Friday, October 30, 2015

This week's big news about meat and cancer

Big news this week--the World Health Organization announced that, after reviewing the data, processed meat is a Type 1 carcinogen. This is the highest level of classification for cancer causing substances. Tobacco, arsenic, alcohol, and asbestos are also Type 1 carcinogens (a carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer).

They also included red meat in the next category below this, Type 2a. This means that the WHO thinks that red meat "probably" causes cancer.

Hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, and canned meat are all processed meats. A processed meat is a meat that has been preserved by salting, curing, smoking, drying, or canning. Red meats include pork, beef, lamb, and other meats from mammals.

These results are consistent with what I wrote about in an earlier blog post--"A Whole Foods, Plant Based Diet." It's great to hear that such a large, influential group like the World Health Organization broke the news because they've made quite a splash and turned a lot of heads.

When I first saw the news, I almost glossed right over it. "Yeah, I've known this for years," I thought. "What else is new?" But when I began to see it plastered everywhere--all over mainstream websites and news outlets, I became interested.

Unfortunately, the response to this really important news has been disheartening. Many people's knee jerk reaction is to look for ways to continue doing what they've been doing despite the facts. They are now pushing the message of moderation, which, honestly, sounds crazy to me (See this video from the YouTube channel "Happy Healthy Vegan." They have also noticed the lack of seriousness in the response to the important news).

Remember, processed meat is a Type 1 carcinogen. What person in their right mind recommends smoking in moderation? Who says to breathe in asbestos in moderation? What about using arsenic in moderation??? Back when I still lived in the States I remember old schools and other old buildings being completely demolished because they had asbestos in them. That's less of a hassle than not eating salami??

If you live in the United States especially, be careful who you listen to: 
"The $95 billion U.S. beef industry has been preparing for months to mount a response, and some scientists, including some unaffiliated with the meat industry, have questioned whether the evidence is substantial enough to draw the strong conclusions that the WHO panel did." (source)
To be clear, the WHO panel based their conclusion on about 800 studies. This is not just another single study based on a handful of people. The beef industry has deep pockets, and you can be sure they're not going to go down without a fight. As is made clear in Dr. Michael Greger's video about eggs (below), it's not below these groups to pay scientists and bloggers to promote their products as a health food.

As I was washing the dishes last night, I listened to an episode of the radio show "On Point with Tom Ashbrook," which discussed the WHO announcement. The panel of guests seemed blindsided by the news. Most of them were stuttering and unprepared to answer many questions (Aside from Marion Nestle--a professor of nutrition at New York University, who basically said, "Ya, we've known about this for a long time--what's the surprise all about?" You can find her written statement to CNN here.).

One man called in and asked about nitrate free lunch meats, wondering if he would be safe if he continued to buy them. When I heard this, my initial reaction was disbelief as to why someone would continue eating processed meat after hearing the news. But after thinking about myself as a former meat eater, I can understand. When I ate meat, I mostly ate processed meat. It was so much easier to buy a few slices of ham than to buy meat in its original, raw form. In fact, when I lived on my own I don't remember buying raw, unprocessed meat even once. I've worked at a couple of delis, and, now that I think about it, we only sold processed meat to people. People eat the stuff daily--it is called "lunch meat," after all. And when something is so pervasive in a culture and you see everyone doing it, it's hard to believe that it is actually dangerous.

This is understandable. Wasn't the response to the dangers of tobacco similar? Doctors and celebrities were paid to endorse the products and gave the general public a false sense of security. People took half measures like smoking light cigarettes and cigarettes with filters, which actually turn out to be more detrimental to health.

The same thing is happening now. People are grasping at straws, hoping that nitrate free or organic lunch meat will not be as harmful to them. Many people misinterpret the news, reasoning that, since processed meat doesn't instantly kill you, the news has been over hyped. People also claim that since meat has vitamins and minerals, it is still alright to eat it sometimes. As one YouTube news reporter puts it, "Vegetarians, don't rejoice too much, though. Meat is still a great source of B vitamins, minerals, iron, and zinc."

This reminds me of wine advocates who point out the fact that wine has antioxidants--as if other foods don't have them. In a similar vein, meat advocates still highlight the fact that meats have nutrients as if plant foods don't have B vitamins, minerals, iron, and zinc.

I understand that if you've been eating meat everyday for fifty years or if you depend on ham and bologna to feed your children at lunch, this may be a lot to take in at once. It may be more comfortable to react in disbelief along with millions of other people. While I was initially surprised and a little angry at the public reaction, I am left feeling compassionate because I know what it is like to live and eat that way.

