Monthly Archives: March 2008

‘Turning Turk’

Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630.
Daniel Vitkus.
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Daniel Vitkus offers a study that is equal parts cultural history, literary criticism, and theoretical intervention, and which succeeds on most of these fronts. The sources, almost all of which are plays first composed in this period, are dissected for subtle insights into the mentality of the authors and producers, and the results are placed within a discursive framework intended to capture more of the nuanced impact of radical alterity on an internally-homogenizing population. He presents this period as the last in which a fluid ethnic and cultural identity could be discerned in England, and he suggests that the Ottomans – and more generally the fractious and violent Mediterranean – can be taken as the unifying cultural threat against which a cohesive national identity could arise. (9) This is not, however, a Freudian attempt to summon the power of the Other to shape a monolithic ego-nation. (7,10) On the contrary, Vitkus questions the applicability of the sort of binary opposition that underlies Edward Said’s influential model of East-West interaction, and argues instead for a reading of culture that is reminiscent of Homi Bhabha in its use of a “representation of the Other” that is “‘always ambivalent [and] disclosing a lack’.” Put in this light, English encounters in the multicultural Mediterranean “[open] up a space of negation, negotiation, and confusion of identity”, which introduces the possibility of “cultural hybridity” and a by-definition much more complex rendering of national identity. (13)

The author seeks to join a growing chorus of voices questioning the characterization of Elizabethan England as fundamentally imperialistic. It has been too easy to see a nation which rose to world dominance in the mid-eighteenth century as already pre-possessed of the essential discourses and cultural institutions of an imperial power. He argues instead that the popular and literary representations of England in this period did not so much reflect the lived reality of the audience as the dreams and aspirations of an emerging nationalistic identity, and as such he can describe such phantasies as “merely the premature articulation of a third-rate power.” (3)(*) What remains somewhat unclear is the extent to which this should surprise anyone, for even the most ardent booster would admit that England could hardly hold a candle to Spain or the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, and that since theatre would play a significant part in the development of a national ideology of greatness, a temporary lack of agreement with the facts is hardly relevant.

In fact, this is precisely where Vitkus’s text shines most impressively. What seems in hindsight an obvious move is actually a clever reading of the sources, in which the nascent social construction of empire is situated within a framework comprised of its early theatrical representations. The cultivation of an explicitly imperial national identity, and the ability to view the world outside Britain as an exotic Other waiting to be plucked, is surely one of the key factors in the emergence of a popular imperial project over the next two centuries. (27) Vitkus has much to say about the expression and development of these imperial images, and about the ways in which English culture sought through these to coöpt and adapt to “new procedures and identities that were based on a Mediterranean experience defined by instability of identity and a questionable moral and religious status.” (162) According to Vitkus, the theatre did present these alternative cultures “as difference, but that difference [was] open, multiple, and unstable”, and therefore no simple identification can be presumed between the audience and the more presumably “English” characters on the stage. (30)

More significantly, these works are frequently ambiguous in their representation of supposedly alien cultures; “the Turks are both immoderate and disciplined, excessively masculine and perversely unmasculine”, “virile and impotent”, and so forth. (119) There is certainly a lack of detailed information upon which to base their characters and settings, but the ambiguity goes much deeper than ignorance; Vitkus helps us to imagine some of the conflicted ways an English audience may have perceived a power like the Ottoman Empire. Particularly useful here is the threat – real or imagined – of conversion. The fear of losing one’s religious identity, and perhaps the immortal soul, presented an ontological challenge to the evolving Western self-conception, and Vitkus is right to evoke the tenuous existential environment in which Europe is simultaneously colonizer (of the New World) and colonized (by Ottoman Muslims, who continued their inexorable penetration of Europe, converting people and sacred spaces along the way). (77-8)

Intriguingly, he deploys the topos of conversion in a secondary rôle – as a metaphor for the “collective cultural and economic transformation that English society was undergoing.” Vitkus suggests that “English culture was ‘turning Turk’ not only in the sense that some English subjects were converting to Islam”, but that contact with the exotic world of the Muslim Mediterranean was forging a distinctively English identity which saw itself as fundamentally opposed to foreign despots. (162) The Reformation context of these works is crucial, and the dramatic enemy could just as easily be the Ottoman Turks as the Roman Catholic monarchies. (59) It is this attempt to stitch the English theatre into a more broad and multifacted cultural context that makes this text so useful, despite its seemingly one-dimensional limitation to a narrow field of data. At times the reader can wonder if he has picked up a purely literary exegesis, so deeply does Vitkus immerse him in the world of the stage, but the breadth of Vitkus’s secondary reading helps to root that exegesis very deliberately within a critical image of the early seventeenth century. He appears to have taken quite to heart a warning he draws from much of the postcolonial literature; viz., the ease with which some now “[confuse] the merely discursive with the material conditions of empire as an institution.” (6) For an argument founded upon clever readings of dramatic work, his is a surprisingly well-grounded treatment.

