The Trouble With Food Dogma

More and more, it seems like the food controversies I read and write about come down to dogma. What do I mean by that? When it comes to food, people—or at least the people who are vocal in the media—seem to like to get attached to an ideology. They become so convinced of its righteousness that any information that opposes it has to be wrong, in their minds. I’m certainly no exception to this phenomenon. I’ve pled guilty before to confirmation bias (tending to consume media and information that confirms what I already believe) and I stand by that. I think it’s easy for people to see things as black and white; people are uncomfortable with gray areas, especially when it comes to issues as critical as public health and environmental conservation.

It has often been the case throughout history that radical thinkers lead the way to broad-scale paradigm shifts, people who stand by their beliefs no matter what. One problem with dogmatic thinking, particularly when it comes to food, health, sustainability, and inequality, is that science doesn’t care about dogma. Science is skeptical. Science is disagreement. It’s about looking at all of the evidence available and coming to a consensus, but not necessarily a permanent one. It’s kind of a silly example, but there was a time when the brightest minds in the world believed that the earth was flat—that was their conclusion based on the best evidence available at the time. Fortunately, enough evidence accumulated that contradicted the flat-earth theory that the scientific consensus changed. Getting attached to an ideology has the potential to inhibit scientific progress because it closes your mind to new evidence that might contradict your ideology. That being said, it is never the case that one study or a handful of studies should be able to overturn a theory based on evidence from hundreds of studies. Unfortunately, the media often flips that assertion right on its head, especially when it comes to nutrition science (for more on science in the media, definitely watch this video from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight).

I thought I would talk about a few of the clashing ideologies I often confront in my day-to-day business, and why it’s bad that we get so polarized about our food.

One that’s obviously really personal to me is veganism versus the typical omnivorous American diet. I’ve explained this many times before on my blog, but it is clear to me from the evidence I’ve encountered and the experts I trust that the most health-promoting diet is one that maximizes minimally processed plant foods and minimizes highly processed foods and animal products. I also believe that reducing consumption of animal products will be better for the environment. Transitioning to a 100% plant-based diet was the best way for me to live according to my values, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for everyone. And even if I did think that 100% plant-based was the only way to go, I don’t think spreading that message would be as effective as just encouraging any change in the right direction. Public health and environmental authorities should certainly give people information about what’s best based on all of the evidence, but an all-or-nothing mindset can be very alienating for a lot of people and not necessarily accurate. If you saw my post interviewing my friend the aspiring dairy veterinarian, she opened my mind to the idea that cows offset a lot of our own detrimental food waste by consuming parts of foods that we cannot digest and turning them into digestible food. Of course, far more animals are produced than can just live off our waste, among many other concerns I have about the scale of global animal agriculture. But there certainly is a valid argument for maintaining some degree of animal agriculture, even from a nutritional standpoint. It is disheartening to me that people think they can’t make a positive change in their eating habits just because they don’t want to be totally vegan. Yeah, I know, you could never give up x (cheeseburgers, pizza, steak, you name it), but I’m not asking you to. Try eating it less often than you do now. Try eating one more serving of vegetables per day. Even that much of a change will make a significantly positive impact on your long-term health. Veganism often equates to dogma, but the benefits of plant strong diet are based on science.

Similarly, there is a certain segment of the public that gets very dogmatic about food processing, claiming that all additives and methods of processing are harmful to health. I would never say that all forms of food processing are inherently bad, only that it happens to be the case that a lot of highly processed foods encourage overeating, are low in critical nutrients, and tend to displace more nutritious foods in one’s diet. There are certain foods whose nutrients are more bioavailable when processed, like cooking tomatoes or fermenting grains. Without modern processing and preservation methods we could not have nearly as much variety and certainty in our food supply as we do. And like I wrote about in this post, fortification certainly has its merits. I can comfortably say, though, that we’ve gone a bit overboard with certain forms of processing, like, say, adding sugar to every flipping packaged food on the shelf. People get pretty dogmatic about those additives too, all those scary sound chemicals on the ingredient lists of some packaged foods. My feeling about that is that it’s not doing anyone too much good to demonize, say, aspartame for all of our problems, because the reality is way more complex than that. Usually you have to reach much higher levels of consumption than what’s typically present in foods to show any harm in experimental settings. But I’d like to emphasize that what is evident is that a heavily whole food diet, which is universally associated with good health, mostly avoids all of the additives that are associated with risk.

