May 11, 2012

Food Wars. ~ Alexandra Strickland


I have recently noticed a growing animosity between two food and eating philosophies, both of which I respect.

The online arguments found in blogs, on Facebook and on YouTube, between vegans and those who eat according to what has been called Traditional, Ancestral or Wisdom diets has gotten downright rancorous.

Each calls the others’ research “pseudo-science,” and claims that their way is the way to health and the other way will kill you. In listening to these arguments, I am reminded of fights between Democrats and Republicans, or Christians and atheists.

Though I’m not generally the moderate sort, I find myself agreeing with both camps on quite a few issues. So, I decided to explore the issues further. Understand that I am talking about two groups that have done extensive research and carefully choose what they eat. I am not addressing the Standard American Diet (SAD) of easy, instant, fast-food, take-out, packaged grocery-store fare. That is a whole different deal.

First, a little background for those who may not be familiar with the subject matter.

Vegans eschew all animal products. They consume no meat, dairy or eggs. Some great resources on vegan, or plant-based diets are: The Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, the book The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell and any material put out by Dr. Joel Furman, Dr. Caldwell Esstelsyn or Dr. John McDougall (the Veggie Doctors, as some call them).

The Traditionalists (for lack of a better term) advocate eating a whole foods diet that includes pasture-raised meat and eggs, wild game and seafood and raw dairy products. This philosophy is based on the research by Dr. Weston A. Price, who studied the eating habits of many indigenous people around the world and found them to be much healthier than those living in industrialized nations. His research was extensive, and way beyond the scope of this article; for more info, look into the Weston A. Price Foundation. The book considered to be the seminal text on this style of eating is Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon.

The big difference between these arguments and those that are political or religious is these two groups actually agree on more points than they disagree. Both advocate:

>Eating whole foods.

>Eating lots of fresh vegetables and fruit.

>Limiting all sugars.

>Avoiding high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners.

>Avoiding processed, packaged foods. Not just the obvious junk, like toaster pastries and soda, but also processed food that claims to be healthy, like certain frozen dinners and diet shakes.

The obvious point of divergence between the two is the use of animal products. I am going to address this from three angles: individual health, environmental consequences and animal welfare.


Individual Health

I strongly believe that no single diet is right for all people. This is evidenced by all the different diets out there–low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, low grain, high grain, some meat, no meat, eat three times a day, eat six times a day, etc. They all seem to work for some people; that’s how all the diet books get sold. People who have had success on certain diets write glowing recommendations. But, people are different. One diet does not fit all.

That said, I think that both these groups agree that eating tons of fresh vegetables and a good amount of fresh fruit is one of the best thing anyone can do to improve or maintain good health.

On the discussion of dairy, I urge everyone to do their own research. Google “Raw Milk” and you will find research showing that it is one of the healthiest foods on earth. You will also find that it is illegal in most states. While my personal jury is still out on the subject of dairy, I will say this–grocery store milk products are crap. If you are going to consume milk, yogurt, cottage cheese etc., at least look into the possibility of getting it raw. Do some serious research and decide for yourself.

Another point for contemplation is the discussion of processed vegan foods and meat analogues. While the Veggie Doctors mentioned above advocate a whole-food, plant-based diet, some allow for tofu, veggie sausages and other meat substitutes as an occasional treat or a transition food for those new to a plant-based lifestyle.

The Traditionalists call these fake foods and suggest avoiding them completely. Their argument is: What is better, a piece of wild game (one ingredient) or a veggie sausage (at least 20 ingredients and highly processed)? I am not here to tell you which side is right, just to inspire you to think about it and make your own informed choice.

