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I've seen some good posts lately about veganism and health. Here's my two cents. 

I'm convinced by the arguments that many animals might have conscious experiences. I'd prefer not to torture the ones that do. Unfortunately, if I adopted a fully vegan lifestyle I might well be hospitalized for malnutrition within the year. In this post I'll give an overview of how I balance nutrition, ethics, and allergy constraints, and solicit ideas for improvement.

My problem

I am demonstrably allergic to a startling variety of foods, including, but not limited to:

  • Peas
  • Celery
  • Uncooked egg yolks
  • Chickpeas (and derivatives like hummus)
  • Beans (but not peanuts, which are also legumes)

Not deathly allergic, but definitely my-afternoon-is-ruined allergic. A tablespoon of hummus can give me 2-4 hours of intensely distracting pain. I have also experienced an identical, though sometimes inconsistent, reaction to:

  • Fish
  • Soylent
  • Shellfish
  • Eggplant
  • Sweet potato 
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Butternut squash
  • Every protein shake mix I have ever tried
  • Several mixtures containing none of the above but some hard-to-isolate combination of ingredients

You will notice that several of the items on the above lists are widely considered key sources of vital nutrients in a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Coupled with my strong dislike of spicy food, a typical restaurant menu typically contains at most 1-5 entrees I can safely eat. Catered meals often hedge me out entirely. At one (non-EA) event, after listing my allergies in the RSVP, I was served a dinner plate consisting of fish, lima beans, and rice pilaf with peas and celery. [1]

Even with these honestly ridiculous constraints, I've found some cheap ways to reduce my dependence on harmfully-produced meat. 

Reducing harm in an omnivorous diet

It's easier to cut the first half of my meat intake than the second half. Diminishing returns apply. By the same logic, two people eating half as much meat is just as good as one person eating none. 

Here are some things I've learned while trying to minimize the suffering my diet imposes:

  • Tofu is a fine supplement in many dishes, and rice is a cheap and flexible staple. 
  • Green vegetables like spinach and broccoli make good additions to any diet.
  • Nuts and many dried fruits are nutrient-rich. Also, peanuts and cashews add a nice crunchy texture to homemade rice dishes. 
  • I can also eat cooked eggs and yogurt, and I've heard some convincing arguments in favor of eggs being less harmful than chicken and dairy less harmful than beef.[2] (Edit: eggs may be more harmful than I thought, but dairy still seems promising.) 
  • I'm distrustful of "cruelty-free" branding because so many standards for that kind of thing are false or misleading, but with further research I expect I could find more harm-minimizing options there too. (Edit: yep!)
  • Being allergic to fish really hurts, because I think fish probably suffer less than birds or mammals, if at all. If I could eat more fish instead of meat, I would. 
  • I could probably bring myself to eat insect-based protein if it were a) actually available where I live and b) not recognizably still a whole bug at the time. Still working on that angle. 
  • I'm tentatively excited about lab-grown meat.
  • My wife and I did some math and determined we aren't getting enough protein in our diets, so we're stepping up meat intake overall, but it's still a significant improvement over my past eating habits. I used to cook lots of chicken.
  • My wife can eat beans and likes them fine. We don't have to eat the same things, especially when leftovers are available. 
  • We do a lot of home cooking, buy foods that keep, and try not to waste anything.

If you have other ideas for reducing diet-induced harm, please share! 

Conclusion

Even if you can't or don't want to fully expunge meat from your diet, it's possible to significantly reduce your meat intake. It's an easier lifestyle change, and I bet it's easier to encourage the average person to adopt a policy of meat-reduction than outright veganism. Public relations advocates, take note. 

 

  1. ^

    Dishes cooked with peas cause me problems even if I pick the peas out. 

  2. ^

    Specifically, an egg represents ~1 day of animal suffering at most whereas a fully-grown chicken takes months to mature. Similar arguments may apply for dairy vs beef. In the same vein, there are arguments that beef involves less suffering than chicken because it's a smaller fraction of one cow (but there are also arguments that beef is worse for the environment because of cow farts and caloric inefficiency, so I'm on the fence here). 

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It's great that you're doing what you can on this front, despite all the challenges!  I don't have specific nutritional advice, though maybe the writer of the first post you linked would.

