Journey Toward a Plant-Based Life

October 2nd is World Day for Farmed Animals. This annual event, started in 1983, is "dedicated to exposing the needless suffering and death of sentient animals raised and killed for food. Each year, approximately 65 billion animals are killed to produce meat, eggs, and dairy. Most of these animals are raised on factory farms, where they are confined, mutilated and raised to grow so large, so quickly, that many of them literally suffer to death. Even animals raised on small family farms endure many of these abuses."

On October 2nd, I will be fasting from sun-up to sun-down, and meditating on the suffering that humans are causing every single day on farms all over the world. I would encourage anyone reading this to consider participating in World Day for Farmed Animals, in some small way, as an act of consciousness. Maybe you can go the entire day without consuming any animal-based food, or simply take some time to learn about factory farming practices on the Internet.

I do not label myself a Vegetarian or a Vegan in the same way that I do not label myself a Christian or a Buddhist, a Libertarian or an Anarchist. I consider myself to be a seeker of truth -- if I must label myself at all. 

Over the past 15+ years, my path has taken a lot of turns and loops and bends, but my awareness around consumption and my impact on the planet has continued in a pretty straight line. In preparation for World Day for Farmed Animals, I thought I would share the story of my journey toward a plant-based life.

I stopped eating cow meat in 1999 because of the Mad Cow Disease epidemic overseas. Yes, that is the reason -- though, I think I had been looking for a reason for a while before that. The epidemic scared me out of denial about what I was eating, and it was a baby step onto a path of discovery about food, nutrition, health, and well-being. I learned a lot about factory farming that year. It was the first time I thought, "Hmmm... something isn't right about how we're doing this."

Shortly after that, I became "vegetarian" for the first time in my life, thanks to a guy I was dating at the time. He was part of a group of anarchist activists who were vegan/vegetarian, and through that community I was exposed to animal rights activism, the truth behind the industrialization of food, and the vegan lifestyle, which at that point was a lot harder to sustain, since health food stores were few and far between (and not cheap), and there weren't many vegetarian restaurants, let alone vegan ones. (This was in Madison, Wisconsin, no less -- the cheese state.) During that time, I also started learning how to read labels on food and look for things like gelatin, which I never knew was made from cows. 

For the next couple years, having very little knowledge of nutrition, vitamins, supplements, etc., I ate a lot of cheese, bread, and pasta -- and was continuously being tested for iron deficiency anemia. Finally, a doctor convinced me to reintroduce fish into my diet, and I became pescatarian for the next year or so, before (again, at the suggestion of doctors) reintroducing chicken and turkey into my diet. But I never went back to red meat. Today, there are hundreds of studies about the benefits of removing red meat from your diet. I'm just hoping that I didn't get Mad Cow Disease before I stopped eating cows! Again, I'm being mostly facetious about this -- but, you never really know, since the incubation period of Mad Cow Disease can be 20, 30, or even 50 years.  Terrifying!

I spent the next few years going back and forth on the decision to keep eating chickens and turkeys. By 2005 I knew for sure that I would never eat adult cows, baby cows, or baby sheepagain, and I set the intention to eventually give up my annual pig sandwich (BBQ) on my visits to the South.

The next big milestone on my path toward a plant-based diet and lifestyle was in 2007, when I was introduced to Alicia Silverstone in Los Angeles. She has been a vegan activist for many years, and through our conversations during the few times we got to hang out, I got to learn a lot about the vegan lifestyle. It is not just about what people eat but also about what they wear, how they shop, the businesses they support, how they supplement their diet to get the proper vitamins and nutrients, and more. Thanks to Alicia, I got the chance to visit  the Farm Sanctuaryoutside Los Angeles, and interact one-on-one with all kinds of rescued farm animals, which helped bring me even further out of denial about the treatment of animals on factory farms. (I highly recommend finding a sanctuary to visit in your area!)

About a year later, I started dating a guy who was a lifelong vegan. (Can you see how influenced my lifestyle choices were by the relationships I was in? Oh, to be young and codependent.) I decided to give the vegan lifestyle a shot, and I began emulating my boyfriend's diet, which was pretty soy-heavy (a common approach to the vegan diet).