However, Yulia and I want you to know that it is possible to change for the better. We are encouraged to see that even non vegetarians are taking interest in the mounting reasons to not eat meat. The same people from "DNews" in the video above link to another video about the meat industry in the United States. They acknowledge that meat production produces more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.

So eating a plant based diet is not only better for your health, it is also better for the health of the planet. If you are at all interested in environmentalism, you might want to consider a plant based diet. But this is a topic for another post...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Kyiv and Lviv: A Comparison

Yulia and I just got back from a quick trip to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. This was our second trip to the city, and we only spent a few days there on each trip, so we are by no means experts. Still, we've been able to make some observations while traveling there. This post will be about the differences and similarities between Kyiv and Lviv.

The differences:

Kyiv is huge

Yulia and I live in a tiny village of less than one hundred people. It's in a tucked away area well off the beaten path. When it rains, our road remains muddy for weeks. The houses here are small, modest one story buildings.

Our village. The only two story building is the big white Національний Дiм ("National Home"--only used during elections) lit up by the sun in the background.

We live 30 miles (50 km) from Lviv. It is a city of just under a million people. There is a height limit to the buildings there, so there is no skyline in the modern sense of the word. Lviv's downtown is dominated by architecture from Austrian times--it's quaint and charming, but relatively small in scale.
The heart of downtown Lviv

In comparison, Kyiv is huge. It reminds us of the American city of Chicago. The buildings are tall and the streets are wide--especially in comparison to the medieval alleyways of Lviv. The volume of traffic is intense. At night, the sound never ceases. We had a particularly stuffy hotel room, so we had to keep the window open all night. We had a hard time sleeping because of the constant roar of the street fourteen stories below. The architecture of downtown Kyiv is a combination of beautiful, historic buildings (but unlike Lviv, they are enormous!) and modern high rises.

A view from our hotel during our trip in 2011.

Kyiv has a Metro

We love love love the Kyiv Metro! It's by far better than any subway system we have used anywhere. The trains come every two minutes or so. You never have to wait long for a train. The Metro stations are also beautiful!

Inside the subway cars

We really like the "University" stop. It's right by the botanical garden, and there are many beautiful potted plants by the escalator. The lighting didn't lend itself to a good picture, but you get the idea! :) 

Lviv doesn't have a subway system, but it does have pretty good public transportation. There are buses, mini-buses (маршрутки), trolleybuses, and trams. The video below is about the designers of the new trams in Lviv. They were designed, constructed and, now, used in Lviv. While Lviv may not be as big and wealthy as Kyiv, there are many people here who care about their city and who try to make a difference. We think their care and love shows! (The video is in Ukrainian, though we'd recommend watching it just for the images, which are lovely).


On our first day in Kyiv I went to a currency exchange. After I gave the lady at the booth dollars, she asked for something in Russian. I didn't understand and looked to Yulia for help. She told me that the lady wanted hryvnias so that she could return large bills to me. I gave her some hryvnias, and she asked for more because Yulia misunderstood her the first time. I obliged and apologized in Ukrainian, saying, "Sorry, I don't speak Russian."

I guess this set her off because she went into a long speech and shook her head as she counted my money. I had no idea what she was saying because, as I made clear earlier, I don't speak Russian. I stared at her blankly and took my money.

I guess she was saying something rude (I later found out that she said, "All kinds of foreigners come here, from England and all over the world, and they all understand Russian."). Yulia was listening to everything as she stood off to the side. She went up to the window after I left and said, "So you think that everyone understands Russian?"

"Well, I'm not obligated to speak to anyone in Ukrainian."

"What country do you think you live in? This is Ukraine."

"Girl, why are you yelling at me?"

At this point we left in disbelief. I just want to reiterate what happened. I was speaking Ukrainian. In the Ukrainian capital. And a woman became upset with me because I didn't understand Russian.

Aside from this incident, most other people we spoke to in Kyiv were quite friendly. Many of them switched to Ukrainian when they spoke with us, but it was unnerving that we had some friction with that lady on our first day in Kyiv.

We went to restaurants with some trepidation. When we went to one place for dinner, we received only Russian language menus. I explained that I don't understand Russian and asked for a Ukrainian menu. They let me know that they didn't have a Ukrainian menu, but an English one.

