June 15, 2010

Why Vegetarian does not Equal Healthy (written by a vegetarian).

I loved a recent post by Sarah Miller: “Is Vegetarianism a Hoax?” but…

… reading the article wasn’t half as fun as reading all the comments from irate readers who battled one another in the great vegetarian vs. omnivore tug-of-war, with the vegans jumping in for some “Me-too!” action. I kept looking out for the raw-food-only folks to jump in. No cannibals have weighed in so far, to balance out the whole spectrum, but I’ll keep checking.

Sarah’s thoughtful and articulate article alludes to the fact that after 15 years as a vegetarian she had serious health problems that were only corrected when she went back to eating meat. This is not the first time I’ve heard a story like that, and probably won’t be the last. I don’t know if this is true for Sarah, but I suspect that for most people the obvious solution of going back to meat-eating is just a band-aid over a much larger health wound if they don’t look deep enough. Yes, there are people who are allergic to wheat and dairy and soy, and who may find that in their absence, they need to resort to fish or meat – so please know that I’m not trying to convert you to any camp so much as share my experience as long-time vegetarian whose health would’ve been in the dumps if I’d kept eating what I ate when I started.

My mother (who’s not vegetarian, and still asks me after 33 years, “Are you still on than funny diet of yours?”) recently unearthed a letter I wrote her shortly after I became vegetarian. “We went to my favorite restaurant,” I wrote, “and I had my favorite things.” They consisted of side dishes because all the main dishes were all meat or fish. “I had a scoop of white rice, a scoop of mashed potatoes, a dish of French fries, two slices of pineapple and a big scoop of ice cream for dessert.”

I don’t remember if my father, who became a vegetarian a year before I decided to do so, also ate the same fare as I did. I do know that he died 9 years later from undiagnosed diabetes. If you examine my “ideal meal” above, it goes like this: simple carbs, simple carbs, simple carbs plus fat, simple carbs, and a tiny amount of protein buried under a sea of sugar, fat and carbs. About the only thing worse I could do is wash it down with a soft drink (more sugar and simple carbs).

So, I wish someone would’ve held up a giant sign for me back then that said “being vegetarian doesn’t mean you’re healthy.”

The thing is, being a carnivore didn’t mean I was healthy either. Even though I became vegetarian not to be healthy but because I didn’t want animals slaughtered on my behalf, the big paradox is that, compared to my above “ideal meal,” I would’ve been much healthier eating meat. But that’s only because by eating meat I was displacing the simple carbs that are endemic in popular food.

My carnivore mother offers living proof of the above: though she’s into eating the same stuff as my father, she has lasted a lot longer than he did. However, she’s diabetic, has high blood pressure and high cholesterol – just like everyone else in my family who eats the same.

So while sitting smug in my health throne, little did I suspect the throne was cardboard-thin. And while as a meat-eater I looked far healthier and more robust than a few years after becoming vegetarian (and then vegan, and then raw-foodie: please don’t sneeze on me during this stage or you’ll blow me down the street), I was just as much at risk as the next person.

And that’s because living in the First World (or eating First-World fare in the Second or Third World), I was addicted along with everyone else to the only two flavors we seem to know as a culture: salty and sweet. There were and are far more ways to flavor my food, but eating canned, bottled or packaged food (not to mention restaurant or [gasp!] fast food), my taste buds were indoctrinated on salt and sugar and I was getting far more of both than my body could cope with year-in, year-out.

These days I can grab the nearest can and read the sodium content and know that if a serving has more than 400 milligrams, and I’m eating a couple of those a day, I’m a candidate for high blood pressure. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But I don’t fool myself into thinking that 5, 10 or 20 years of that, day-in, day-out, doesn’t have an effect.

