I was raised in India as a vegetarian and our family’s diet excluded meat. We did consume a lot of dairy products, mostly milk, yogurt and ghee, and eggs if they happened to be in store-bought cakes. When I entered my teens, my skin broke out into really bad cystic acne. My mother took me to all kinds of doctors, to no avail. Finally, a naturopath suggested to me that I should try avoiding milk products. My mother would not hear of it! Among Indians, it is a long-held belief that milk products are essential for good health. However, when I moved to the US and away from my family, I decided to try avoiding milk products. Immediately, my skin started breaking out far less. So, even before I knew what the word “vegan” meant, I became one.
As a graduate student in the nineties, completely avoiding dairy was hard since I did not always have control over the ingredients that went into my food. I was on antibiotics for several years to keep the flare-ups under control. This was problematic. Eventually, the disease would periodically become resistant to some antibiotics and I would have to be switched to another.
Even after all the medical interventions, I found that my skin continued to react to dairy. When my life became more settled, I finally had the time and the resources to control what I ate and take care of my skin without medications. Today, I have been vegan for almost 26 years. I have remained vegan and healthy through many life events – two successful pregnancies (my gynecologists were not concerned in the least).
Today, I look back on my cystic acne problem as a blessing in disguise. Without this issue, I never would have found out about the health benefits of a dairy-free diet. Over time, as the plant-based movement became more prominent, I also learned more about how cows are treated in dairy farms. Prior to this, I had the notion that cows lived idyllic lives grazing on green pastures suckling their young.
What I’ve learned since then has horrified me. Dairy cows are continually subjected to forced insemination to stay pregnant and lactating. They live in cramped, often sordid, living quarters, and their constantly-used udders often become infected and bloody. Most distressing, they suffer the cruelty of losing their young ones who are snatched away almost immediately after giving birth. Many calves are slaughtered as babies since they are considered “waste products” of the dairy industry. I was stunned to discover the eventual fate of the mother cows; once their milk production declines, they are also sent to slaughter. A cow’s natural lifespan is 18-20 years; but after repeated impregnations and constant milking, a dairy cow is considered “spent” – the industry term for a useless cow – by the age of 3-5 years old.
I also learned that cows produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gases, which contribute strongly to climate change. According to an article published by the BBC, in 2015, the dairy industry’s emissions were equivalent to more than 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2! This makes up around 3.4% of the total of all human-made greenhouse gases. This means that dairy’s contribution to global warming is comparable to that of all aviation and shipping combined (which are 1.9% and 1.7% respectively)! Also, in order to grow food for livestock, prairies, wetlands and forests are being cleared. This makes livestock raising the number one cause of deforestation, which is also a leading contributor to climate change.
So, here is my message to my fellow South Asians.
Some of you feel that dairy is an essential food for health, or maybe you possibly worry about being deficient in key nutrients such as calcium if you avoid dairy.
What I would like you to know is that consuming dairy is absolutely unnecessary for human health.
In fact, recent studies have linked dairy consumption with a number of major health problems, including heart disease, breast cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses. It is possible to get all the calcium, protein, and other essential nutrients you need while eating a healthy, balanced, and cruelty-free plant-based diet. These days, delicious non-dairy milk such as oat, hazelnut, cashew, soy, almond, and hemp, as well as non-dairy cheeses and yogurt, can be purchased from most grocery stores. All you need to do is to try some of these non-dairy products, find the ones you like, and stick with them for about a month. After this, your taste buds begin to adapt and you eventually lose the desire for dairy products. There are also tutorials on YouTube on how to make your own plant-based milk and yogurts at home. I urge everyone to entertain the thought of going vegan! And I know you can make it work for you. Do it for yourself, for the cows, and for our Mother Earth.
Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State. She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos.