On the Table

Book raises issues about eating meat

CORRESPONDENTAugust 17, 2011 

How often do you think deeply about what you are eating?

Most of us don't. We just want to enjoy our food. And sometimes thinking can get in the way.

Especially if questions raised about your favorite foods are difficult ones to contemplate.

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University are wrestling with some of those challenging questions. As participants in the two schools' joint summer reading program this year, incoming freshmen and transfer students are reading "Eating Animals," by Jonathan Safran Foer.

This month, once they arrive on campus, participants will take part in group discussions led by faculty and staff to reflect on what they read. I'll participate in one of the discussions.

The best-selling book chronicles Foer's examination of the moral and environmental impact of our food choices, particularly meat.

Examining the ethics

Many ideas Foer discusses in his book aren't new.

Vegetarianism has been advocated by some for hundreds of years. Awareness of the health and ecological advantages of eating low on the food chain has been percolating in the U.S. for decades, gaining momentum more recently in the form of today's interests in the local and sustainable foods movement.

Where Foer pushes further is in the area of self-examination.

Even the title lays it bare: "Eating Animals."

Foer pushes readers to take a longer and more critical look at the ethics of eating animals, moving beyond the health or ecological costs of eating meat.

It's uncomfortable: You're not eating a hotdog or pork chop; you're eating a once-living thing that had feelings and intelligence.

Foer pushes readers to engage critical thinking skills. It's a level of scrutiny most of us don't give our food choices, not even the pros - nutritionists and foodies.

Why we don't think

Most of us resist putting that much thought into what we eat and why. We resist it for a number of reasons, including:

Change is hard. The evidence may support the good in changing the way you eat, but old habits can take a lot of effort to recondition. Without a strong support system, it's even harder to do.

We like our traditions. They bring us pleasure and emotional support.

Giving up or changing a tradition can bring a sense of loss, at least until a new tradition is established.

It's political and it's divisive. It may be at odds with your ideological perspective, including how you view the roles of people in the order of living things.

Of course, if you own a business that profits from people eating animals, you'd probably find it hard to support change, too.

What you eat is important to your health. Eating well can support and protect your health, and eating poorly can harm it. Collectively, decisions about what to eat have an effect - for better or for worse - on the wellness of our ecosystem.

We know this, and we don't always choose accordingly.

Most of us are expert at pushing aside inconvenient truths. Foer's book makes those truths harder to ignore.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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