Why I Don't Eat Animals

...mostly

Plant based tacos

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Why I (Mostly) Don’t Eat Animals

It’s not why you think.

It’s kind of hard to believe I (mostly) stopped eating animals (and consuming (most) dairy) twelve entire years ago. It’s also hard to believe I’m going to be 41 this year, and then 82 every year after.

If you’re a longtime reader, you’d be forgiven for thinking I began my meatless journey for all the noble reasons I write about here every week, but you’d be wrong.

It’s not that — or, it wasn’t. A lot has changed in these twelve years. For example, my achilles hurt when I woke up this morning, but didn’t hurt last night, and I don’t understand why.

Anyways — the meatless (or “plant-based”) decision and the landscape surrounding it (often literally) is one I get asked the most about, so it seems prudent to finally share why I did it, why I stuck with it, and all of the benefits and obstacles along the way.

Last, a heads up: there’s a lot of ableist bullshit in here from me. It just happens to be a big part of the story.

In the beginning:

My family exercises so we can eat, full stop. We love to cook, we love to sweat, we love to eat, and for a very long time, there was very little discrimination as to what was on the table.

Eighteen years of that, and then college, where I was a sprinter on the swim team, and an outfielder in club college baseball. But I also added 15 pounds of muscle to play a (fast) flanker in rugby in college and briefly after.

Four years after I (barely) graduated, I was still armed with a body that could perform, that was pretty adaptable to whatever I wanted to do with it, and which required 4000 calories a day. #blessed

“I can do this all day”, I thought, foolishly.

All that muscle went away (but the number on the scale didn’t) as I worked my first jobs in London and then 2006 New York, absolutely inhaling Ess-A-Bagels, chicken parms, and Frappucinos on the daily. I was clocking 12+ hours just sitting at my desk, drinking and going out and not really sleeping most nights because YOLO.

You get the idea. It was great, but I was increasingly in uncharted territory, fitness-wise. I felt terrible.

In 2008, a close cousin was diagnosed with leukemia, and I was jolted out of my debauchery, desperate to do…something. What could I do? As I make clear here, I’m not a doctor or a scientist.

Over and over, I asked the question you all ask me:

What can I do?

The answer: I could sweat.

I signed up to train and fundraise with Team in Training, part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, where I met incredible humans, raised $60,000, and competed in the NYC Triathlon. It was an incredible experience. I was back.

Two months later, I met my future-wife at a Caribbean wedding. I was in sick shape. I tried to impress her by racing (and beating) a (slow) boat. She didn’t care (the first of many), but I was riding high. When it was over, I flew away on a goddamn seaplane. It was romantic, I was killing it.

Two months after that, one of my best friends was diagnosed with cancer.

A few months later, in early 2009, he died from that cancer (truly, fuck cancer), so — instantly — the drinking and eating was back in full effect.

In response to his death, I pulled an “Office Space” — I returned from his celebration of life and sat down at my cubicle at ESPN and was like “Yeah, no thanks.”

That lovely young woman who was wildly supportive through my dark times cautiously invited me out to LA (her first mistake). A big leap. Fuck it, I thought. Why not?

I took down another Subway meatball sandwich or seven, left my awesome job and awesome co-workers in New York, left behind my family and all my east coast friends, on basically zero notice, and moved to LA to be with her and nurse my wounds (with bourbon).

A couple weeks later, the economy crashed and there were zero jobs to be had.

I was depressed and unemployed, and kept up the drinking and sloth in my new home in hard-scrabble Hollywood Hills. Thankfully, some vital interventions along the way finally pulled me out of it.

The first was reading The China Study. Say what you will about that whole thing, but when your good friend has just died of cancer, and you are angry and also terrified of getting cancer, it’s very easy to read something like as persuasive as that and go “Oh shit.”

Simultaneously, a new friend got me running again, and another new friend got me into adult softball, which — and this will surprise you — I took far too seriously.

My now-wife and I got engaged and then married, and because of those, I got back into reasonable shape, which — looking back, and considering the self-inflicted damage — was hilariously easy. I dabbled in plants, but mostly still ate whatever I wanted. The China Study lurked on my bookshelf and in my subconscious, but animals were delicious and accessible.