*. Sometimes one may wonder if the author has a sense of humour or his reader just has an active imagination. Can we dismiss all of that imperial bluster as a premature ejaculation? After all, what better way to deflate a powerful ego than to question its owner’s manhood..?

‘Honored By The Glory of Islam’

Honored by the Glory of Islam: Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe.
Marc David Baer.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Although the narrative and source-base are rooted in the lifetime of seventeenth-century Ottoman ruler Mehmed IV, Marc Baer has more in mind that simply revising the common assessment of that sultan; his real target is the phenomenon of religious conversion and the transformations of the self that accompanies it. Having chosen not to speculate over-much on the reasons for individual conversions to Islam, he asks instead: “What is the connection between personal piety and proselytization? Who mediates conversion?” (5) To answer these questions, he draws the reader into the multiconfessional world of Ottoman Europe, and presents a young sultan firmly in the grip of revivalist zeal and drawing his power from an epic clash of faiths. Despite uncompromising descriptions of Muslim atrocities, this is no simplistic “clash of civilizations” for control of Europe. Rather, Baer uses religion to document a process of modern identity-formation, in which religious zeal is deployed to set one people apart from its subjected others, and to re-order the social and physical geography of the state to match its peculiar ideals.

Baer’s approach is bound up in the “intersection of three independent modalities of conversion”: a “turn to piety or conversion of the self, the conversion of others, and the transformation of sacred space.” (6) He argues for the originality of this “integrated approach to conversion”, and uses it to provide personally-compelling motivations for events within Mehmed IV’s sultanate. (13, 16) Taking his religiosity as a starting point, Baer wishes to demonstrate the ways in which personal “piety can lead to both conversion within Islam and conversion to Islam”, and that this sultan’s piety was the driving force behind his jihadi military campaigns and the subsequent imposition of an Islamic veneer on formerly Christian (“infidel”) localities. (6) By drawing out the religious qualities of Mehmed IV’s reign, Baer is able to document the very real impact that a sincere turn to piety (self-conversion) can have on the direction of state policy.

Mehmed IV’s campaigns began within the Ottoman household. Enthroned as a small child, the sultan perfectly epitomized the social context of an empire long dominated by royal women – whether the favourite concubine of the reigning sultan or the direct political manoeuvring of the valide sultan (queen mother), such as Mehmed’s own regent Hatice Turhan. (27, 35-6, 60-1) By the time of his majority many had begun to ascribe the state of affairs in the empire to a failure to police gender rôles, and to hope for a conversion of the Ottoman state itself, such that a strong sultan might take charge once again. (61) As an adult, Mehmed IV was in fact seen to have “recaptured power from women” and restored a proper “Islamic” hierarchy. (145) Having himself converted to the Kadızadeli reformist movement, Mehmed took to heart the Islam call to “enjoin the good and forbid the wrong”; put into action, this “entails transforming oneself and then cleaning up society”, a sentiment common to pious religious movements far beyond the Muslim world. (70) Mehmed was able to do more than regulate alcohol consumption and suchlike; he was able to leave his mark on the Ottoman capital following a fortuitously-disastrous fire in 1660. (82) This provided an opportunity to Islamize the Jewish districts closest to Topkapı Palace, and the Jews were forbidden to return and rebuild. (85) “The narrative of… Islamization… sought to explain the unprecedented policies toward Jews by linking them to fire and utilizing current notions of the conquest of infidel space.” (93) By regulating and reshaping the religious landscape of Istanbul, Mehmed improved the standing of the dynasty, and moulded the physical reality of the Empire to accord with his religious convictions.

Those convictions soon had him relocating his capital to Edirne, thus situating his reign within a long-standing tension between two cities, “one the pride of autonomous ghazis, the other the seat of the central bureaucratic state”. (237-8) With a dedicated chronicler at his side from early in his adult life, Mehmed IV sought to embrace the rôle of ghazi and jihadi, and as a consequence saw the Empire to its greatest physical extent. His seizure of territory from the Poles and the Habsburgs was accompanied by the extension of Islamic sacred space. (169) Churches were converted into mosques, often with the saintly relics and other honoured dead being exhumed and hurled into the street; in this way, “the light of Islam [was] said to replace the darkness of infidelity.” (173, 175-6) Under such conditions the sultan oversaw a prodigious number of conversions, either personally or through the grand vizier. Newly-minted Muslims were given a turban, new clothes, and a cash award, and occasionally high profile converts were granted minor positions in the royal household. (130) It is not difficult to imagine that many of these changes were undertaken under some form of duress, and Baer does document places where the sultan’s policies violated the letter of Islamic laws governing conversion. (192-4)

