I’ve been vegetarian for nearly 20 years, over half of my life. I’ve never considered being vegan—until now. The problem is that I really don’t want to, for two reasons. First, veganism seems impossible. Cheese is my favorite food group and I’ve eaten homemade yogurt every morning for a decade. Second, I resist the vegan designation, or as I call it, the “v-word.”
I stopped eating meat in high school because of stomach problems. After experimenting with ineffective dietary changes, I—a kid who grew up salivating over steaks and lamb—stopped eating meat. Within days, I felt as though I’d found a valve to release the pain in my belly.
Initially, I cut out red meat. Then poultry. Then, after a traumatic episode that involved shelling a whole lobster—or, as I saw it that day, cracking the exoskeleton of an animal and sucking out its flesh—I stopped eating shellfish. The more meat I cut from my diet, the better I felt. Back then, the options were fewer and far less satisfying—during my senior year of high school, I ate a veggie sub every day, which consisted of cheese, tomatoes, peppers, and a heap of lettuce. But I didn’t care.
My reasons for becoming vegetarian were selfish—it made me feel better. Some reasons for reducing dairy consumption are selfish too. A few months ago the World Health Organization reported that processed meat causes cancer. My first thought was, “duh.” My second thought was, “hey, I’m avoiding this cancer!” I figure people will largely ignore this study, since it’s the human prerogative to do things we know aren’t good for us (also, that link may not be so simple). Then I remembered the findings I’d been ignoring—the China Study, which indicates a link between cancer and dairy (though some also challenge this study). Beyond possible carcinogenic properties, milk contains dangerous chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones; even “hormone-free” milk can contain problematic levels of hormones. Okay, fine. I’ve been drinking almond milk for years.
But I eat cheese. It would be my desert island food if it didn’t spoil on a desert island. Cashew cheese is surprisingly delicious, but you can’t melt it down into fondue and lasagna made with soy cheese just doesn’t have the same appeal. And then there’s yogurt, the dairy I eat most often. I have yogurt making down to a science and have failed miserably at making vegan varieties. As I spoon my snot-like non-dairy yogurt over granola, I wonder whether not eating dairy might kill me.
The gross-out factor initially steered me away from foods like lobster, and throughout college, eggs. It seemed disgusting to crack open and fry up what, if sat on for long enough, would have become a chick. Later, I wrote off my abstention from eggs as a silly phase. But it wasn’t. In chicken farms, birds eat, shit, and lay eggs in cages “the size of a file drawer.” No matter the reason, by not eating eggs, I played a small part in protesting this treatment. Not consuming milk-based products would do the same.
The environment wasn’t on my original list of reasons to become vegetarian, but now it’s the most compelling reason to stop eating animal products. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock industry accounts for almost 15% of greenhouse gases; other estimates run as high as 51%. Some liken cattle to SUVs. It doesn’t matter whether one eats beef or makes yogurt from the milk—livestock takes its toll on the environment either way. While I’m an advocate and consumer of organic produce, organic farms aren’t easy on the environment either. They use fewer chemicals and pesticides, but organic farms don’t yield as much food as conventional farms. Over 35% of Earth’s viable land area is already covered by farms and pastures, and the FAO predicts that we’ll need to produce 60% more food within the next 35 years to support the exploding population. When I look at the environmental studies, I can’t turn away. An inconvenient truth, indeed.
It’s next to impossible to keep up with the studies, warnings, and certifications. Certain foods are suddenly deemed dangerous, and just when we’ve adjusted, we learn that they’re actually good for us (like eggs). While it may seem kinder to consume products from cage-free or free-range animals, those designations are often technicalities—“free range” means a door to the outside is open for five minutes a day. “Cruelty free” is often just an advertising technique. Veganism makes sense in this context, but even that wouldn’t absolve me. Mother Jones reports that it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond and that almond tycoons demand much of California’s water supply. No matter what I eat (or don’t), there’s an argument against it. I’m wary of the slippery slope—I don’t want to live on foraged foods and trash. Still, I’m swayed by the arguments against consuming animal products.
In many ways, the bigger problem for me is being vegan. Vegans can be difficult to break bread with and to talk to about food. I’ve witnessed cross-examinations of waitstaff and refusals to touch food that might occupy the same kitchen as meat. Here’s the irony: I’ve found veganism annoying in the same way meat eaters have undoubtedly found my vegetarianism annoying (and vegans often find me frustrating because I’m so close to getting it “right”). I don’t really want to be vegan, I just want to eat like one—most of the time.
Thus, my new year’s resolution isn’t to become vegan. Instead, it’s to cut 90% of dairy from my diet. That way, I can stuff my face at my friends’ annual wine and cheese party and not fret about whether a restaurant cooks with butter. One v-word is enough for me.
My friends keep referring to me as someone who has “stopped eating dairy” or someone who “won’t eat cheese.” We instinctively categorize people, including ourselves, even if we insist that labels don’t define us. The point of my resolution is to avoid these descriptors. If presented with dairy I either desperately want or can’t realistically avoid, I’ll happily eat it. But if the desire isn’t there or it’s convenient to avoid dairy, I won’t. This is a sensible approach to eating, not a restriction.
I’ve struggled with violating vegetarianism in situations in which I couldn’t avoid eating fish, either because I couldn’t stomach more bread and French fries or because someone, like the lovely host at a guest house in a remote town in Colombia, served fresh-caught tuna for dinner. Does that mean I’m not really vegetarian? Some people suggest “pescatarian,” but that places too much emphasis on eating fish. Others say, “seafood doesn’t really count, does it?” Yeah, it does. But perhaps my decision not to affix another label on myself is as important as my decision to cut back on dairy.
I’ve never been a vehement vegetarian. I don’t care what the people I date or have dinner with eat. I don’t ask restaurants if their grill has meat juices on it. I don’t want to become a holier-than-thou vegetable fairy who lives on Brussel sprouts and morality. Yet, I vow to reduce my dairy consumption by 90% in 2016. Wish me luck. And please, don’t stop inviting me to dinner parties.