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Sunday, March 29, 2009

going meat-free: not just for lent, but for life

it all started when i decided to do a mini-detox with mas vidal at dancing shiva in january of last year to "flush out all the deeply seated toxins in the bodily layers and to bring radiance and peace to the mind". i and everyone else participating in the shodhana, or purification ritual, spent four hours in a heated room, doing yoga asanas and chanting while slathering on aromatic oils and drinking detoxifying tea. when it was all over, we were instructed to eat kitchari -- primarily mung beans and rice -- for a few days after.

before i knew it, i was hooked on this indian version of rice and beans. i started wondering: for how long could i keep this up? in other words, could i continue to go without meat and not miss it? it certainly had its up side, at least as far as helping me lose weight, because i'd never find anything to eat at fast food restaurants. i considered eating only veggies and rice for the rest of the month, although to keep my foodie self happy, my dietary plan ended up being what i'd called "nothing with feet"; that is, if it walks, i don't eat it. so that meant no beef, no pork, no lamb, no poultry. fish, though, was ok. and so was shellfish (crabs don't walk; they skitter around -- at least according to me).

initially, when friends would find out about my new food restriction -- usually when we'd be poring over menus and discussing what we'd order -- they'd smile and give me that look; yeah, joni's gone all yogi on us... but it won't last long. they couldn't see me never eating another juicy medium-rare steak. or another chicken breast cooked in a delicate sauce. and honestly, neither could i.

the rest of january went by rather painlessly. so much so that i decided to extend my abstinence through the end of february. then through the end of lent. and come easter sunday, i "rewarded" myself with a large serving of chicken. then beef the next day. then pork...

by the end of that week, my stomach felt unsettled. i then realized that my digestive system seemed happier while i was on the meat-free diet. so i decided to return to my no-feet rule and see how long i could keep it going.

so here i am, a little more than a year later, and except for a few "food emergencies" (where i broke down and ate meat, only because i had no choice or i couldn't help myself), i've managed to stay away from all meat, except fish and seafood. which i suppose now makes me a pescetarian:

A pescetarian diet excludes land animals and birds, but includes fish, mollusks, and crustaceans in addition to fruits, vegetables, plants, legumes, nuts, and grains. Eggs and dairy may or may not be present in the pescetarian's diet.
(from pescetarianlife.com)

by now, everyone i know has accepted the fact that i don't do meat. they consider menus before we eat out, favoring places specializing in salads, seafood, or anything organic. and many times, they, too, will skip the meat and order the veggie plate.

i have to admit that there have been times when i've given in to temptation. i mean, how could i stop to have a beer at father's office and NOT have one of their signature maytag blue cheese burgers? or visit my daughter in philadelphia and NOT have a cheesesteak wiz wit? or run a marathon in south carolina and NOT have barbecued pulled pork? or spend christmas with relatives and NOT have a mouthful of my cousin's marinated-for-so-long-it-falls-off-the-bone baked ham?

so when sharon gannon, co-founder of jivamukti yoga in NYC, dropped by exhale venice in january of this year to teach a class and promote her book, yoga and vegetarianism, i made it a point to attend the event to learn more about the lifestyle i had just adopted.

right at the beginning of her book, sharon stated the main reason for vegetarianism:

lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu:
may all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.

... No true or lasting happiness can come from causing unhappiness to others. No true or lasting freedom can come from depriving others of their freedom. If we say we want every being to be happy and free, then we have to question everything that we do -- how we live, how we eat, what we buy, how we speak, and even how we think...

she then touched on patanjali's five yamas, or restrictions, and how meat-eating violates each of them:

~ ahimsa: non-violence - animals raised for food are enslaved, abused, and tortured
~ satya: truthfulness - consumers are not told the truth about where their food comes from
~ asteya: non-stealing - the milk, fur, leather from animals rightfully belongs to them, not to us
~ brahmacharya: continence - breeding methods are violent and degrading to the animals
~ aparigraha: non-greed - billions of land animals and sea creatures are slaughtered for food each year

i realized that in order for me to follow all five yamas, i'd have to be vegan -- no fish, no dairy, no leather... and that, i know i couldn't do. as i told sharon while she autographed my copy of her book: i'm 90% vegetarian and working at it. she smiled and thanked me for my efforts.

