07 November 2007

Vegetables and Whole Foods

This is the first entry in what I hope will become a lively column on my adventures in nutrition. Consider it my "coming out of the kitchen" blog. As many of you know, I have been slowly progressing to becoming vegetarian. In this first entry, I hope to give you some context on the path of discovery I have been on. My goal is not to convert others, or to try and convince you to join me on this journey. Think of it rather as a form of vacation slide show. As I am on this adventure, I will periodically fly home to the land of omnivores to give you a glance as to life on the other side. I think the 35mm film projector is set up, why don't we start with a little background...

Why include more vegetarian meals in your diet?
Well at this point you have probably already written me off as crazy. No doubts many thoughts such as protein sources, calcium, B12, and energy levels are all floating through your head as you inexplicably rush to dissuade me in my decision. Well, rather than start with a diatribe for or against vegetarians (they are so cute, leave them alone), let's start with four reasons to simply increase your intake of vegetables:

1. Cholesterol - you heard it first in the 1980s and have been fighting it ever since. SImply put, cholesterol is ONLY in animal foods and not plant foods.

2. Heart disease - On CBC 2 weeks ago I watched a review of diets that were beneficial for your heart; it was not surprising that diets high in fiber and vegetables but low in fat and meats was the best diet for your old tinker.

3. Cancer - Is it really necessary to list all the studies that have demonstrated that a diet high in plant-based foods is beneficial in fighting cancer?

4. Diabetes - Again, the research shows that a healthy plant based diet helps to stave off type 2 diabetes in adults.

So that is the basic premise - even the most confrontational of readers would have a hard time arguing that increasing fruits and vegetables is a bad thing. And I've only covered the health reasons for changing your diet. Before discussing cost, environment and animal welfare, I'll pause here to tell a little story about digestion.

You see, the health factors listed above are not new to many people. Your parents were always right when they told you to eat your vegetables - of course, they most likely didn't make your vegetables taste too good, and so you were more interested in that hunk of meat. Well most of my life I didn't give too much thought about what I put in my body. When I moved out on my own, it was the first opportunity I had to evaluate my relationship to food on a one to one basis. Unfortunately, I didn't really know how to cook. I was actually pretty scarred of everything in the kitchen, except maybe the microwave. Coupled with a busy schedule, this made for a lot of unhealthy eating - to be honest, the only time I ate healthy was when I was over at friend's houses! (to those who have taken me in and fed me, like the transient I was, thank you by the way)

This unhealthy approach was having its effects however. Sure I was a hopped up sugar and sodium hound, but more to the end, all this crappy food was wrecking havoc with my stomach and digestive tract. I would wake up late at night, have anxiety about riding the bus, would worry about being somewhere without a men's room. Needless to say, it was embarrassing - fortunately for me, I am adept at selfdeprecatory humor and was able to "flush" away the situation (ok, bad pun). I realized that I had to do something, or I would be stuck living my life from toilet to toilet.

As previously mentioned, I started with cutting out milk. Upon further reading I realized that a plant based diet would most likely be friendlier to my stomach. Sure enough, a few dozen Veggie Delites from Subway later, and my stomach is much better.

Although compressed here for simplicity sake, this decision has matured over the span of many months. I'm also not prepared to even call myself vegetarian. This shouldn't be surprising however. For a little while I was rough on myself, but now I simply accept that the change is so fundamental to warrant patience. I have decided not to cook meat in my home, which is a big step, as the majority of my meals are here. When I go out, I make a meal by meal decision. I can say however that when I eat meat, my stomach acts up again, I feel heavy, and lethargic. Of course, this is not exclusive to meat, but simply heavy, fatty foods.

As I intend this to be a reoccurring article, there is no need to go into all my thoughts at once, as though it was some form of verbal diarrhea to match my physical cleansing! In this vain, I will finish with a top 4 reasons to becoming vegetarian - in no particular order:

1. Cost - this was actually critical to me. My whole life I grew up conscious of money. In college there were many times when I skipped going out to diner since I couldn't afford it (plus I had already paid for meal plan, I wasn't about to pay for a meal when I had one for "free"). For me, food decision have been a triangular approach: cost, time, health. Usually cost trumped all, and time of preparation trumped health. In fact, health almost never won out, unless it was fast and inexpensive. Unfortunately, being afraid of the kitchen, most of my choices were fast food related.

Now that I have a solid job, I have tried hard to break from the frugal pattern. My triangle has been inverted with health at the time. However, in so doing, I have unwittingly optimized price as well. Vegetarian foods such as beans, rice, corn and lentils cost about $1 per pound while meat costs are approximately three times as much. There is a reason why spendthrift countries gorge themselves on meat while third world countries are known for vegetarian delicacies.

2. Environment - If there is one reason for today's green generation to become vegetarian, it is the environment. There is reason why they are labeled "granola" - its because being vegetarian is immensely better for the environment. For starters, last time I checked, broccoli doesn't shit. It may be difficult to believe, but according to the United Nations, cattle-rearing generates more greenhouse gases than transportation. So if you really want to drive that SUV but feel bad for polluting the environment, switch to being vegetarian and then you'll be making up for the difference (well really you should do both you selfish asshole, think of the polar bears!)

Moreover, a plant based diet vastly decreases our dependency on foreign oil - I know that sounds academic, but its true. It takes about 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of beef protein, compared to 1 calorie of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of soy beans. The amount of energy that goes into producing a plant based meals is significantly smaller than a meat based meal.

Even more mind boggling is the fact that over half the water used in the US goes towards producing meat. Yes, you read that correctly. While I admit to taking long showers, that is peanuts compared to the water that is wasted every time you bite into a burger. For comparison sakes, it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef. Guess how much water is needed to produce, say, one pound of wheat? Try 25. That would be a 100 times less water.

Finally - although I could cite facts all day - the most disturbing trend of all is the erosion of arable land by the grazing of livestock. Most studies demonstrate that eating a meat based diet alone is contributing to soil erosion and has collectively damaged lands in North America more than any other activity. Enough said on the environment.

3. Vegetarian girls are hot. It's true, I can't lie - just check out that song by Dead Eye Dick, New Age Girl.

4. Spiritual well being. Almost all religions advocate a healthy plant based diet, free from much consumption of meat. The killing and consumption of animals is taken for granted in western culture, and I still admit that it is difficult to associate the living animal with the food that is on my plate. For the most part, we have been shielded from this process in North America - in fact, we have been pretty much excluded from the entire food industry. Advertisement reign supreme over meat, dairy and cheese councils. When is the last time you saw a commercial for broccoli? Whether it is vegetarianism in its various forms, Veganism or simply centering your diet in a plant based approach, I guarantee you will discover a spiritual happiness with your diet - when you begin to appreciate that your body is a machine, and it will run most effectively with the correct inputs, the outputs can be truly remarkable.


Jo said...

hear the sound of me cheering...


Anonymous said...

ditch the foods... get back to sports... i'm going to stop reading the crap soon!


Liz said...

But... cheeseeeeeeeeeeee, my favorite source of cholesterol.

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