Also, we had some business to attend to at the American Embassy, and again, surprisingly, Russian. When we were moving through security a lady was saying what kinds of things to take out of our bags and pockets before going through the metal detector. Yulia saw me struggling to understand and started explaining what she was saying. The embassy worker saw and had to get one of her coworkers to translate into English. Again, this was the American embassy in Ukraine, and Russian was spoken there. Some employees knew English. No Ukrainian (I don't want to paint an overly grim picture, either. The people inside were quite friendly and professional and spoke English fluently).

We've only spent about seven days total between our two trips to Kyiv, and we already met some resistance to our speaking Ukrainian. It makes us wonder how difficult it would be to live there and try to continue speaking Ukrainian long term.

We hear many people call Kyiv a bilingual city, but Yulia and I think Lviv might actually be a better example. True, Lviv is an overwhelmingly Ukrainian speaking city, but there are locals who speak Russian as well. We encounter many of them in Франківський Район (Frankivs'kyi Rayon), a beautiful, well-to-do neighborhood of the city. They speak Russian and most people speak to them in Ukrainian. We've lived here for four years without seeing any conflicts.

Communist Monuments and Symbols

Long before the decommunization laws that were passed earlier this year, Lviv got rid of its Soviet monuments and symbols. You'd be hard pressed to find a hammer and sickle around here.

It's different in Kyiv. Despite the decommunization laws, we still saw communist stars on lamp posts and a statue of a guy on a horse with a hammer and sickle on it (I also noticed that someone had spray painted Слава Україні  (Glory to Ukraine) on it, but the paint has since been washed off. The hammer and sickle remain).

What was outside of the currency exchange where I got yelled at the first night? A gigantic pedestal holding up the communist star.

Kyiv seems more "American" to us

Despite a few old symbols from Soviet times, Kyiv has the feel of a modern American city to us. The streets are wide and the economy seems to be bustling. We saw few, if any, Ladas or old junkers. Most cars are new and shiny compared to Lviv. We also noticed that the people were finely dressed. I've almost forgotten what it's like to see a grown man with neatly combed hair wearing a collared shirt and sweater.

The wide, yet empty streets of Chicago--I mean, Kyiv

You'll see nicely dressed people in Lviv as well, but not to the same extent. Lviv is much smaller and has many residents who are recent transplants from the surrounding countryside. It has much fewer native urbanites.

And while Kyiv seems very American to us, the urban fabric of Lviv is more "European." Lviv's historic buildings are from Austrian times, so it's no wonder why it has the feel of any other northern European city.

The similarities:

Despite these superficial and not-so-superficial differences, we think Kyiv and Lviv have more in common than not.

Living in a small village, we forget what it's like to go to a city--whether it be Kyiv or Lviv--and have to constantly walk through other people's cigarette smoke on the sidewalk.

Like all big cities in Ukraine, Kyiv and Lviv have pretty good economies (that is, jobs) which vacuum up people from surrounding villages and towns where, sometimes, there is no economy to speak of. The only difference is that Kyiv, being the capital, gets people from all across the country.

Recently, however, Lviv is giving Kyiv a run for its money. It's becoming very attractive to investors, professionals, inventors, creative types, and all sorts of people. As this recent RFE/RL article says: "The country's GDP is set to contract by 9 percent this year, but you wouldn't guess it by walking around Lviv. New restaurants open every month, and posters advertise new residential developments." Like Kyiv, Lviv's IT sector is really taking off. One Israeli IT entrepreneur, who moved to Kyiv before relocating to Lviv, cites the locals as the reason why he set up business here:
"Lviv today is in effect not only the most comfortable place for living, but the least problematic in terms of the mind-set of people," he says, stressing that it's not "just because of the closeness of a [European] border."
He explains that the city differs from others in Ukraine because it has no oligarchs, and boasts a healthy middle class unified by a singular goal.
While Yulia and I are thrilled that Kyiv and Lviv are doing so well, we get the feeling that they are virtual islands isolated from the ocean of Ukrainian land around them. They vacuum up not only people from the surrounding countryside, but also talent and resources. Ukraine just had local elections, which made us consider who in our surrounding area we should vote for. We wonder who is actually qualified to be elected into office. Who has the leadership skills? Who can take on such a responsibility and who understands how to manage money for a village or town?

Whoever is in charge now is doing a pitiful job. We see little evidence that they know how to organize a group of workers to fix a road or manage money. We've seen a policeman on our street once in the 2+ years we've been living at our home. Old buildings from the former колгосп (collective farm) are crumbling, and no one is even thinking about demolishing or reusing them.

