A Strip of Bacon is Not a Cigarette and Other Disclaimers from a Plant-Strong Advocate

I know very few people who have not heard yet about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new report that condemns processed meat (bacon, sausage, cold cuts, etc.) as a carcinogen and unprocessed red meat as a probable carcinogen. The media has been particularly hyping up the part about processed meat being assigned to the same “class” of carcinogens as cigarettes. Most of the public just reading the headlines has misinterpreted this to mean that processed meat consumption increases one’s risk of getting colon cancer as much as smoking cigarettes raises the risk of getting lung cancer. However, the WHO merely meant to convey that the strength of evidence supporting the association between processed meat and colon cancer is comparable to that supporting the association between cigarettes and cancer. The actual increase in cancer risk the WHO has determined is associated with consumption of processed meat is quite small, so small that you’d have to be consuming quite a bit and already have other risk factors for colon cancer for this to cause any meaningful clinical outcomes (unfortunately, though, this scenario is not so uncommon in this country). And even these mild estimates are questioned by health experts I respect.

Nonetheless, the WHO’s advice to the public to limit consumption of red and processed meat is no different than advice public health agencies have been offering for decades; red and processed meat have long been tied to all sorts of negative health outcomes. Personally I feel that for the narrow lens of human health, increasing consumption of whole plant foods should be prioritized over reducing consumption of animal products, because it is my understanding that the health benefits of eating more plants outweigh the harms of eating more meat. And I supposed encouraging people to eat more plants would probably incidentally encourage them to eat less meat, which is certainly a good thing — regular readers will know that I am convinced that there are many reasons beyond preventing chronic disease to reduce our collective consumption of animal products, the most pressing ones in my mind being environmental sustainability and antibiotic resistance.

Speaking of which, I want to express a disclaimer that although I am now a vegan and have been advocating a plant-strong diet for society, I have no desire to make the animal agriculture industry out to be an evil, disease-spreading, resource-sucking machine. I do not believe that animal agriculture is inherently unsustainable, but I do believe it is largely unsustainable at current levels of world animal product consumption, especially at projected levels of future consumption, and that certain common practices of the industry are unsustainable even at lower levels of consumption.

I do not believe that livestock sick with a bacterial infection should be deprived of therapeutic antibiotics, but according to my understanding, routinely feeding all livestock antibiotics to prevent disease or promote growth has resulted in incredibly dangerous and costly proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria that are causing more and more hard-to-treat infections in humans.

I believe that some amount of livestock can be incorporated into sustainable and healthy food systems, but a lot needs to change, and we need to stop expecting a diet as heavy in animal products as we have if we aren’t willing to pay the long term costs to society and to the planet.

I want to express my support for the farmers that are doing the best they can to adopt sustainable and humane practices. And I want to invite (respectful) dialogue. I admit that most of my reading material is probably contributing to confirmation bias, whether or not it is factually correct. My picture of our current food system is quite bleak, so frankly I would love to be proven wrong.

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Turns out vegans can overeat too

To describe the past few weeks of my pilot trials of veganism, I bring forth this adage whose origin I do not know: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I should start by explaining that progressing to complete (minus honey) veganism was really not much of a change for me in the first place. People are asking me if it’s hard, but I already transitioned to eating mostly plant-based a while ago, so just kicking out the occasional dairy or egg product is much more of a matter of will power than of planning or learning. I certainly know how to eat this way at home and in the dining halls. Restaurants are another story now, because usually it was when I’d eat out that I’d permit myself to eat some animal products. Now, though, I have to ask waiters much more frequently about ingredients and substitutions unless there are vegan designations on the menu, which is happening more and more often. Family functions are also new territory. Thanksgiving will be…interesting. And desserts—I skip tasting sweets that I would have probably tasted before, because most baked goods have butter or eggs in them. It’s less disappointing than I thought it would be, actually, because it’s not about calories anymore; it’s about my values, and I take a lot of comfort in that. Besides, now I get to worry less about overeating.

Or do I?

Now, I’ve only been eating this way strictly for a few weeks now, but the couple pound creep-up I’ve been noticing on the scale over the last several months seems to be continuing, to my horror. (For those of you rolling your eyes at me, I know I’m still at a perfectly healthy weight, I just feel like I’m losing control when this happens.)

I think it may have something to do with the spectacular plant-based shmorgasbord that one of the dining halls on campus whipped up for the Food Day celebration last week, where I ate two helpings of everything and three helpings of vegan ice cream (which is no health food, mind you). It also might have something to do with alcohol. I feel like because I’m eating less desserts I can drink more or more often, but those calories add up fast. I also may just be subconsciously licensing myself to eat more food in general because it’s vegan.

My slightly insane food anxieties aside, the point is that simply removing animal products from your diet is not enough to lose weight or prevent weight gain. I still maintain that the higher proportion of your diet is whole plant foods, and the lower the proportion of your diet is animal based and highly refined foods, the easier it is to keep weight off. But alcohol, sugar, oil, and refined flour are all made from plants, and thus moderation is key in a vegan diet as in any other.

Ever since I initially lost a significant amount of weight in high school and had to learn how to keep it off, I’ve had to work hard on my diet and exercise. It’s gotten to be much more a part of my routine, and I love eating healthy foods for how they taste and how they make me feel. But my weakness for rich and sweet foods hasn’t gone away, and it’s something I actively have to resist all the time. I’m just not one of those people who can eat whatever they want without gaining weight. If I were, I’d probably be pursuing an acting career and never would have become interested in nutrition. But I digress. What I’m trying to convey is that even though eating fewer animal products is beneficial for a myriad of reasons, don’t be fooled into thinking that it means you can eat as much as you want if, like me, you feel the need to watch your weight. I could write a whole separate post (or several) about my body image and whether my diligence is justified considering I’m in perfectly good health, but that’s a different issue.

That got more personal that I expected. Oh well. Peace, love, plants.