These policies should be approached within the context – not of Islam itself or of business-as-usual in Ottoman history – but in the atmosphere is a religious revival. As Baer puts it: “For most of Islamic history, members of other religions were treated in such a way as to demonstrate the benevolence… of the… sultan. But in times characterized by Islamic zeal, rulers sought to demonstrate their conviction by applying the letter of the law, especially concerning Christians and Jews. It usually sufficed to ensure that they were properly humbled… But to oversee the conversion of visible individual Jews… or the large-scale religious change of numerous… commoners, or to Islamize the landscape, was a means of acquiring additional sanction for rule.” (250) Stepping out from a period in which women had long governed dynastic affairs, and from a growing line of sultans deposed by the military, it made good political sense for Mehmed IV to highlight his dedication to the cause of Islam. (236) Not merely an idle hunter, Mehmed was a convert-maker in two senses: he personally facilitated the conversion of individuals, and he oversaw the forcible extension of Islamic religious and geographic space. (202) Baer thus portrays the failed siege of Vienna, not merely as a catastrophic military campaign, but as the last holy war for Islam under the Ottomans. After Mehmed IV, the sultan would become increasingly sedentary – and safely predictable.

Using religious motives to bind various elements into an intimate and coherent picture of Mehmed IV, Baer presents a neat and convincing reinterpretation of his place in Ottoman historiography. With that accomplishment in mind it is difficult not to feel, if only a little and at first blush, that his book is misleadingly titled. For whilst he has many useful observations to make about conversion to Islam in the early modern period, his limited emphasis on Mehmed IV may say less about conversion as a process or phenomenon, and more about the internal dynamics of a sultanate still caught between conflicting images of itself. The scenes of conversion are in no way unmediated by power relations, but they are also inseparable from the influence of Vani Mehmed Efendi and the Kadızadelis. But outside of that specific context, might this not be the book’s real innovation? For it seems at the end of the day that the engine of conversion may be no more or less than the union of religious devotion and royal agency; or more generally, of piety and power.

‘Health And The Human Diet’, Part Seven

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7.0 - Concluding Thoughts

This paper has tried to demonstrate the negative impact on human health derived from an animal-based diet. Since the drug companies want to keep making money hand-over-fist for medical research, and since the meat and dairy industries have a vested interest in keeping us ignorant of the threat their products bring, we are not likely to see a major media campaign of awareness. Even worse, our physicians are not likely to bring up the subject of our diet in preventing disease, since the entire focus of their professional lives is the treatment of disease, not its prevention. They simply are not encouraged to become aware of the wealth of research on this issue, which means that it is up to us to educate ourselves and make responsible choices.

At the risk of sounding entirely negative I have focussed on the harmful effects of improper nutrition, and left out of this discussion most of the benefits from a plant-based diet, yet these are abundantly testified in the sources. The reader is encouraged to follow up on the books listed below, as many of these make a very good case for the overall health of vegetarians and vegans. There is, in fact, no longer any case to made against a vegan diet, so long as certain key nutrients are tracked. Several studies have shown that, over time and with all factors accounted for, the mortality rate for vegans is between 30 and 50% lower than it is for meat-eaters. This is, to my mind, all the support we need to back up the observations from anthropology and physiology.

When we combine these observations with others based upon the practices of factory farming, such as the decreased effectiveness of antibiotics on humans due to their pervasive use in animals that we eat, the vital and urgent need to eliminate animal products is clear. The reasons for their continued use are entirely cultural, emerging from a long tradition of hunting and from many of the key texts of the Western cultural patrimony. But as we have tried to show, these are not sufficient causes for continuing to eat this way. If we are concerned with our long-term health, and with the survival of our species and our planet, we must find a way to overcome cultural inertia, the needs of industry, and our own deeply-inculcated aggressive instincts. The future may well depend upon our ability to apply reason to the problems that our civilization faces, and finding the courage to implement the conclusions of reason in our own lives.

8.0 - Some Suggestions for Further Reading

Books on Vegan & Vegetarian Health and on Fighting Disease

T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II. The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health. Benbella Books, 2006.

Kerrie K. Saunders. The Vegan Diet as Chronic Disease Prevention: Evidence Supporting the New Four Food Groups. Lantern Books, 2003.