Or if I grab a box of cereal and look at the carb content and see it’s over 40 grams per serving, I know I’m going to be feeling sluggish afterward. Then I look at the ingredients and spot the following: corn syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup (aka HFCS), sugar or some variation of “evaporated cane juice” (George Orwell, eat your heart out: even you wouldn’t have come up with DoubleSpeak as good as that: just what is sugar? Juice extracted from the sugar cane, which is then evaporated till what’s left over crystallizes. Duh!) And when I see that, I know that I’m looking merely at the tip of the iceberg in our current obesity epidemic, which we may soon know as a diabetes epidemic. I read the labels for ketchup, bread, soft drinks, candy, chocolate… just about every single packaged food item in the supermarket, and if it’s not made with sugar (or HFCS or its other hidden names) or salt, it’s made with both. Add to that the fact that refined wheat (white wheat) and refined rice (white rice) act pretty much like sugar inside the body, and there’s a host of other innocent-looking foods that don’t do any good either: flour tortillas, rice noodles, pastas, you name it. This now means that cuisines that emphasize white flour and white rice (Mexican, Indian, Italian, and just about any other cuisine that there’s take-out for) add to my diabetic liability account while I’m deluded into thinking that I’ll never be diabetic because I don’t have a sweet tooth and I never step inside a pastry shop. (And that, despite the fact that my parents dipped my pacifier in sugar when I was a baby. Mom and dad: WTF? I know that back then nobody knew about any these things, but didn’t you wonder a least once if that might be good for the baby? Or his teeth, whenever he gets them?)

So, anyway, I hope I’m not depressing you in sharing my story, or that you’re not twitching to change the channel to something else that doesn’t have you shouting, “Then just what the hell can I eat?”

I can understand it. I myself didn’t have that reaction only because I discovered or was taught these things gradually, over the years. Energy fluctuations, mood swings, fatigue and feeling physically lousy mid-mornings for no apparent reason were the signs along the way as I figured out that you can eat food that you think is perfectly good and wear a vegetarian halo, and be on a collision course with illness.

The real solution to all this isn’t an easy one. You see, somewhere in the twentieth century, cooking from scratch went out of style. We all became so immersed in our 40-hours (or more) workweek that we felt that we owed it to ourselves not to cook after coming home tired from work. I am convinced, in fact, that cooking as an art form only survives in our century in the hands of men wanting to seduce women. Or vice-versa, I suppose, though I can count in the fingers of one hand all the women I’ve ever known who cook on a semi-regular basis. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t need any fingers to count the men who cook on any basis at all if it’s not to impress their dates, but I digress.

Oh, and for the purposes of this discussion, I don’t mean cooking as in “stick this frozen entrée in the oven” or “poke a hole and microwave on high” or “combine this can with that can and serve.” That’s where I realized the problem lies. If I wanted health, I needed to get the raw ingredients and cook them from scratch. Then and only then do I know exactly what’s going into a dish, and into my body, without the added stuff that’s in there just to make the canned or frozen item palatable. I use only brown rice. I use only whole-wheat products. I avoid sugar and salt like the plague, because I suspect I’ll get it in places I don’t even suspect (dairy! I thought cottage cheese was safe till I saw the sodium content and told myself, “This, too, in moderation.”) As a vegetarian (and once vegan and once raw-foodie), I needed to pay attention to having protein at every meal, and to vary the sources of protein: beans, quinoa, nuts and nut butters, legumes, tofu, tempeh, whole grains, etc. Back when I ate meat and fish, I was already getting plenty of protein, so I shouldn’t have stopped there and I should have added the 5 or more servings a day of fruits and vegetables (yeah… unfortunately potatoes don’t really count) that we’ve all been told to eat since the dawn of mothers. And at some point, I started thinking about getting all of this organic, because the remnants of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides that my body accumulated over time is enough to put all the horror films out of business.

So, there you have my experience, and, as promised, I didn’t try to convert you to anything. (As further proof of this: on one occasion I took an omnivore couple friend of mine to a vegetarian restaurant to show them how really tasty some of the food could be. By the entrance, the restaurant had a sign that read “If animals could talk, everybody would be vegetarian.” True to his smart-alecky side, the husband quipped, “And if plants could talk, everybody would be a meat-eater.” We laughed ourselves silly and I had to concede that he had a point.)

So the bad news? Unless I have a personal chef to cook to my specifications, the only way I can expect to be and stay healthy is to cook my own stuff. And take a proactive interest in continuing to educate myself about what’s healthy and what isn’t… and then take the steps to implement it.

The good news? It was difficult to start, but once under way, it was easier than I thought: whole foods, cooked by me. I can cook them in large quantities and simply reach into the refrigerator during the week for ready meals. That’s all. And the thing is, even if I didn’t eat so well for years, the human body is a self-healing mechanism that can reverse most chronic diseases or deficiencies, if given good food, good rest, and good exercise on a regular basis. Oh, yeah: fun is also good. And sex too. But for further inspiration for writing on that last topic, I first need to find an article around here entitled “Is Sex a Health Hoax?” Anyone?

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