Another really polarizing controversy is conventional versus organic farming. There are some organic advocates who won’t settle for anything less than a worldwide conversion to organic farming. There are also plenty of advocates that stress that chemical and genetically engineered farming is the only way to yield enough to be able to feed the world. The way I see it, again, is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing to change for the better, and that in fact, our food system would probably work best with a combination of conventional and organic farming methods. We all have to be willing to sacrifice our ideology and be able to be critical of both methods. For that matter, the farms that fall under each broad category of “conventional” and “organic” are not homogenous. Although in general I think we would be better off if a lot more of our food was farmed organically, I’m sure there are farms that would not qualify as organic that are using much more sustainable and safe practices than some technically organic farms. And if we should be transitioning more farming to organic practices, the all-or-nothing regulatory system for organic farming is not helping matters. It takes a lot of time and resources for a conventional farm to transition to completely organic standards to be certified by the USDA, and there is no benefit or price premium for farms that are in that in between stage, so the system can act as a disincentive to make that transition.

The larger issue here may not be that people hold these dogmas and biases, but that their ideologies prevent them from engaging in dialogue with people who disagree with them. It is very often the case that the truth about what’s best for health, animal welfare, or the planet lies somewhere in between the extremes of belief that are visible in the media. It’s especially apparent to me that public health officials, sustainability advocates, farmers, and policymakers all need to communicate a lot better and be a lot more open-minded. We will have a hard time improving our food system in a sustainable way without collaboration between all stakeholders. Let’s get comfortable with disagreement, with gray areas, and with the impossibility of a magic bullet, quick fix solution to any of these incredibly complex food issues.

 

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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.

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.

Toward a Greener Diet

It’s getting to be that time of year again — Food Day is right around the corner! As I wrote last year, Food Day (officially October 24th) is a celebration of and opportunity to advocate for sustainable, health-promoting, and fair food policies. And for the second time, I’m spearheading the festivities on my university’s campus next week. This year the theme of the national Food Day campaign is “Toward a Greener Diet.” I wanted to take this blog post to share what a greener diet means to me, because I truly think this needs to be the foundation of the rebuilding of the food system.

A greener diet is a diet that is more plant-based and less animal-based.

A greener diet is healthier.

Because most of our livestock are routinely fed antibiotics that are promoting the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

Because the unsanitary living conditions of the animals and the fault-ridden food inspection process enable such pathogens to travel from the farm to our plates.

Because the people who develop the least chronic disease and live the longest, healthiest lives are the ones who eat the most minimally processed, plant-based foods.

A greener diet is kinder.

Because whether or not you believe eating animal products is inherently morally wrong (I actually don’t, for the record), there is no excuse for the undeniably cruel way most livestock are treated by the factory farm system.

A greener diet is more sustainable.

Because animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Because one gram of protein from beef takes 18 gallons of water to produce while one gram of protein from beans takes 3 gallons of water to produce.

Because we could feed millions more people at lower cost if the land used to grow food for livestock were used to grow food for humans.

Because animal agriculture produces more toxic waste than we have room to dispose of safely.

Because if the world continues to consume animal products at the current and projected rates, we will soon run out of land and resources on which to raise the animals.

Because even pastured-raised animal products are unsustainable, even if they are more natural.

Because avoiding animal products is by far the single most effective action you can take to mitigate climate change.

