Eating to Love: The Challenge to Eat Responsibly

I have a problem. I am a meat lover and a devotee of all things rich, creamy and sweet. Eggs are my favorite breakfast food. When I eat a Hostess Cupcake, I enjoy it immensely and without a trace of irony.


So what's the problem? Is there anything easier, gastronomically speaking, than to find a good cut of meat or low-cost dairy products or processed foods in the United States? Even consumers who balk at the worst and most cruel aspects of modern industrial farming can, with relative ease, find sources of  grass-fed beef (humanely raised and slaughtered), free-range eggs, milk and cheese from benign family farms if they're willing to spend a few dollars. The world should be my oyster. Pun intended.

I am also, however, a Buddhist, someone who has worked in the fields of public health and sustainable development, someone who has personally experienced cancer, and someone likely to die of heart disease— if family history, my sedentary lifestyle, blood lipids and actuarial science play themselves out as they likely will. By the age of 60, my mother, who was otherwise a fit and active woman, had an LDL cholesterol level of over 400 without the benefit of anti-statin drugs. By the age of 40, my own cholesterol level was well over 240.

Indeed, I have any number of profound and compelling reasons to want to practice a vegetarian (preferably vegan) lifestyle—from the prevention of disease, to moral imperatives presented by the Buddhist precept to refrain from killing living creatures, to the desire to wear a size six again. But I have been an inveterate meat eater for 48 years. Strike that. "Inveterate" puts it nicely. Addicted might be a more appropriate adjective. And despite my numerous attempts to embrace a vegetarian diet over the past decade, I always revert back to a primarily meat-based diet high in processed foods.

Like many people with problems I can't seem to overcome, I blame my parents. I was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, home to what was once one of the largest stockyards in the nation and major meat-packing operations such as Cudahy, Armour and Swift. Being of Polish, German and Czechoslovakian descent, my early diet featured meats and sausages at virtually every meal. Even now, fond memories of the richest, fattiest, corn-fed T-bone steaks, bratwurst, goulash, weiner schnitzel served Holstein style, short-ribs and sauerkraut, and real kielbasa (not the faux, sulfite-laden detritus found in supermarkets), inspire me to salivate. I am drawn to a summer barbecue like the proverbial moth to a flame. I always have, and I suspect always will, love meat of all kinds...and eggs...and cream...and butter...and refined flour and sugar...and any meal that combines all of the above.

My natural proclivities and worst tendencies have been encouraged by diet systems such as Atkins and paleolithic diets that are particularly well-suited to fast-oxidizers (individuals who rapidly convert food into energy). Indeed, I am a fast oxidizer, providing additional justification for adopting a diet that focuses on meats and fats. When I have managed to slim down to a healthy weight, it has usually been due to a diet featuring lean animal protein, complex carbohydrates (specifically vegetables), and few to no starches and sweets. "Lay off the bread," I remember my mother saying, "And you'll be fine." Indeed, by and large, she has been right as far as my weight is concerned. If weight were the only question at hand, I might be inclined to otherwise table the issue and enjoy my meat and vegetables with an easy mind. But larger issues of health and wellness, including the prevention of "inflammatory diseases" including cancer and atherosclerosis, make the argument for adopting a whole-foods vegan diet, not merely an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet, even more compelling. A significant body of research supports the position that one of the best ways to enhance one's health is to quit eating animal flesh and eliminate eggs and dairy products.  

Finally, for me, beyond matters of pure self-interest, spiritual directives loom large. For the past twenty-five years I have deepened my commitment to Buddhist study, meditation practice and practical ethics. While a Buddhist is ultimately free to make choices according to his or her own conscience, and even the Dalai Lama has been known to enjoy goat meat from time to time, it is difficult to justify eating animal protein either as "right action," or the cornerstone of a healthy diet,  especially in the context of emerging scientific data in the areas of nutrition and animal cognition.

All this said, an approach to vegetarianism and/or veganism that is dour and fraught with moral censure, toward myself or anyone else who eats a meat-based diet and who doesn't face the same constellation of issues that compel me, is antithetical to my point and my purpose. In Forks over Knives, an otherwise admirable and convincing documentary on the benefits of a whole foods and plant based diet, researchers and clinicians claim that one should "eat to live," rather than, "live to eat." I get what they're saying, and the sentiment is well meant, but perhaps poorly articulated. Food— what we ingest and assimilate into our own bodies— is a central part of human experience. For me, what I eat has to be more than a utilitarian tool to support my survival or I will never stay with the diet. Rather, my goal is eating to love, with a diet that supports and reflects self-love, love of life, love of nature and love and respect for animals.

This is a long-term project. I do not imagine that I will be able to make a transition to vegetarianism and veganism overnight. Rather, I intend, to borrow a phrase from health and wellness expert Kathy Freston, to "lean into" vegetarianism and veganism, walking that path gently and patiently. To do so, I'm starting with a few principals that I think even someone who intends to remain omnivorous would find helpful to their own health and wellness. They are as follows:

1.  Whenever possible, choose to prepare and eat whole foods that are vegan.

2.  Whenever possible, enjoy raw foods.

3.  If a vegan choice is not possible, choose to prepare and eat vegetarian foods.

4.  If vegan and vegetarian choices are not possible, then choose foods as low as possible on the food chain. Especially avoid large fish and red meat.

5.  Animal flesh, if eaten at all, should be eaten rarely, in small amounts and with an attitude of reverence for the animal that has been sacrificed.

6. Refined flour and sugar should also be highly restricted if not completely eliminated.  

7. For me, as someone whose body reacts badly to wheat and other grains, gluten-containing products should be avoided.

8. If no decent and healthy food option is available to me, do not eat at all, but wait to eat until a healthy option is available.

9. A healthy lifestyle also requires daily exercise designed to promote strength, stamina and flexibility.


It is my hope that my own journey might be of value to others struggling with similar issues. If I can do it, anyone can. The start of my journey starts not with a great leap forward, but a pause— for assessment, reflection, healing and the cessation of suffering.

My journey begins with a fast.


Denise Kulawik is a freelance writer now residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to her work for Simple, Good and Tasty, her work has been published in the Boston GlobeThe Arlington Advocate and The Journal of Healthcare Philanthropy.  Ms. Kulawik's original screenplay, Music Lessons, is currently in development with New Globe films.