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preservations… for posterity

Food Matters

food-mattersWhen my sister said she was going to adopt a vegan diet, I thought that she was a little bit crazy. She asked me to read two books, one of which was Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating by Mark Bittman. Bittman was struggling with his weight as well as various health maladies at the same time he was writing  a new cookbook called “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”. He decided to become a part-time vegan; until dinnertime he would forego any animal products, simple carbs and junk food. He did not give himself any restrictions for dinner, though gradually he found that he was eating more vegetables and less meat. As time went on, he lost weight and his health maladies went away.

Sounds great, but wait – this is not a diet book. Rather it’s an eye-opening critique of the food that we eat and where it comes from. Despite my skepticism, I have learned that many vegans don’t choose their lifestyle just because they can’t stand to eat Bambi. Many are vegan for very legitimate health and environmental reasons. Yes, I said environmental! Our eating habits aren’t just bad for us – they’re bad for the planet. Bittman focuses on factory farming, a concept that I’ve been relatively ignorant about until now.

To produce one calorie of corn takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel. For beef the number is 40… In other words, if you grow corn and eat it, you expend 2.2 calories of energy in order to eat one of protein. But if you process that corn, and feed it to a steer, and take into account all the other needs that steer has through its lifetime – land use, chemical fertilizers (largely petroleum based), pesticides, machinery, transport, drugs, water, and so on – you’re responsible for 40 calories of energy to get that same calorie of protein. According to one estimate, a typical steer consumes the equivalent of 135 gallons of gasoline in his lifetime…

It’s easy to sit back and go with the status quo. Even if you take a moment to question something (“Where did this cow come from, and what was he fed?” or “Is this diet soda really safe for me to drink?”), you can quickly be pacified by the soothing knowledge that everything must be ok, because the USDA and FDA are looking out for you. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The system has gone awry and everyone is on it – factory farming is in bed with the government, and they’re happy to leave you in the dark. Factory farming is big business. Case in point: The food pyramid, which might as well be a showcase of who’s who among food lobbyists. Read about the original food pyramid.

Some staggering facts:

  • 70% of the world’s farmland is dedicated to livestock production.
  • In the US we are unable to produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet the “5 a day” recommendation.
  • 50% of the antibiotics administered in the US go to animals.
  • People in many developed countries, including the US, consume 1/2 pound of meat per day.
  • Meat consumption would have to fall to 3 oz. a day to stabilize greenhouse gasses produced by livestock.

So what can be done? Will we continue to eat ourselves to death (the US ranks second-to-last in longevity among industrial nations) while crippling the planet in the meantime? It seems hopeless, but the truth is that every one of us casts our votes on these issues every single day. Bittman doesn’t suggest that you become a vegan, but he does suggest “a more traditional diet” with the following general principles:

  • Eat fewer animal products than average
  • Eat all the plants you can manage
  • Make legumes part of your life
  • Whole grains beat refined carbs
  • Snack on nuts or olives
  • When it comes to fats, embrace olive oil
  • Everything else is a treat, and you can have treats daily

It’s pretty simple stuff, but I’m still trying to find the right balance in my life. I am eating less meat; right now my aim is to eat meat at only meal a day. I’m also giving up cow’s milk; I’ve discovered that almond or rice milk is just as tasty. I am experimenting with various vegan and vegetarian recipes. I am buying significantly less processed/junk food. Actually, I can’t even recall buying any processed food in the past few weeks. I’m sticking with these small changes for now, because I want these changes to truly stick. Any drastic changes would cause my skeptical husband to become disgruntled, so I am trying to ease him into a new mode of eating. So far so good – though I did agree to buy him a small container of cow’s milk.


June 28, 2009 - Posted by | alternatives, books, food, health

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