I’ve transitioned over time to a completely plant-based diet for all of these reasons. I started to eat fewer and fewer animal products when I learned how much better a plant-based diet is for one’s health. I stopped eating meat entirely when I could no longer escape the truth about the way livestock are treated. I completely stopped eating fish, eggs, and dairy as well when I could no longer justify the unmeasurable destruction animal agriculture causes to the climate, ecosystems, and natural resources.

I’m certainly not demanding that you all become vegan tomorrow, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you take this upcoming Food Day as an opportunity to open yourself up to the idea of making some “greener” changes in the way you eat. It’s all about the simple goal of aligning our actions with our values — simple, but clearly not easy.

A Vegan Meal for the Books

You probably already know that I’m a proponent of reducing the amount of animal products in our diets, for a variety of reasons, including eating more plant based foods, reducing chronic disease, wasting less energy and natural resources, reducing greenhouse gases, reducing animal cruelty, increasing food safety, and increasing worker justice. I’ve gotten used to the idea of a tasty, filling meal that doesn’t include meat, but I know that there are plenty of people that can’t imagine a satisfying meal without meat or dairy. Well last night I went to a vegan restaurant that would wow even a hard-core carnivore. Just take a gander:

Portabello carpaccio

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Rutabaga fondue (I know it sounds weird but I could NOT get enough)

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savory roasted carrots with various delicious accoutrements

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hearts of palm and a vindaloo filled buckwheat crepe

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grilled tofu that was incredibly fluffy with a delicious sauce and pistachio puree thingy

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Maitake mushrooms

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Grilled Romanesco (a funkier looking cauliflower type vegetable)

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grilled seitan which looked and tasted remarkably like chicken

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And that wasn’t even everything! We got a few more delicious plates, including dessert. I didn’t get a picture of the dessert because my family and I attacked it too quickly. The rest of the food was mouth-watering, but dessert is typically the highlight for me. And as someone who has said that she could never completely give up dairy solely because of dessert, I was wowed. The “ice cream” was indistinguishable from real ice cream. The layered chocolate peanut butter thing was everything I could have wanted.

I fail to see how anyone could miss meat or dairy or eggs after a meal like that.

Don’t waste viable food energy!

I think this Meatless Monday was quite successful. I have a good friend visiting from overseas, and he helped me cook, along with my mom. We had some people over last weekend and we had a ton of leftover tzatziki sauce, so I found a recipe in one of my mom’s cookbooks for fried eggplant with tzatziki sauce. We also had a lot of mint from this farm share I luckily got in on a few weeks ago, so we roasted potatoes with garlic and mint.

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The potatoes turned out especially well. The eggplant wasn’t as well received as the potatoes, but I really liked it. Regardless, no one missed meat, as usual.

I’m going to try to make this quick because I have to get up early for work but I really want to post this on Monday. The reason of the week for eating less meat is that it is inherently energetically inefficient. All energy that we can consume is originally captured from the sun by photosynthesizing plants. When we eat plant material, we get a proportion of the energy of which it consists. And then when animals (including us) eat plants, a lot of the energy goes to parts of the animal we can’t consume or gets released as heat. So we lose a lot of the original energy provided by the sun when we rely on animals for food. It makes very little sense for us to get a high proportion of our energy intake from animals. We can provide the necessary caloric intake for all the people of the world much more easily and efficiently on a plant based diet than on an animal based one. Such a high proportion of the grain produced in the US is fed to cattle, the meat of which feeds a much smaller number of people than the grain itself would. I hope all of that makes sense. It seems to me, what with the way the world’s population is projected to grow, that leaning towards a plant based diet is the only way to conceivably continue to feed the world.

 

The Fault In Our Food

This is my belated Meatless Monday post. Meatless Monday this week was kind of a flop. It turned out to be too hectic around here and too few people home to cook, so we picked up a couple vegan black bean burgers from our favorite Italian market. They’re the best veggie burgers ever. I put some tomato paste on top and ate it with a seaweed salad, which is random but I love seaweed salad. Doesn’t it look like a real burger? I wish I could make them myself. One day.

