Personal Development, Religion

Why I’m Not Vegetarian

I told her the tortillas had no eggs in them. Then I realized that was only a guess on my part. What if I was wrong? She didn’t seem too sure either. But she reached for a tortilla.

She explained why her Vedic diet disallowed meat.

“Is it the same in your religion?”

“No,” I said. There are similarities between Hinduism and Western polytheism, but that isn’t one of them. “We believe it’s natural to eat meat.”

We stopped dating.

Photo by OvO, original art by Andrew Bell.

Vegetarianism is billed as a moral choice. It’s not.

If your religion says to be vegetarian, you have my respect and support. But this is like keeping Kosher or Halal: it’s based on customs or rules, and it’s not morally better. There is nothing particularly meritorious about killing more plants and less animals.

All living creatures want to survive. They will fight for their lives. This is true from the smallest microbe to the oldest oak to our fellow mammals. We all take from other living beings in order to survive, and all of us seek to avoid being killed in turn.

Plants do it too. They release chemical signals when they’re under distress, to warn other plants. Those other plants adjust how they use their resources to try to survive whatever killed the guy next to them. No one wants to die.

This is not to say it’s unethical to eat plants: it isn’t. But plants too struggle to avoid harm and death, and in their own way they fight it. Is there “fear” or “pain” in that? We don’t know. But no matter how we source our food we will have to kill our fellow living beings.

This is natural, and it’s right.

Humans are evolved to eat a small amount of meat in a primarily fruit and vegetable diet. I was vegetarian for many years until I went to live with hunter gatherers. I had no choice but to eat like them. One day I ate fly eggs, another day I ate a turtle foot. Most days it was greens and nuts. I learned three things:

  • Reducing my intake of carbs did more for my health than years of vegetarianism
  • A small meat intake had important and positive effects on my body
  • It is possible to treat animals with reverence and respect even when killing them

When I returned to civilization, my old all-vegetarian diet seemed as contrived as a junk food diet. It was only possible because of a huge amount of staple carbs, and because of highly processed foods.

But there were at least two other reasons to be vegetarian: animal cruelty and the environment. I take these seriously. If you pride yourself on eating meat I sure hope you’re buying organic and free-range. Treating animals humanely is not only more ethical, it also mitigates the most serious environmental harm that large-scale meat operations wreak on the environment.

Nowadays less than 10% of my diet is meat. Eating too much of it has serious health risks; it’s as unnatural as vegetarianism. Most of the time I find myself not wanting meat at all, but the occasional urge signals something from my body and I trust it.

It was easy to become vegetarian. It neither improved nor ruined my health. Going omnivore was harder, because we’re given an inaccurate message that it’s wrong or unspiritual.


When You Stay Your Sweat Smells Black

I can feel it. Every surface of my body, every stretch of skin. The sweat of a sick man, and it clings.

Biking 30, 60, 90 miles a day and bathing in lakes—never any smell. My sweat rolled off like salt water, the space under my arms was clean. My laundry sack kept empty day after day.

But here, at this desk, fetid air. Why do my clothes stink? I changed them, I showered. Why can I smell socks when feet are way down there? I feel feverish, but have no cold. No flu. No exotic bug.

My meals are rich and sugared. Coffee in the morning. Beer at night. Then I sit on an office chair and type. Two hours, four hours. Take a break for a walk. Back to the office chair.

When you burn you burn clean. When you smolder there’s smoke up there.

I look at my bike. He’s ready. Let’s go.

Adventure, Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoes or Barefoot: The 7000 Mile Question

Last summer while camping with philosophers I read the book Born to Run. This book has sparked quite a buzz among adventure types. It looks at super-marathons—runs of fifty miles or more in a single go—and suggests that running barefoot is healthier and safer than wearing shoes.

Alternately, foot condoms.

That’s actually not the main point of the book, which is more about how humans evolved to run long distances, and the search for the people who still do it (safely) today. During that quest, author Christopher McDougall found evidence that modern athletic shoes increase running injuries by weakening the foot. The solution he suggested—citing a number of sports doctors and coaches—is to wear thin-soled, unsupported shoes or no shoes at all.

People have fixated on this.

Barefoot running has become quite a trend. Before you sprint out and try it, let me warn you: suddenly switching your running routine to barefoot will lead to a stress fracture. Try downgrading to thinner shoes first. Start with a short jog. Slowly build your way up.

But the real issue is, is it worth it?

The Theory

The reasoning offered by McDougall and others is simple. Padded, supportive running shoes with thick heels are relatively new. Even 30 years ago they didn’t exist. But we’ve been running marathon+ distances safely for tens of thousands of years.

So what do these shoes do?

According to the theory, they over-cushion and support our feet. The muscles don’t have to work as hard because the shoe restricts them. The foot muscles weaken and injury results.

That makes logical sense, but where’s–

The Evidence

To support this, McDougall mainly relies on time trend analysis. Padded shoes are supposed to prevent injuries, but do they? He compares the injury rate of professional athletes before the modern running shoe, to professional athletes today. If the best modern running shoes help prevent injury, we should see a decline in injuries over time.

But injuries haven’t declined.

The implication is that athletic shoes don’t do anything to help prevent injuries. Barefoot enthusiasts point to this as proof.

They’re wrong.

A time trend is an interesting reason to look into something, but it’s not proof. Many factors could affect running injuries over forty years. The evidence McDougall gathered is an interesting starting point, but that’s all.

This is a hot issue, so surely more studies must have been done, right? I decided to…

Ask An Actual Doctor

This issue matters to me because I’m going to be walking, say, 7000 miles or so. And, oh yeah, I have a busted ankle.

So as long as I’m hanging around a straight-talkin’ ankle/foot specialist, I thought I’d ask about barefoot running (or hiking).

“Wear some fucking shoes,” my surgeon told me. “I don’t mean those five-fingers. The best athletic shoes you can afford.”

I worried he was biased. “So have studies been done that actually show that? More padded shoes lead to less injuries?”

He sighed. Shit was getting serious.

“No. It’s a big debate with smart people in both camps. So far, no research has shown us a clear answer either way.”


The Seven Thousand Mile Question

I always prefer to make my decisions based on science. Science is hands-down the best tool we have, followed closely by rational philosophy, then instinct, then personal experience, and somewhere way down at the bottom of the dredge, hope and faith.

But in this case, science fails to answer my question. So I have to make a judgment call.

Do I wear thick, supportive athletic shoes? Or thin canvas shoes and sandals? 

(I’m not literally going barefoot so those are your options.)

This is the seven thousand mile question. Choosing correctly could make my journey safer and more comfortable. Choose wrong, and I might be crippled when I’m 40—or laid up and suffering halfway to Brazil.

What do you think? If you knew you have arthritis in your ankle, and will be walking across two continents, what footwear would you equip for the journey?

I have some thoughts of my own on what to choose, but I’m eager to hear your opinion first. What do you say?

Update: You can see the shoes I finally chose—and why—in 1400 Mile Shoes