What To Eat or Not to Eat

Lately I've gotten all caught up in a culture war. Liberal vs. conservative? Life vs. choice? Religion vs. science? No. The controversy I'm all abuzz with is much bigger than that. Each of us confronts it-- not once in our lives, but every morning, noon, and night. And whenever else we're peckish. The issue? Killer carbs vs. deadly protein.

I spent the bulk of my teenage years as a vegetarian.  Then I came to appreciate the beauty of grass-fed and free-range meat, not to mention fresh whole milk, ripe cheese, yellow cream. I tasted butter once at the Berkeley farmer's market that was so profoundly delicious, I cried. And buffalo steaks, and steak that tastes like BEEF and chicken that tastes like CHICKEN. Now I'm a big fan of meat, even though I am not blase about the death that is necessary for me to enjoy it. I killed my own chickens once, and it was humbling.

Since that's my point of view, I've happily read such fun fact-filled books as, Nourishing Traditions, Omnivore's Dilemma, and Real Food, that spell out all the ways that a wholesome diet of old-timey foods like fruits and veggies and whole grains, topped with coconut oil, butter, poultry, and red meat, is the surest way to robust, red-cheeked, farm-girl health. These books all promote meat and fat as essential for human health, culturally important, and as our anthropological heritage as a human animal with those nice sharp meat-tearing canines (not just for hickies anymore!)

They blame the decline in human health since the industrial revolution on those evil white twins, refined grains and sugar. Diabetes, cancer, arthritis, depression, infertility, poor spelling skills? Cut out the low-fat frozen yogurt and have a steak.

But I've been reading The China Study. This book is thorough, and is a beautiful mast-head for the fleet of anti-meat, anti-dairy scientists and philosophers. It's in tiny print, full of graphs, with hundreds of citations and percentages and footnotes. It has heft. If you are a confirmed vegan, if you feel you OUGHT to be a confirmed vegan, then this book is for you. You will stun all of your bloody-handed meat-eating acquaintances into an abashed silence with your terrifying statistical knowledge. Eat lots of meat and dairy? Cancer! Diabetes! Heart disease! MS! Lupus! Arthritis! Bone, kidney, eye and brain diseases! In short, 100% of people who have ever eaten meat or dairy, WILL DIE!!

That terrifying list guides the structure of The China Study. The authors, the Drs. Campbell, describe these "diseases of affluence" and show how they exists exclusively in civilized areas of the world, with diets high in animal protein. Oh, and refined carbohydrates. But, PROTEIN! Protein is the problem! They detail the endless body of research that has been done showing the way that casein (milk protein) turns cancer on, and causes type-1 diabetes in small children, and how it correlates with all of those scary diseases that kill our parents and grandparents. It's not made up, it's good, if slightly paranoid and ranty, science.

And I'm realizing something. Both sides of this low-carb vs. low-protein debate have some things in common. Por esemplo.
1. The status quo re: our food, is BAD. Whatever it is we (as Westerners) are eating, is killing us. Either the burger or the coke, though, that's the sticking point.
2. The truth has been repressed by the establishment. Big Government telling us to eat the wrong stuff, (they both curse the American Heart Association and the USDA) and Big Corporations (Big Corn or Big Beef, respectively) with too much to lose are keeping The Truth under wraps for their own nefarious purposes.
3. Proponents for the Truth are a repressed minority, voices crying in the wilderness for a return to sanity with our food choices.

But there are some major differences, beyond the obvious "meat is good" vs. "meat is evil."  I feel the real schizm between the two is metaphorical. What is the purpose of food and of eating? Is it to neatly sustain us for years and years and years? Is it to make us big and strong and fertile? In order to reproduce, you should have some pounds to spare, and eat plenty of protein in easily-accessible (i.e. animal product) forms, lots of semen and brain-building fats like DHA from grass-fed beef and fish, along with all of your leafy greens. You will make lots of milk when your body trusts you to feed it lots of high "quality" stuff. (And I'm not saying this is impossible with a vegetarian diet-- it just takes a lot more work to get those vitamin B12s, B6s, and Omega 3 and 6 fats, and DHA to build babies).  And here's where one definition of healthy (fertile!) clashes with the other (long-living!).Your successful pregnancy doesn't depend on your ability to live forever. The recipe for bets-hedged healthy baby-making is not the same as the recipe for life eternal. The reason seems simple to me: evolutionarily speaking, food has always been the means to an end: reproduction. Evolution doesn't particularly care what happens to us once we've passed on our genes, beyond a bit of grandmotherly nurturing to help make sure our grandkids survive. It's only now, thanks to the work of the Ornishes and the Campbells of the world, that we can understand how to use food differently to extend our useful lives far beyond our reproductive usefulness. Luckily for us, too! I'd like to be a spry creative 80 year old, meat be damned!