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As you may be able to gather from the title, I recently saw the movie The Fault In Our Stars. I read the book about a year ago, it broke my heart, and I loved it. I really thought the movie did it justice. In fact, I’ve never cried so much at a movie in my entire life. When I was watching it, I couldn’t bare to see the characters hurt so much.

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Now, it occurred to me that it’s strange that fictional suffering can rip us apart emotionally while the very real suffering that goes into the food on our plates goes largely unknown, ignored or, increasingly, intentionally forgotten. Why is it that we can’t turn away from Augustus and Hazel’s tragic love story, but nearly every time we eat meat or dairy or eggs, we are turning away from hundreds of millions of suffering animals?

It’s not unnatural or, in my opinion, inherently immoral, for humans to kill animals for food. But factory farming is unquestionably unnatural, immoral, and by most standards, incredibly cruel. I will not allow you to ignore the truth any longer. For your disgust and dismay, here is an abbreviated list of faults in industrial animal agriculture:

  • Cattle are fed a corn diet during the last chunk of their lives, when they have evolved to eat grass. They are fed corn because it’s a lot cheaper and a lot easier to swell a cow to the gigantic sizes that our Western appetites demand on corn than on grass. Just like we now know the wrong diet can make humans sick, the wrong diet definitely makes cows sick. The only way to keep cattle alive and growing on this diet is to pump them with hormones and antibiotics, which creates a whole new set of problems for them and for us. Not only that, but they are also fed parts of other animals, even their own species, which is the practice that led to mad cow disease.
  • Pigs and chickens are crowded into barns by the ten thousand and often into cages where they can barely move. Chickens in cages stacked on top of each other urinate and defecate into the cages below them. Regardless of the situation they all sit in their own waste, which is suffocating and unsanitary. Again, only way to keep them alive for slaughter is to feed ’em those trusty (not-so-much) antibiotics. Chickens get so crowded that they get cannibalistic, so the farmers cut off their beaks. And without being able to move and exercise, animals’ bone density worsens and they grow fat and sick just like humans who don’t move.
  • Hogs, poultry, and cattle have been bred over several years now to grow as economically efficiently as possible, which means really big in the shortest possible amount of time. Farmers have bred their livestock to grow obese as adolescents by default. I think it’s hardest on the turkeys. They can’t even fly (yes, turkeys used to be able to fly) or have sex. Can you imagine?
  • The young are taken from their mothers very prematurely, which is hugely distressing to both mother and calf/chick/lamb/piglet.
  • The process of slaughter attempts to be humane, I’ll admit. The procedure is to stun the animals before they’re killed, so that they don’t feel anything. But sometimes the stunning doesn’t work on the first try. Horrifyingly, because of the pressure to do in as many animals as possible in the shortest amount of time, workers often don’t ensure that the animal is unconscious before hanging it upside down, skinning and slicing it. A shocking percentage of animals are slaughtered while conscious, scared, struggling, and obviously in pain. Whatever regulations are in place for this process aren’t enforced, and it’s completely unacceptable.
  • This video also sums it up pretty nicely.

Sometimes we can’t prevent the unfair, unnecessary, painful, and premature death of a young person from cancer. It’s awful, and I’m not trying to equate Hazel or Augustus or any truly suffering human to a food animal. But there is so much unnecessary suffering of literally billions of animals that could be prevented, that we are ignoring every time we pick up a burger or a chicken finger or spear a sunny side-up egg. I am nowhere near running out of reasons to give you to eat less meat, but I think this is the one that would get the most people if they made themselves confront the truth. I realize that another solution would be to reform agriculture, which is definitely a must, but understand that it is not possible to produce as much meat as cheaply under sustainable, humane conditions, which is why agribusiness resists reform. Basically, either way, by individual decision or widespread reform, you’d be eating less meat. But no one needs as much meat and dairy as we’ve got, and no one really wants any meat produced cruelly, right?

So give Meatless Monday a chance, for Pete’s sake!

Did you know that in the book Hazel is a vegetarian? 😉