Go veg for pleasure and healthMany people I know are dietary fatalists: they eat what they want and rationalize their poor choices by saying that "everyone" gets heart disease, "everyone" is overweight, and "everything" causes cancer. But it's just not true. People who are vegetarian, for example, have much lower rates of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes than people who aren't. Veggies turn up in study after study as preventing certain types of cancer.
I'm going to provide a bit of mainstream pro-vegetarian propaganda here, in support of those of you who being asked why you are choosing the delicious pad Thai "J" instead of pad Thai with meat, or are getting the super vegetarian burrito (rice, beans, sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, salsa, cheese) or vegan burrito (rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, lettuce, chili peppers, onions) rather than one filled with red meat and rice. You could be choosing these foods for pleasure - the super veg burrito is obviously much more interesting and tasty than the meat + rice version - but I write about food pleasure all the time, so this entry will emphasize health.
Wait! You can't possibly get all of your nutrients from plants, can you? I want to be healthy!
Vegetarians can and do get their nutrients from plants (or plants and products animals make, but which are not made OUT OF animals), and don't get many diseases at the high rates of omnivores.
eatright.org, the website of the American Dietetic Association, "the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals," routinely updates their research publications about vegetarianism. Vegetarian Diets (vol 109, Issue 7) has an abstract which provides an overview to the 16 page research paper attached thereto. Excerpts from the abstract:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes....The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates.
The Healthy Eating Pyramid, built by the faculty in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health (hsph.harvard.edu) is a replacement for the replacement to the ag-industry influenced MyPyramid, which Harvard describes as "often  based on out-of-date science and influenced by people with business interests in their messages." There are handouts! There are graphics! And there are key quick tips in the sidebar, including:
3. Go with plants. Eating a plant-based diet is healthiest.and
4. Cut way back on American staples. Red meat, refined grains, potatoes, sugary drinks, and salty snacks are part of American culture, but they’re also really unhealthy. Go for a plant-based diet rich in non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. And if you eat meat, fish and poultry are the best choices.Yes, someone is willing to come out and tell you that red meat is bad for you, and you can make more sensible choices. But you knew this.
In comparison, The American Heart Association's page on Vegetarian Diets (americanheart.org) is a little weak.
Are vegetarian diets healthful?It's odd to say that vegetarians "seem" to have lower risks of these diseases when their are studies available which prove that they do.
Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They’re also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer.
What about protein?
Again, The American Heart Association's page on Vegetarian Diets dismisses this popular myth:
Protein: You don't need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs.Also valuable: the note that "complementary proteins" - the idea that you have to combine certain foods together to get protein, are bunk. (This protein-combining myth still persists in some documentation on the NIH's website, to my surprise.)
This wouldn't work for me. I'm athletic.
The research paper abstracted at the American Dietetic Association's page above, found here as a PDF, notes that vegetarian diets are suitable for competitive athletes, and busts other myths.
What about iron? Aren't all vegetarians anemic?
The National Heart, Lung, & Blood Institute's Iron-deficiency Anemia page (nglbi.nih.gov) notes that:
Vegetarian diets can provide enough iron if the right foods are eaten. For example, good nonmeat sources of iron include spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, certain types of beans, dried fruits, and iron-fortified breads and cereals.(Of course, the only people I've ever known who were anemic ate meat.)
A few other resources:
US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health resource page on vegetarianism (nlm.nih.gov) on their shares pages have links to additional resources.
Mypyramid.gov's vegetarian tipsheet emphasizes easy adjustments you can make, especially if you're new to being veg and aren't yet eating a wide enough range of foods to feel confident that you can meet your nutritional needs. I don't recommend Mypyramid.gov generally, for the reasons Harvard listed above, - they take industry input over science input - which I've written about extensively in the past.
If you are the sort of person who would rather be scared into doing good, just go to cancer.gov, do a search for the term "meat," and read the first many pages of results.
A note to fans who are influenced by food writers who lack a background in science: I know some of you are in the thrall of culture writers who "defend" foods and say you should eat things that are really bad for you - like red meat - because they make you a normal American and allow you to relish our culture. Writers like that may also defend smoking, or driving, or other lifestyle choices, but that doesn't mean they have your best interests at heart. Don't say "because the food writer told me so" as a reason you won't live to see your grandchildren graduate from high school.
Speaking of food writing: you know I'm a foodie, and I don't make my food choices based on health alone. I live in San Francisco, where it's easy to eat like a queen (ahem) vegetarian-style just about anywhere. If you are looking for ideas, you can always visit my food page and its included index of my recipes.
posted by Arlene (Beth)10:03 AM
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Possibly the best piece of food writing I've seen in a year or more.I've seen some great excerpts from the Omnivore's Dilemma, and now I very may well have to read it, since the author wrote a brilliant essay about food in the New York Times. Unhappy Meals - Michael Pollan - New York Times (nytimes.com, 1/28/07) is absolutely brilliant. It begins so simply:Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.And it then becomes an expose on why Americans are so completely misguided about food. The article is clever, substantive, and (despite the amount of food-related reading I already do), made me think about things in new ways.
That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.
You have probably long syspected that the processed food industry and its colleagues in agribusiness want you to eat poorly, because bad food is cheap and has fabulously high markups. But it isn't just a passive wish - the food industry intervenes to be sure you don't know any better.
Here's a sample that might send you over to the NYTimes website:Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem . . . The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.Commerce trumps science, public health, and the public interest every time.
Naïvely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat.
Perhaps more interesting is Pollan's discussion of how commercial science's pressures to identify single, chemical causes for health problems has hampered progress in health. It's easiest to study individual chemicals and nutrients in isolation, and so that is what they do. Scientists see meat-byproduct eaters getting sick; they isolate some component of meat (such as saturated fat) that they suspect is to blame; they encourage meat-byproduct eaters switch to a lower-saturated by-product, and then are stumped when they keep getting sick. The relationships between the thousands of compounds in foods are lost.
I especially like his timely discussion of the omega 3s and 6s, and how they are being looked at in isolation.
It's been pretty clear that vitamin c in a pill isn't as good for you as an orange, and every year you read about the new discovery of a "new" component of something like bioflavinoids that have always been in an orange, and which might be the next big miracle cure packaged into pill form - but likely still not as good for you as an orange, which is full of chemical combinations unavailable in pill form (at least, until they start just dehydrating oranges and putting them into pills).
This is a great article by a clear-thinking omnivore, with a sensible omnivore's perception on diet. Go read it. (Buy it, or ask me to mail you my hard copy if you know me.) It's excellent.
posted by Arlene (Beth)5:47 PM