Cut to 2011, and I’d just convinced 10+ friends to run that fall’s New York Marathon with me. We’d also agreed to collectively raise a shitload of money for cancer research (the LIVESTRONG Foundation, I know), because, again, fuck cancer, and because after working with Team in Training a few years before, I knew what to do.

Anyways — of all my different athletic activities, I’d never run a marathon before, much less trained for one, so I spent a LOT of time building training plans and trying to understand how to do it right.

Also, we were married and without kids (not for lack of trying), so what the hell else was I going to do with my free time?

My dad ran a shitload of marathons when I was growing up, so I had a general idea of the training required. But when I really looked at the training plan, I was aghast at what lay before me. I was going to have to retrofit my body into something different than it had ever been before.

At this point, six months out from race day, I thought it might be prudent to drop meat and dairy to not only NOT GET CANCER, but also maybe lose a few excess pounds and be lighter on my feet. You know, take it easy on the old joints.

Enter: vegetables.

Meat was out. Not just red meat. All meat. And so was dairy.

Two things immediately happened:

  1. I felt great. Light on my feet. More energy. Better sleep. Better training.

  2. I planned my new plant-based meals VERY poorly, so more than once my wife came home to me just ravaging a rotisserie chicken

Why?

Well, one, as you may have noticed above, over the years I changed everything about my body except my diet — with relative ease, and with a lot of success. So I’d just never really thought through the nutrition part.

And two, when you’re training for a fucking marathon, the calorie deficits add up — fast.

Keep in mind, it was 2011. Sure, I could cook, and was living in hippie LA, but despite those two obvious cheat codes for eating plant-based, there weren’t a lot of take-out or delivery options, nor much besides shitty almond milk in the grocery store. I didn’t have any plant-based cookbooks, I didn’t know where to get my protein.

Sure, yes, of course there were options and plenty of information, people have been eating plant-based forever, but see above about how I am a moron and did a poor job planning it all out.

Anyways — another interesting part was that while my wife was (and inexplicably continues to be) very supportive of my dumb shit, she certainly was under no obligation to take part in it herself.

And if you’ve ever tried to change your diet in a house you share with even one person, or with someone you go on dates with, it’s kind of complicated. Two kinds of milk in the fridge, fewer shared entrees, etc. It’s annoying and — as usual — it was my fault.

While she eventually and gradually became more plant-based, there were obvious obstacles: she wasn’t terrified of getting cancer, she had fewer issues with eating animals, and not many other people around us were plant-based yet. Plus, and I can’t express these both enough: almond milk sucks — especially in coffee — and bacon remains fucking delicious.

Great news, though: The marathon went mostly great. Afterwards, a good friend told me, “Hey, maybe another take on ‘life is short’ is eat whatever you want”.

Fair. So I tried to go back to meat and dairy, and my body — so reliable adaptable — was like “absolutely not”.

Cheese, meat — these things did not go over (or through me) very well. Suddenly, this huge change was no longer a choice.

And while the broader plant-based landscape was beginning to evolve and proliferate, it was only getting more complicated at home.

Enter: kids.

While making our children was incredibly difficult and expensive, feeding them was much easier (and even easier for me, as the dipshit new father who mostly just washed bottles and pumping gear and made schedules).

We were very, very lucky. Our babies eventually breastfed pretty well, and we could afford formula when we needed it or they were gassy.

When it came time for solid food, we did the usual: hummus, avocado, sweet potato, pureed lentil soup, etc. Mostly plant-based, super delicious, nutrient dense. Sometimes we bought the stuff in glass jars, but mostly I just blended the shit out of the good stuff.

We went from “you can’t make a baby” to “three kids under three” very quickly, so I have necessarily blacked out many of the details, but from what I remember, we didn’t talk about the kids early food plans too much.

Because we aren’t monsters, chicken nuggets and mac & cheese entered the picture, but we definitely emphasized fruits and veggies. As the children grew, we gave them real milk occasionally, and real cheese, and real yogurt most of the time, but more and more often the plant-based versions — we even invested in a milk made out of peas and a variety of other plant-based foods.

But as lucky as we are to have healthy kids — and as much as I believe their majority plant-based diets support their overall health — other parents (including grandparents) are going to have opinions, man.

