He asked me, “why are you vegetarian?” He wanted me to write an article to explain why. He thought his magazine readers would be intrigued by the combination of muslim name with vegetarianism. The latter is more associated with Hindu and Buddhist names in the subcontinent.
My vegetarian journey is all about belief. Science tells me that, cognitively, the most important reason is because of my belief about myself. I chose to think of myself as being vegetarian. Therefore, I mostly eat vegetarian.
Hang on, he objected, “Are you truly vegetarian, if you don’t eat only vegetables?”. So, what is a vegetarian and how did I become one?
Vegetarianism describes a spectrum of food habits with the core practice of eschewing animal flesh. At the one end of the spectrum are vegans who will not eat any animal product; some not even honey. On the other end of the spectrum are ovo-lacto vegetarians who eat eggs, milk and milk product. Notably, Hindus consider milk and milk products highly respected vegetarian foods, though they are of animal origin. Some people also consider fish to be part of a vegetarian diet in part because it is not as close to us as the mammals that are our usual source of flesh. Catholics avoid meat on Fridays, but can eat fish. So, there are many kinds of vegetarianism, just as there are many versions of most religions. And my vegetarianism starts with religion.
My Jewish mother called herself a ‘relaxed vegetarian’. I think this was after she started following a Swami, a source of great goodness and kindness in our lives. But it was my Muslim father who first turned us against meat. When I was about six years old, we hosted the feast that celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. G-d spared Isaac and a lamb was sacrificed instead, and the feast involves ritual slaughter.
I am the second of four closely spaced children. All of us children were horrified to see the animal struggle against but suffer its slaughter. As always, led by our oldest brother Ali, who continues to fight for social justice, we refused to eat any more meat. The youngest, Yasmin, remains scarred by the experience of animal suffering; she is a very sensitive soul. Karrim, as always…a mystery to me.
Our resolve did not last long. We went to a party where the delicious smell of barbecued chicken enticed us back to eating meat. (I still recall the deliciousness of the taste when I first tried and then devoured it.) Strangely, taste also helped me take my first adult step of my vegetarian journey at Caius College. Noting that the vegetarian option was often tastier, I started requesting vegetarian meals. This was when I first started to think of myself as a vegetarian.
In the nearly 40 years since, I have never stopped thinking of myself as such, even though my eating habits have gone through different phases in different settings. My initial motivation was partly taste, but also primarily driven by health and spiritual concerns. I was learning yoga and reading about Buddha as natural complements to learning anatomy, biochemistry and pathology at medical school.
My primary reason for being vegetarian was for health, so I never felt the need to fully eschew meat. I even developed a taste for steak tartare during working holidays in France. But I do not eat meat often. Occasionally I get a craving for meat; or perhaps it is the echo of my adolescent love of burgers. I tend to avoid red meat, primarily because of its association with ill health – which is my original reason for being ovo-lacto vegetarian. In social occasions, it is often more gracious to eat meat. But on most days, I prefer to eat vegetarian food; and since I think of myself as a vegetarian that will always be my default option.
I am also vegetarian because it takes less of the earth’s resources. I learnt in high school that it takes about 10 times as much as land to get the equivalent protein from animal versus vegetable sources. More recently, I heard that we contribute more to reducing greenhouse gases by becoming vegetarian rather than stopping using fossil fuel for our daily transport. I was also introduced to the term ‘semitarian’: used to describe a semi-vegetarian somebody who decides just to cut down on meat, without giving it up – to reduce our burden on the earth.
I mentioned the health rationale for my vegetarianism. I have always been more interested in health than in disease, though my medical training focussed on the latter. After finishing my medical studies, I started to read about nutrition. This seemed to be key element in achieving optimal health, and was part of my general interest in alternative medicine. I liked the Hippocratic notion that food is medicine: “Let medicine be thy food, and food be thy medicine.”
As I read, I earned this insight: food is life – all that we eat was once part of a living organism. All life is made of vital energy (prana or chi) and food is the source of this ‘stuff of life’. This living aspect of food may be as important as the composition of the food: its macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrate, fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
More recently, I have become aware of the role of a range of vegetable food sources to feed our microbiota, the bugs (micro-organisms) that live in our guts that are essential to our health. When we eat highly processed foods that provide no nutrition for these bugs, they start eating our cells and cause an inflammatory process that is at core of many diseases.
I believe that all cultures have some ritual to bless a meal that can be seen as a gratitude for the life that gives us food upon which we live. When we give thanks for our food, we also thank the plant, animal or fungus that feeds us, through the sacrifice of their life. One exception is fruit, whose purpose is to be eaten to spread their seeds. Honey and milk are other examples of food that do not take life, though we may be depriving other lives from their consumption.
Another reason to avoid some animal products is the cruel conditions that the animals are subjected to. Industrial food production is focussed on profit, not animal welfare. Our health also suffers with unhygienic conditions. One implication of industrial massive crowded animal enclosures was the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic virus. (Massive poultry farms have also had a role with bird flu.) It is not clear how, but the 2009 pandemic virus emerged from a factory farms with millions of pigs in poor conditions.
I don’t think it is a sin to eat meat. Meat is part of our evolutionary history. But we need to be mindful of how the meat gets on our plate, and what unnecessary cruelties are involved for the sake of pennies.
So, I am a relaxed vegetarian, because of the consequences of what we eat not only on our own health but on the planet and of animal well-being. And while I am not a strict vegetarian, nor do I see the need. We can keep eating meat while being at least a little bit more vegetarian for health, planet, and soul.