John Robbins. Diet For a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Happiness, and the Future of Life on Earth. HJ Kramer, 1998.

John Robbins. The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World. Conari Press, 2001.

Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. Skinny Bitch. Running Press, 2005.

Peter Cox. You Don’t Need Meat. Thomas Dunne Books, 2002.

Joel Fuhrman. Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Your Kids Right. St Martin’s Griffin, 2006.

Joel Fuhrman. Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

Neal D. Barnard. Dr Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes Without Drugs. Random House, 2007.

Dean Ornish. Dr Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. Ballantine Books, 1992.

Dean Ornish. The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health. Ballantine Books, 2007.

Dean Ornish. Eat More, Weigh Less: Dr Dean Ornish’s Life Choice Program for Losing Weight Safely While Eating Abundantly. Collins, 2000.

Julian Whitaker. Reversing Diabetes: Reduce or Even Eliminate Your Dependence on Insulin or Oral Drugs. Warner Books, 2001 (orig. 1987).

Julian Whitaker. Reversing Hypertension: A Vital New Program to Prevent, Treat, and Reduce High Blood Pressure. Grand Central Publishing, 2001.

Julian Whitaker. Reversing Heart Disease: A Vital New Program to Help Prevent, Treat, and Eliminate Cardiac Problems Without Surgery. Grand Central Publishing, 2002.

Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina. Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet. Book Publishing Company, 2000.

Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis. The New Becoming Vegetarian: The Essential Guide to a Healthy Vegetarian Diet. Book Publishing Company, 2003.

Murray Waldman. Dying for a Hamburger: Modern Meat Processing and the Epidemic of Alzheimer’s Disease. St Martin’s Press, 2005.

Kelly Hayford. If It’s Not Food… Don’t Eat It! The No-Nonsense Guide to an Eating-For-Health Lifestyle. Delphic Corner Press, 2005.

Michael Murray, Joseph Pizzorno, Lara Pizzorno. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Atria, 2005.

A Handful of Vegan Cookbooks

Neal Barnard and Robyn Webb. The Get Healthy, Go Vegan Cookbook: 125 Easy and Delicious Recipes to Jump-Start Weight Loss and Help You Feel Great. Da Capo, 2010.

Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. Skinny Bitch in the Kitch: Kick-Ass Recipes for Hungry Girls Who Want to Stop Cooking Crap (and Start Looking Hot!). Running Press, 2007.

Donna Klein. Vegan Italiano: Meat-Free, Egg-Free, Dairy Free Dishes From Sun-Drenched Italy. New York, 2006.

Donna Klein. The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen: Meat-Free, Egg-Free, Dairy-Free Dishes From the Healthiest Region Under the Sun. Penguin, 2001.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz. Vegan with a Vengeance : Over 150 Delicious, Cheap, Animal-Free Recipes That Rock. Da Capo, 2005.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World: 75 Dairy-Free Recipes for Cupcakes that Rule. Da Capo Press; Original edition (October 17, 2006)

Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar: 100 Dairy-Free Recipes for Everyone’s Favorite Treats. Da Capo, 2009.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook. Da Capo, 2007.

Carole Raymond. Student’s Go Vegan Cookbook: Over 135 Quick, Easy, Cheap, and Tasty Vegan Recipes. Clarkson Potter, 2006.

Mark Reinfeld and Jennifer Murray. The 30-Minute Vegan: Over 175 Quick, Delicious, and Healthy Recipes for Everyday Cooking. Da Capo, 2009.

Books on the Ethical Arguments for a Vegan Lifestyle

Peter Singer. Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001 (orig. 1975).

Peter Singer and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books, 2007.

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‘Health And The Human Diet’, Part Six

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6.0 - Nature’s Revenge: Disease

By now I hope that I’ve convinced you that the natural human diet ought not to include any animal products. But if you still need more evidence, maybe a brief trip through the world of American disease will do the trick. In this final section we will touch on some of the main findings affecting a handful of our most common and serious afflictions. This is far, far from exhaustive, and I have deliberately set aside data on a broad collection of illnesses, as well as much of the data that could further buttress the cases I am making here This section is included merely to demonstrate the health benefits of a paradigm shift away from meat and dairy products, and if this is not enough to shock you into action there are many books and journal articles available.

6.1 - Heart Disease

Heart disease is the number-one killer in America. Every single day more than 4,000 Americans will suffer a heart attack, and one third of them will die from it. Those who survive their first often go on to have a second or a third, until it finally does manage to kill them. In total, nearly a million people die each year from heart disease, not counting those killed by dependent complications. But heart disease, the term given to a wide range of disorders afflicting the cardiovascular system, is not remotely an inevitable outcome of old age, and the nonchalance with which we treat it now speaks volumes about the lack of historical perspective informing our health care standards.

