This past week I went to a local book store to hear a lecture by Rip Esselstyn, author of the best selling Engine 2 Diet published in 2008, and the just released My Beef with Meat.
If you don’t know Rip’s story, he’s a firefighter who gained notoriety after getting not only his own fire station but all of the Austin city’s fire stations to convert to plant-based eating when it was discovered that one of his young fellow firefighters was precariously close to a major cardiac event. After the success of his first book Rip retired from firefighting three years ago when Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey approached him to lead that store’s health initiatives.
Rip is the son of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn made famous in the Forks Over Knives documentary, and both are good friends of Colin Campbell, author of The China Study. Knowing that you can see where the influence on his food beliefs has come from.
Rip has drawn a line at not eating any animal products. He doesn’t suggest everyone needs to do that (the ideal), but that everyone should at least focus on getting more of their calories from whole plants instead of processed foods, dairy, and meat, which currently represent 94% of the daily calories in the standard American diet (SAD). [Whether you eat meat or not, you can agree that only getting 6% of our calories from produce can’t be a good thing.] He’s never adopted the “v” words (vegetarian, vegan) because of the lack of a focus on health in those communities. (I discussed this same perplexing issue in my ‘confused by vegans’ article.)
Perhaps you can imagine, much of what he said I agreed with and much of it goes against published research and reports that I tend to believe. Yet he was also quoting from published research. So what’s up with everyone looking at the same data and coming up with very different answers? Sounds like religion!
This got me thinking about the conflict that exists between the different sides of the nutrition theories when all can point to strong studies to “prove” what they are saying is true. So I paused to re-evaluate my own beliefs on what qualifies as healthy eating. As Descartes wrote, “Doubt is the origin of wisdom.” (I also like Frederick Buechner’s: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”) So at times like these I like to sit down and account for what I do know for sure, where the data is more fuzzy, and do what I can to arrive at the truth.
Here are some thoughts I’d like to share with you. This is by no means a list of things I do perfectly. This is simply a listing of what I can look to as best practices worth being aware of, then making educated (hopefully) decisions and best attempts from there. I apologize in advance for the length and the rambling nature. And come on, don’t get offended. These are thoughts and wonderings, most of them written within half an hour of Rip’s talk. These are not critiques and judgments. You’re just getting a serving of raw, unfiltered me.
Here we go….
Vegetables – I know that plants, especially vegetables, are the perfect food. They cannot be eaten in excess and should form the foundation of any diet. I know that fermented vegetables are vegetables on steroids and should be eaten liberally. This is truth.
Conventional agriculture and food – I know that all artificial ingredients – colors, flavors, and preservatives – cause disease and should be avoided. Pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, genetically modified organisms, and chemical fertilizers are all detrimental to our health. No one but the makers and users of these chemicals produce studies that argue differently. I accept it as truth.
I know that the first priority of the major food companies is to increase profits. That’s their fiduciary responsibility as public companies and they would be sued if they did otherwise. Higher profits are commonly achieved through cutting costs, both through using low quality, unsustainable ingredients and by poor treatment of their labor force. I know that any company whose products are found in every corner of the world using intense distribution systems simply does not have health and quality on their mind. That is not in the interest of their shareholders. Therefore, choosing to purchase from smaller producers who have the ability to weigh the consequences of their decisions beyond profits seems like an idea I can live with.
I know that the way 90% of Americans eat with a focus on processed food, conventional meat and diary, and sugar can only lead to disease, sooner or later. The current state of our health care system and the levels of disease in our country bear this out.
I know that the soil, and therefore the plants grown in said soil, isn’t as nutrient dense as it was 50 years ago. Clearly seen in laboratory tests. Supplementation has often been shown to be very helpful. I’ll go with it.
Vegan and Raw – I know that all cultures throughout the world ate at least some amount of animal protein in their traditional diets. No vegan society existed until New York City and L.A. were found. (I don’t know if that’s true, but it made me SALTS**. [I just learned that one the other day and I’ve been dying to use it. I just had to!])
