Thursday, May 1, 2014

Eat Your Damn Veggies

Or not. It’s your life.
I’ve always believed that everyone has a right to choose their own poison. You want to smoke yourself, drug yourself, drink yourself to death? You want to starve yourself or stuff yourself? You want to gamble away your and your family’s future or simply commit suicide and let others deal with your perfidy and weakness? Go right ahead; knock yourself out.
And, needless to say, one person’s poison is another’s sustenance, besides the fact that there’ll always be disagreements as to what constitutes poison. This train of thought was prompted by gotcha facebook posts by two friends who’re always looking to post anything that promotes meat eating and disses vegetarianism.
One study came to the conclusion that there was no correlation between meat eating and health. The other claimed that vegetarians were not as healthy as carnivores. Let me start with a personal anecdote. About 20 years ago I visited a friend who was in his mid-sixties who had recently had a heart attack. In the course of our conversations I discovered that his cholesterol level was up around 340. A healthy, active vegetarian has a level of about 125, anything above 200 is entering the danger zone, 340 is stratospheric, catastrophic.
The fear of paralysis and/or death caused him to change his ways. He ate chicken with the skin and excess fat removed and fish. He dispensed entirely with red meat and made other similar dietary changes and went onto live another ten years. Now it’s entirely possible, though I think ludicrously unlikely, that his high cholesterol level had nothing to do with his heart attack. It’s also possible, though once again devilishly hard to imagine, that his change of diet had nothing to do with his ten additional years of life. It’s just an anecdote, not a scientific study, you can make of it what you will, but it made a big change in my own eating habits. I mean, who needs a heart attack?, Who wants to be stuck in a wheelchair because half my body is paralyzed? For the sake of enjoying lots of animal fat? Could bacon be that important?
According to Wikipedia, heart attacks usually happen “because one of the coronary arteries that supplies blood to the heart develops a blockage due to an unstable buildup of white blood cells, cholesterol and fat.”  Further down the heart attack page it cites a meta-study – a study of other studies – that finds no correlation between diet and heart attack (probably the study my friend referred to). Sounds like a powerful contradiction there: cholesterol and fats cause heart attacks but diet has nothing to do with it??? Where else would they come from if not diet? Further along on the page, along with that study there is a list of studies, some of which did find a correlation. It also included a list of international and national health agencies that recommend minimizing ingestion of fats, especially saturated fats and trans fats. Animal fats are saturated as are some plant-based fats like coconut oil, palm oil and chocolate. Trans fats are not commonly found in nature and are mostly part of processed foods so it makes sense that they’d be bad for your health.        
In trying to get a handle on this whole question I spent hours, it seemed, poring over passages with words like myocardial infarction, low-density lipoprotein, hypercholesterolemia and a mind boggling list of mind boggling others and the conclusion I came to, in spite of seemingly blatant contradictions, is (1) you can find whatever you want to justify whatever you believe in and (2) I don’t know half enough about the science to understand what I was reading. Besides, you know what they say: There’s lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics.     
 My other friend is on an anti-vegetarian vendetta so did a gotcha with a questionnaire survey done in Austria which concluded that vegetarians are less healthy, including that they’re more prone to mental health problems. In other words, herbivores not only like to eat nuts but they tend to go nuts. Carrots make you crazy, melons make you mad, lettuce makes you loony, beets make you batts. Once again you can twist statistics around your little finger and prove almost anything you want with them. On that basis I’m finished with incomprehensible and undecipherable medical facts and dodgy surveys and will stick with logic, reason and feelings for the rest of this essay.
After seeing my friend I followed to some extent his strict minimal fat diet. Though I continue to eat red meat, I always cut away the excess fat and try to minimize the amount, like one pork chop instead of two, a 100 gram hamburger instead of a 200 gram; in fact, the bigger burger now makes me feel bloated. I use meat to flavor a mostly veggie stir-fry. I never ate a lot of cheese or eggs but I do use butter regularly. I use chicken skins to make broth, but then discard them. I may be defeating half the purpose, but there’s no need to be fanatic about any of it… that is, unless you’ve already taken yourself close to death. To me a meal without veggies is naked and incomplete. I eat the lettuce on my plate as a matter of principle, as well as liking it, though most people look on it as decoration.
Back when I visited my friend my cholesterol was 193, getting close to problematical. Now cholesterol is calculated differently. On a recent checkup my good cholesterol was high and my bad was low. Was that good bill of health related to my change in eating habits? I’m convinced it was, at least partly because it makes sense.
Saturated fat is thick, heavy, greasy. It stands to reason that eating a lot of it would clog up your arteries. Some of that buildup, I surmise, can be counteracted with exercise which serves to jiggle loose some of those sticky, slow moving fat molecules. Eating lots of veggies would also seem to have the same effect as it stands to reason that as they move through the bloodstream relatively easily they would nudge loose those lazy, stubborn, clinging fats.
I spent two years as a vegetarian. I was caught up in the brown rice revolution of the late sixties. After eating a lot of vegetarian meals, my last meat meal before turning was a carbonara: with bacon, eggs and butter the essence of saturated fatty. Before my partner and I got half way through it we agreed that it tasted strange, heavy and oily. Vegetarian food is fresh, light, lively and easy to digest. Meat hits your stomach like a lead weight. That’s probably one reason why people like it: it makes you feel full.
I started eating meat again because I was craving it and since I came from vegetarianism strictly from taste and concern for health, rather than an outsized moral concern for animal welfare or an anti-meat ideology, it was no problem reverting back to being a carnivore. I believe it’s worse for your constitution and morality to crave meat while eating veggie than it is to eat meat.
