I wrote this essay for myself, two years ago, a spin-off of and companion piece to my paper on why people become vegetarian. It was the culmination of a lot of thinking and reading and trying different ways of eating. I like it but you may not, especially if you are on an abstinence diet right now. That may be because you are, like many vegetarians I’ve met, not like me: not driven to take things all the way, not terribly annoyed by things that don’t quite add up. Bless you. I might look down on you a little for what seems like lack of intellectual rigor, but mostly I’m envious of your relaxed way of being in the world. It sounds nice. I don’t recommend that you read this. Read something fun instead. On the other hand, you may be like me, an agnostic who found religion in a diet, ready to get uptight when someone tells me I might not actually be saved. I don’t recommend you read this, either, unless some part of you is dissatisfied with your religion and you are ready for some discomfort. For everyone else, or if you plan to read on anyway, or if you are a stickler for references, I recommend you also read “Vegetarianism and Reason” for context—personal, historical, demographic—and a good bibliography.

When I was in college in the San Francisco Bay area in my twenties, a close friend asked me how she could lose weight. Maybe it was because I was, as I always have been, such a slender person. At the time I thought it was because I’d read more about nutrition and diets than most people. My advice was, “Stop eating meat and dairy products.” I said that with confidence both that she could do it and that it would resolve any problems with she had with her body. I’d been vegan for a year or two and vegetarian for several years before that, was in great health, and never had the slightest problem maintaining those diets. My housemate, who’d overheard the conversation, was incredulous: “Why didn’t you suggest something that normal people are capable of, like cutting back on snacking?” That kind of advice had not occurred to me. I knew the answer and gave it to her. These days I’m much more circumspect. I know a lot more about nutrition and diets now than I did then, but am a lot less confident about that knowledge.

Abstinence diets and arguments

An abstinence diet is a way of eating that is defined by what you don’t eat. There are many varieties of this way of eating, but the arguments for engaging in them fall into two basic categories: ethical or ‘spiritual’ arguments, and health or ‘science’ arguments. Most Americans who stop eating meat, for example, do so because they believe they will be healthier, while most vegans do not consume or use animal products on ethical grounds. My own path was the opposite, but I followed the same two lines of thought: I became vegetarian on ethical grounds and vegan (and for several weeks ate only raw food) for health reasons. These two basic tracks led me, perhaps a little too neatly, to what I’ve come to see as my five rabbit holes—thought processes and behaviors that cannot be followed all the way.

The ethical track

While the health/‘science’ track has its own rabbit holes, genuine health-based arguments do not lead to vegetarianism or veganism. I do believe that a vegetarian or vegan diet with plenty of variety is miles better than the standard American donut-coffee-burger-fries-Coke diet, but read any of the thoughtful writers on the subject—Robbins, for example, in Diet for a New America—and you will see that the health-based arguments are really advocating a plant-based diet, not abstinence from meat. Ethical arguments, on the other hand, do lead, seamless and compelling, to vegetarianism and veganism. (Check out Fox’s Deep Vegetarianism, for a great example.) The problem is you cannot follow them all the way.

Rabbit hole #1: Non-violence

On the ethical track, you base your diet on the principle of non-violence. When you become an ethical vegetarian, it is because you have realized that animals are not all that different from humans, and decided that their suffering is important. In a way, you have been able to identify with and have compassion for all animals, instead of just humans. The next step is to see that any product that comes from an animal requires that animal to be coerced and caged. It no longer has freedom. When you come to identify with animals enough to condemn their slavery as well as their slaughter, you become an ethical vegan.

Not many people stay vegan for long. It’s hard to do, for many reasons. To do so requires a hard core dedication to a nonviolent lifestyle. By this point, your ethical thinking has gone beyond animals. You are concerned about the life of the planet, for example: You probably wash out and reuse plastic bags (if you use them at all), you bike when other people would drive, you start hopping freights for longer trips, or guilt trip yourself if you don’t. You probably get interested in libertarian philosophies like anarchism and compassion-based philosophies like Buddhism. This is no longer just a way of eating.