The science of Ayurveda, of which I am a student, separates people into three basic body types, Vata, Pitta and Kapha. While everyone has a bit of all three, most people have one type that is dominant. While I am not going to go into a discussion of Ayurveda and its doshas (body types), I mention them here to illustrate a relevant point. Kapha people are characterized mostly by the earth element. They tend to be a larger body-type and store fat easily. Kapha people do great on vegan diets. Pitta people are mostly characterized by the fire element. They have a medium build and firey, driven personalities. They can do well on vegan diets and also on vegetarian diets with a little bit of dairy. Their systems can tolerate some meat, because they have a strong digestive fire, but it can also get them too fired up. Vata people, on the other hand, are characterized by the air element and tend to be of slight build, have a hard time putting/keeping on weight and are often cold. They would be the least tolerant of a vegan diet and tend to do well with a bit of meat and dairy.

So, if you buy into the principles of Ayurveda, about two-thirds of the population could thrive on a vegan diet.


Environmental Consequences

There is little doubt that our current system of food production is wreaking havoc with the environment. Both camps agree on this point. Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Forests and wild areas have been cleared for cattle grazing, destroying the natural habitats of many species. Mono-cropping degrades soil quality. Antibiotics fed to cows only serve to create super, antibiotic resistant bugs. Pesticides and herbicides get into our food and our bodies.

OK, both sides agree on this. Why am I bringing it up? I’ll get back to it shortly.

Animal Welfare

As previously stated, both sides agree that factory farming, well, sucks. The treatment of animals is abhorrent. You don’t need to be an animal lover to get on board with this. All you have to be is against torture. Every time you choose to buy or not buy meat, eggs or dairy in the grocery store, you are voting with your dollar. Are you pro-torture or anti-torture?  You will find an excellent discussion on this topic in the book, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Saffran Foer.

So, what about free-range, pasture raised animal products? Or wild game? Again, I advise you not to trust your grocery store. There is little or no regulation on packaging terms such as free-range, grass-fed, vegetarian-fed, cruelty-free, etc. If you have a farm nearby that truly pasture-raises their animals, produces small quantities and kills their animals humanely (I know, that’s a sketchy phrase), then go check out the farm. Meet the farmer; meet the animals. If you are OK with what is happening there, you may decide to buy their eggs, meat or milk. I do, occasionally.

How about hunting? My vegan friends will not like this, but in my opinion, hunting is the most humane and healthy way of procuring meat. These animals, until the moment of death, generally live a pretty good life. They are truly free-range, they eat what nature intended for them to eat and they generally live a life free of pain and disease. One of my pet peeves is when someone says, “I could never hunt,” yet they buy factory-farmed meat in the grocery store regularly and thereby, consciously or not, advocate the torture of millions of animals.

So, who is right?

That is for each individual to decide. Both sides have good science to back up their claims. I’ve done a fair amount of research and I tend to fall into the continuum slightly to the side of the Veggie Doctors. I’ll tell you why.

>Though I am not against eating animal products, I think the traditionalists eat way too much. In my opinion, they are much too heavy on the butter, lard, cream and saturated fats in general. I think a diet of 75 – 90% plants, with a little bit of animal products thrown in on occasion is the best diet for most.

>While I’m OK with eating humanely raised animal products, I wonder if we can really know how our meat was treated before we got it. Everyone doesn’t have access to a local farm or dairy, where they can go and check out the animal husbandry. It may just be easier to eat vegetables.

>To return back to the environmental issue… If individual health is your main concern, eating in the Traditionalists’ way may be just fine for you and your family. But, if you are interested in the evolution of humankind, stopping environmental degradation, protecting endangered species and feeding the world’s starving population, you will run into problems. The Traditionalist’s way of eating is not sustainable. The societies they model their eating after, lived, hunted and raised their animals at a time when there were a couple million people on earth. Now there are seven billion. There just is not enough land on this planet to pasture-raise enough animal products to feed seven billion people. That’s how factory farming got started in the first place.

If I haven’t convinced you one way or the other, that’s fine. It was not my intention. My advice to all is to be informed.

Do your own research, make your own decisions and don’t get all flummoxed over conflicting science.


Alexandra Strickland lives in Alma, Colorado. She has a full-time career in the wine industry, and another full-time job as a mom and wife. She teaches yoga part time and is studying Ayurvedic medicine. With all the free time that leaves her, she pursues her passions of writing and promoting health for the world.

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Editor: Cassandra Smith


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