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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Go veg for pleasure and health

  Many 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., 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 ( 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.
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 ( is a little weak.
Are vegetarian diets healthful?

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.
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.

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 ( 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 ( on their shares pages have links to additional resources.'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 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, 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.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:03 AM

Sunday, February 11, 2007

  Another not-quite-right dietary guideline for Americans. Anyone who has read Food Politics by Marion Nestle knows that what the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells Americans to eat is frought with politics, influence, lobbying, and - somewhere - a bit of actual health-based information. This is true with the latest (2005) iconic guildeine from the USDA,, a new, pro-dairy industry version of the 1992 food pyramid, which has just reached a product packaging saturation level that I can no longer avoid seeing it.

The weirdest thing about it, to me, is that it's no longer a structural pyramid, with one food serving as the healthy 'foundation' of a diet, and the others holding lesser functions in smaller proportions. This is a feel-good industry tool, with all the foods - including extra bonus calories that are purely discretionary, exactly what an increasingly obese population doesn't need - are beside each other and equal. There is no heirarchy between a heart healthy apple and a highly sweetened milkshake.


Food guidelines have changed gradually over the years. (See The Origin of U.S. Dietary Guidelines ( for a history of the changes that have appeared over the years through the 1992 pyramid.) This makes sense: our understanding of nutrition has grown, we lead more sedentary lifestyles than our foreparents, and processed foods have come to dominate retail food purchases. The "four food groups" that I grew up with - milk, meat, fruits/veggies, and grains - suggested a sort of equality between agricultural product categories that was at odds with basic health information, and though it was easy to remember, it wasn't actually good for you. The 1992 food pyramid shown here at Wikipedia ( seemed to be approaching something more sensible: the pyramid showed that the foundation of a healthy diet was based on fruits, veggies, and grains, with smaller amounts of other foods topping it off - it looked something like what medical studies had been saying for years. Something like, but not quite: as the Wikipedia article notes, the diet permitted adults at risk of heart disease (most omnivorous adult Americans) to consume whole-fat, high cholesterol meat and dairy products, and made no qualitative distinctions that could have helped people make wiser choices within those groups. But it still gave me some hope that things were moving in the right direction.

I feel naieve about that now. The panel's odd recommendations in the cholesterol area were soon explained. Not Milk: The USDA, Monsanto, and the U.S. Dairy Industry by Ché Green (originally posted inLiP Magazine, posted to Alternet July 9, 2002) revealed:
In December 1999, the PCRM [Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine] filed suit against the USDA, claiming the department unfairly promotes the special interests of the meat and dairy industries through its official dietary guidelines and the Food Pyramid. Six of the eleven members assigned to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee were demonstrated to have financial ties to meat, dairy, and egg interests. Prior to the suit, which the PCRM won in December 2000, the USDA had refused to disclose such conflicts of interest to the general public.
PBS also had some interesting comments about the quantity-over-quality, approach. Frontline: Diet Wars (, 4/8/04) took a retrospective look, asking if the food pyramid was doing more harm than good. They interviewed a variety of people who talked about how it made no qualitative distinctions between good or bad fats, or good or bad carbs. I like this comment from Dan Glickman, the Secretary of Agriculture:
Interviewer: Still, the USDA, in giving advice, had to deal with, for example, saturated fats, which have consequences for health, but also for people who produce animal protein.

Glickman: Yeah. USDA basically was in an unusual role of not wanting to say that there were any good foods or any bad foods; that all foods were okay, [presumably] eaten in some degree of moderation or discretion. So USDA was always very careful at not defining evil as part of any particular food category.

Part of that was the multiplicity of missions in the Department of Agriculture, because politically, the heart of the Department of Agriculture was food producers, was making sure that there were enough farmers alive and they could continue to produce food. So farmers produce all sorts of things, from fats to carbohydrates to proteins and everything in between. USDA has always had this little bit of conflicting mission between the producers of food and the consumers of food, and how to bridge that gap between the two of them hasn't been all that easy.
There is also this interesting article, A Fatally Flawed Food Guide, by Luise Light, Ed.D (, 11/2004) who notes that the draft pyramid she worked on was heavily modified to please the ag industry:
For instance, the Ag Secretary’s office altered wording to emphasize processed foods over fresh and whole foods, to downplay lean meats and low-fat dairy choices because the meat and milk lobbies believed it’d hurt sales of full-fat products; it also hugely increased the servings of wheat and other grains to make the wheat growers happy. . .

Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry 2-3 servings (changed to 5-7 servings a couple of years later because an anti-cancer campaign by another government agency, the National Cancer Institute, forced the USDA to adopt the higher standard). Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries. Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed baked goods made with white flour — including crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods laden with sugars and fats — at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they be eaten sparingly. To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide, they were now made part of the Pyramid’s base.
If you read the rest of her article, you see that there is abundant cause for concern about the new pyramid for all the same reasons - including the close ties to the ag industries held by 7 of the 13 advisors on the panel...