And when you’re exhausted and toddlers start rejecting foods, or they’re behind on growth and weight charts or whatever, it’s easy to question whatever policies you’ve enacted at home, because you’ve been a parent for about six seconds and what the hell do you know?

Here’s what else (still) doesn’t help, but was even less clear then: nutritional “tips” and “guidelines” and “science” provided in a vacuum, from industry-funded studies, and/or based on long outdated or poorly organized research.

Shit, even The China Study was an (enormous) observational study. One week CNN tells you blueberries will kill you, and the next they’ll prevent Alzheimer’s. Super fun.

Navigating all of this as other parents at preschool judge your kids’ lunches, and your own kids start rejecting your delicious healthy meals? SUPER fun.

The good news: If you mostly feed your kids plants (or, at least, processed food made from plants) for their entire lives, that’s kind of all they know.

And if you start to gently (ahem) help them understand all the other reasons outside of dietary health why not eating animals might be a nice thing to do, it greases the wheels even further.

And yet, we struggled.

Enter: the share plate.

As new parents, you will be exhausted and overwhelmed, and while you try to do the right thing, you may each have different ideas about what those things are, and you may argue over them, because again, you are husks of human beings.

What your kids should eat, when, and how often. How much they should be served, and how much they should be expected to eat. We did it all, it was mostly my fault, it’s so fun.

But the only way out is through, and so one day I used my early INI powers to connect with and triangulate advice from the most rational, scientifically-minded childhood nutritionists I could find, and a few key lessons came to light:

  1. Most kids are picky, it’s not just your asshole kids

  2. Sugar is a nightmare, but don’t deprive them of it entirely

  3. Build a predictable schedule for food and sleep and, like adults, your children will be SIGNIFICANTLY less asshole-ish

  4. The share plate is your friend

The share plate changed our lives. The idea is simple.

  1. Give each child a small, empty (shatter-proof) plate

  2. Prepare a larger “share plate” with 2-3 healthy, delicious foods they know and love, and 2-3 new options

  3. Set it down on the table

  4. Tell them they can eat as much of whatever is on the plate as they’d like

You’re giving them real choices over what and how much they eat, but in reality, it’s an illusion, Michael, because you’re the one who bought the groceries, made the food, and decided what goes on the plate and what they get to choose from. Everybody wins.

For a while.

Enter: adolescents.

By the time my kids got old enough to ask real questions about the world around them, I was knee-deep in INI, and increasingly aware of the vast, systemic issues connected to industrial agriculture, from antibiotics to deforestation to cancer to monocrops, water, and more.

Along the way, more mainstream plant-based options have exploded into the marketplace and public consciousness, from fine dining to cookbooks to milks, yogurts, burgers, and more.

I embraced these products wherever made sense for our family, using some combination of convenience + taste + health + not making the planet worse as my calculus for what to bring home.

The plant-based revolution — paired with glaring headlines about the Colorado River’s alfalfa problem and the Amazon rainforest’s increasing lack of actual rainforest — has made it much easier for people to understand why and how to gradually transition away from meat, or to just take the leap (you do you).

But this has all also inevitably exposed just how much meat — and to a lesser extent — dairy are a part of people’s lives. For every one of my friends who are super cool about my meatless Sunday dinners, there are millions more folks for whom steak and burgers and bacon are inseparable from who they are, who subscribe to Butcher Box or keto diets, who actually thought paleo was a reputable idea.

Like everything else, these people are online and unduly influenced by lobbyists, industry-funded research and scientists deep in the pocket of Big Meat, by influencers and friends and family online and in person who have either, one, simply not encountered the enormous evidence that our meat addiction is fueling an enormous share of the climate crisis; two, been lied to about it; or three — simply don’t give a shit.

You can come get their meat over their cold dead meatbag bodies.

But here’s the thing: Joe Biden isn’t coming for your burger. On the other hand, I am coming for your burger (and your gas stove), but you signed up for this.

But how the hell do you explain all that to seven year-olds?

The reality is my kids 100% ate some sort of breaded Tyson chicken fingers at summer camp today, and that’s fine. 90% of the time, we serve them plants or fruits or food made from those, so making their social lives hell (and making it hell for underfunded summer camps) is not my playbook, nor is it how I get them to become effective little Shit Givers.