If you are one of these serious ethical vegans, you start to hear about the next step, fruitarianism. Chances are, you are not a serious ethical vegan, so this may seem like a huge, untenable leap. It is a leap that vegans usually do not make, either, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but it is something they will consider.

Most of us have inherited the “knowledge” that plants and animals exist on separate ethical continua. It’s easy and intuitive to think that way, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to argue: Plants behave radically different than we do. They move extremely slowly. They don’t seem to have emotions and they don’t even seem to feel sensations like we do. True, but animals also behave differently than we do, so this is a matter of degree. Does something being different from you mean you can kill it? If you are really serious about compassion, use this argument with great caution. It has been used to justify such evils as genocide, racism, sexism, and meat-eating. But we grow them. They exist in their current form because of us. Pretty weak. The same can be said of cows and slaves.

And so on.

We are probably right to think that the plants in our garden do not suffer the way animals suffer, but that does not mean that the death and mutilation of the plants that provide us with root, leaf, stem and flower foods are not a form of violence. The ethics of eating seeds is dubious, too, from that standpoint. We grind or chew them up and they are no longer able to serve their purpose of propagation. The only parts of plants that have been designed for eating are fruits. They are often brightly colored to attract our attention. They are often sweet. They are nutritious. This is all supposedly so that animals will eat the fruit and inadvertently spread the seeds. A true fruitarian eats only fruit that has fallen off of its parent plant. (I do not know if they also try to poop in useful places. They really should.) There are people who eat a fruitarian diet, too, though their numbers are so small (and presumably the time spent on the diet is so short) that the evidence for its efficacy is sparse and anecdotal. So, unless you try and love the fruitarian diet, your easy, morally convicted choices have been taken from you and you are left with a continuum of diet choices to make based on your level of comfort with violence to various creatures.

Rabbit hole #2: Transcendence

This is the “spiritual” or “ascetic” rabbit hole. I believe that many eating disorder based abstinence diets fall into this category, but look up orthorexia if you are interested in that. I’m more familiar with the diets based on the ascending spiritual tradition—most likely a misunderstanding of that tradition.

The basic idea is that human beings are perhaps part animal, but divine, immortal, non-material beings at our core, and that our job is twofold: Use meditation practices to strengthen our spiritual self, increasing our awareness and compassion until they extend to the entire universe, and at the same time, subdue our animal nature using such disciplines as celibacy and fasting.  Abstinence diets from vegetarianism all the way through to fruitarianism are quite appealing from this standpoint. They seem like permanent fasts, but come along with the promise of great health. The problem is, until you die, there is always somewhere purer to go, and fruitarianism is not the end of the line. There is also breatharianism, where you live on air and sunshine alone. I have never met a breatharian, but I’ve read about and heard of a few, including one in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. If you are on this track, consider that the Buddha went before you and then decided on the Middle Way. Be kind to your body and skip the asceticism!

The health track—Rabbit hole #3: Information overload

There are two major health and science related rabbit holes. The first has to do with information. There is so much ‘information’ out there about diet and human digestion! Most of it is pure metaphysics–assertions of Truth with only passionate belief to back it up. And metaphysics aside, without the blinkers of ethics it is very, very difficult to find an uncontested assertion about what foods are best to eat. If you dive in deep, the density and spin are quickly overwhelming. And that’s just at the macro-level, talking about stuff like apples and pooping. Human health also happens at the level of the quadrillions of chemical reactions that happen in your body every second, the way those reactions act as nodes in networks, and the networks of networks that emerge in the process. Vast amounts have been written in scholarly journals about it and we are still so far from figuring it all out. Furthermore, the folks at university labs studying intracellular protein transport and stuff like that are far removed from the questions you and I have about diet. They probably eat at McDonalds on their lunch break and don’t think twice about it.

