Friday, April 22, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Earth-Friendly Eating

Our guest this week is Lavanya Sunkara, an Indian-American freelance writer living in Long Island, New York. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out, Petside, Yahoo! Shine, NY Resident, and Yourtango, among others. When she is not reading or outdoors with her dog, Lavanya is organizing volunteer events, exploring New York with her friends, and planning her next trip to somewhere exotic. In this post, Lavanya shares her story of how she became a vegetarian. She wishes everyone a very happy Earth Day. Read more of her articles at

There’s been much talk about Natalie Portman giving up veganism to cater to her pregnant needs. The moment I read the headline, I feared she’d given it up entirely and decided to eat animals again. As a meat-eater turned vegetarian myself, I had a hard time believing someone that outspoken about animal rights would suddenly give up her ideals and start eating hot dogs and chicken wings. To the disappointment of vegans, she has taken up eating eggs and dairy. I can’t say I am completely against her decision, especially since I too consume those products, albeit in very limited amounts. But one thing that I will never ever do is eat meat again.

As a Hindu, I never ate beef or pork in all my 30 years. My mother, who is a lifelong vegetarian, has cooked chicken and lamb occasionally for the rest of the family, but I gave up eating them ten years ago. Relinquishing seafood is still a bit hard for me, but I went from eating it once every few months to every six months in the past few years. Starting this Earth Day, I’ve decided to give it up completely.

Some may wonder why a personal eating choice has a global effect. I can say that if we all turned vegetarians, we would have no torture of animals in slaughter houses, no pollution-causing factory farms, and no minimum wages and horrible working conditions for food production employees. Also, the amount of food, water, and energy used to raise 10 billion animals for human consumption would be used to grow food for the hungry in this world.* Alas, that's a dream that may never come true. But still, I am making a choice to contribute to a cruelty- and pollution-free world.

People sometimes ask me if I am getting a healthy diet based solely on fruits, grains, and greens. I do. So does my mother and millions of vegetarians and vegans on this planet. My grandmother gave birth to six kids and lived healthy well into her late seventies on a strictly vegetarian diet, in a small village in India. She continues to be my source of inspiration and strength. Of course, the meat industry continues the propaganda of animal flesh being healthy for humans, when in fact it’s known for increasing obesity, heart disease, cancer, reproductive disorders, liver and kidney disease among other ailments.*

Ardent meat lovers argue that animals are put on earth for us to eat, and thus it is okay to confine and abuse them, inject hormones and antibiotics, and kill them for our satisfaction. Some friends of mine have debated with me that since cavemen hunted animals back in the day and we've climbed to the top of the food chain, meat eating is justified. I have some news for you—this is the 21st century. Today, the modern hunter-gatherer simply drives a few blocks to the supermarket, picks out a packaged meat product, cooks it on an electric stove, and calls it a feast. I would like to know how these people would fare out in the wild, fending for themselves among the beasts. I’ll give more value to their stance if they risked their own lives and hunted food with their own bare hands.

Of course, there are always those who tell me they just can’t give up meat, either because they grew up with it, or they succumb to their bodies’ cravings. I too have experienced it at one point. There was a time I used to look forward to going my aunt’s house for her spicy goat curry. When I gave up meat, I sorely missed the curry. Until one day I read a story of a baby goat that escaped from a farm truck. She was black and white, with light blue eyes and perky ears. She was adorable, almost puppy like, and she deserved to live. I knew then I had made the right decision.

Last year, during a visit to the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary** in upstate New York, I came face to face with these gracious goats. In the sanctuary that is home to more than two hundred rescued farm animals, we met with happy cows, rubbed pigs’ bellies, hugged turkeys, and played with the friendly goats. Two young pearly white goats, named Jacob and Edward by a Twilight fan, came near me for some petting. I rubbed their backs and chatted (a habit I formed thanks to my dog), as their golden eyes glimmered. I could tell they were basking in the attention. When I sat next to them, the younger one raised his front leg and patted my thigh a few times, just like my pet dog does, as if trying to communicate with me his gratitude. It was such a simple act, yet so endearing, showing acknowledgment and emotion. At that moment, I knew I made the right decision not just for myself, but also for my fellow animal friends and for the sake of this planet.