A local road near our village
Since the quality of life has now improved in cities like Kyiv and Lviv, it may be time for the much touted talent in those cities to begin to think about the rest of the country. Why do the roads suddenly fall apart when you drive beyond the city limits? Why are there good paying jobs only in the biggest cities? During the electricity emergency last year, we had daily blackouts in our village. However, when I drove to Lviv, the soccer stadium had its lights on full blast, lighting up the sky for miles around. Why is everybody who is not a city resident treated as a second class citizen?

Don't get us wrong, if you're a visitor or an expat in Ukraine, we think Kyiv and Lviv are wonderful places to visit or live. They have all the amenities and infrastructure you expect and need. Also, you'll be able to find all the Ukrainian history and culture you're looking for. Enough people speak English for an outsider to get around. The cost of visiting Ukraine is much less than the cost of going to most other European cities, but your experience will probably be the same as, if not better than, going somewhere else. Definitely give them a try!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Surprises: Some pleasant, some not so much!

By Michael

Sometimes life can feel like the movie, Groundhog Day. You wake up and relive the same day over and over again. At times, it feels like I am in Groundhog Day. I've been hanging siding on the walls of our house since May. When I first got started it felt nifty: "I finished framing the first window--neat!" Now I think, "One more freaking window to frame. When will this end??"

I'm feeling this way because I want to wrap up this project before winter. I want everything to be nice and sealed up before the first snow. Or should I say, wanted?

Yes, it happened already! We had our first snow! Just like last year, we got it in October--pretty unusual around here. But we only had a light coating. We read that it snowed up to 20 centimeters in parts of Poland! Suddenly it doesn't feel so much like Groundhog Day anymore!

As the snow was falling, our primitive little sink started leaking. It started on a Sunday night after I came back home from a day trip to Lviv, so I was in no mood to fix it that night. I took a look at it Monday morning and discovered that it wasn't leaking at the seams as I expected, but, rather, was leaking through pinhole sized openings that formed in the sheet metal. Strange! I've used vinegar to clean out the basin once or twice, and I assume that that was enough for the acid to begin eating away at the metal. I actually patched up the holes with caulk, but when I filled the basin with water again, some new holes appeared that I had not noticed before. Yulia claims that she saw a pinhole form and start leaking seconds after I poured the water.

This is what the basin looks like

And here is the hole. You can see a little streak of rust coming from it.

I guess that means that this basin is kicked. I gave up on it, and we began using this beautiful porcelain water tank that my parents gifted us instead.

Not a bad compromise!

But not all of our surprises have been negative ones. Last week, for example, Yulia and I tried making some pumpkin gnocchi or, as we call them here in Ukraine, "lazy varenyky." The varenyky were a flop. They didn't taste too good. We had a whole bowl full of dough that hadn't been used yet, and, instead of throwing it out, we let it sit overnight. The next day we noticed that the dough had risen as if it had yeast in it. We thought, what the heck, let's try baking this stuff and see what happens. Yulia put the dough into some forms and...whaduyaknow? We had some unexpected pumpkin bread! I want to make that same mistake again sometime. Some mistakes turn out to be delicious!

*     *     *

Oh yes. And we saw a pretty big snake in our garden not too long ago. It was moving slowly because the weather was cold. We see snakes by our house very rarely, and each time we just see their backsides as they quickly slither away from us. We hope this guy found a nice, warm place to overwinter.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A whole foods, plant based diet

By Michael

When people stop paying attention to their own thoughts and observations and, instead, believe something they've repeatedly been told, this is a dogma. In this post I want to talk about a particular kind of dogma that I see too many people I care about believe in--the dogma of eating meat and animal products for health.

Anyone who has known Yulia and me before and after going vegan should be able to recognize one very obvious sign of health. We used to get sick regularly, but now we don't get sick at all. The time we stopped getting regular colds almost too nicely coincides with our transition to vegetarianism.

Before I started eating a whole foods, plant based diet I was sick several times a year. I remember soar throats and coughing as a regular thing. I didn't even question it. I assumed I was sick from germs, bacteria, or viruses. "Better continue using that antibacterial soap," I thought. I would slather it on and use antiseptic spray on door handles and other surfaces with absolutely no improvements to my health. Now I can't even remember the last time I coughed. What was once normal has become abnormal (I got a hell of a sinus infection last year after staying awake for two nights in a row while eating animal products. I wrote about it in this post: "Health and Sickness").

When I was eating a standard American diet and constantly getting sick, nobody questioned my diet and lifestyle. Nobody told me that it was abnormal to get the common cold (The term common cold illustrates just how normal our culture considers it). Maybe I would have changed sooner if I was made aware that what was happening was not normal.

