Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith

The Vegetarian Myth, written by a radical feminist/anti-porn activist from Western Massachusetts, is currently the unlikely darling of the Paleo/Primal/Caveman/Very Low Carb/Carnivore circles that I have frequented ever since I found out that my USDA-approved high-carb, low-fat diet was making me metabolically deranged. And as celebrated as Lierre Keith’s part dietary memoir, part political manifesto is among unabashed meat eaters, it has became a source of outrage in the vegan community, probably touching a particularly sore spot because Keith is writing from the perspective of a former hard-core vegan for 20 years – one who obviously regrets every single day of it.

I could somewhat relate to Keith’s sheepishness, for I was a vegetarian for nearly 12 years. I honestly, deeply believed that going meatless was the most morally, politically, and nutritionally correct diet in this modern world of readily-available soy protein. I didn’t want to directly contribute to any animal’s death; I looked at the dead meat in the grocery store, at restaurants, on other people’s plates, and I empathized with it. I was outraged that people should eat grain-fattened beef in a world of starving people. And I was thrilled by my wholesome meals of beans and grains, which tasted so healthy and pure.

But looking back on my years as a vegetarian, I have to admit that I didn’t eat healthy; I relied on carbs and sugars for sustenance. Most of my dietary fat came from vegetable oils, and I was not mindful of balancing amino acids or ensuring adequate intake of all the nutrients that a meat-free diet typically lacks (zinc, calcium, iron, Vitamin D and the infamous B12). Compared to Keith, though, I got off easy, only having developed mild insulin resistance from my exorbitant intake of carbs and sugars. Keith spent much of her 20 years as a vegan depressed and angry, nauseated and bloated, with a crippling spine disorder that is now permanent from lack of proper nutrition.

Not only was I not doing my body any favors, but I wasn’t doing the Earth or its Third World inhabitants any favors, as well. Because just as evil as the practice of factory farming is agriculture — any agriculture. Agriculture destroys biodiversity, rivers, topsoil, and self-sufficient human communities; it creates dead zones and robs animals of habitats. As Keith so eloquently puts it:

And agriculture isn’t quite a war because the forests and wetlands and prairies, the rain, the soil, the air, can’t fight back.  Agriculture is really more like ethnic cleansing, wiping out the indigenous dwellers so the invaders can take the land.  It’s biotic cleansing, biocide. … It is not non-violent.  It is not sustainable.  And every bite of food is laden with death. There is no place left for the buffalo to roam.  There’s only corn, wheat, and soy.  About the only animals that escaped the biotic cleansing of the agriculturalists are small animals like mice and rabbits, and billions of them are killed by the harvesting equipment every year.  Unless you’re out there with a scythe, don’t forget to add them to the death toll of your vegetarian meal.  They count, and they died for your dinner

The toll on the Earth is profound, but equally disturbing is how agriculture indentures farmers to the land. Says Keith, “Agricultural foods — the grains, beans, and vegetables we are all urged to eat in the service of the world community — are foods of displacement and destruction, not justice or peace. They have been the foods of slavery, and when this short moment of oil engorgement fades into memory and then into myth, we will be left with sweat… Grain requires sweat. Agricultural food is soaked cleans through in oil and blood.”

There is no doubt about the repugnance of the factory farming that supplies most of our meat and dairy. Grain-fed meat lacks both the conscience and the nutrition of  eating pastured, grass-fed meat. Animals weren’t meant to eat grain, any more than humans were. We did not evolve to be farmers; cows did not evolve eating grain; chickens did not evolve eating corn. Is clearing off land to create monocultures of grains morally superior to eating a chicken — when thousands of animals and plants have been displaced or destroyed for the farming and harvesting of the land? Not to mention the water. Rice, wheat, and corn are crops that drink entire rivers, and the irrigation destroys wetlands, trees, rivers, and all the animals that need that water to survive. Framed from this perspective, eating pastured beef becomes less environmentally problematic than eating industrial tomatoes and lettuce. As Keith puts it, “If you live in Burlington, VT or Santa Cruz, CA and you eat rice — ubiquitous, vegan brown rice — this is what you’re eating: dead fish and dead birds from a dying river.

