The only real science is the knowledge of how a person should live his life. And this knowledge is open to everyone. — Tolstoy, from his Calendar of Wisdom for 18 January
Armchair Immunology (or How I Became a Vegetarian)
I became a vegetarian way back when it was decidedly uncool, especially where I lived at the time, where it was considered rank apostasy to turn up your nose at corn-fed beef, ground up and charred over kerosene-soaked charcoal. (With ketchup…) Of course, those who knew me well tended to forgive this social defect because they’d been around me after I tried to show solidarity around the grill. It was never pretty. Quite often we all got an instant and foul reprise of what we all had just been eating.
My parents wrote this off to food poisoning from each specific thing. And I accepted that. (Have you really paid attention to the hygiene of the backyard barbecue? Doesn’t inspire food safety confidence…) It never occurred to anyone, myself included, that I was being poisoned by a whole class of food. Nor were any ties noted between my own problems and the somewhat lesser but still prevalent discomforts experienced by most of the women in my family. I have three sisters. My mother has three as well. That we all tend to feel nauseated after eating meat should have been noteworthy. But for various reasons, we all believed that it was, as doctors repeatedly told us, “all in our heads”.
It wasn’t until I went on a horrifying field trip — an Upton Sinclair inspired jaunt to a local meat-packing plant on pig day — that I actually gave up meat. It started as a reaction to that horror. (Have you heard the screaming of some hundred pigs that know they are going to die painfully? To say nothing of the smell of gallons of blood…) Goes without saying that all of us in that honors English class were reduced to gibbering hysterics on the bus-ride home and were reluctant to eat anything meaty for weeks after that. Even the farm kids, who were raised with regular experience of killing and spilling blood to eat, were put off by violence and foul gore on that scale. But most of them gradually got over the nausea. I found that I lost my own.
I felt good while I was eating mostly veg. This was novel. To be able to eat every day and not feel queasy was unprecedented. But I was a teenager, and the worst pain imaginable to an adolescent is being different and isolated because of that difference. (This was well before we began to celebrate our differences…) So I did not clearly realize that it was the meat that was the problem. Everybody eats the stuff. I didn’t want to be the weirdo who did not. As the horror receded and teen priorities reasserted themselves, I tried a hamburger now and again. Each time I felt terrible and didn’t eat much of anything for days afterward. Until finally… I just accepted that I was that weirdo. (Helped that I had last lived in California… that explains much to those in the Heartland…)
I have since learned quite a bit about my particular weirdness. Not only do all of the women in my family have problems digesting heavy foods, but all of us have autoimmune problems and a deep history of cancer. There is something really amiss in there; and it’s in the belly, not the head. Most of us no longer have a gall bladder. Two of us have celiac disease. Most have problems making the right levels of insulin and thyroxine because our immune system is attacking the parts of the body that make these things. And I’ve had several inches of colon removed because it turned necrotic along with a failing appendix. Many people have their appendix head south; very few have dead tissues propagating up the digestive tract.
All of this is related. The root of the problem is what lives in the digestive tract. This is where our immune system is nourished and sustained. This is how we break down the tissues that we eat into nutrients for our bodies. When those critters — which are largely not human — are unhappy, nothing works in the entire body.
To be fair to the doctors who told us we were imagining things, medicine has only recently begun to understand just how important those flora and fauna are. We still don’t know what they are largely. We also don’t have a clear idea of how they grow and develop. We do know that our bodies can’t make those wee beasties. When we kill them off — as we do every time we take antibiotics — it takes weeks to reestablish balance. And sometimes — as with very strong treatments like chemo — that balance never returns.
The interesting thing is that meat may not be the problem… because my grandmother was just fine eating meat-heavy manicotti every day, and my mom doesn’t remember feeling like crap as a young person. It may be that what most makes us sick is what purports to keep meat animals raised in confinement “healthy” — antibiotics.
Our system of animal husbandry has gone so far round the bend, we seem to have forgotten that these are living beings. We treat them like machines. Or worse. At least machines are repaired and kept in tune. We don’t accord our food animals even that much respect. We put them in confinement, often so restricted that they never develop proper bone structures and muscle density. We feed them what is cheap, even when, like cows and corn, they can’t actually digest the stuff. (And then we blame them for burping…) We pack them into small spaces, standing in their own shit, breathing the exhalations of hundreds of others, never able to move or stretch or lay down comfortably. We take from their bodies until they can’t produce anything else, until they are utterly wasted… They’re probably happy to die in the end. But the worst thing we do to them is pump their feed full of antibiotics — so that we don’t have to give them proper living space and healthy food.
These antibiotics are not administered in a short, delimited dose as is the case with humans. This is every day. Every meal. With extra injections coming at regular intervals. These animals are being marinated in chemicals that are, literally, anti-life. We are killing their insides. Everything that helps them digest food, fight off disease, maintain metabolism is dying. We do this so we don’t have to take care of the creatures we eat. This, in itself, it reason enough to boycott meat. Or, if you live in places where eating local veg year round is just not possible, eat only that which you know with 100% certainty was raised and lived in dignity and good health and whatever passes for happiness up until the very last second of their lives.
Which should not come to them with screams and pools of blood while they writhe suspended from a conveyor belt of their own kin.
