We are constantly assailed by information on what to eat. Whether it is an ad for the new quadruple stacked burger or the newest fad diet, it is a lot to take in, day in and day out. How do we choose and best answer the question, “What should I eat?”
As a man, I want to eat a diet I enjoy, makes me feel good, and makes me look good. I want a manly physique resembling a flesh in blood replica of the statue of David, with muscles just as rock hard. Yes, maybe a little vain but I’m just being honest.
As an environmentalist, I want to dine with a clear conscious rather than feel like a fake in denial of the greater global implications of my dietary choices. Does this require me to exist off leafy greens alone? Greens are great and all, but I’d like a little more meat to my diet.
Figuring It Out
Over the past twelve years, eating has been a rather introspective and conscious activity for me. Whether for moral reasons, my personal health, or the health of the environment, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking and rethinking my food choices.
The consumption of meat sits front and center of my internal debate. The consumption of meat is a hot topic for environmentalist and is seemingly a cornerstone of being a real man. What is manlier than steak and potatoes? Yet the modern meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than either the transportation or industry sectors (source).
I was raised very much an omnivore, gave up meat out of a love for animals and then continued due to environmental concerns, wafted back and forth between vegetarian and piscitarian eating for seven years, and then returned to eating meat in preparation for service in the Peace Corps.
I now follow daily diet that I consider to be “Paleo-like” that has been able to satiate my moral, health, and environmental concerns. I love meat and now eat without guilt, but will it last?
Raised As An Omnivore
I was raised as an omnivore.
From a young age, I was always told to eat my vegetables alongside the other items on my plate. I gladly followed my parents’ instruction. I loved eating my vegetables and it was hard not to in our household.
My family has always had a garden that produced beautiful and delicious produce, even when we lived in the suburbs. I was lucky to grow up with the gift of fresh, tasty, local vegetables. For the longest time, I thought everyone had gardens like we did and ate as my family did.
I was wrong.
After my big first day of primary school, what was I dying to tell my mother about? “They served corn from a can at lunch. Corn from a can!” I was disgusted at the little yellow nuggets my school was trying to pass off as corn.
Yet, vegetables were not the primary staple of my diet growing up. I ate anything and everything. I was a very hungry child that later developed into a very hungry man.
I was fortunate to live in a home full of food. Our house contained fresh fruits, vegetables, pasta, bread, cookies, chips, cereal, juice, various meats, and more. It seemed as if we had one of every item found at the grocery store and two or more if there was a coupon.
At one point growing up, our house had three refrigerators, one standup freezer, and a giant deep freeze; all of these were filled with food. We also had a pantry on the main floor of our house for general everyday use and a pantry in the basement for bulk items.
My parents weren’t preparing for a national disaster but rather we ate a lot of food, froze a lot of garden vegetables, and my mom clipped a lot of coupons.
My mom loved to cook but she loved to feed us more. If it was in front of me, I ate it and I had a lot of food in front of me.
During freshman year of high school I weighed in at 245lbs. I was 6’2”, so I didn’t look humungous but I was most definitely obese.
It was during the second semester of my freshman year of high school when I first became aware of my eating.
Food had made me fat and food could make me skinny.
I cut most grains from my diet, limited sweets, and removed the once staples of chocolate milk and soda. I loaded up on lots of fruit, veggies, and meat. This new diet combined with intense training for my black belt in karate resulted in a 65lb weight loss in just over seven months.
Fat kid no more; now I was skinny.
My Exposure to Factory Farming and Abandonment of Meat
At fifteen years of age, I now had an understanding of food’s effect on the body. I, however, was only thinking of how the food on my plate would affect me physically. I wasn’t yet considering where food came- food’s story before my plate.
Then one night that all changed.
As I was flipping through channels while watching television in my bedroom, I landed on a PBS show that was detailing the startling truth behind factory farming. It took no more than ten minutes of watching egg-laying chickens crammed into battery cages to turn me into a vegetarian.
I grew up with chickens and even had a chicken I considered as my pet, Mr. Bigglesworth. Our eggs had come from our backyard and I never considered how eggs or meat made it’s way to the grocery store. Now I knew.
The next morning, I announced the news to my family, “Mom and Dad, I’m no longer going to eat meat. I’m a vegetarian.”
A Love of Animals
I love animals and always have. As a child, not only was our house and yard full of food but full of pets. Dogs, cats, fish, parakeets, chickens, rabbits, ducks, a potbelly pig, turtles, snakes, and toads are just a few examples of the many animals in the mini zoological garden we were keeping.
When we were away from home on vacation we always went to a zoo or aquarium. I really love animals and that is why I ended up studying ecology in undergrad, which then gave rise to me becoming an environmentalist.
That PBS special wasn’t, however, an awaking to the fact that meat came from animals. I already knew this since my father was a hunter. From an early age, each fall my father would bring back a freshly slain deer that he would proceed to butcher in our garage.
I loved helping him to dissect the animal and I enjoyed eating the venison even more. When I was old enough, I joined my father in the woods and learned to hunt. I loved spending time with my father, sitting quietly among the trees, and bringing home fresh meat.
Yet, to my carnivorous father’s dislike, I became a vegetarian.
I first considered eating only humanly raised meat but I was fifteen years old and my parents heavily dictated my diet. However much they loved me they wouldn’t be buying me more expensive specialty meat, which likely wouldn’t have been easily found in my hometown at the time.
So, I abandoned meat across the board. I even probably would have tried to go vegan if we didn’t raise our own egg laying chickens.
From fat kid to skinny kid, I was now the kid that brought tofu and veggie burgers to school. Other than my Hindu friend, I was the only vegetarian in my class.
She had religious reasons but since I grew up in a conservative town, I was just plain weird.
