Like many of us, Dr. Jan Hajek grew up in a home where meat, eggs, and cheese were a regular part of daily meals. As a teenager, he started thinking about the chickens, pigs, and cows that he was eating.
“I didn’t like the idea of eating parts of dead animals, and I didn’t want to contribute to harms to those animals,” he recalled. “As I learned about where milk comes from, and the kinds of practices that are standard on dairy farms, I also started to avoid dairy foods. I didn’t know about environmental impacts or pandemic risks related to animal agriculture at the time. I initially approached a plant-based diet from a personal preference and a concern for the well-being of other animals.”
Challenges of switching to a plant-based diet
Dr. Hajek has followed a plant-based diet for over 30 years.
“One of the biggest challenges I found was at group events,” he said. “I was concerned about not wanting to stand out or make others feel uncomfortable. When you’re offered something that you don’t want to eat, but the person offering it to you really likes it, it can be uncomfortable. If you don’t want to eat something because of health reasons, like an allergy, it’s OK, or even if you just really don’t like the taste, it’s OK. But people can feel offended or judged if the reason is out of concern for the animals, and the way they were treated. I think most of us are concerned for the well-being of animals. We don’t want to harm animals, and, understandably, don’t want to be reminded that many animals suffer for our food and taste preferences.”
Dr. Hajek tried to address that challenge by telling people that he just didn’t like meat or cheese. He found that tended to be less controversial.
“People were generally more accepting and understanding of that. Depending on the circumstances, and if asked more about why, I would sometimes elaborate that I didn’t like how animals are treated on farms. I would acknowledge that there are different sensitivities and preferences, but that for me I didn’t feel comfortable with practices on animal farms, and that I love foods like pasta or whatever appealing plant-based foods were also available there.”
Dr. Hajek finds that many people still believe they need to eat meat or drink milk for optimal nutrition. He has also encountered health-care workers who feel that patients need to eat animal sources of protein to best recover and rebuild damaged muscles and tissues. He has come across people who believe getting vitamin B-12 from a supplement is less “natural” than getting B-12 from the meat of animals raised on large farms where they were given B-12 supplements.
“Global warming and environment are key concerns for many,” he added. “A big misconception is that the distance a food item is shipped has a bigger impact than the type of food. For example, many people think eating avocado or quinoa from South America is somehow worse for the planet than eating meat from chickens or pigs bred and raised locally.”
“My work as an infectious diseases specialist has reinforced my decision to avoid meat, dairy and eggs,” said Dr. Hajek. “I am keenly aware that the way we use animals, and the numbers of animals we use, can have dramatic and far-reaching impacts on our own health. For example, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic was traced to large-scale pig farming in North America. The H5N1 avian influenza that is now decimating wild bird populations was traced to commercial poultry farms in Asia. It is fundamentally a numbers game, and the more animals we breed, confine and slaughter, the more outbreaks of infectious diseases we will have. We need vaccines and pandemic preparedness measures; we also need steps to reduce the growing numbers of animals we use globally for food.”
Dr. Hajek also sees that his knowledge of nutritional science as a doctor reassures him that he is not depriving himself of optimal nutrition or health by avoiding animal-based foods.
Looking to make the switch?
“Go for it!” encourages Dr. Hajek.
“Try to reduce the amount of meat, dairy and eggs you eat, especially where there are readily available alternatives. The animals and the planet will love you for it. Plant-based food options are getting better and better. Tofu is delicious, and plant-based meat is getting better. There are veggie sausages out there that are virtually impossible to differentiate from animal-based sausages by taste test. Humans are very adaptable; we can thrive on a wide range of diets, and there are many advantages to your health and the planet’s health in choosing plant-based foods.”
We’re looking for more VPSA members who follow a plant-based diet to profile. If you’re interested, please send us an email.