Meat eaters don’t need to worry much or think much about getting proper nutrients, it’s all there in the meat, but vegetarians do; they need to be sure they are getting the proper balance in their diet, it doesn’t come automatically.
While I will accept some controversy and disagreement as to the relative merits of eating meat or not meat, there’s no question as to the impact on the earth of eating meat, at least in regard to how it’s produced in the west. The rise in middle classes around the world has the potential to waste the planet. It takes something like 16 kilos of corn to produce one kilo of beef, as well as far more land and water. Large areas of the Amazon are being cleared for cattle grazing and that’s happening to some extent around the world. Inputs to produce pork are much less than beef because they can be kept in tiny enclosures, but that necessitates heavy doses of antibiotics to keep them alive.
Ninety percent of all antibiotics in the US are consumed by animals, which has led to people receiving unwanted doses not just in the meat they consume but also in their water: antibiotics can be found in all American rivers. Part of that comes from rivers which receive runoff from areas with pork or chicken factories and part from human waste since sewage treatment plants do not remove the drugs. The biggest danger of the large volume of antibiotics in the environment is that it has led to superbugs that cannot be treated with available drugs.
If fat is a concern then pork is better than beef since there’s little fat within the meat itself and the exterior fat can be cut away, whereas, at least in a Western context, beef is laced with fat that cannot be removed. In fact, the fat is what makes beef tender and taste good. I recently read an article about a special beef cow that is so good, it’s steaks sell for $300 in some Hong Kong restaurants. According to the article, one taste and you’re sold. They included a picture of the steak: it was maybe 20% fat.
In Cambodia, cows eat grass, real cow food. An outbreak of ecoli poisoning from eating beef in America a couple years back was attributed to bacteria that only live in cows fed corn instead of grass. Cambodian beef is tough partly from how little fat there is in the meat. A restaurant owner friend took to adding fat to his hamburgers to compensate for the lack of fat in the meat. If you love saturated fat, then great, but if you’re thinking about your health then, in my opinion, very dumb.
But you love your McDonald’s burgers you say (or whatever fast food advertising has captured your imagination). Maybe you do or maybe you really don’t. Pretty arrogant of me to question your likes, you think. (As it turns out, it was recently revealed that McD’s burgers are only 15% meat, the rest filler… but that’s beside the point.) A study was done a while back with 3- to 5-year-old kids. They were fed McD’s burgers in a plain wrapper and a corporate wrapper. Ditto with fries and baby carrots, which aren’t sold there. In every case a large majority thought the food tasted better in the corporate wrapper. The taste of the food had nothing to do with their choices… and maybe not yours either.
What if there was an equal amount of advertising promoting healthy food choices? How about ads for broccoli, snow peas, carrots? Change the whole dynamic, wouldn’t it? Not to mention the health of generations of people. But can’t happen because there’s not a lot of money in it, not like fast food or prepared food profits. Kids generally don’t need to be encouraged to like sweets or meat, it comes naturally, but they do often need to be taught to like veggies.
It’s like exercising. It’s something we all know is good for us, but because it implies that we’re doing it for a reason other than the exercise itself, we have a hard time getting ourselves to do it. Like a (fat) friend of mine who will take a ride to avoid a 200 meter, 3 or 4 minute walk. Why should I walk when I can ride?, he says. I turned it around and asked, Why not take the opportunity offered for a tiny little bit of exercise, since you mostly sit around on your ass all day? Maybe it’s the same with food. Maybe knowing it’s good for you can morph in your mind into liking it.
When I see someone remove the lettuce and tomato from their meat sandwich, I think, what’s the big deal about eating a little vegetable matter to offer some balance to your diet and help wash down your greasy meat?
When I see an old fart, especially a fat old fart, chowing down on a big plate of eggs and bacon (80% fat) or sausage (50% fat) with nary a vegetable in sight, or leave what veggies were served on his plate, I think, Can it really be worth it?
You don’t have to be fanatic or absolutist about it, just conscious. If I see organic food in the market that’s reasonably priced I’ll buy it even if it costs more because that’s one less time I’m eating poison. There’s no percentage in eating poison, nothing good can come of it. Moreover, that one time less might be the one time less that keeps me from getting cancer.
Let me finish with a story about Ram Dass, famed hippie/Hindu guru who started in the sixties. His first and most famous book is Be Here Now, which basically said whatever you’re doing do it right. I saw him speak around 2001 not long after he had a stroke which paralyzed half his body and put him in a wheelchair. His words were still golden, but because of the stroke it often took him a long time to find them; sometimes there was a minute between thoughts he could get out of his damaged brain. He told of the fast life and indulgent food choices that led to his stroke. He thought because he was an important spiritual person who millions looked up to, he didn’t have to follow the rules that applied to ordinary people.
Well, you’re no guru so you don’t even have a lame excuse for tempting the gods. When you are young, strong and resilient you can abuse your body to no end and still come back strong, but the harms in our diets as well as all the other toxins in the water we drink and air we breathe are such that they often don’t show up for decades. Don’t play the avoidance game and try to justify your poor diet by saying you live for today and don’t care about tomorrow, because you’re going to be just as interested in living and enjoying life when you’re 50, 60 or 70 as when you’re 20, 30 or 40. And it’s more than enjoying life now and dying early, it’s finding yourself in a wheelchair at the end of your life depending on other people to wipe your ass and change your diaper.. so no more excuses, Eat your damn veggies!

1 comment:

Kevin Brinkofski said...

Hey this is Kevin from sunflower. I am back in Portland. my email is please say hi!