If there is a fault wth Keith’s precise arguments, it is how she paints all vegans and vegetarians out to be naive and helplessly idealistic. The antecdotes she tells — about a vegan who wants to erect a fence in Africa to stop animals from eating each other, about a farming commuity that lives solely on bread and salad — are from the half-lunatic fringe. And there are people who live perfectly healthy meat-free lives that are no more destructive than the typical American diet.  Me, personally, since I’ve started eating meat rather than massive quantities of beans, grains, and soy (there is a special ring in Keith’s hell reserved for soy, which can cause thyroid damage), I’ve felt healthier than I can remember. Now, thanks to Keith, I can feel a little better about my choice to start eating pastured animals from a moral and environmental perspective.

New Year, New Yoga

It must be January, because the yoga classes are full. Lately I’ve had to cram my mat in between the mats of people who strain mightily to touch their toes and who wobble into Warrior One. They want relaxation, enlightenment, and toned thighs, and they think the 5:30pm Hatha Yoga class is totally their ticket.

I snuck into the crowded class two minutes late and splayed a mat in the back room next to a young couple. I knew they were a couple because I saw them in the parking lot, toting yoga mats under their arms. Because they were both so fit and healthy-looking, I assumed they were yoga veterans, but after 5 minutes of Sun Salutations, it became clear that this was their second, maybe third class ever. The guy’s muscles were tighter than a hipster’s jeans; his knees were so bent in Downward Dog that he was almost in Child’s Pose. The girl was slightly more flexible, but lacked the functional arm strength that would enable her to gracefully pull off any sort chaturanga.

They both labored over yoga mats that were so new the ends curled. I imagined them making a New Year’s resolutiont to take yoga together, and purchasing the mats to solidify their commitment. It must’ve sounded so easy and good at the time, and there they were, suffering and looking as stressed as a mouse in a maze.

Not that I was any better when I first started yoga. By virtue of my sporting lifestyle, I thought that yoga would be a breeze. In fact, I was initially hesitant to give up a “real workout” in order to attend yoga class. But just because I could run 6 miles or cross-country ski all day didn’t mean that I could hold a lunge for more than 30 seconds without searing pain in my quadriceps, and it certainly didn’t mean I could sit in pigeon pose and think calming, happy thoughts.

It takes work, and no yoga beginner is exempt from the initial physical acclimation. I silently called “bullshit” on the author of the ” Om my!: Introduction to yoga is a breath of fresh air,” an article in the Boston Globe by a yoga novice who attends various classes in studios around Boston. Her first yoga class was a 90 minute Baptiste class — an intense ordeal, it’s like someone who has never run before doing a 5K. She claims after the class she “felt a little more awesome than before.” While that might be true, I marvel that she neglects to mention the agonizing physicality and constant bewilderment that yoga beginners always experience. No one was born doing vinyassas.

Yoga Journal’s Recipes: No Meat Allowed

So I was flipping through my February 2010 issue of Yoga Journal — why is it that magazines are always a month ahead of the calendar? — when it struck me that I have never seen a recipe with meat in Yoga Journal. No beef, no pork, no chicken, not even a shrimp.

Indeed, this month, the recipes were prefaced by a rambling essay in which the author chronicles her gradual adaption of “healthy” eating habits through the yogic idea of satya (the practice of honesty). Basically, she realized she had been lying to herself about her food choices and portion sizes. Then she discovered mitahara (moderate diet), which espouses the notion that “a balanced life is characterized by moderation in all things.” Except, of course, meat.

I ate lots of vegetables and fruits, made sweet and tangy pineapple my new favorite snack, and began cooking with beans and lentils. Who knew that nutty, aromatic brown rice could be so comforting and satisfying? Or that a rainbow of roasted or skewered vegetables could be as fun to make as it was to eat?

I read this with a shudder. As a vegetarian for over 12 years, and a semi-vegetarian for 4 years after that, this menu sounded very familiar. It was the diet on which I developed insulin resistance, probably as a result of the high amount of carbs (whole grains) and sucrose (fruit).

Don’t get me wrong, eating a diet filled with fresh vegetables are great, but only when balanced with a good amount of fat and protein, two things that I don’t see much of in Yoga Journal‘s recipes (with the noteworthy exception of the Chunky Guacamole, which I totally plan on making, as avocados are a gift from Earth.