I know that some people thrive on a vegan diet yet many don’t. Many suffer serious health complications that manifest after only many years. Many vegans, if not most, retreat at some point, if even just back to a vegetarian diet simply because their bodies demand it. These same issues exist among the raw food diet crowd, in addition to high cholesterol and triglycerides because of the over use of very energy dense foods. It doesn’t seem wise to draw a permanent line in the sand. Plenty of research and a gut feeling say that avoiding all animal proteins isn’t a healthy long-term solution, but we certainly don’t need as much as we eat currently, certainly not every day. I’ll say some is good, less is more.
WAPF – I know many people thrive on the “real food,” or Weston Price, diet, but it doesn’t appear to be the answer either. I often see heavy, inflamed bodies with splotchy skin and unhealthy hair. I encounter people who drink quarts of raw milk, eat loaves of homemade bread, can food like nobody’s business, and seem to see vegetables only as carriers for butter, yet they don’t seem healthy or like they’re going to win any races. It appears that addictions to wheat and dairy run high, and it seems way too heavy and rich for a daily practice, especially when not accompanied by the high activity levels that Price certainly found in the cultures he studied. My pioneer stock mother comes to mind who lived this way her entire life up until she died of a heart attack at 64. The “sacred foods” turn profane through over use. I’m calling this one good for fertility, nursing, very young children, and some healing needs, but overkill the rest of the time.
Milk – Is raw milk good? I simply can’t find a compelling reason to drink it. I’ve seen asthmatic kids no longer need their inhalers once they dropped all dairy from their diets, then need them again when dairy, yes, even raw dairy, is reintroduced. Because it is by nature an inflammatory food and a growth promoter, full of natural (for a cow) hormones and opiates, it’s hard to see it as necessary for health, especially since two-thirds of the world’s population can’t digest it. Other foods can deliver the same benefits without the drawbacks.
Gluten – Is gluten, and therefore wheat, good or bad? In any refined form, absolutely bad. And in the way the processed food industry uses it, and even in its whole form, wheat, and grains in general, can lead to stomach lining irritation and therefore inflammation and autoimmune problems. If used, only traditional wheat varieties (Einkorn for example) should be consumed with an acknowledgement that whole intact grains, not flours, are healthier. Soaking or fermenting is also key to decreasing the potential harm while maximizing the benefit.
Paleo – I have the impression that many Paleo advocates think that bacon is king, queen, prince, and almighty god of all foods. The Paleo method can be useful in many situations when meat is placed in its proper place but it is more commonly talked about as the only food worth eating. Is bacon good? It’s hard to imagine that you can take the stomach fat of a highly parasitic animal, process it, fry it in oil, and suggest that it will promote longevity. Call me crazy. I understand the idea that grains can be rough on the body, particularly if not soaked or fermented prior to cooking. Thinking of the billions of people around the world surviving on grains and legumes who could never afford to eat meat every day, in societies that don’t have autoimmune issues like we do, I think there’s more to the story than just ruling them out completely.
Coffee – What about coffee? Lots of debate here, too. If it’s an addiction, as is most often the case, it’s not healthy. When consumed responsibly and isn’t necessary to maintain alertness it is surely better than soda, but if depended upon to wake up in the morning, get through the afternoon, and is a must-have after dinner, then something inside the body is out of balance. I know that coffee isn’t required for long term health and any antioxidant benefits in coffee can easily be obtained from fruits and vegetables. I have an easy out on this one. I don’t drink coffee due to religious convictions, so I’ll let others duke it out.
Alcohol – This seems to fit in the same boat as bacon, and coffee for that matter. Saying you consume any of them for their health benefits is like a guy saying he subscribes to Playboy for the informative articles. Any purported health benefits associated with wine can easily be obtained from sources with zero downside, and it certainly has plenty of potential downsides, as do bacon and coffee. That doesn’t mean to never consume these, but self honesty is necessary with no pretense that they are health foods with no negative consequences. Not to be used liberally.
