I had been a strict vegan for 4 years when I moved down to Peru to work for a nonprofit on the outskirts of Lima.
My decision to become vegan was influenced by years of practicing yoga with teachers who advocated for a plant-based diet as the cleanest option for the health of the body as well as the health of Mother Earth. In yoga we are taught that a vegetarian diet is a way of practicing ahimsa (nonviolence) for all beings everywhere. Animals products which include meat, seafood, eggs and dairy are commonly viewed as the antithesis of ahimsa since they require the blatant killing of many beings for the satiation of a few.
With my vegan ideals in mind and heart, I packed up and moved down to Lima ready to help the world. Very soon upon arrival to Peru, I realized that veganism was not going to be possible outside of my green yoga community in the States and inside of the life I was creating in my new home. I didn´t have the luxury of a Whole Foods within driving distance to stock up on nut-based milks and meat substitutes. I couldn’t be so picky with food when I was around people who didn’t always know when their next meal would come.
Working at the orphanage in Lima wasnt the only moment during my time in Peru when I questioned my decision to remain vegan and even vegetarian. A year after my arrival to the country, I found myself at a holistic medicine center in the jungle. The lunch being served that day at the center was a beautiful plate of freshwater fish caught in the local river just a few hours before the meal. I graciously refused the fish and loaded my plate with rice and veggies instead.
The Peruvian shaman (indigenous healer) who was present at the meal turned to me to ask why I wasn’t eating the fish. I had to explain to him what “vegan” was. He began to laugh so deeply and so hard without stopping for ten long minutes. As he was laughing and I was slowly making a dent in the mountain of rice I had on my plate, I experienced a whole range of emotions. I began to feel angry that he was laughing at me, then I started feeling superior to him, thinking that he didn’t realize the goodness and higher spiritual quality of excluding animal products entirely from the diet. After that, I felt slightly embarrassed, my cheeks becoming more tangibly flushed with every chuckle. Toward the end of his laughing spell, a question rose up from a deep, guttaral place inside of me.
Why was I eating vegan here in the jungle where fish is super abundant and nutritious, the traditional fare of people who have occupied this part of the world for thousands of years? Is it a violent choice to eat animals even here?
To answer my question I had to understand the other’s perspective. This shaman laughed so hard and so long not as much to poke fun at me (although maybe he was having a little fun), but rather because I think in all honesty he did not understand my decision to not eat animals. He saw the fish as an offering from Pachamama (Mother Earth). Mother Earth nourishes us with plants and animals, and we take care of her in return. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be—a symbiotic relationship between man and Mother, a beautiful and never-ending cycle of death and rebirth that’s happening in every single moment.
That relationship has been broken now that food is more of an industrial commodity rather than an offering of love and abundance from Pachamama. Animals are confined to tight quarters in which they never see the Sun and aren’t free to roam and graze. The factory farms where these animals live use up enormous amounts of resources to feed the sick animals that will eventually feed us, probably making us sick, too.
Today’s horrific factory farm industry is truly violent to animals, to our bodies and to the environment. Of course yogis who want to practice ahimsa will avoid partaking in such an atrocity. The death involved in the killing of these animals seems unnecessary and avoidable. But I wanted to go further and find out if can we ever avoid harm. Is it possible to not eat violently in today’s world?
To answer my question, it seemed like the next best step to take in my quest was to look back to the way things were done before the current industrial system came to dominate the way we eat. Through my encounter in the jungle with the Peruvian shaman, I already knew that there was at least one traditional culture of highly spiritual and connected people still eating animal products in a sustainable and loving way.
It turns out that traditional cultures from around the globe have been eating meat for thousands of years respectfully, sustainably and spiritually. In fact, according to a book called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration written by Dr. Weston A. Price in the 1930s, indigenous tribes from all continents were studied for their diets and level of health.
Not one of these groups of traditional people, from the Eskimos in Alaska to the Amazonian Indians in Peru to the Maori in New Zealand, were totally plant-based cultures. Not one of these groups excluded animal products entirely from the diet. In fact, many of these cultures had sacred foods, certain animal products that were fed to newly married couples, pregnant women and small children because of their high nutrient density and healthful properties.
As I’ve continued to explore my own food choices, I’ve learned that even today it is in fact possible to eat meat in a sustainable way that is good for your body and spirit, even if you’re not fishing for your own lunch in the Peruvian Amazon. As the real food movement grows, we now have greater access than ever before to locally-raised and responsibly grown meat and produce. The factory farm system is not the only option available.
I realize that there will be resistance to the above paragraph. Yes, I agree that eating healthy meat means we will have to spend more money on food, money that some people may not have. I also know that a more sustainable system means we probably won’t be able to include meat at every meal. Some people will disagree entirely that meat can ever be sustainable and instead insist on a grain-based diet for the planet. But there are many reasons why grain and corn will not eradicate world hunger nor nourish the world’s population. I’ll leave that discussion to Lierre Keith’s well-written and thought provoking work The Vegetarian Myth.
The bottom line is that what’s wrong with meat and other animal products is the system we have in place, not the actual act of eating animals.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m now a meat eater. I eat meat, seafood and whole fat dairy in generous quantities and take great care to source the best food I can find within my budget. After everything I had learned and studied about humans and their diets, my decision to switch back to animal products was a personal one and ultimately out of necessity. I had gotten sick in my gut, the intuitive center of my being, and it was the very animal foods that I had once villainized that nourished my body back to health so that my spirit could also be healthy.
Just as my ancestors did, I give thanks to Pachamama and her animals who have sacrificed their own lives so that I may live a healthy, vibrant and spiritual life. I am healthier today than I have ever been as a body and as a spirit. Including animal products in my diet has enabled me to achieve that level of health so that I can share my gifts with the world. I don’t just pray before every meal. I pray with my life. My life is my prayer.
Author: Katie Williamson
Editor: Alli Sarazen
Photo: McKay Savage/Flickr