Confusing College Years
My vegetarian diet followed me to college but it soon turned to a piscitarian diet when I added fish to my plate as I tried to put on muscle.
I remained an odd duck though, eating what my friends thought of as bizarre food. I, however, enjoyed being different. My diet was part of my identity that set me apart from others. My diet was one of my interesting facts that allowed me to speak to my love of animals and environmental concern.
Although part of my individuality, I wasn’t 100% adherent to my diet. For several years, I became what I like to refer to as a drunken meat eater.
It almost became a normal occurrence where I would go out to party with my friends and once I had consumed enough alcohol for the night, I thought it was a great idea to have a sober friend drive me and others to White Castle.
Once at White Castle, I would demolish a mountain of tiny burgers and large chocolate shake. The next morning I’d wake up with a hangover, upset stomach, and the shame of my previous evening’s meat binge.
After a few years of beginning a drunken meat eater though, I calmed down and returned to a steady piscitarian diet. It helped that my girlfriend at the time was a vegetarian.
It was also right around this time that I first remember reading about soy consumption’s negative effects on testosterone. Uh-oh, I’d been living off soy-based fake meats for nearly five years at this point and trying (and mostly failing) to put on muscle.
So, I began to limit but not eliminate soy and add more and more fish to my diet.
Then, if it wasn’t confusing enough, I began to learn more about the fishing industry. The negative environmental effects of concentrated factory fish farming. The large amounts of by-catch associated with the tuna and shrimp I had come to depend on.
What in the hell was I supposed to eat? I was trying to do what I thought was right morally, for my health, and the wellbeing of the environment but as time passed it became more and more confusing.
I Fell In Love With Meat In The Peace Corps
Then I joined the Peace Corps. Many people join the Peace Corps in hopes of finding themselves and figuring out in what direction to point their life.
I guess I did too a little but I also fell in love with meat.
In preparing to head to Burkina Faso for a two-year service in the Peace Corps, I began to add meat back into my diet. I wanted to be sure my stomach was ready to handle meat.
I didn’t want to end up offending my village’s chief by turning away an offering of good will (this didn’t exactly end up happening, but I did eat lots of weird stuff and was able fully explore the culinary treasures before me).
In preparation, I started with chicken. Then beef. Then pork. Mmmm, bacon.
As a non-meat eater, I became ill at the smell of bacon but now something had changed. Meat was amazing!
I don’t remembered loving meat as a child. Meat was good and all, but I think I enjoyed the sugar-laden sauces I was dipping the meat into rather than the meat itself.
Now, I was really screwed when it came to my morals and environmental concerns. I knew so many negative facts about the meat industry but I now had growing hunger for it.
Once in the Peace Corps and living in a village, my meat eating and meat appreciation grew. Then I realized something: the meat I was eating was as free range as free range could get.
My village had no fences. Chickens, goats, sheep, cows, and pigs were either herded or left to move as they pleased. The goat meat that became my lunchtime staple came from a happy animal that lived a great life right up until the end when it was quickly and humanely killed.
I could respect that. I could eat without guilt.
As my Peace Corps service came to an end though, I became worried.
Was I now bound to living in developing countries that lacked factory farming? I hoped not because as much as I love traveling I wanted to be based stateside with my friends and family.
What was going to happen to my diet once I returned back home?
I knew I’d be able to find local free-range meats and eggs at farmers markets back in the U.S., but would I be able to afford it? Would I be able to keep up this diet that had yielded notable positive changes in my physical appearance and general mood?
Would I be able to satisfy my meat craving without compromising my environmental and animal welfare concerns? I hoped so.
Eating Meat In America
Now that I’m back in America, what has become of my diet?
Although difficult, I have managed to keep eating meat that fills my stomach and doesn’t burden my conscious. Yet, it hasn’t been the easiest or cheapest route.
The U.S. has so many options! While living in Burkina Faso, it was pretty easy to eat clean. I didn’t have a lot of junk food options and those that I did have really didn’t taste all that great.
I currently live within a two minute walking distance from three fast food restaurants. I’m also back in school, living in a college town, that seemingly has someone handing out free delicious food everywhere.
This requires me to keep my guard up and willpower strong. Six out of seven days I do well to stick to my dietary morals. Friday nights out with friends are a killer though- the return of the Drunken (Factory Farmed) Meat Eater.
So far, almost all my food has come from the local farmer’s market where I’ve been able to find fresh local meat and vegetables two times a week. This isn’t a cheap way of eating though, given my current status as a grad student.
As one person, I hover around $120 a week for groceries- always either local, free range, or organic. But to my astonishment, my weekly spending is on par with the average American (source).
Informally surveying my peer group, however, I found that I am spending much more than they are.
This is for the better though. I’ve landed on a way of eating that is for the longterm and nails a balance between all my wants.
My Diet As It Stands
I consider my diet to be pretty close to Paleo, but not 100%. I don’t actively eat grains other than the occasionally rice. I do well to avoid dairy on a day to day basis, but I have a weak spot for ice cream. My diet doesn’t include processed food and is devoid of refined sugar.
One big thing I do, however, is eat legumes- but not soy. I like beans because they are a cheap source of protein and they are filling. What more you could ask for? Phytic acid be damned.
I am eating less red meat than I previously enjoyed though, since I can’t find a place in the U.S. where I can buy a plate of free range grilled goat for $1. This hole has been filled by free range organic chicken, which I’ve been getting for much cheaper than the grass fed beef I’d prefer.
My diet also has a lot of fat. I love bacon. I’m heavy handed with olive and coconut oil in my cooking. Butter is amazing. I even add pasture grazed organic butter to my morning coffee to give my brain some super fuel.
Do I screw up from time to time? Yes. I’m human. I’m fallible.
But everyday I seek to make myself a better person. A better man. A greener man.