Curiously, although Yoga Journal takes a blanket editorial stand against recipes containing meat, milk, or butter, they have no such qualms about excluding recipes with sugar, flour, or soy. Because those ingredients are so pure and unadulterated, right? (Click here for Yoga Journal’s online collection of recipes, all vegetarian — careful, it may crash your browser or your endocrine system.)

Corpse Yoga

This morning I decided to take a Hatha Yoga class at my gym. I’m generally leery of Hatha Yoga classes because they are too light for me, but it is Sunday, so I figured I’d give my body a day of rest. Boy. Did I ever.

My first clue that this Hatha Yoga class would be particularly gentle was that the instructor looked like a kindly middle-aged kindergarten teacher, with a matronly bosom and soft belly. My second clue was that the first pose was Savasana. The second pose was Savasana. Then we lifted our legs, and then Savasana. Then we twisted our knees from left to right, and then Savasana. Then we did some mini-crunches, and then… guess what? 15 minute Savasana! We didn’t get off our backs the whole 60-minute class.

Don’t get me wrong. It was very relaxing and meditative, and the teacher was quite skilled at evoking a meditative state of mind. I liked the cleansing breaths, the nonpressured atmosphere, and the slow movement. The class seemed well suited for many of the older and out-of-shape participants.

After the class, I heard the instructor explaining that she is an Arhum Yoga instructor. Arhum yoga is a sect of yoga that emphasizes breathing, meditation, sound vibration, and focused energy. Its Westernized name is “Pathways” yoga, and the teacher training takes place in New Hampshire, meaning there are many instructors in New England. Most of the class seemed to really enjoy the slow movement and breathing, but as I left the room, I did see one young woman doing vigorous sun salutations.

I like to feel my muscles stretch and strengthen. I like to move. I sit on my butt 40 hours a week… I don’t need to lay on my back for an hour, barely moving my legs. So I felt compelled to work out for 45 minutes on an elliptical while watching an edited episode of the Sopranos on a cable channel. All that relaxation evaporated in a cloud of TV violence. Tonight, I’ll probably do a power yoga DVD.

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New Year’s Resolution

More meat! More yoga!

Ski Vacation

Tonight I am flying out of Boston to Geneva for about 12 days of skiing in the French Alps with my husband’s family. I loath these red-eye flights to Europe, as they turn me into a zombie with no fixed sense as to what my body is biologically craving. Sleep is not possible, so it seems to turn to food for energy. Before the next time I can sleep, I’ll probably eat 6 meals and some snacks. There will be bloating.

I woke up earlier than usual, my mind seizing on the impending journey at 5am and rousing me to my yoga room. I did 2 20-minute Shiva Rea vinyassa flows, savoring these last moments with a yoga DVD before my snowsports gluttony.

For breakfast, I pan-fried 1 pound of CSA ground beef that needs to be consumed before we leave. This will be my breakfast and lunch, with some salad at midday. I want to be well-fed before I board the plane so I won’t be tempted into eating whatever culinary concoction is served for dinner, although it is Air France so my chances of getting something edible aren’t bad.

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Cold Weather Mornings

This morning I woke up 10 minutes before my alarm went off, which is the ideal waking situation. It means I got a full night’s sleep — only 7 hours last night, due a busy evening in Boston capped by an excruciating subway delay and a 9:20pm dinner of leftover steak and mushrooms — but obviously just enough sleep, and any day that doesn’t begin with a blaring alarm is bound to be a good one.

Plus, that’s 10 more minutes of early morning yoga. Even on days when I do feel well-rested, my morning yoga sessions are never too long or intense. They are more like warm-ups, and while I would love to continue beyond the 20-25 minutes of gentle movement, the day begins to loom in front of me like an unfurled to-do list. Need to shower, make breakfast, pack lunch, wake up my husband, and make myself presentable to the world! Need to drive to work, and then actually work for 8 hours! When I practice yoga in the early morning, it is difficult to keep focused on my breath, and not on whether there is meat thawed for tonight’s dinner.

Yes, food is sometimes on my mind when I do yoga. Not that I’m hungry. Perhaps there is a biologically tie between physical activity and thinking about food. After all, in the caveman era, food was usually the goal of physical activity (food, and escaping tigers). So maybe it’s not so strange that, as I stretch my buttocks and hips to the sky in downward-dog, I’m dreaming about this:

Yes, that was breakfast… the last of the CSA sausage (which I didn’t finish — I mean, that’s a slab) and two eggs, poached in pork grease. Hey, it’s cold outside.