On the other hand, now that Yulia and I are stronger, healthier, and happier, people question our diet and lifestyle all the time. A family member once told us, "If you were younger I would never let you eat the way you're eating now." And, of course, we get the obligatory questions, "Where do you get your protein?" and "Where do you get your vitamins?" They're good questions, by the way, and I'm in no way trying to put down the people who ask those questions (I'll give you my answers below). What does confuse me, though, is why people never questioned us when we were constantly sick, but do question us now.

Yulia and I have nothing to sell you. We're not trying to convince you to change for any personal gain other than to help those that we care about. If you're feeling better and healthier, we'll feel better too. As each year goes by, it becomes stranger and stranger to talk with family and friends who are constantly sick. As people who care about you, we want you to feel better. We want you to know that it doesn't have to be this way.

Yulia and I go against conventional wisdom everyday. We sleep with the window open until the night time temperature goes below freezing. We bathe outside every night, year round. We don't use anti bacterial soap. We don't have a flush toilet. We cram ourselves onto overcrowded buses full of sick people, yet never get the virus going around. We drink cold water straight from the spring and drive in cars with the windows down (two no-no's in Ukraine). And we don't eat meat, dairy, or eggs.

*     *     *

To answer the question--Where do you get your protein?--I will refer you to world record holder strongman, Patrik Baboumian. He made the world record for the log lift and yoke walk. In the video below he carries 555 kilograms (1224 pounds) over 10 meters. That's about the maximum load my pickup truck can carry.

He's probably getting enough protein, right? What does he eat? Plants. Baboumian is a vegan. He's been vegan since 2011 and vegetarian since 2005 (source).

In the video below he talks about where he gets his protein from. He has a long list: lentils, beans, chickpeas, peanuts, peas, soy, wheat, rye, corn, oats, and rice. He combines the legumes and cereals in this list to get a good combination of amino acids.

While Baboumian is right that he gets all his protein from plants, he actually unnecessarily focuses on combining foods to get a "complete protein" (although combining foods does not hurt--obviously). It is impossible to create a whole foods, plant based diet that is deficient in any of the amino acids. This myth is still strong (even among vegans and vegetarians), so allow me to explain.

It all got started in 1971 when Frances Moore Lappe published the book, Diet for a Small Planet. In this book Lappe writes that some plant foods are deficient in essential amino acids, so someone on a vegetarian diet must combine certain foods to get a "complete protein." 

Ten years later the myth of protein completion was labeled a mistake. Who, you may ask, debunked this myth? Some burnt out hippy? A crazy animal liberation activist-terrorist? In fact, the creator of the myth herself calls it out in the tenth anniversary edition of the book:
"In this and later editions, she corrects her earlier mistake and clearly states that all plant foods typically consumed as sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids, and that humans are virtually certain of getting enough protein from plant sources if they consume sufficient calories." (source)
Yulia and I see this myth being propagated by vegans and non-vegans alike. It's not the 1970s anymore. If you encounter this piece of misinformation, make people aware that it was discounted by the myth's original author a long time ago.

*     *     *

You may have noticed that I used the term, "whole foods, plant based diet," a couple of times now. That's because this is the type of diet Yulia and I most closely follow. It describes how we eat: whole foods (not processed foods) and plants. I do not use the term, vegan diet, because it can mean many different things. One can eat french fries and Oreos on a vegan diet, but we wouldn't eat that way because we don't think it would be healthy.

I first learned about a whole foods, plant based diet when I read the book, The China Study, by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. As its title suggests, it is about a study that took place in China--in fact, the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted--but it's also about other connections between nutrition and diseases.

What I respect most about the author is that he began his career convinced that animal protein is key to health. However, as he did his own research, he found that the opposite was the case. In the beginning of his career he studied malnutrition. He traveled to the Philippines to study liver cancer in children assuming that the highest incidences of the cancer would appear in children who ate little, if any, animal protein. But when he looked at the data, it became clear that the children who ate the most animal protein were the most susceptible. As he puts it:

"The families with the most money ate what we thought were the healthiest diets, the diets most like our own meaty American diets. They consumed more protein than anyone else in the country (high quality animal protein, at that), and yet they were the ones getting liver cancer!" (36 emphasis in original)
In this book, Campbell discusses what he calls the diseases of affluence--namely, heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's, obesity and diabetes--and how these diseases are relatively unheard of in traditional cultures that eat a whole foods, plant based diet. The contrast between more affluent and less affluent groups is stark. In China, for example, Campbell found that poorer people who could not afford a diet high in meat were less likely to get heart disease, cancer, etc. "But," he says, "these ailments arrive when a traditional culture starts accumulating wealth and starts eating more and more meat, dairy, and refined plant products (like crackers, cookies and soda)." (109)

*    *     *

You may still have lingering questions about "those vitamins" that you can't get from plant foods. Precisely, there are four nutrients which animal products have that plant foods do not: cholesterol and vitamins A, D, and B12. Cholesterol and vitamins A and D are non essential nutrients, which means that our bodies can synthesize them on their own. Cholesterol is naturally made in the body, vitamin A can be made from beta-carotene, and vitamin D can be made by giving yourself exposure to sunlight (The China Study 231) [Vitamin D can also be found in sun dried mushrooms].

