Swiss cows

(Some nutritional shortcuts just aren’t worth it.)
One comment that I hear from time to time about the vegan diet is that “isn’t natural.” If people have to rely on supplements for things like iron, calcium, or vitamin B12, then how could that diet possibly be natural, much less ideal?
It’s a good question, but not a fair judgment: in reality, the standard western diet is extremely nutrient-poor. Anemia and B12 deficiency are just as likely to occur in non-vegetarians, and dairy products have been shown to deplete the body’s calcium stores by creating a buildup of acid.
Some people argue that it isn’t natural to limit one’s self to plant-based foods alone, but then, I would say that it isn’t natural to drink another animal’s milk, or raise animals by the tens of thousands in sheds and pump them full of steroids and antibiotics. We have to be very careful about our use of the word “natural.” As MFA’s Kenny Torella pointed out during a lecture at UChicago this spring, one can go so far to say that something is natural simply because it happened. Both sides lay claim to it, but neither uses it very effectively.

Our culture is used to getting certain key nutrients from animal foods; for instance, “iron” is nearly synonymous with “red meat.” It seems inefficient or out of the way to turn to plants for these nutrients when we have a shortcut: animal bodies filter and concentrate them for us. But it’s important to ask: where did these animals get their own nutrients in the first place?
I recently began taking a liquid iron supplement which is made of herbs. Typically I can maintain good iron levels by eating lots and lots of leafy greens, but sometimes this isn’t practical, so the concentrated supplement is very helpful. The other day, I caught myself thinking that it felt unnatural to be taking a supplement, but I quickly realized that sometimes going out of our way has extra benefits in the long run. And in my view, an “unnatural” concentration of plants is still better than an unnatural death for an animal. (It’s true that there are many supplements on the market that are created in labs and very difficult for the human body to use, but more and more food-based supplements and specialty foods are becoming available.)

There are other beings in nature who bypass what is readily available for the benefits down the line. Have you ever seen videos or pictures of crocodiles who let certain birds land in their mouths and clean their teeth? They could easily snap these birds up, but they hunt other creatures instead because the birds provide a service to them. Some animals, in periods of desperation, will eat their young or other members of their own species, while others would let themselves starve before they hurt one of their offspring or part of the tribe.

As for humans, getting our nutrition from plants may take more planning and effort, but the effort is worth it because we are choosing to meet our needs in a way that reduces the amount of death and violence that has to take place on planet earth. To me, this sends a very strong message out into the world: we could have done was convenient and readily available, but we chose to use our ingenuity to find another solution, because we value the well-being of other creatures. There is something very powerful about a large community of people making this choice. To cooperate and consider other beings, as opposed to saying, “we are the privileged few, and we benefit at the expense of others,” shapes a very different society. It takes us out of a parasitic role and places us in a protective one.

Imagine that you were on an island late at night, trying to get from one end to the other. There’s a big hill covered in thick brush in the center of the island. The easiest thing to do would be to walk along the beach to get to the other end. But there are sea turtles nesting all along the beach, and the light from your lantern would blind or disorient them, which could jeopardize their survival. So instead you decide to climb the hill. It takes a bit longer, but you end up in the place where you needed to be, with no harm done to you or the other creatures on the island.

One of my mentors told me a story once about how she seeks to be the kind of person who lets consideration of others color everything she does. A glass vase broke in her apartment one day, and while the easiest thing to do would have been to simply sweep the glass shards into the trash, she knew that someone would have to handle the trash in her building, and could get cut if the bag split open. So she wrapped the glass in newspaper first to prevent that from happening. She didn’t have to do this, and she went out of her way to, but the small gesture was worth the effort for the relief of knowing that someone else would not get hurt. With a vegan diet, the way we get our nutrition may seem somewhat indirect compared to an animal-based diet. But as people who want to create a more peaceful world, going a little out of our way in regards to our food seems like the natural thing to do.