Sugar – I know that most people eat way too many sweets, whether that’s white sugar, whole sugar, honey, maple, agave, stevia, or all the other forms, and that these things can all lead to inflammation, diabetes, and weight gain. All forms of sweeteners, whether they contain calories or not, generate an insulin response, therefore prolonging addictions and increasing risk of obesity and diabetes. Sweets don’t need to be avoided, but enjoyed with prudence. This is where a guy needs some slack. My religious practices eliminate coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco; being into health eliminates soda and fried foods, so you gotta give me somethin’! I know sugar’s not necessary for health, so I won’t go crazy with it. Just avoid the refined and artificial garbage, and choose sweeteners that at least have some nutritional upside like honey, maple, and sucanat. I can live with that.
Alright, so now what to do with these thoughts?
Where does all this leave me? It leaves me with a whole lot of common ground where all these camps and thoughts can potentially converge. It leaves me with some clear ideas of where to indulge, what to avoid, and where to enjoy with caution.
We can all agree that processed foods and conventional meat and dairy, laden with hormones, antibiotics, and cruelty, should be avoided.
I feel I can say for certain that the best diet truly is a whole foods, plant-based diet. I’m using that term deliberately because I want to reclaim it from those who think ‘plant-based’ means ‘only plants.’ It doesn’t. “Based” means founded upon. The foundation of a healthy diet is plants in their whole forms.
This is one more reason I love the concept of “clean eating.” No restrictive diets, no counting calories or grams. Simply choose chemical free foods with priority placed on fresh produce eating to feel nourished, light, and energized.
From there on out the decision is personal and simply a matter of what works for each of us as individuals. What foods do I thrive on? Without assuming anything based on what I’ve read from a blog, a friend, a doctor, or a 1930’s dentist, I can stop and evaluate how what I eat truly makes me, the all important me, feel.
Of course there is not “one true way of eating healthy.” Someone else’s answers will be different and that is great.
Some people simply need animal protein in their diet. (In these cases the best approach is to think ‘the fewer the legs the better.’ Fish, assuming they’re mercury free, have more of the good and less of the bad than, say, a cow.) Other people can thrive on no meat as apparently Rip does, while others need only very little. In our house I’m fine eating meat at most once a week. Kelli has found that even though she ate almost no meat through her teen years and most of her 20’s, animal protein has been very beneficial for her as she is in a healing state. She’s yet to acquire a taste for meat and looks forward to eating less, but for right now it is helpful in her healing process. Needs are personal, and needs can change.
Could people in general benefit by eating less meat? Less dairy? Less sugar? Fewer refined carbohydrates? Resounding yeses all the way around.
I’ve certainly drawn my own lines in the sand (no processed foods, conventional meat and dairy, GMO’s, MSG, trans fats, or refined oils and sugars), but I have my own vices and struggles just like anybody else. I still struggle with cleaning my plate rather than stopping when I’m full, and I’m always a sucker for a clean dessert.
I know, or at least I’m working to know, what’s best for me.
And that’s all I’d encourage you to do. Take account of what you believe to be best practices for you. Research by eliminating individual foods for a time then reintroduce them, paying close attention to how you feel after you eat them, immediately and up to three days later. The most intelligently designed academic study can only tell us what’s right for the people in that study, or the average person, and I’ve yet to meet the average person.
Is meat good for you? I don’t know. You do. Is raw milk good for you? I don’t know. You do. Should you eat grains? You tell me. Are vegetables good for you? Yes.
Is Rip right? Or Paleo, or Raw, or Weston Price? I couldn’t care less. In this world right only means “what’s right for me.”
Now your turn. I want to hear from you. What’s your “right?”
**SALTS = Smiled a Little Then Stopped. Generally more honest than the overused LOL. 🙂