Vitamin B12, on the other hand, comes from microorganisms found in the soil and animal (including human) intestines. Plants grown in soil with high levels of B12 are able to absorb this nutrient (The China Study 232). Unfortunately, since most people in the modern world don't eat food grown in healthy soils, they do not get this nutrient from plants. Even more unfortunately, many food animals today don't get B12 from the food they are fed, so farmers actually have to inject their animals with it. Those animals are then killed and fed to people who think they are getting their B12 from a natural source. Wouldn't it make more sense to just take a supplement yourself?

Here are two of the more thoughtful takes on vitamin B12 and veganism. In the first video, the narrator  makes a good point. If 39% of people have a vitamin B12 deficiency, but far less than that (0.5%) are vegans, then this is not only an issue for vegans. Meat eaters should also consider if they are getting enough. He also questions how many vegetarians and vegans get their blood tested right before they stop eating animals products and then get tested again after several years (which is how long it takes to get a B12 deficiency). His point is that many vegans do a blood test to find out that they are B12 deficient, but never bothered to check their levels before changing their diet. They blame the B12 deficiency on veganism when they may have been B12 deficient all along.

 The second video is a (really) comprehensive analysis of veganism and B12. The narrator talks about things like blood testing, giving supplements to animals, B12 production in our own bodies, and soil health.

*     *    *

I can't tell you what my vitamin B12 level is. If I do get it, I assume I get it from plants grown in my garden, kombucha, fermented foods, and nutritional yeast. I'm curious to get myself tested and find out for myself. For that matter, I can't tell you what any of my vitamin levels are at. But I am feeling better in many different ways, and I think that counts for something.

In the end, I'm not so interested in digging in my heels on the issue of nutrition. The point of this blog post is not to prove that I am right and everybody else is wrong. I just care that I am giving myself and the people I care about the best information possible. If I learn about something new in nutrition, and it makes sense to me, I'll try it. I don't think how I eat is perfect, but I'm trying to move in that direction. Most recently, for example, I'm working on really cutting down on my intake of salt and oil, which I use a lot of when the weather gets cold. In the end, my body doesn't care if I can win a debate on nutrition. It just cares that I get that nutrition.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Ethical Veganism

By Michael (I use graphic language in this post, so if you are eating at the moment, I recommend you read some other time.)

Yulia and I were walking to the bus stop in Yulia's grandparents' village one foggy morning. As we were walking I heard a sound I had never heard before. I could only describe it as a distant roar. It would roar for a few seconds and then stop. Then it would start again.

I asked Yulia what it was, and she didn't answer. I asked again. Nothing. It was a day or two before Easter, and I put two and two together. A pig was being slaughtered for the holiday.

We continued walking and the roaring continued. It had been screaming in agony for several minutes now. Tears welled up in my eyes. The sound vibrated through my ears. It was not dying of old age--this was the sound of a strong animal. It knew it was on its way out of this world. It didn't want to go, and it wasn't going quietly. This animal fiercely wanted to live.

We got to the bus stop and the screaming continued. The tears were hot in my eyes. "Why don't they just kill it already? Put it out of its misery!" I couldn't take it anymore. What the hell were the people who did that doing at that moment?? Sitting in their house? Standing there and watching? How could they??

*     *     *

I feel that sharing this story is the least I could do for that animal, and I hope some good comes from such horror.

Admittedly, my telling of the story has been filtered through my emotions. I don't know what the pig felt at that time. I don't know if it actually knew it was on its way out of this world, but that's what I heard in its shrieking.

I understand that emotions and feelings are suspect in this hyper rational world we live in. I understand that we need to question our biases in the search for truth. But I don't think it makes sense to completely sideline our feelings either. Try to understand what they are telling you. If hearing an animal scream makes you cringe, maybe something is not completely right--especially if you are the cause of that screaming (If you hear an animal scream, and it does not make you cringe, maybe something is not completely right either).