You may have already considered this (some of your ideas hinted in this direction), but I think it's important to focus on suffering intensity, which you could measure in terms of suffering per calorie or suffering per pound of food.  Doing so will minimize your overall suffering footprint.  My understanding is that the differences in capacity for suffering between large and small animals (such as cows and shrimp) aren't large enough to outweigh the difference in the number of animals you have to eat to get the same number of calories.  Additionally, cows seem to be kept in some of the least awful conditions of any factory-farmed animal.

This website, foodimpacts.org, shows this difference in a useful graphic.  It also lets you weight the importance you place on welfare vs. climate impacts (though I would set climate to 0%, it may be helpful for you if you prioritize differently).

Brian Tomasic's How Much Direct Suffering Is Caused by Various Animal Foods? could also be a useful guide, and Meghan Barrett's work on insect sentience is worth a read if you want to decide whether it's better to eat insects or other animals.

Thanks, those are some great resources! I can read the post on insect sentience but the link to the paper throws an error. I'd love to read the definitions they use for their criteria. 

Just messaged you!

Just chiming in to say I have a similar situation, although less extreme. Was vegan for 4 years and eventually concluded it wasn’t sustainable or realistic for me. Main animal products I buy are grass fed beef, grass fed whey protein, eggs from brands that at least go to decent lengths to make themselves seem non-horrible (3rd party humane certified, outdoor access) and a bit of conventional dairy (cheese, butter). I’d be lying if I said I’ve never bought anything “worse” than those, though.

Nice post! I'd encourage avoiding insect-based protein even if it becomes more available.

But entomophagy is not necessarily more humane than factory farming of livestock all things considered, and along some dimensions it's actually worse, because it involves killing vastly more animals per unit of protein.

https://reducing-suffering.org/why-i-dont-support-eating-insects/

Conditional on insects having conscious experiences, I'd agree with you. I'm not convinced they do, and I don't find stimulus-response alone to be sufficient for giving a creature nonzero moral weight. Plenty of people may disagree with me on that, though, and I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone attempt a diet substitute that they think causes more harm. 

FWIW stimulus-response is far from the only evidence we have for insect sentience. Table 1 in Jason Schukraft's Invertebrate Sentience overview discusses some of the other criteria. The belief that some insects are sentient is pretty respectable in the scientific community; for example, Scientific American published an article on the subject this month.

Obviously the field is pretty speculative and I'm not an expert, but IMO the fact that many experts do take insect sentience seriously means we should probably put non-negligible credence in it.

Overall though, thanks for writing this post! It's an important point. I suspect many people, when faced with ethical arguments for veganism, decide not to care about animals at all simply because they aren't willing (or in a rare cases unable) to go vegan. Classic example of failing with abandon.

Yes, "let's not fail with abandon" is a good summary of my argument to fellow omnivores. 

That's a really good overview by Rethink Priorities. The Invertebrate Sentience Table shifted my credence a little bit in favor of insects, but I think I tend to weight more highly the argument that some sentience criteria can prove too much. I'm not super impressed by a criteria that shares a "Yes" answer with plants and/or prokaryotes. In the same vein, contextual learning sounds impressive, but if I'm understanding that description correctly then it also applies to the recommendation feature of Google Search. I do, however, agree we should take the possibility seriously and continue looking for hard evidence either way. 

Here's a thought: is anyone currently testing where language models like GPT-4 fall on the sentience table? 

Being allergic to fish really hurts, because I think fish probably suffer less than birds or mammals, if at all. If I could eat more fish instead of meat, I would. 

First, I think the evidence for fish sentience seems to be almost as strong as birds' now. Yes, probably less evidence than most mammals, but not significantly. Certainly not significant enough to compensate the effect coming from the fact that commonly eaten mammals are way heavier than most fish humans eat, which means the number of sentient beings eaten per weight of meat is much higher for fish.

Thanks, Fai! I'm still on the fence about this, but assuming it were true - what does the evidence look like for suffering? It seems like it might be better to eat an animal that's lived a relatively normal life compared to e.g. farmed chickens. I know some fish farms can get pretty bad but how common is that?  Edit: Pete's comment had a useful source here. 

I'm curious what evidence convinced you about fish. So far I haven't seen much on the subject of consciousness specifically, though I have seen some arguments around pain nerves and aversive stimuli. 

I'm curious what evidence convinced you about fish. So far I haven't seen much on the subject of consciousness specifically, though I have seen some arguments around pain nerves and aversive stimuli. 

