by Acarya Gunamuktananda Avadhuta
Not so long ago we used to live in a world where we believed that the more we got the happier we would be. Now we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift where we’re realising that’s not true. Rather, to be really happy inside ourselves we’ve got to give as much as we take. We’ve got to think about the welfare of others as well as ourselves. Our own happiness lies in the happiness of others. And that means all people, all creatures, all things and the whole planet.
When it comes to food, we can make a big difference if we base our food choices on love and compassion for ourselves, other people, animals, plants and the whole world.
Part of that is not eating anything with a face (being vegetarian and/or vegan) and it works on all these levels: it’s good for the environment, it’s good for society (socio-economically), it’s good for animals, it’s good for physical health, and it’s also good for mental health (the way we think and feel).
In a way, we are what we eat. So the kind of food we eat is important. If you want to build a house that lasts a long time, you have to use good building materials. Similarly, if we want a long healthy life, we have to eat the right food.
The word “vegetarian” was popularised in 1847 by the Vegetarian Society, founded in England in 1847 and USA in 1850. These two countries still have among the highest percentage of vegetarians in the Western world. The term “vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson when he co-founded the Vegan Society in England, at first to mean “non-dairy vegetarian” and later to refer to “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals.”
Some half a million people are adopting a vegetarian lifestyle each year in the US, while the number of British vegetarians is now more than 5 million (getting close to 10 percent). In some countries, such as Sweden for example, vegetarians already number over 10 percent of the population.
There are five main reasons for going vegetarian and/or vegan:
This is the economics of meat production and how it affects others getting enough to eat. The fact is, meat is expensive to produce. It takes around 15 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of meat. The world’s cattle alone eat enough grain to feed 8.7 billion people, and there are about 1 billion malnourished people in the world. You do the math. There are enough resources in the world for every human being to live at current middle-class standards because it takes a lot less resources to produce the same quantity of plant-based nutrients as it does for meat-based nutrients.
The average American eats twice as much protein as he or she needs, and that’s mostly from meat and dairy. If everyone ate half as much meat, it would release enough food reserves to feed the entire developing world. Population growth is not the problem: it’s the misutilisation and misdistribution of resources (between rich and poor in each country, and between rich countries and poor countries). As Gandhi said, “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Meat production is one of the main causes of environmental destruction, For example, since the 1970s 20 percent of the Amazon’s rainforest has been destroyed (an area the size of California), 80 percent of which is now occupied by livestock.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, an area the size of seven football fields of land is bulldozed every minute for animal farming. Thirty percent of the earth’s landmass is now used for the production of meat. And meat production uses 100 times more water, 17 times more land, and 10 times more energy than the production of most vegetables.
Plant production requires far less resources than meat, and produces far less greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UN, the meat industry produces more carbon emissions than all the world’s transport combined: that’s more emissions than all the cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains, boats, helicopters, hovercraft and hot air balloons in the world combined! And that’s not including food transport emissions, which are also a big part of the food industry.
So vegetable-based foods are a lot better for the planet. And one of the best ways to fight global warming is to adopt a vegetarian diet.
Around 70 billion animals are systematically slaughtered throughout the world each year. We are all aware by now of the horrific conditions in factory farms, where animals are mutilated to keep them from harming one another, pumped with hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals, and overfed till they can hardly stand.
There used to be a religious misconception that animals don’t have souls. But they do. And feelings too. Animals fear and feel pain. Not eating meat means less animal suffering in death and captivity. George Bernard Shaw once said, “Animals are my friends and I don’t eat my friends.” I would take that a step further and say that animals are not only our friends but our brothers and sisters too.
It’s hypocrisy to talk about animal welfare if you’re still eating meat. You wouldn’t eat your pets so why would you eat other animals? If it’s wrong to eat a dog, it’s wrong to eat a cow. We’re healthier if we don’t eat animals, and animals are also healthier if we don’t eat them!
When you consider that the largest and strongest animals in the world are vegetarian, it’s obvious that a vegetarian diet supplies more than enough protein for strength, stamina, physical health and wellbeing. Carl Lewis’s best year of track competition was the first year he ate a vegan diet.