If you want to objectively know how pigs are slaughtered around here--no emotions, no subjectivity, this is how: a knife is pushed through the pig's chest and into its heart. As I described, death is not instant.

*     *     *

Yulia and I want this blog to be positive and inspirational. I tell this story to hopefully bring some good into this world.

I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I'm only going on because I hope my words will inspire other people to think. Do you really need to celebrate a holiday by making an animal suffer like that? There are literally thousands upon thousands of other things you could do to celebrate being with your family. Read a book with your niece. Teach your nephew how to ride a bike. Push your cousins on a swing. Ask the elderly people in your family to tell you a story from 60 years ago. Help out grandma in the kitchen. Why does the celebration have to involve an animal screaming in agony for half an hour? Why does it have to involve killing at all?

*    *     *

I guess there's actually an argument against vegans now that claims that plants can feel pain. The article, smugly titled, "Nice try, Vegans: Plants Can Actually Hear Themselves Being Eaten," describes how a certain plant releases mustard oil as a defense in response to vibrations that mimic a caterpillar eating leaves. Even though this is not the conclusion of the study, many people have concluded on their own that plants can feel pain and are conscious.

To anyone who believes this, I have one question: If you actually think plants feel pain, are you going to change your life in any way in accordance with those beliefs? If you think the solution is to eat meat so that you don't incur pain on plants, remember that livestock are fed plants. You have to kill a lot more plants to feed the animals than you do if you just fed yourself with those plants. Then you have to kill the animal.

My guess is that no one is actually bothered by the suffering of plants. Rather, some people use it as a counter argument to ethical veganism--specifically, the belief that one should incur as little pain as possible. I'll be honest. I don't want to hear it. Don't compare a sheep who still tries to run away while laying on its side in a pool of its own blood after having its throat cut to me picking berries in my backyard. That sheep is making motions like it wants to run away because it does want to run away. Don't pretend they're so stupid. Animals know they are being killed when they are slaughtered, and they fight fiercely for their lives. When chickens are taken off the trucks at slaughterhouses, they hold onto their crates so tightly that their feet are sometimes ripped off their bodies (source).

If you want to compare that to me picking dried up beans pods off dried up vines in the fall, then this is your reality check. It annoys me to no end when people stop using common sense and make half baked arguments using the aegis of scientific studies to justify not changing their behavior, especially when the stakes are so high.

There are many more comics like this at

These two vegan athletes have a YouTube Channel, Vegan Bros, in which they critique both vegans and non-vegans alike. In this one they compare hurting plants and animals.

*     *     *

I've talked about the suffering that a pig from a family homestead went through, but animals in slaughterhouses face unimaginable torture. I don't use the word torture lightly here. I recently read an article from the Los Angeles Times, "The Cruelty Behind Your Ballpark Hotdog," which documents botched slaughters and other animal rights abuses. There is an anecdote about one pig, for example, that was not immediately killed by a stun gun. Since there was no spare available, the metal rod had to be pulled from the pig's head while it was still alive in order to reload it. If you comfort yourself by pointing out that this is an anomaly (the article makes clear it isn't), then consider what happens day to day in animal agriculture. It is common practice to cut the testicles out of baby pigs without anesthetics and grind up male chicks alive (or suffocate them in plastic bags) in the egg industry.

It is also common for cows to be skinned alive at slaughterhouses. The video below describes how at one facility the first 10 cows slaughtered each morning are particularly susceptible to this because the owner doesn't allow time for the cows to be fully bled: "There is pressure to start dismembering the cows right away and not lose money by slowing down the production line." This is an everyday occurrence in Kosher and Halal slaughterhouses because the animal is not stunned. If it is not completely bled in time, it will still be conscious as the scalper begins to pull the skin off its body.

I didn't know what was going on with the animals I ate for a long time. No one had ever shared the information with me. Even after I learned what was happening I didn't go vegan overnight. But it got me thinking, and once things got lined up in my mind, I realized that going vegan was the only conclusion that made sense.

I understand that just because it makes sense to me doesn't mean that it will automatically make sense to you, so don't let me convince you. You need to convince yourself. You need to take responsibility for yourself and your actions. I think if you go veg' because of this post or because you watched a couple of videos, you will not have a strong enough foundation to continue long term.