During that phase of my journey, I learned how to look for cruelty-free clothing and cosmetics, and I fine-tuned my label-reading skills at the grocery store. The label-reading, especially, is something that I still practice to this day, every single time I pick up any kind of packaged food. It has helped me learn so much, not just about vegan food but about what we're putting into our bodies in general -- and how the food industry tries to trick us with misleading words like "natural."

It was during that time that I also learned about the dangers of eating too much soy. In the eight months or so that I was eating a soy-heavy vegan diet, I developed all kinds of symptoms that I can only attribute to my increased consumption of the isoflavones found in soy, which are a type of phytoestrogren that mimics the effect of estrogen on the body. This was the first time that I started to see processed food of any kind as being dangerous to my health.

From 2008 until 2013, I coasted on a mostly-pescatarian/vegetarian diet, having given up soy and continuing to go back and forth on things like milk, cheese, eggs, and chicken or turkey meat. During that time, I read The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health, which kick-started my awareness around food as medicine, and food's relation to diseases like cancer in humans. I began working toward the 90/10 plant/animal-based diet, which is suggested in that book. 

2013 was the real turning point for me. I had hit bottom in 2012 and gotten into therapy and recovery, and for the first time I was learning how to take care of myself. I had never learned to cook, and so part of this new routine of "self-care" (a foreign concept to me) was teaching myself how to cook. During the summer of 2013, I spent almost every single day in my kitchen with nothing but an iron skillet, teaching myself how to cook different kinds of food. I didn't have a full-time job at the time, so I got to spend a LOT of time in the kitchen. I also didn't have a lot of money, but wanted to take better care of myself, so I decided to teach myself to cook mostly vegan, soy-free, low-gluten meals. It was a cheap, easy, and an awesome challenge for me and my little iron skillet!

Learning to cook was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done for myself. It built my self-esteem and gave me so much new awareness about what I was putting in my body. During this time, I also started to learn about vitamins and supplements, and how to get all the nutrients and protein I needed from my "mostly vegan" diet. It was also in 2013 that I decided, once and for all, to stop eating chickens and turkeys, and to give up that annual pig sandwich (i.e. the BBQ I would eat on "special occasions" when visiting the South). I just couldn't do it anymore. My awareness and knowledge was growing, and I knew too much about how the animals on factory farms -- and even some family farms -- are treated. Not to mention the fact that many of these animals we eat are highly-evolved, aware, conscious beings with complicated feelings who feel suffering the same way we do. 

Continuing with my 90/10 animal/plant-based diet, I kept fish, eggs, half-n-half, and the occasional cheese in my weekly diet, but got pretty strict about eating whole foods, removing almost all processed food from my diet.  *Update 2017: A couple months after writing this post, I came upon a series of articles that explain the process of producing dairy products (milk, cheese, butter), which might be the cruelest part about factory farming, and includes practices that are even done on family and organic farms, rendering "organic dairy" totally useless and pointless when it comes to how the animals are treated. I realized it was time to let go of dairy, and I switched to plant-based milks and stopped eating butter and cheese. This was not easy, but my conscience is much clearer. I wrote more about it here. Pro-tip: Silk's Protein Nutmilk is by far the best half-n-half alternative I have found. It looks and acts exactly like cream in my coffee!  

Today, my health is better than ever before in my life. I don't remember the last time I was seriously sick. Heck, I don't even remember the last time I had a cold??? I have tons of energy, I sleep well every night, my memory has improved, and I have naturally kept off at least 10lbs that I used to carry around. I still eat fish and eggs. The eggs I buy are from the farmer's market or Vital Farms, but someday I hope to have my own chickens. I buy only cruelty-free and responsibly sourced tuna and salmon at the store, but I admit this is where I'm still holding on to some denial about animal suffering. I will have to face that one day sooner than later, and make a decision about how to proceed.

My journey continues, but I will end with this: I have absolutely no judgment or negative feelings toward my friends and loved ones who choose to eat animals. It is truly up to each of us to find our own way and our own path in life. So please, if you're still reading this, believe me when I say that I don't give a shit about what you eat. I can only say that in my experience, a little awareness around the food I eat has gone a long way.

Sarah Saturday