When Nicole and I got married, we realized that we had the opportunity of a lifetime to establish habits that will set our trajectory above and beyond our lowest common denominator. We could start traditions now and maintain living patterns today that stay with us our entire married lives. That we could, in fact, set ourselves apart from the norm, united in common causes, allowing us -- or, rather, enabling us -- to progress to our fullest potential in life and make a true difference in the world around us.
It was empowering to be part of such a marital partnership.
Three weeks before we got married in March, Nicole's dad discovered he had a rare, malignant form of cancer. Nicole comes from a family of eight children, but in every sprawling family portrait that I can remember, she was always right at her Dad's side, holding his hand. They had a particularly special father-daughter bond, developed over years of daddy-daughter outings, and the news was heartbreaking. A few months before, I had started reading the book The China Study (a.k.a the Vegan Bible), and it postulated some fascinating and worldview-shattering theories on the possible causes of the first world's most common diseases, including that of cancer. My birth father was also afflicted with the "disease of love" (so-called for cancer's all-too-willing capacity to leave its patient at his last legs of life fully conscious and emotionally capable of love, if nothing else), and he succumbed to its power when I was little over a year old.
Knowing fully well that society has painted a picture of cancer as something mysteriously unavoidable, we wondered whether society was, in fact, wrong. And if society was wrong, and if cancer was avoidable, how do we avoid it, and do we not then have a moral obligation to our children, to ourselves, and to each other, to avoid it if possible? While pondering these thoughts, we looked outside of ourselves for inspiration and guidance. I've always been a proponent of Hippocrates' axiom to "let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." In The China Study, we read how a comprehensive nutritional study across all the provinces of China showed that a marked increase in the consumption of animal protein was highly correlative to the development of cancers (not to mention heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and diabetes). The scientist-author of The China Study advocated for the adoption of a vegan diet wherever possible.
There were many responses to and criticisms of this controversial study, and both sides seem to point out faults or ulterior motives of the other. It's difficult to delineate truth from falsehoods, even in a democratic nation like America. Nevertheless, studies from reputed sources such as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Science Magazine, and summarized in a how-to guide by the Mayo Clinic, point to a restricted-calorie diet for cancer prevention. One of the simplest ways of doing just that is making vegetables a substantial part of your meals, which we know to be much more filling and lower-calorie than your typical meat product. From all the preventative literature we've read, there seems to be an overwhelming consensus than an overall reduced-calorie diet made primarily of fruits, vegetables, and grains, increases longevity and delays cancer growth.
At the same time, ideas about weekday vegetarianism (as an alternative to the austere 100% vegetarianism, pescatarianism, or veganism) floated around in the circles of TED (our secular, tour-de-force source of inspiration). There was a flexibility to it that was so much more refreshing than the restrictive and somewhat-antisocial, "There is virtually nothing I can eat here" 100%-vegan approach to party attendance. And what a staggering burden it can be on a dinner party host, who already caters to a growing list of allergies and preferences.
We also consulted our foremost authority, our lifelong religion of Mormonism, on this subject. Back in 1833 (plainly prophetic), Joseph Smith received revelation that "flesh of the beasts and of the fowls of the air…are to be used sparingly," going as much to say that "these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger" (see D&C 89:10-16). In the same chapter of counsel, it is written that "all grain" is "to be the staff of life" and "every herb…and every fruit in the season thereof…to be used with prudence and thanksgiving."
I do have to say, though, that I rarely enter a Mormon household that primarily eats a plant-based diet. And the reasons are plenty. Our church leaders don't preach it, and there are plenty of other priorities that go above and beyond that of our food. Love, forgiveness, mercy, duty, service, and sacrifice to name a few. I do consent that we all have only so much willpower in life, and we should apportion it hierarchically to our various priorities. Mormons tend to follow the counsel of Christ when he said, "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." (see Matthew 15:11) And so you'll find many more unhealthy Mormons, who have consciously (or subconsciously) prioritized faith, friendship, and fellowship over food.
Certainly I have much to improve upon in the things that "cometh out of the mouth," but I have found it to be easier for myself to say the right things when I feel healthful. It reminds me of a quote by Oscar Wilde: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations.” I think to an extent that holds true in my own life. A feast, especially a healthy one (with no aftertastes of regret), is a powerful and inspiring influence for happiness. But beyond just the immediate gratification of an incredible meal, there is something larger I want to accomplish. One of the grandest expressions of love I can communicate to my wife is to, simply, do my best to be there. I will not be there when I die prematurely from heart disease or cancer. I will not be around for my children or my grandchildren if I let my body waste away unnecessarily. There will be no more forgiveness to give, no more love to express, no more hope to spark, when I have left this world with a tombstone.
And so Nicole and I decided that we would try our best. Our best for now is a weekday vegetarian diet, bordering on vegan oftentimes (which means Nicole has had to give up a little on her favorite food of all: cheese). We're not totalitarians on this; for example, if we have meat leftovers from the weekend, we refrain from waste and eat it. But since beginning in March, we carry on the philosophy about 85% of our weekday meals. And the effect has been transformational. Time and time again, I noticed myself realizing things, recognizing things, acting on things in a wholly unprecedented way. I trusted my own potential, I challenged my own insecurities, and tore down walls that encaged my self-esteem. Perhaps it was because in some ways it validated a belief that I had a limitless, functional reservoir of self-control that I could deploy anyway I wanted. But regardless of why, I started living my life instead of letting others live it for me (and me live vicariously through them).
And its from this admittedly spiritual foundation that Nicole and I started our newest venture Antho*.
*For the full back story on this, stay tuned for future blog posts.