Visit for a free vegetarian starter kit.

**Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary: To plan your visit, go to


  1. great piece on why we should be kinder to our four legged friends

  2. Wonderful piece, Lavanya! Thanks for blogging with us today.

    I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm not a big meat eater, either. It's not my favorite part of a meal. I do agree that the way we raise animals is unhealthy for the planet. It may be unrealistic to expect the whole world to go vegetarian, but we could start by reducing our meat consumption and, especially, getting rid of those factory farms.

    Do you find that giving up meat gets easier with time?

  3. Bonnie, thank you. And don't forget our two legged chickens and turkeys and no-legged fish! :)

    Heidi, yes, giving up meat definitely gets easier. I am at a point now where putting a piece of meat in my mouth is so alien. I don't miss it at all. The book I mention at the end really has some great answers, and is a wonderful source on healthy eating and vegetarianism.

  4. very touching... I bow to you, Lavanya. I'm not a big meat eater and I almost vowed to give up meat after reading it, but I know I won't last.

  5. My dad grew up raising goats in south India, and he always talks about how great they were, and that he'd never eat one of his friends! As long as he didn't know the animal, though, then he'd eat it ;). I mostly gave up meat a while ago, but I don't think I could ever give up dairy!

  6. Lina, you can do it!!! :)

    Gigi, I want to have a pet goat someday. They are soo adorable!

  7. I'm afraid to get in on this conversation. I'm turning into a "wannabe vegetarian" but I don't yet have the guts. I love my meat! But I'm having more and more trouble eating it. Enough said. Well, there's one other thing---there's a lot of gluten in vegetarian diets. That concerns me. Or maybe that's another excuse...

  8. Ladies, I am a guilt-ridden non-vegetarian. One day i will give it all up. i tried unsuccessfully after college but i was motivated more by how cool i would seem and so i was eating fish after a bit and then it was a steep drop from there. I admire vegetarians though - you guys are truly good people. my mother in law is a staunch veggie and would collapse if she knew the full extent of my meat eater ways. love rad.

  9. Lavanya, what a wonderful post. After vegan friends came to stay with my family they turned things around. They had a couple of young kids, like mine, and their vegan diet was interesting and the kids were super healthy. It definitely changed the way I think about meals (which has always been a tough one because I'm not much of a cook!). All it takes is one person to change the lives of many. Good for you!

  10. Like most of you, I don't each much meat, but I'm not vegetarian. I don't eat certain meats because of the cruelty (veal especially) but that's as far as I've gone. Being vegetarian takes planning and effort, but I like the food--so maybe one day I'll take the plunge. I admire your spirit. Very interesting post.

  11. Supriya,
    I highly recommend reading the Skinny Bitch book I quote from. It changed my life. True that not everything we put in our bodies is pure, but meat has a lot more crap in it (in some cases literally). I saw a documentary a few years ago where they were showing how shit doesn't get separated from flesh when meat is processed. To me, that's enough to want to never touch meat again.

  12. Radhika, Alli and Ellis, thank you so much. Even my dog now only eats chicken occasionally. Her vet told me I shouldn't feed it to her everyday because it's unhealthy. Go figure!

  13. Very moving and informative article...thank you! As a Vegan I do hope one day soon that all humans understand that we are not biologically designed to consume any other beings or their secretions. I personally was stunned to learn that we do not have even one animal protein digestive enzyme! Empirical scientific evidence proving such:

    Also hope that humans begin to understand that the sentient beings who are exploited for milk and eggs have lives just as torturous - if not more so - as those exploited for meat.

    I hope you do not feel I am preaching; just sharing what I have learned, and thank you again for sharing!

  14. Hello Elaine,
    Thank you for reading and commenting. I will check out the websites. I agree, those we get milk and eggs from suffer too, perhaps even more. If I eat eggs occasionally, they better be free range. I am now trying to switch again to soy milk. It's not easy, but it's totally doable. Thanks again!