They already find me INCREDIBLY annoying. Again, pick your battles.

But when, for the first time, my kids connected the “chicken” on their plates with the “chickens” they saw clucking around farms near us, I also didn’t shy away from telling them they are the exact same thing.

And, like other atrocities, I have gradually revealed to them that most meat (and fish) are not harvested in a way that is super great. These animals are conceived, drugged, over-grown, watered in horrendous conditions, explicitly to be slaughtered and eaten.

I didn’t use to know or give a shit about any of that stuff, and it’s not why I got into this lifestyle or business. But I believe in the mission now.

A very long time ago, I was a religious studies major, but only to better understand why people do what they do, and how we got here. I am an atheist monster.

I do not believe in any capacity that we were or deserve dominion over anything on this planet (or any other), despite our recent evolutionary and technological advantages and my history of sci-fi video games.

Any dominion we have assumed has very quickly and thoroughly destroyed whatever relationships indigenous people shared with the nature around us for tens of thousands of years, absolutely cooking our landscapes and oceans, poisoning our air and water.

It’s not a coincidence that — other than the Dutton family, obviously — the Catholic church and McDonald’s own more real estate than almost any other organization or person.

Today, my body is nowhere near adaptable as it was, because of time, and because I pushed it so often on so many levels — healthy and not so much. Kids and life and work are stressful and exhausting. Which means my diet matters more than ever.

So I mostly eat plants and food made out of plants. Sometimes it’s more processed than I’d like, but I try to avoid the clearly bad shit. I dabble in sustainably-harvested fish, and I would kill a man over Kerrygold Irish Butter, but twelve years is a long time to mostly go without eating animals or dairy.

Over time, your body changes, your desires change, your grocery shopping changes. And thankfully, the world has changed around me.

My kids diets matter more than ever, too. Their brains are on fire, and they burn like 120,000 calories a day. We eat plant-based Mexican food, Mediterranean food, Indian and Asian foods, and a lot of Blue Zones inspired stuff.

They eat what we eat more often now, which is a logistical improvement for sure, but don’t lose the plot: share plates are great for adults, too (and I mean obviously plain pasta isn’t exactly a rare delicacy in our house. You gotta pick your fights).

Here’s one easy cheat: stock the fridge and pantry (try to aim more for the fridge than pantry) with plants and plant-based options. It makes preparing and serving meals (and late-night snacks) that much easier, because that’s what’s available, instead of the ultra-processed food making us sick.

It’s one banana, Michael. What can it cost?

Now I try to help my privileged, picky little eaters understand the bigger picture: that there are costs to all of the choices we make, and that their parents and grandparents and ancestors before them simply didn’t pay those costs.

But that we can each make better choices, starting now.

The incredible, once-in-a-solar-system ecosystems around us and of which we are inseparable are very clearly not inexhaustible, and in many cases, not something we can replenish, not even in my children’s lifetimes. But I teach them they can sure as hell try, and learn from people who’ve been tending and living amongst these ecosystems for so very long, to build something gentler, and kinder, and healthier, for all of us.

I ask the questions now, including whether they think animals have a right to live just to live, and to have room to live and breathe and fornicate and make friends, on land or in the water.

I ask them how the animals themselves might feel about all of that.

I help them understand that we know how smart pigs and octopuses are. That we know how many animals feel pain.

And how much we can learn from plants, just as they are, and that we should never pick or make lumber or toilet paper out of the first plant of its kind, and/or the last one.

I help my kids understand that millions of children in America and billions around the world couldn’t imagine being able to eat organic plant-based foods every day and night.

That we have to stop wasting what we do have, and make it so all of those children have access to the same foods they do.

We are the sum of the choices we make, and what we put into our bodies — the air, water, and food we take in — has a massive influence not only on our energy, our sleep, and our ability to grow and learn, but on the world around us.

Every child should have access to clean, healthy, plant-based foods.

I never expected to ditch meat and dairy, much less for life. Kind of how I never expected (as one college friend so helpfully put it) to build a business where I write a term paper every week for the rest of my life. But here we are.

I hope sharing my journey is helpful to you, and to know I’m still living it and being an imperfect, annoying, but well-intentioned dad and husband and lunchbox-maker every single day.

My ask: Hit the comment button below to share your own!

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