So take the time to learn about the world around you. What is acceptable to you and what isn't? Only you can answer that. For a long time eating meat was acceptable to me. I went vegetarian when I was 18, then went back. I was off and on for several years. Grass fed beef caught my interest the summer before I met Yulia. I had a bacon sandwich the first time I went out with Yulia and continued eating meat for the first two months after we started dating (though I stopped eating meat in front of her). After that, the two of us were ovo-lacto vegetarians for some time, though we gradually started to cut that out of our diet. I've been on a vegan + honey diet for about a year now.

Yulia has been vegetarian and/or vegan for eight years (and off and on for four years before that). When she met me she actually went from vegan to eating more eggs and dairy, but since then she's stopped.

This is what makes sense to us right now. We're not writing this to judge you, and we're open to the idea of changing if we see a better way of living. Our eyes are open. If we see some good in what you're doing, we'll notice.

*     *     *

In this post I just covered the ethical aspect of veganism based on causing as little pain and killing as possible. There's a lot more to talk about, and future posts will deal with those topics (I'll have to turn this into a series).

I realize Yulia and I aren't strict vegans, but veganism is the movement we most closely identify with, so that's why we chose to go with that for the title. For the sake of simplicity, I will continue to use the term, but you should know that we keep bees and haven't thrown out our old leather shoes or wool slippers (though we don't buy leather or wool anymore). We also have a down comforter that Yulia's grandmother gave us. It was old, so we had the feathers cleaned and put into a new sack (again, we don't buy new down products anymore). We have two cats and a dog. Our cats would have been drowned as kittens if we did not take them into our care, and our dog was homeless when she appeared in our backyard. We encouraged her to leave when she first arrived, but she literally had nowhere else to go, so we're doing our best to give her a loving home.

We mainly focus on life at our home in this blog, so I centered this post on our own experiences. There's obviously much more that can be said, so in no way consider this blot post comprehensive.

To get started, see the pages I linked to above.  If you think you can handle it, watch the film, Earthlings. I link to it reluctantly because it is by far the most upsetting, violent movie I have ever seen. The images and sounds are nothing short of medieval, yet they were filmed in our time. In the future, I think people will see the things we did and shake their heads at what primitive savages we used to be.

*     *     *

I don't think Yulia and I have a large vegan audience. I assume most of our readers eat a standard diet including meat, dairy, and eggs and wear leather and so on. And I know that we have a lot of friends and family who read this blog who are not vegan. We still want to be friends with you, and we do not want a divorce from our families. We write about this because this is a large part of our lives. Unfortunately, we live in a world where this is not the norm. Outside of our home there are few spaces where we are not bombarded with animal products. When I go to the bazaar I see sellers shoeing flies away from the cuts of meat on their tables. From the street I see pig's heads hanging in butcher shops. When we shop for shoes, we have to ignore most of the shoes we see because they are made from a cow's skin (forget the euphemism). Yulia and I can't even sit down at the table with our own family without having to see and smell meat (though our parents are open to eating what we eat when we're together, and Yulia's grandparents even had a vegan Easter with us last year--no questions, no complaints). But this blog is our little space on the internet, and we want it to reflect our own thoughts and opinions. If you don't like what you're reading here, move on. We'll deal with having less page views because of it.

If you want to understand the world as we see it, imagine if I stuck a knife into our dog's chest, and she screamed so loud that you not only heard it as you walked by our house, by that you could even hear it ten minutes after walking by. In half an hour, after she finally stopped wailing, I would take our electric saw, cut her head off and display it so that people walking on the street could see. If anyone got offended I would remind them that she wagged her tail and had a happy life. Plus, this is a world in which people eat dogs. It wouldn't be against the law, so you couldn't do anything about it anyway. Then I would cut her body into little pieces and eat it in front of you, knowing that the very idea of this disturbs you. I would take the small pieces of her body that no one would otherwise eat (like her cheeks, heart, and anus), stuff it into her own intestines, and feed it to my children with mustard and ketchup as a fun snack food. I would boil her bones and use the broth as a base for vegetable soup and be surprised if you wouldn't want to eat it. I would raise more dogs and let them run around the streets of our village, so that they poop everywhere and make a lot of noise. When it rained, the poop would get wet and turn into mud. When it was dry that poop would turn into dust and fly into the air whenever a car drove by. I would also buy dog meat from the store and tell you that it is cheaper than buying rice and vegetables even though rice and vegetables are less expensive than dog meat. I would make fun of you and call you an elitist yuppy for not buying dog meat. After eating this way for a while I would get chronic constipation and constantly get "the bug that was going around" (even though you would never get it). I would talk about how hard it is to be healthy and lose weight. If you ever questioned me I would tell you that the world is a brutal place and that you should stop being so naive and get used to it.

This is the world as Yulia and I see it.