Despite extensive testimony on the dangers of the unhealthy biases, USDA's joint mission of promoting industry products with telling people what to eat creates a conflict of interest which the USDA can't seem to overcome.


I went to and put in some information about myself to get a dietary profile. My weight is up significantly (due to some boring circumstances, which I'll describe some other time) and I'm exercising more than an hour a day, so I put in the highest weight I've had over the past six months, and plugged in my basic information to get advice. The site accurately observed that the weight I plugged in is a bit high, which is quite true. To maintain my weight (my first option!!), I am advised to have about 2800 calories each day (!), broken down as follows:

10 ounces of grains
3.5 cups of veggies
2.5 cups of fruits
3 cups of milk
7 ounces of meat and beans

If I'd like to decrease my weight, I'm advised to have 2400 calories, broken down as follows:

8 ounces of grains
3 cups of veggies
2 cups of fruit
3 cups of milk
6.5 ounces of meat and beans

My family happens to have problems with high cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other conditions which are all controlled by diet. Yet, under the weight loss plans, I'm supposed to have milk and veggies in equal proportions, and cut back on (whole) grains. Wow.

To help me increase my milk consumption, there is a special page on the site Tips for making wise choices, which includes advice on how I should include milk as a beverage with meals, and how I should top casseroles with shredded low-fat cheese.

Fat is discussed, cholesterol is not.

Wow again.

I'm not the only one who is stunned. This is a comment from the Harvard School of Public Health's Food Pyramids: What Should You Really Eat?", which I'll discuss in more detail below:
The recommendation to drink three glasses of low-fat milk or eat three servings of other dairy products per day to prevent osteoporosis is another step in the wrong direction. Of all the recommendations, this one represents the most radical change from current dietary patterns. Three glasses of low-fat milk add more than 300 calories a day. This is a real issue for the millions of Americans who are trying to control their weight. What's more, millions of Americans are lactose intolerant, and even small amounts of milk or dairy products give them stomachaches, gas, or other problems. This recommendation ignores the lack of evidence for a link between consumption of dairy products and prevention of osteoporosis. It also ignores the possible increases in risk of ovarian cancer and prostate cancer associated with dairy products.


The USDA is a government agency that serves several purposes: their mission ( includes both keeping America's farmers in business, and providing nutrition information. And those farmers, many of whom are massive agribusiness conglomerates, happen to have lobbyists. You'd think those two particular missions would be separated out, so that people in medicine would promote their advice through a health organization, rather than through the Department of Agriculture. But no.

The Food Pyramid is More About Politics than Personal Health, by Dr. T. Colin Campbell (, 9/2005) discusses the impact of politics on the guidelines:
When funding from M&M Mars candy company, a consortium of soft drink companies, a behemoth dairy industry conglomerate (the Dannon Institute), and a collection of pharmaceutical companies helps to make this report user-friendly (for them, that is) and when industry-conflicted academics organize and populate the panels, can we expect anything better? ... When a contemporary UN panel, for example, was examining much of the same evidence and was opting for a lower cap of 10% added sugar, the sugar industry threatened them to persuade Congress to withhold funding of the UN study unless it adopted the US cap of 25%.
Funny how that happens.

Food Pyramid Gets New Look, by Sally Squires (, 4/20/05) has two commentators remarking on the USDA's inability to tell us NOT to eat things. Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, is quoted as saying:
It's designed to not call any attention to any negative food group. I hate to say it, but what else would we expect from the USDA?
Margo G. Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, remarks:
They're based on the latest science and they provide very strong advice, but it seems like the USDA dodged the difficult political advice once again and didn't clearly communicate what to eat less of. Given that obesity is the biggest health problem facing the country, that is what is most needed to be communicated.
This seems obvious, doesn't it?


Arlene, you've made me lose faith in the nutrition-by-lobbyist structure of the USDA food pyramid. But you haven't told me what I should eat. Well? If you're putting this kind of pressure on me, I hope you know me! You shouldn't go taking advice from just any stranger on the web. You should take advice from the strangers at Harvard. :-) the Harvard School of Public Health's Food Pyramids: What Should You Really Eat?" provides a pyramid which is quite sensible, and which IS willing to say that there are good and bad foods.

The Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid emphasizes whole grain foods, plant oils (filled with good, heart-healthy fats), veggies, nuts/legumes, and dairy OR calcium supplements. It tells you that all the other things you may be eating you should be eating less of, including red meat, and all those white-flour items that should never have even been included as grains in that other food pyramid. And it provides a link to Oldways, a think tank that offers some additional, healthier food pyramid models which also leave the USDA version in the dust.

You KNOW what you should be eating: whole, minimally processed, natural foods whose ingredients come from your own region and which you can pronounce, most of which are plant-based. Read the Harvard article, reaffirm this for yourself, tape it to your refrigerator, and enjoy eating well - and eating right.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)5:51 PM

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 (, 1/28/07) is absolutely brilliant. It begins so simply:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

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.
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.

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.

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.
Commerce trumps science, public health, and the public interest every time.

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.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)5:47 PM

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