Vegging Out

Saturday, 03 January 2009 12:31 Written by  Frances Moffett

The year 2008 was all about saving the environment, being more socially aware and (of course) going green. While most people’s attention was on improving their tree-hugging efforts and vying to save the planet and prevent global warming, there was little focus on going green within one of the most important living organisms on the earth—your body.

vegging out

“Going green” with your meals, or partaking in a vegetarian lifestyle, is a way of eating that not a lot of people, particularly blacks, are familiar with. Vegetarianism is a diet that excludes all meat and fish (yes, fish too!). According to the study “Vegetarianism in America,” about 7.3 million Americans follow a vegetarian-based diet.

In many African American communities, it is believed that vegetarianism is a lifestyle only for the white and affluent. But in reality, there are 1.5 million African American vegetarians in the U.S., said Tracye McQuirter, a writer, speaker and the co-founder of the Black Vegetarian Society of New York (BVSNY). And that number is climbing everyday.

Blacks are the most commonly affected people when it comes to hypertension, diabetes and death from heart disease. Traci Thomas, a health and fitness event planner and founder of the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia, said that African Americans would benefit from living a meat-free lifestyle.

“It’s probably more in our DNA than people realize,” she said. “We are people of the land. We are innately inclined to grow plants and grow our food.”

Thomas, who has been a vegetarian for 12 years, said that black people usually don’t eat healthy because of our history. “[During slavery], we were not able to selectively choose what we wanted to eat,” she explained. “We were just eating the remnants of what the master didn’t want. And then the people used the earth to season the food that they had to make it taste good. With that it became soul food, food for survival.”

Melissa Haile, the executive director of BVSNY and vegetarian for almost 10 years, agrees saying that, “We’ve gone from soul food to slave food. We’re addicted to foods and foodstuffs that do not nourish us.”

Tracye McQuirter started out as a vegetarian in 1986 and made the transition to vegan two years later. In addition to not consuming any meat, a vegan doesn’t eat any animal by-product including dairy and sometimes honey. She believes that more black people don’t live a meat-free lifestyle because they are not informed.

“The health benefits of eating vegan should be taught everywhere, so that people can make informed decisions about what to eat,” she said. “It is criminal that people are not taught the healthiest ways to eat. The food industry is the largest industry in this country, and they profit off of our ignorance. The government supports this ignorance and misinformation because its role is to ensure profits for the food industry, while having the conflicting role of telling us what we should eat in the form of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and the Food Guide Pyramid. But if you follow these guidelines, you can still get heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancers.”

Breeze Harper, an author and current PhD student at UC Davis in California, said that there are many benefits to living a vegetarian lifestyle. She has been practicing veganism since 2005 after being diagnosed with a fibroid tumor.

“My gynecologist advised that I either get on synthetic birth control or consider a myomectomy if the tumor became bigger and more painful,” she said. “I chose to investigate how I could heal my womb on my own. A friend introduced me to Queen Afua…I took on the dietary philosophies in her amazing book Sacred Woman, and I was able to shrink my fibroid by 70 percent! I also experienced an overall increase in better health. My ‘incurable’ eczema vanished, my insomnia vanished. I became happier, maintained a health weight and my yearly sinus allergies disappeared.”

According to the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia, vegetarians have a lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and all types of cancers, as well as the tendency to live longer and increased physical endurance. Also, women who eat meat during pregnancy have children whose blood pressure is higher than those who do not.

There is also the environmental aspect “going green” with eating habits brings. Harper said, “If you’re an animal rights activist and a proponent of eco-sustainable diets, being veg means you’ll contribute less to animal suffering and pollution. I found it fascinating how much pollution and environmental degradation comes from industrialized animal farming and production.”

“And even more troublesome is that these production plants are commonly located near communities of color—hello environmental racism! Eating isn’t just a ‘personal’ choice disconnected from other social justice and health issues in communities of color, but it is connected to larger structures of power and inequities that continue to hurt those who are not part of the racial class status quo in the U.S.A.”

McQuirter agreed, saying that, “Eating vegetarian is the fastest way to end global warming. The United Nations recently issued a report stating that raising livestock, which is chicken, cows, pigs, turkeys, etc., causes more global warming than all of the world’s transportation combined. So what you eat not only improves your health, it can save the planet, and it can save the lives of billions of innocent animals every year.”

One argument as to why African Americans don’t partake in vegetarianism is that there is no access to the food, and if there is, it is sometimes well beyond their pockets’ reach.

To this, Thomas says, “Just about every major health food store has a natural section. Even if they don’t, they all have a produce area where they’re going to find fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s very easy being veg. You just have to start thinking about food [in a new way], like lasagna; I still have lasagna but with no meat.”

Haile advises growing your own garden or finding a farmer’s market to shop at. If there isn’t one, she said to reach out to a local farmer and discuss opening a farm stand or joining a Community Supported Agriculture program, a food buying club where the members get scheduled deliveries of fresh produce while supporting a local farm family.

“If you buy staple ingredients, like whole grains, legumes (beans and nuts), and spices in bulk at health food co-ops, you can save a lot of money,” McQuirter said. “Even in the generic, larger supermarkets, healthier food is available. For example, most supermarkets now carry whole grain foods like brown rice and whole wheat or spelt bread.”

“There’s no reason not to eat healthier. The only question is, are you ready to be well? African Americans, particularly women, are still the unhealthiest group in the nation. And most of our diseases and illnesses are caused by eating unhealthy foods and not exercising. Your diet trumps your DNA. Just because your mother had diabetes or heart disease doesn’t mean you will. These diseases are entirely preventable and reversible. The change begins with you.”

Haile agreed, believing that African Americans have to step it up when it comes to their health. “We can no longer deny ourselves the right to a sound mind and healthy body,” she said. “It’s foolish and destructive to believe that being happy and healthy is reserved just for white people. When we learn to foster self-love, we become more conscious of our thoughts, our words and our actions. Food affects mood and behavior. Let’s begin there.”

Get Informed!

Photography by Billy Montgomery

Frances Moffett

Frances Moffett

GMO Editor-At-Large Frances Moffett is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism. She has worked with GMO since its inception. With a love for journalism and all things writing, she is currently pursuing her master’s degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. Frances is also an editor at the country’s largest association management company and has written for a variety of publications, including Jet magazine, The Chicago Defender and The Chicago Reporter.

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