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Does Vegan Mean Healthy?

When I decided to go vegan this past February, I expected to feel healthier and to have a clearer conscience regarding my dietary and shopping choices. I found that while it was easier to eat food that technically fit the requirements of being vegan than I had imagined, it did not always mean more healthful or ethical food. While one can be mindfully vegan, it is also easy to eat a lot of unhealthy and unethical foods that don’t contain animal byproducts such as Oreos. I also found myself eating much more soy than I previously had, which made me bloated and gassy. Of course, I could have taken the time and effort to plan a more conscientious diet, as friends of mine have, but I most often found it easier to take the easy way out and go along enjoying my tofu-wrapped Oreos stuffed with Twizzlers.

A vegan diet was hard enough without creating further restrictions for myself, and the fact that I could call myself a vegan in some cases spurred me to make less healthy and thoughtful choices than I otherwise would have, as I felt my animal product-free diet gave me leeway to cut corners in other areas. My “Oreos and Twizzlers” vegan diet would have been fine if my sole aim was to stay away from any animal products; however, I see veganism, or any diet as a matter of fact, as a part of a larger ethical framework, one which respects human welfare and that of the planet. Simply cutting out animal products is not enough, and may actually be counterproductive if it increases consumption of products like soy that may be neither healthy nor produced mindfully or locally. Likewise, if one is going vegan for health reasons, a technically vegan diet is not necessarily a healthy one. As in other pursuits, dietary restrictions must be made both on a technical level and a larger, theoretical one, with specific restrictions and rules being maintained in the framework of a larger ideology which reminds the practitioner why the diet is being observed in the first place.

I view kashrut in the same way that I view veganism: it is possible to follow the rules mindlessly, without a larger reason for doing so, but keeping kosher becomes much more meaningful and beneficial to do in the context of a more pointed ideology. Keeping kosher necessitates that a person be mindful of the ingredients in one’s food, eat only meat that comes from an animal considered to be clean and that has ideally been slaughtered with pain and fear kept to a minimum. The laws of kashrut also mandate a separation of milk and meat. Further, halakha (Jewish law) tells us that we must sit eating down and that we must say a blessing before and after we eat, forcing eating to be an activity done with thought and care. Kashrut and other Jewish food rituals stem from good principles, but when they are reduced to simply following a set of rules they lose their meaning and their benefits.

I understand the principle of supervision, and I appreciate the commitment to stringency that strictly kosher Jews have. However, I want to make sure for myself that the energy put into observing kashrut is going towards something that makes sense to me, something that matters for me, and that keeping kosher doesn’t make me feel like I can slack on paying attention to other aspects of dietary decisions, such as health, environmental sustainability, and the ethical treatment of workers. The decision to eat ethical, tasty, healthy food and the decision to eat kosher food should not be at odds with one another, but one and the same. Some companies, such as Grow and Behold and Kol Foods, are already moving toward ethical kashrut, but there are large swaths of the mindfully kosher market that remain untapped, and I would love to see a move toward combining these two sectors, creating a marriage that seems natural between what is technically kosher and what is kosher in spirit. We can extend principles such as shechitah, which mandates that animals must be killed quickly and painlessly, to a larger consciousness of the well-being of workers and animals alike, for example, and we can extend the separation of milk and meat to a consideration of the origins of our food, where they come from and from what they are made, and an appreciation thereof. It is my goal to keep these larger aims in mind, and to hold myself not just to the letter of the law in dietary rules that I set for myself but to the spirit of them, making sure to take advantage of how lucky I am to have a plethora of food options by making the best choices for myself and the world around me.

Molly Oberstein-Allen is a rising senior studying Letters at the University of Oklahoma. She’s interning for Hazon’s Thought Leadership department over the summer, and is thrilled to get to explore New York City. In her spare time, Molly enjoys traveling, reading, and looking at subway maps.

Photo credit: Tamara Evans, Flickr

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