Then there’s the question of human biochemical individuality. Are there foods that are good for me but bad for you? Probably, but this makes finding the ideal diet for you even more difficult and makes it less likely that a simple abstinence diet like veganism will be the answer.

Rabbit hole #4: The Fall

The second health and ‘science’ (read ‘metaphysics’) related rabbit hole is based on theories of human evolution. Veganism seems to be the jumping off spot for a huge number of diets. If you are vegan and still frustrated by ill health or low energy, what do you do? You will come across a diet whose argument is basically the myth of the Fall: “We were doing great until….” Raw foodism, which tends to mean “raw veganism,” is the most popular of these, maybe because it throws veganism a bone: You’ve got it all right except that you are destroying the nutrients in your food by heating it up! And, according to the format, all of humanity was doing great until we started using fire. Then, if the now raw vegan still feels bad, they may continue looking and come across the information that there is no evidence of any indigenous people who didn’t consume animal protein. It makes sense, now, that if you were an early human and came across a bird’s nest or frog or whatever, you would take advantage of that concentrated source of protein! This brings us to the multitude of what to the uninitiated seem like crazy diets, including Paleolithic (wild, raw plants and animals), Anopsology (anything raw except dairy + other rules), Essene (raw dairy and plants), Primal (raw meat, dairy and plants) and Traditional (only unprocessed foods, mostly raw, with raw meat and lots of raw dairy). Some of these diets include eating animal feces, too—raw, of course—and intentionally rotting the (raw) meat before eating it. This all makes perfect sense from the right jumping off spot! I’ve been there. I still have some interest in trying the Essene diet and I’m fascinated with some aspects of Anopsology, but I have yet to try them. They are so elaborate that it’s hard to imagine having, simultaneously, the money and the social support required to maintain them.

So, where does this leave us?—Rabbit hole #5: Epistemology

What can you really know about the food we eat and its effect on our body? We know what we have read about it. We know what has been said to us. Those paths lead us to the other rabbit holes. We also know, though, what foods we have actually eaten, what they looked, smelled and tasted like, and how we felt before and after eating them. Shouldn’t that, over the years, add up to a lot of perfectly legitimate and applicable information? Can’t you observe yourself like a science experiment?

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with that. First, there is no control group. In order to know the actual effects of the experiment, you need to be able to see what you would have felt like had you not eaten that slice of cheese or whatever. The subtleties of human sensation render our “experiments” dubious at best. You may find that every time you eat that slice of cheese you throw up. That’s pretty clear; you should probably stop eating that cheese. Unless, of course, you ate the cheese with other foods and you can’t really be sure it was the cheese and not the pickle, or maybe the combination of the cheese and the pickle, or maybe you just were trying to eat too early in the morning or late at night, or maybe it was because it was the cheese you always ate with your ex-girlfriend…. That gets to the second problem with our experiment, and probably the most important. How can you separate your physiological responses to foods from your psychological responses? They have the same feedback mechanisms: sensation. Do you feel good because the ice cream reminds you of nursing as an infant or because that ice cream is benefiting your body? Or because you are a sugar addict, getting your fix? Or is it because humans evolved a craving for sweetness and fat to survive in a calorie-scarce environment?

I’m sorry to say that you can’t know. You really can’t.

I’m assuming that if you’ve read this far, you are involved enough in this debate that is obvious to you that eating from your local food coop is better for you than from McDonalds, that turnips are better for you than twinkies, that eating a variety of foods is better for you than just a few, and that eating in ways that make you remarkably fat or thin are probably not good ideas. This is for you. This is the only advice I can give that I am completely confident of concerning diet: You can’t know what the best way for you to eat is. You have to guess. But when you guess and while you are guessing, you can also feel happy, comfortable, excited and flexible about your guesses and the fact that you are guessing. And, more important, enjoy your food! Savor how it looks and smells and tastes and feels in your mouth and stomach. Love your food and love your body every moment that they are interacting.

Thanks to my editors, Ce Rosenow, Grace Llewellyn, Joseph Kwiatkowski, and Reanna Alder.