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Snowstorm Activities

We were confined to our cave yesterday by a 12-inch snowstorm. I woke up around 6am (my weekday waking time, which seems to be biologically hard-coded) and stole away to my little makeshift yoga studio to find some inner peace and backbending with Shiva Rea, my favorite DVD yoga queen. I just received her Daily Energy –Vinyassa Flow DVD, so I did 2 20-minute sequences while peeking out the window at the falling snow.

Later in the morning, Mr. Pinault and I sat down for our breakfast. I had 3 eggs and some of the amazing pork sausage from our meat CSA. Mmmm… look at all that grease! Mr. Pinault had the same, in smaller portion, with his customary toast.

Snowstorm Breakfast

After breakfast, we bided our time waiting for the snow to taper off so we could shovel out. Our downstairs neighbor suggested we shovel our property together and then convene for an apres-shovel, with some wine and cheese. We readied some vin chaud (beaujolias stewed with oranges, cinnamon, anise, and nutmeg) in preparation. But before the treats, there was a 12-inch blanket of fluffy white snow that needed to be cleared from our driveway, cars, and sidewalk.

Shoveling

Yoga is great training for snow shoveling. You need shoulder strength and flexibility to gracefully manuever a snow-filled shovel. Plus, mental endurance!  How tempting it is to slack off, especially when shoveling with other people.

But I endured the shoveling, and then partook of my Shavasana in the form of vin chaud and some relaxed socializing. In the evening, we returned home and I decided to do some upper-body stretching for about 30 minutes. Then, we had a photo shoot for the banner of this website, which involved me doing bridge pose over a slab of grass-fed beef. How many bridge poses did I do? Oh, at least 8. We moved the location several times, so by the time we got to this one, my arms were getting tired. But the presense of the steak was motivating, as I knew it would be our dinner.

Projects for cabin fever

This morning my back was sore from all the bending, and I greeted the day with 15 minutes of Kundalini-style stretching. Breakfast was boiled eggs (3) and a small handful of walnuts… today there will be not much time for meat or yoga, but I got my fill yesterday.

Boiling breakfast... with one floating rotten eggs

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An Introduction to Yoga and Meat

I like yoga. I’ve only been seriously practicing yoga for less than a year, but yoga has quickly become a positive force in my life — physically, mentally, and (at the risk of sounding dippy) spiritually. I do between 20 minutes and 90 minutes of yoga nearly every day. Before starting yoga, I was an avid cardio queen who regularly engaged in intense exercise sessions with the sole goal of burning as many calories as possible, under the belief that this was healthy. I ran, I did spinning, I plum wore myself out on elliptical machines, and guess what? It was wrecking havoc with my endocrine system, giving me constant musculoskeletal pain, and just generally making me an anxious, hungry bitch. I finally realized that, despite the current conventional thinking about regular vigorous exercise, I needed to slow down and not just mindlessly burn calories. I went to a yoga class at my gym and now I’m hooked.

I like meat. I’ve only been seriously eating meat for less than a year, but meat has quickly become a positive force in my life — physically, mentally, and (at the risk of sounding dippy) spiritually. Meat is a big part of my diet; I eat roughly 3/4 pound to 1 pound (or more) of meat, poultry, and/or fish every day. Before I ate meat, I was a vegetarian from the age of 14 until about 25, when I began adding fish into my diet for protein. Then, needing variety, I started eating poultry, and then, a few years ago, I start eating beef. Finally, last year at age 32, I took the pork plunge. But it was only this year that I really began to enjoy eating meat, to see it as an essential part of my humanness and not a dirty, unhealthy habit. For one thing, my health was failing under my grain-based diet. I was metabolically deranged and in danger of becoming diabetic. I decided to try a grain-free, low-carb diet and my health was transformed overnight.

I started this blog to more thoroughly explore my dualing interest in yoga and meat, both together and separately. What does it mean to be a mostly-carnivorous yogi who escews whole grains in favor of fatty pork chops? Why is this viewed as a paradoxical lifestyle? Are there others out there like me, who love to rip into a grass-fed hamburger patty after a 90-minute vinyassa flow practice? This blog will also chronicle my evolving day-to-day interests in a meat-based yogic existence.