As human beings, our bodies were not designed to eat meat. They don’t have the same structure as those of carnivores. In particular, carnivores have a very short digestive tract. Because our digestive tract is relatively long, meat has plenty of time to putrefy as it passes through, thus releasing carcinogenic and other poisonous materials. Meat also causes constipation, which means there’s even more time for it to rot before you finally get it out. On the other hand, vegetable matter does not rot so quickly, is less toxic when it does, and has a lot more fibre which reduces constipation.
In 1900, heart disease and cancer caused 8 percent and 4 percent of deaths respectively. Now they cause 36 percent and 22 percent respectively, the two top causes of death. And thanks to research such as the China Study and the ongoing Adventist Health Study, the evidence is unequivocal that there is a clear and direct connection between meat-eating, heart disease and cancer.
So why the high rate now compared to 100 years ago?
In the case of heart disease, I believe it’s largely due to our relatively sedentary modern lifestyle combined with the increased meat and dairy intake that affluence affords. In the case of cancer, I believe it’s due to the use of chemicals in agriculture since the second world war (toxins accumulate at the top of the food pyramid) as well as air and other environmental pollutants.
By the way, the third cause of death is modern medicine itself: side effects and adverse drug reactions, hospital infections and errors, and unnecessary surgery. In other words, going to the doctor! And mostly for the first two causes.
A well-balanced vegetarian diet provides all the nutrients we need, including protein, for a vigorous and healthy life, in more absorbable forms than meat, and without the negative fallout. A study carried out by the University of Surrey in Britain found that vegetarians were even better nourished than meat eaters, and much closer to the ideal nutrient intake recommended by the government’s own health advisers. In my five years at medical school, however, we did not receive one lecture or class on nutrition. Not one.
The conclusions are clear: an animal-based diet causes poor health and early death due to heart disease, cancer, blood pressure, diabetes, etc. Whereas a whole plant-based diet leads to good health and a long life.
Dr T Colin Campbell, co-author of the China Study, said “The vast majority, perhaps 80 percent to 90 percent, of all cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and other forms of degenerative illness can be prevented, at least until very old age, simply by adopting a plant-based diet.”
Our current “health system” is really just a disease-care system. Modern medicine is very good with things like acute infection, infant survival and emergency treatment. But pathetic when it comes to chronic disease. Half the problem is that we are stuck in a defective system of reactive (curative as opposed to preventative) health care because of vested interests wanting to maintain the status quo, just like the oil industry. Good health makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t make a lot of dollars!
That brings us to the last reason for being vegetarian, and according to yoga it’s the most important one of all because it relates to our state of mind.
Our state of mind is the most important thing. It changes everything. It determines the way we think, feel and act. It affects us and everyone around us.
Vegetarianism is not only good for the body, good for other people, good for animals and good for the planet. It’s also good for the mind. It helps keep one’s mind calm, cool, compassionate and free of negative emotions. Many of the hormones and chemicals in meat (especially those related to fear at the time of death) instil fear, anxiety and anger in the mind when one eats that meat.
So a vegetarian diet means less stress, anxiety, fear and other negative emotions, and more positive emotions such as love, happiness, clarity and concentration. Also more life energy, as plant food stays fresher and more vital than meat.
In the late 1990s, San Bernadino County did an experiment by feeding their inmates a vegan diet. They found that the recidivism (re-arrest) rate of prisoners went from the state average of 95 percent to 2 percent. Wow! That’s a big difference.
A vegetarian diet facilitates consciousness which is inclusive, universal, just, considerate, rational and spiritual. Even more so if it’s a yogic “sentient” vegetarian diet, which is especially good for the mind. Practically that means excluding onions, garlic and mushrooms from the usual vegetarian lineup. Sorry! Over thousands of years of experimentation, yogis have found that these things have a negative effect on the mind. They prevent us from feeling calm, centred and blissful. And onions and garlic are actually toxins. They are used as companion plants in organic gardening to keep pests away, and garlic spray is used as a pesticide. That’s why the body can’t digest them and gets rid of them as soon as it can through the pores of the skin.
So a sentient diet excludes meat of any kind (red meat, poultry, fish, seafood), animal derivatives such as animal fat, gelatin and eggs, as well as onions, garlic and mushrooms.
You might like to consider how changes to your own diet could make a difference to the planet, other people, animals, and of course yourself.
Some food for thought… and consciousness!