard about the migrant workers who traveled to Western New York to help harvest our crops. The migrant workers and their families often lived in desperate situations. The Ruths and Naomis, the Juans and Jésus who gathered around our county’s threshing floors would often have to sleep at night in shelter that made few feel welcome.


Mom joined with professors and ministers and other concerned folk to move mountains, to make a way clear, to create hospitality. At times, she was a one-woman dynamo, working to improve the conditions of migrant workers.

On one occasion, Mom and a physics professor went to the migrant camp of one of the large growers in our county. Each spring, the farmer brought about thirty-five men up from Puerto Rico to help him plant tomatoes and vegetables.

In the summer, he would add more men to help with the picking.

By the fall, when the grapes had to be picked, he had about eighty-five men in his lodging. The rooms that housed the men were each about 8 by 10 feet, with double bunks.  The little stove they had to cook on was an open gas flame burner.

The cook slept on one of the bunks in the second tier, and had hung a blanket from the ceiling to keep the light from the open gas burner out of his eyes. The blanket was suspended far too close to the open flame of the stove.

When Mom saw this fire trap she was outraged. When she got home, she reported the problem to the gas company. The gas company came and replaced the open stove with vent pipes and an enclosed heater.

The farmer was really angry about that because the gas company immediately sent him the bill. The next time the farmer saw the physics professor he referred to my father who was the farmer’s lawyer. The farmer complained,  “Lee Towne Adams, he’s such a good lawyer, if he could only control his wife.”

“Control your wife.” There probably could not be any more ill-fitting words for my Mom – untethered and unleashed was what her spirit was all about.

Mom and the physics professor went to meet with the      Chautauqua County       Department of Health about why it wasn’t enforcing the health department codes in the migrant camps. The health department man -- not knowing to whom he was speaking -- said, “we try to (enforce the codes), and then the farmers hire Lee Towne Adams and he gets them off.”

Well, that was the last time my father helped a farmer “get off.”

I actually met Bruce, my spouse, and the Executive Director of The Stewpot here in Dallas, through my Mom. The group that helped the migrants workers was the Chautauqua County Rural Ministry. And back in the 1960s, my Mom was one of the people who founded it. Newly ordained, Bruce arrived in the area in 1976. It wasn’t long before he became involved with the group, started working with Mom, and, that is how Bruce and I met.

At Mom’s funeral, Bruce talked about Mom’s years of advocating for migrant workers. After the funeral, a couple came up to him. They had been farmers in the 1960s and provided living arrangements on their farm for several migrant workers. They told Bruce, whenever they saw my mother drive in to see the migrant workers, they held their breath.

Before my mother died, my father, sisters and I looked over her obituary. I had written it several years earlier, when I knew her Alzheimer’s was progressing. They all liked it. But I felt something was missing.  Yes, it discussed her social justice work. But, something, well, I just knew there was something more to say. I asked myself: how do you ever summarize a life? I thought of the arc of Mom’s life--beginning in Minnesota, heading west to Hawaii, and ending up in Western New York. I thought of how much love she had given to so many, and how lucky I was to be her daughter. And I wrote, “She loved deeply and well; she believed in justice and worked for it; and she widened the circle of compassion wherever she went.” This sentence I inserted into the obituary, and knew it was complete. With that, I went into the room where she was dying to thank her for all she had done and all she had given us.

She died the next day. The following day her obituary ran in the local papers. During the calling at the funeral home, a woman came to talk with me. She had no idea I was the author of the obituary. But she started to talk about it. She told me how much she loved learning about my mother through the obituary. And then the woman’s eyes teared up and she quoted word for word what I had added: “She loved deeply and well; she believed in justice and worked for it; and she widened the circle of compassion wherever she went.”

She said, I hope that can be said when I die!

It’s a good goal to have.


Originally published by StreetZine, March 2011