Once I realized that the purpose of health in these two world views was different, I was able to rest my mind a bit. To be a healthy reproducing human, it's best to hedge your bets with lots of nutrient-dense, traditional, get-it-while-you can animal protein and fat. Yes, you risk over-feeding yourself and in effect feeding cancer and heart disease. But once you're done with the risky work of human-making, you can get to work on the whole "living forever" program with a strict no-cancer, no-heart-disease, no-arthritis vegan diet (but still minus the sugar, that stuff is satan, no matter which side you're on).

And what is a good life? A vital life, enjoying cream-topped fish and simmered beef, or a virtuous and careful life, avoiding all that dangerous stuff but secure in the knowledge of your own health? The Drs Campbell's evidence is very convincing. No doubt that western diets, with too much protein, too much fat, and way too much refined carbohydrates are the cause of all those nasty diseases of affluence.

It's not likely that I'd change my mind about a limited amount of sanely-raised meat being healthy and delicious. But it's good to learn that food can be seen in many ways: as a cultural marker or a moral vice, as distinct fragments of nutrients or as an incorporated foodway. And it's a good reminder that often these big angry conflicts are more about dissonant metaphors than about Truth and Facts.


  1. I read about the China study recently--as I think I commented elsewhere. That reviewer said that the book recommends 5% of calories from animal products. This sounds like a pretty vegan life, but when you do the calculations, it's not so scary--for one week, it would be 4 eggs, 7 cups milk, 4 servings of cheese and one pound meat or fish. According to this post: http://www.wordofwisdomliving.com/home/the-china-study.html Oddly enough, that writer TOTALLY left out the BUTTER. What was he thinking!?! WHOOPS! And even with all the butter (and ice cream!) added in, I eat way more animal-based food per week.

    But I like your dichotomy--are you trying to reproduce (and have robust offspring) or live long? I WANT BOTH.

    My efforts are actually concentrated right now on getting rid of the sugar AND the excess of meat. But you know what happens to me when I cut meat? I eat more cheese, yogurt, and butter. Oh, and eggs. Must be the phase of life I'm in.

    Good post.

  2. thanks! I wonder if the reviewer was getting the 5% from the actual China Study itself, which even tho it titles the book, is not the main focus, and not from Dr. Campbell's recommendations. The author says, "it's not unreasonable to assume that the optimum percentage of animal-based products is zero... my advice is to try to eliminate all animal-based products from your diet, but not obsess over it. If a tasty vegetable soup has a chicken stock base, or if a hearty whole wheat bread includes a tiny amount of egg, don't worry about it... while i recommend that you not worry about small quantities of animal products in your food, I am not suggesting that you deliberately plan to incorporate small portions of meat into your daily diet. My recommendation is that you try to avoid all animal-based products." (244)

    I tend to believe (very unscientific!) that you can trust your body-- and if meat goes and eggs come in, you can relax and know that your appetite is trustworthy.

  3. At my age, 70, I can say that there's been sooooooooo many studies on all sorts of stuffs about foods and what to and what not to eat. After having a kooklapile of kids....folks are shocked that I'm 70. yep, overweight, love my breads. yep, still do a lot of walking. yep, I'm so happy to be living here in Nauvoo. Our culture focuses on FOODS....and I say, "moderation in all things" is wise. Just follow the word of wisdom and stay happy. aloha, mama Irene

  4. I appreciate that you thought your way through these issues, employing analytical cognitive processes, and not relying on platitudes from philosophical, religious, or commercial origins to make your decisions about food. Well done. Our society doesn't teach us enough to use analytical reasoning skills to make better choices, rather we rely on intuition-based knee-jerk reactions or generalizations based on myth. :)


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