Let the record state that I am a vegan. I have not eaten animal products for over 40 years. Adopting this healthier diet has benefited me tremendously, as my childhood asthma and allergy symptoms have subsided over the years. I vividly remember countless emergency room visits during allergy season to be placed in an oxygen tent so I could breathe. I was diagnosed as allergic to almost everything. To stay alive, I took strong medications, and my room was kept dust proof through sealed pillows and special bedding with allergy covers. Given my history of severe allergies, which rendered me unable to enjoy a normal childhood, I am greatly indebted to the lifestyle choices that have radically changed my health, giving me a new lease on life. I now control my health through my diet. Maintaining a healthy plant-based diet and drinking plenty of water reduces my risk of a severe allergic relapse.
Besides keeping me alive and healthy, what advantages does a plant-based diet offer? In my experience, today’s health systems are generally more focused on making money than advocating health and nutrition. I have learned firsthand, however, the benefits of eating as naturally as possible. My personal health is important to me, but how can eating healthy and organically be validated beyond my individual choice to stay healthy?
I’ve never forced my lifestyle choices on others, nor is my diet about restriction for its own sake. For me, it’s about liberation. I realize that people die every day because the foods they eat cause suffering and disease. I have also learned that promoting my health should include an ecological component. Improving overall health is important, but few consider that cheap meat is a result of misusing animals and that herbicides pollute the soil, which saps food crops of nutrition.
A recent study published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health (Volume 4, Issue 1) found that those following vegetarian, vegan, or pescatarian (fish) diets have a lower risk of developing moderate to severe COVID-19. Eating a healthy, wholesome diet seems to fortify us against a wide range of health problems, including COVID-19. I am confident that my plant-based diet has prepared my body to battle this virus. Following a vegetarian diet and treating animals kindly may also prove to be factors that reduce the likelihood of future pandemics. While no one knows for certain where the novel coronavirus came from, treating animals badly, where they are crowded in cages by the thousands, has the potential to unleash viruses. The choices we make contribute to causes of illness and can prevent animal-to-human virus transmission. There are things we can do to reduce our risk both now and in the future. In this way, my emphasis on individual health is connected to the health of the world.
I don’t think we can be truly healthy without this communal perspective. We are obligated to participate in the process of becoming liberators. How we grow food and treat animals are sobering factors to consider. Might factory farming and wild bush meat impede Isaiah’s peaceable vision?
It would be best if we all ate wholesome diets, but I realize that this is not possible for everyone. Access to organic produce is a privilege that many do not have. In addition, some people are adversely affected by the environmental impacts of toxins in our water supplies, air, or soil. Underprivileged neighborhoods often lack access to fresh food that promotes healthy eating and are instead targeted by ads for cheap junk food, which produces more suffering and disease. It is thus important to address the underlying systems that are failing people.
People tend to see our current health crisis as a threat to themselves, concerned that others might get them sick. I recognize that people have the right to protect their lives, but I believe we should embrace a more proactive approach that considers—as does the assessment of farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry—both individual bodies and the world. I can’t help but see great trouble taking shape in our world and people’s overwhelming needs. I have led and participated in many community health outreach efforts with churches, encouraging them to combine natural healing and nutrition with support from medical professionals, and I have been derided by several natural health zealots for working alongside doctors. Extreme voices are beyond reach, but I believe that our influence will be greater if natural healers and medical professionals work together.
I am, however, concerned by the increasing trend of seeking to coerce interventions as well as by reactions that stoke the fires against those who hold opposing opinions. It is alarming to see people stigmatizing others and blaming them for our social ills. I believe the way to love God is to love His creation. How we choose to do so depends on how we define health. Health is more than my right to stay alive. As Wendell Berry says, “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation” (The Body and the Earth, p. 99).
Craig Ashton Jr.