But anyway… we are only just beginning to understand how interdependent life is. That animals depend utterly upon microbes for very basic life services like digestion was unknown until a couple decades ago. It is still not common knowledge. We can at least say that we didn’t know what we were doing. But then… we knew enough to not be constantly putting Keflex into our own bodies. We knew that antibiotics made us feel crappy. So maybe it is more accurate to say that we didn’t think animals felt the way we do. (Because we don’t think we’re animals.)
By now nearly every meat product you can buy, certainly all that comes wrapped in plastic in the supermarket and all that comes pre-cooked from a fast food vendor, is drenched in antibiotics. Animal bodies are saturated with these chemicals. When we eat their bodies, we take in all the chemicals we forced them to eat. Maybe this is poetic justice… but it is still killing us. Even those of us who had no hand in forcing animals to live this way and no knowledge of what they were sustaining every time they went through a drive-thru.
There is a general head-scratching about the prevalence of auto-immune disorder among the moderately affluent, especially white middle-class folks. Could that not be because this is the group of people that eats the most antibiotic-laced food? These are the people who have sterilized their digestive tracts and set their immune systems into free-fall. Women tend to be more affected than men. I’m not sure why this would be true except to say that our endocrine issues are already more complicated than those in a male body. Or it could also be related to the fact that the immune system in women is stronger. When it turns, that stronger immune response will cause a greater degree of damage. In any case, we know that antibiotics disrupt our microbiome. We know that a disrupted microbiome affects everything. Digestion. Immunity. Development. Even our vaunted human reasoning is dependent upon a healthy microbial community in the belly. And we know that meat is dripping in these toxins that will kill all microbes — since that is what they are designed to do. So shouldn’t there be some correlations drawn?
I am not a strict vegetarian. For years, I would eat chicken because I thought the problem was the heavier, fattier red meats. Since divorcing the carnivore, I have not needed to serve meat and so have eaten almost none. And I feel much better. But the thing that convinced me to look closer at antibiotics was working for a garden center attached to a Mexican restaurant that served chicken enchiladas. (And had only one vegetarian option — a relleno that came pre-made from Best Mexican Foods and that was stuffed with about a gallon of cheese… not something you want to eat very often.)
Apparently, in Vermont there is a greater likelihood of eating what I call Despair Chicken than there was in New Mexico. Out there, sometimes I would feel bad after a restaurant night, but not often. Maybe the heavy green chile countered what nastiness there was in the meat to some extent. And to be honest, in the restaurants I frequented out West, there was far more of everything else than the meat… a “chicken” enchilada was a pile of corn tortillas drenched in salsa and melted cheese, with onions, peppers, garlic and hefty mounds of beans and rice with maybe a quarter cup of chopped grilled chicken laid as garnish on top. That is not true in Vermont, where you get none of the sauce and stuff, but what seems like a couple pounds of shredded chicken rolled in a flour tortilla. In any case, just one or two attempts to eat my version of comfort food made me as sick as I was as a kid at the barbecue. This time, with nobody to impress and no teen impulses to counter the natural flow of logic, I quickly blamed the meat and went back to full vegetarian. And there have been no problems since. (Though I do seem to be hyper-susceptible to COVID… but that’s an immunology conundrum to ponder another day.)
But still, I am not strict about eating no meat. I am strict about eating no abused animals. If you must eat meat, then only eat animals that lived well. Truly, even your taste buds will appreciate your choice. There is a vast world of difference between Despair Chicken and local, free-range chicken. Stands to reason. An abused animal is going to have lots of stress chemicals floating through its body (even if it doesn’t come with a side-marinade of antibiotics). Those chemicals taste foul. They smell foul. We do not like them. We like food that smells and tastes like it comes from health and well-being. We also like to know that we are not causing harm. So whenever you taste Despair Chicken you are triggering subconscious, often amorphous and unnamable, guilt. It is not good for you. It is certainly not good for the Chickens of Despair. So I don’t do that and that is one thing I will preach at others as well. (Then you get guilt from the taste triggers and “mom guilt” from me… Is chicken really worth that?)
I made the decision based on my body, but it began with the sudden understanding of how that meat got to be served to me. It is both a health decision and a moral choice for me. Now, it may be that you have no problems with antibiotic-laced meat. (I might challenge you on that… pay attention next burger…) But I will wager that you do have problems with all the conditions that lead to and surround antibiotic-laced meat, maybe even just the idea that you’re ruining your immune system and therefore opening yourself to infection — or worse, breeding antibiotic-resistant parasitic microbes. Once you know these things, you will find it harder and harder to digest that stuff. You may even get to be like me, where even the smell of grilled meat can send me to the bathroom.
But I want to be clear on one thing. This isn’t a decision to not eat meat per se. I do not believe that vegetarianism is morally superior in all cases. I also acknowledge that there is NO food that does not involve death of many organisms. All animals ingest other living beings. There is no way to get around the death that is laced into your life. So eating animals, eating plants, it’s all eating. No, my objection is to how we treat the beings that we eat. Or more precisely how we mistreat so very many of them.
And that has led me to believe that the best way to eat is the loca-vore diet so you can know how your food lived. So you can know that there is no mistreatment. So you can know that you are not causing harm and misery to you, your food, and all the organisms interlaced within and around all of you. That a loca-vore diet also decreases your dependence on fossil-fuels, decreases the spread of waste and poison in the world, increases conviviality, and increases the likelihood that you will be directly and happily involved in producing your own food — all that is just externality. The reason you need to be a loca-vore is that you know your food and all that went into it.
You can not live fully if you do not fully know what you eat.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023