 

There are a number of studies on fish that provides evidence of consciousness beyond just nociception and pain avoidance behavior (which is already a level higher than just nociception). I will just name a few. Most recently and shockingly, a species of fish passed the "mirror test" by passing the "mark test". Other older studies include finding that fish engaging in trade-off thinking between rewards and pain, finding that fish engage in cooperative behavior, and finding that zebrafish can have "emotional fever" (which scientists used to think can only happen to birds, mammals, and reptiles)

Victoria Braithwaite, who wrote the book Do Fish Feel Pain, said "Given all of this (the evidence she and other researchers gathered), I see no logical reason why we should not extend to fish the same welfare considerations that we currently extend to birds and mammals."

You don't have to get into this if its more personal than you'd like, but I'm confused about the contrast between being allergic to:

Beans (but not peanuts, which are also legumes)

And then later saying:

Tofu is a fine supplement in many dishes

Tofu is made from soy beans; do you know if you can do soy in general, or if the fermentation (or another step of the tofu making process) is what makes it ok?

Getting technical: soy is a different branch of the legume family tree. The one I'm most allergic to seems to be Hologalegina (galegolds), which includes broad beans, peas, and chickpeas. 

Tofu is always fine and soy is I think fine, but I've had reactions to a few things containing soy + something else (soy protein shakes = very bad day). Soybeans are phaseoloids, the same sub-family as black/brown beans, but only the latter reliably causes me problems. I haven't tested all the phaseoloids but it's obviously kinda unpleasant to do so. 

Part of the problem with this allergy profile is the uncertainty it spawns; many foods have 2 or 3 ingredients that could be the cause of a reaction and it can be hard to tell which is the culprit. To complicate matters further, cooking helps at least some of them (fish is 50-50, egg yolk is fine). 

I've been to formal allergy testing but they only had tests for a few of my problem foods because come on, who would be allergic to celery? IIRC the scale they used is 1 to 5 where 5 is "don't f*ck with this ever". 

Strong reaction: Fish mix (4), egg yolk (4), catfish (5), english pea (5)

Weak reaction: trout (3), green bean (3)

No reaction: shellfish (although the allergist mentioned I could be allergic to the shells, which aren't tested, and I've definitely reacted to every shellfish I've tried in the last two decades)

>I'm distrustful of "cruelty-free" branding because so many standards for that kind of thing are false or misleading, but with further research I expect I could find more harm-minimizing options there too.

Thinking mostly about eggs, I've concluded that "Animal Welfare Approved" (first choice) and "Humane Certified"+"Pasture Raised" (second choice) probably significantly reduce suffering compared to alternatives. There's also Whole Foods' GAP levels but I'm less familiar with those. No fancy analysis here, just "these labels set standards actually focused on welfare and claim to do verifications".

I'm not saying that should make vegans feel happy to eat eggs. For one thing, there's still chick culling at least until the sex selection tech becomes mainstream. But if you're going to eat eggs, you have an option to spend more money to probably reduce suffering by a lot.

I think the biggest way this would fail is if the producers were falsifying things -- in the most egregious case by picking up eggs from Walmart on their way to the farmers' market. But in expectation there still seems to be a lot of value here worth paying for.


Meat, Eggs and Dairy Label Guide l Help Farm Animals l ASPCA

“Wild-caught,” “organic,” “grass-fed,” “humane”: animal product labels, explained - Vox

In this vein, I'd love to see an analysis of how eggs from hens meeting CH+PR standards stack up against other animal products in welfare terms, especially since it's become very easy to find these eggs at supermarkets (at least in my corner of the US) in recent years.

Edamame is a nice alternative form of soy - I keep a bag of frozen edamame in the fridge - and subbing quinoa for rice can be another easy way to up the protein a little

Edamame is soy. Just immature one still in pods.

Edamame - Wikipedia

IIRC edamame is safe, though I have had one bad experience with edamame-based noodles. (I think it had other ingredients but someone else did the cooking then so I can't be sure). Haven't had quinoa in a while but I think it's safe too. That's a good idea. 

I commented here that Effective Altruism is specially well suited to help reducing neg-utility in diets, not only by lobbing but mainly by certification .

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/txQJcvTGdsWyXuZLr/effective-altruism-and-the-trust-business

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