then last week, saul david raye sent out this invite:

Join us this Friday evening, March 27th as we screen the movie, "Earthlings" as a part of Saul's Holistic Yoga Teacher Training Program. The event is open to the public and we invite you all to attend. Our intention is to raise awareness of the connection between humans, animals, mother earth and our collective future.

The powerful, informative and thought-provoking, EARTHLINGS is by far the most comprehensive documentary ever produced on the correlation between nature, animals and human economic interests.

EARTHLINGS is a feature length documentary about humanity's absolute dependence on animals (for pets, food, clothing, entertainment and scientific research.) The film is narrated by Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix and features music by the critically acclaimed platinum artist, Moby.

Warning: This is a powerful film. It contains many graphic images about how animals are treated by humans. They are intense. And, they are all true.

in attendance was the film's writer and director, shaun monson. he talked about how the movie came to be, first as a public service announcement on the treatment of pets, eventually covering all other facets of the animal industry -- food, clothing, entertainment, and medical research. in most cases, footage was acquired through the use of hidden cameras, only because the parties involved would never want word to get out about the deplorable conditions that the animals were put through.

monson chose the title, earthlings, to point out that there really should be no reason why humans should feel superior to animals and mistreat them; after all, we're all inhabitants of the same planet. just as there should be no racism, no sexism, there should also be no speciesism.

the one thing that i came away with after listening to sharon gannon and shaun monson is this: you are what you eat. if there is violence involved in the manufacture of your food, you are ingesting that violence.

makes you stop to think, doesn't it?

it seems the best way to end this post is with excerpts from the latest health report on the effects of eating red meat:

Daily Red Meat Raises Chances Of Dying Early
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Eating red meat increases the chances of dying prematurely, according to the first large study to examine whether regularly eating beef or pork increases mortality.

The study of more than 500,000 middle-aged and elderly Americans found that those who consumed about four ounces of red meat a day (the equivalent of about a small hamburger) were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the 10 years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer. Sausage, cold cuts and other processed meats also increased the risk.

"The bottom line is we found an association between red meat and processed meat and an increased risk of mortality," said Rashmi Sinha of the National Cancer Institute, who led the study published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In contrast, routine consumption of fish, chicken, turkey and other poultry decreased the risk of death by a small amount.

"The uniqueness of this study is its size and length of follow-up," said Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. "This is a slam-dunk to say that, 'Yes, indeed, if people want to be healthy and live longer, consume less red and processed meat.'"

There are many explanations for how red meat might be unhealthy: Cooking red meat generates cancer-causing compounds; red meat is also high in saturated fat, which has been associated with breast and colorectal cancer; and meat is high in iron, also believed to promote cancer. People who eat red meat are more likely to have high blood pressure and cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Processed meats contain substances known as nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer.

Although pork is often promoted as "white meat," it is believed to increase the risk of cancer because of its iron content, Sinha said.

Experts stressed that the findings do not mean that people need to eliminate red meat from their diet, but instead should avoid eating it every day.

"You can be very healthy being a vegetarian, but you can be very healthy being a non-vegetarian if you keep your red-meat intake low," Willett said. "If you are eating meat twice a day and can cut back to once a day there's a big benefit. If you cut back to two or three times a week there's even more benefit. If you eliminate it entirely, there's a little more benefit, but the big benefit is getting away from everyday red-meat consumption."

In addition to the health benefits, a major reduction in the eating of red meat would probably have a host of other benefits to society, Popkin said: reducing water shortages and pollution, cutting energy consumption, and tamping down greenhouse gas emissions -- all of which are associated with large-scale livestock production.

the entire article can be read here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/23/AR2009032301626.html