Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Killing Us Softly, Part 2: It's What's for Dinner

If you sent an alien with no Earthling experience whatsoever to the United States, they would probably be appalled. Although we seem on the surface to be the most health conscious culture ever to roam the Earth, we are literally killing ourselves. This series looks at how our well meaning actions and well thought out decisions are taking years off our life spans... and those of our children as well.

I am a big advocate of the cheap-is-healthy diet. When people tell me they can't afford to eat healthily, I am that obnoxious person who asks bluntly what they spend, and then tell them that my family spends half as much per person for a very healthy diet. (The exact fraction varies from family to family.) Inevitably, the conversation turns to what we can possibly eat with such a low budget. When I start giving examples, the person interrupts me and asks if we eat meat. Two or three times a week, I tell them. Then they want to know: can I give them a healthy, reasonably priced menu that includes meat at every dinner? And a few things that are a little more convenient maybe?

Of course I can't. It's impossible, at least in my area. If you want to eat healthy, the most obvious and effective step is to cut back on meat and convenience foods. If you want to eat more economically, the most obvious and effective step is to cut back on meat and convenience foods. If you want to reduce your impact on the planet, the most obvious and effective step is to cut back on meat and convenience foods. To me, this sounds like a win-win-win situation. To most people, this sounds like a recipe for lifelong misery.

I've thought a lot about how we, more than any other culture, have gotten hooked on meat. Here are a few of the reasons I can come up with. Feel free to email me if you have another reason.

1. Americans view excessive meat-eating as traditional. In fact, meat was not a part of every single day's cuisine in most families until post World War 2, except in the wealthiest households. I collect old cookbooks, and one from the forties actually suggests that housewives increase their family's meat intake to three times a week. Egad! In Little House on the Prairie and other books, the described diet that is based on fresh produce when possible and meatier meals when nothing else was available. In addition, experts suggest that their meat portions were far smaller than ours. They ate a very low meat diet compared to what modern Americans eat, except during times of the year when fresh vegetables simply weren't available. This has been the way of the world for millennia. It's the diet humans are biologically made to live with. Eating meat every day makes you non-traditional.

2. Americans are afraid of carbs. Getting rid of them does cause you to lose weight, no doubt about that. It's due to taking in fewer overall calories combined with your kidneys shutting down from too much protein. There are healthier ways to lose weight, ones that won't take a decade off your life expectancy. Carbs are your friends if they make up the right proportion of your diet. Whole grains, legumes, and potatoes are all healthy dietary choices that absolutely will not make you fat, PERIOD, end of story.

3. Americans view meat as a sign of affluence. We all want to look a little more successful, right? And eating steak every night is the dietary equivalent of a Hummer in the driveway. Unfortunately, they have roughly the same impact on our planet.

4. Americans think religion somehow suggests that a meat-heavy diet is superior. God made cows, so how can they be bad for the environment? But did God make massive herds of cows, then selectively breed them and pump them full of growth hormones until they are more than twice their natural size? Of course not. It takes a human to be that foolish. Archaeological evidence suggests that the average Biblical family ate meat on special occasions, and rarely at any other times. Wars were fought over lentil fields because they were the top source of protein, a matter of life and death to Israelis and their neighboring tribes.

We can dispute archaeological evidence, but what we can't dispute is that there is no passage in the Bible that suggests eating meat in a moderate way is sinful. In fact, God did not make our bodies with the capability to handle so much meat, and he didn't make our planet with the ability to handle so much livestock. This suggests to me that God doesn't want us to eat meat as often as we currently do.

5. Americans don't understand what meat is doing to the environment. First, animals require much more land per calorie than plants. With space running short and people in other countries suffering for lack of protein, it's only decent to eat in the most efficient way possible. Second, the animals themselves are destructive, producing waste that pollutes waterways and gas that pollutes the air. Third, meat requires more processing than plant foods and more refrigeration. It usually must travel long distances, from where the animal is born to where it is raised, then to a feedlot, then to a butcher, then to a processing plant, before the stores even buy it. This is why it is pound for pound more expensive than vegetable protein, even though the government throws more money at meat than any other food.

I'm not an advocate of zero population growth; I think we can all live here happily if we make certain concessions and lifestyle changes. However, with more and more countries adopting the wasteful American diet, we really are coming to a point where we have to choose between having enough resources to go around or eating meat/driving SUV's/buying plastic/etc.

6. Americans aren't used to the 'feel' of vegetarian meals. If you are used to the heavy, overstuffed feeling of two to three dietary servings of meat (that would be six ounces, by the way) at a time, then it might take a while to learn what a full-but-not-overfilled stomach feels like. Maybe they are a little intimidated by the new flavors and ingredients, or not sure how to get enough protein. If this is an issue for you, the internet and the library can both supply endless stacks of information and recipes. It's natural to resist change, but being an adult means seeing where changes should be made, and then making them.

I don't have to tell anyone how bad packaged foods are. You already know. So all I can say is this: try to give up meat one day a week. Then take it to every other day. Most people live very comfortably eating meat every second or third day while relying on other protein sources in between. It will do wonders for your budget, your waistline, and the planet as well.


Laryssa @ Heaven In The Home said...

Thanks for this great info. I'm learning how to do meals rich in plant protein, both for our health and the health of our budget! If you get a chance please share some of your favorite recipes. Thanks!

Unknown said...

We are trying to cut back on our consumption of meat. Right now, we have two meatless meals a week, and are trying to work up to having three or four. For all the reasons you mentioned here, plus one; We saw a documentary that showed how eating meat can contribute to more risk of cancer.

cossysmom said...

I was glad to find your blog (by way of GWOP). My family is almost done with our first Quantum Wellness Cleanse. If you aren't aware of what it is, you eliminate 5 things from your diet for 21 days: alcohol, sugar, gluten, caffeine, and animal products. It is a challenge figuring out what to eat, but I am glad that I have accepted this challenge. It has made me so much more aware of the food that I'm putting in my body. As a result I am planning to continue to eat in a healthier way: more fruits and vegetables, less animal products and less sugar. This has forced me to read labels on everything I use and I will continue to do so. I highly recommend the Cleanse. (Kathy Freston has a book about it).

My other challenge for myself is to make a different soup recipe each week and blog about it. I am having difficulty with summer soups. I hope you have some suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Great Rant! You hit all the reasons people use to avoid vegetarian diets. One point though: I definately think that fiber rich vegetables are much more filling than meat. I cannot eat as muchvegetables as I used to eat meat. This blog is going in my favorites!