July 26, 2007

Taste Better: Obesity Is Contagious

Posted in news, vegan, veganism at 6:59 pm by nevavegan

A new study has come out telling us that obesity in contagious, not physically contagious, but we’re more likely to gain weight when our friends and family do. This might also tell us something about how our friends and family can discourage veganism and actually punish people for trying to change their diet and lifestyle. We’d hope veganism would be contagious, but I fear it’s more likely that the diet of the majority of the peer group would be enforced on other members of the group.

I know that when I first decided to become vegetarian my family and my friends were very opposed to the idea. They tempted me with meat based foods and also ridiculed my efforts. When I became vegan my mother went so far as to put cheese over all of the vegetables (even though I’d cleaned and cut and prepared them) so that there would be nothing I could eat as a vegan. They were certainly fighting my efforts to break away from the pack. I know other people who have similar stories of resistance from their friends and family. Other people didn’t face such blatant sabotage but found themselves feeling left out as their friends stopped inviting them places (“we were all going for ice cream and you’re vegan now”) or felt picked on as others constantly made little jokes about their diet.

When we look at all of this, no wonder people can be a little reluctant to jump on the vegan bandwagon, and no wonder so many people abandon veganism after a while.

I’m a firm believer now in speaking honestly and openly. Instead of sulking because your friend said something derogatory about veganism, maybe you should say in a nice way “you know that actually hurts my feelings. This is important to me and it hurts to think that my friends are making fun of me for it.” Or in the case of being left out of the ice cream run one could say “I’d still like the company even if I don’t eat ice cream, besides I think that place has some fruit based sorbet.” Sometimes our friends need reassurance too, that even though we’re making a major change we still do care about them.

In families control over food can become a primary battleground naturally, as food has come to represent almost everything else other than nutrition in our culture. Food represents tradition, and so efforts to change that tradition can be met with much opposition from other family members. Feeding family members and spouse foods they like represents love to many people, and so when one family member tries to change the types of food being served, it might be seen not as an effort to save animals, but as a diminishment of affection. Further the sharing of food still means companionship and it’s amazing how hurt people can get when loved ones don’t eat the same foods together.

All these are reasons why eating habits, particularly the poor ones that contribute to contagious obesity, can be so hard to break away from.

There are times where some of this can cross the line into abusive behavior though. Anyone that consistently belittles your beliefs or insults you isn’t a friend. Family should be there to support us and encourage us as we learn and grow, not to make us feel terrible for doing something we believe in.

Another reason obesity might be contagious is that people might feel better about eating foods they know are bad for them if a friend does it too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these exact words from a friend “Dessert? I really shouldn’t… Oh, are you going to have some? I’ll get some if you do.” Gobbling candy bars in the middle of the night might strike us as disordered eating, but if you’re just having a piece of cake with a friend then that’s totally normal. I’ve seen this happen with people “cheating” on veganism as well “Sue ate one of the cookies, so I just tried one too.”

The upside of this study though is that it demonstrates that having vegan friends can probably help us stay vegan, just as having healthy friends might inspire us to be a little healthier. I also always think it’s helpful to understand some of the hidden motivators behind our eating habits. I know so many people who feel like their eating controls them, not the other way around. But if they have information about the social pressures surrounding eating it might lead to more thoughtful eating. And hopefully more thoughtful eating can lead to more vegan eating. Anyway the hope would be to move from an internal dialogue that says “must eat cookie now” to one that says “I feel like I want a cookie, but that could be only because Sue is eating one. I think I’ll wait and try to make a better decision.”

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July 19, 2007

Michael Vick and 52 Abused Dogs

Posted in animal advocacy, companion animals, news at 3:38 pm by nevavegan

Yesterday I got an “urgent” alert from HSUS telling me what I already knew from the news. NFL star Michael Vick has been indicted for his participation in a terrifying dog fighting underworld most of us knew nothing about. Associates have testified that Michael Vick bred dogs for fighting, forced them to fight, ran dog fights, bet on dog fights, and personally killed dogs who lost fights in gruesome ways. He kept the dogs on his property starved to make them meaner and more aggressive in fights.

It’s hard to even find words for this. Someone who can kill dogs in this way, someone who can enjoy and bet on their suffering and agony is one thing: a sociopath. There’s no other way about it. Nobody can have the ability to feel empathy and participate in this kind of blood fest.

The news showed footage of forensic crews combing Vick’s property looking for dead dogs. The living dogs were whisked away, though one presented his battered face on the header of the email from HSUS. The email asked for donations to provide care for the living dogs.

This made me ask if the dogs are somehow in HSUS’s care. HSUS doesn’t run a shelter. Within the rescue community rumors were swirling yesterday. One woman heard that maybe the dogs were at a regular shelter in Virginia pending the outcome of Vick’s charges. Another person thought there were too many dogs for one shelter and surely they’d been split up and sent around the whole region. HSUS and shelter workers however have been tight lipped about the location and condition of the dogs, possibly out of concern for the dogs’ safety as they are sure to be key evidence in the upcoming trial.

What was not said in any of the emails or alerts was the sad truth that many of us who have volunteered or worked at shelters, or been involved in rescue already know. These dogs will be kept alive through Vick’s trial. After that, most if not all of these dogs will be killed. Dogs who have been abused in dog fighting typically fail shelters’ temperament tests, meaning they will likely be determined to be unadoptable. Some shelters will even automatically kill pit bulls (the breed of dog seized from Vick) because they believe the breed itself to be inherently dangerous. Should these dogs manage to pass the temperament tests and escape the lethal injection temporarily, there is the other issue of finding homes. 52 dogs with a history of abuse, who’ve been trained to be aggressive, have a poor chance at finding understanding homes and kind people willing to work with them.

While I’m glad there are laws against dog fighting and I’m glad that Michael Vick will be prosecuted for his astounding cruelty, I worry that on a deeper level we’ve somehow failed to reach the public.

Two stories in the news lately that are so very different share one underlying theme. The ditzy pop star buys an expensive puppy and the NFL star kills and abuses huge numbers of dogs. What do the stories have in common. The basic assumption that dogs are property, not living individuals who suffer and love and feel. In the world where dogs are things, they are accessories or proxies for their human owners.

The pop star who fears she might not really be so cute anymore re-affirms her cuteness with a designer dog. The sports star asserts his aggressive, dangerous, alpha male image by forcing dogs to fight to the death for his amusement, and killing with his own hands those dogs he felt were weak or passive. In this way he sends the message that he’s powerful, purged of anything soft, and that he’s dangerous and callous. It’s time we stopped worshipping dangerous, aggressive, cruel people. But it’s also time we stopped selling dogs as things and then acting surprised when people treat them as things.