Far from being a natural occurrence, heart disease is brought on by – you guessed it – the typical American diet, rich in animal proteins and fats, and far too low in fruits, grains, vegetables, and fibre. Most heart diseases are characterized by the interruption of blood flow somewhere in the body: when the blood supply to the heart is impeded, we call it a heart attack; when the blood flow to the brain is impaired, we call it a stroke. Loss of circulation in other parts of the body can lead to dozens of other problems, from blindness and deafness, to kidney failure and prostate enlargement, to erectile dysfunction. Witness the current craze, and ubiquitous advertising, for Viagra and Cialis. If you told American men that their eating habits made them impotent, would they rethink the macho image given to eating red meat with the evening meal?!

But what causes heart disease? The short answer is cholesterol. The human liver produces about 600 to 800 milligrams of cholesterol every day, which is then used throughout the body to manufacture hormones and cell membranes. Cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream packed into LDLs; these are the “bad cholesterol” factors. LDLs are actually cytotoxic when they contact the smooth walls of your arteries, and they often get stuck along the way; when they stick to the walls we call the resulting build-up plaque. Conversely, when cholesterol is shed by dead cells it is picked up by HDLs and eliminated. HDLs help us to keep down our blood cholesterol levels by picking up loose bits and moving them along.

When plaque builds on the artery walls it causes atherosclerosis, and as the amount of plaque in the arteries grows it obstructs the flow of blood through the body. At first the damage is slight, cutting down on blood-oxygen levels and leading to angina – a sharp pain in the chest that is usually triggered by a spike in blood flow (such as when a person is excited or active). But when the loss of blood to the heart has become more serious, it begins to wreak permanent damage on the heart’s tissues. When a heart attack occurs, a piece of the heart muscle itself has been destroyed!

As we have noted several times now, the human body produces all of the cholesterol it needs, and taking in more through diet is the principal factor in the development of heart disease. The average blood cholesterol level in Americans is 210, which is depressingly close to the average level of 244 found in heart attack patients. Whilst the government’s recommended maximum is still set at 200, most prevention-minded medical professionals now recommend that people keep their cholesterol level below 150. Unsurprisingly, the level found in vegetarians and vegans is very close to this. American vegetarians who still consume dairy products have an average cholesterol level of 161, whereas vegan average 133 – well below the level for preventive care.(18)

Depending on the study – and I have examined data from Germany, Japan, Britain, China, and the United States – one sees that the risk to vegetarians of developing heart disease is 50 to 60% lower than it is for meat-eaters. This gap widens further for vegans, whose saturated fat consumption averages about ten per cent that of the national average. Even more astonishing, it has been shown repeatedly that switching to a vegan diet can actually unclog congested arteries! That’s right: heart disease can be rolled back, simply by eliminating the meat and dairy in our diets and replacing it with the right sorts of plant foods.

A 1990 article details the results of a University of California programme intended to test the impact of diet on heart disease. Patients with plaque build-up significant enough to show up clearly on angiograms were split into two groups. The non-control group was given a low-fat vegetarian diet and then monitored over the course of a year. These patients had an almost immediate decrease in chest pains, and most became completely pain-free. Not only was there a predictable drop in blood cholesterol levels, but fully 82% of these patients showed a measurable reversal of their arterial blockage! The plaque simply broke loose and dissolved. The same could not be said for the control group using the standard treatments, the members of which – almost without exception – saw a worsening of their condition.

But before you think that the absence of cholesterol and fat are responsible for the reverse in heart disease, it should be understood that it is the totality of the vegan lifestyle that produced these results. If a reduction in cholesterol could cure heart disease, the medications that regulate cholesterol would already be able to bring folks back to full health. Rather, it is the combination of reducing heart-disease contributors like animal fat and cholesterol plus the addition of healthy plant-based foods rich in antioxidants and basic nutrients.

The programme for reversing heart disease that was developed by Dean Ornish involves a vegetarian diet which is close to being vegan, half an hour of exercise per day, no smoking, and involvement in some form of stress-reduction routine, such as meditation or a support group. The results that his patients have achieved over and above those achieved through following the regimen published by the American Heart Association are nothing short of remarkable. After five years, patients on the AHA diet see an average increase in arterial blockage of 28%, where Ornish’s patients see an average reduction of eight per cent. Overall, one out of every six patients on the AHA programme achieve some reversal of their atherosclerosis, but fully three out of every four patients on Ornish’s programme see their heart disease roll back.

One early factor in the subsequent progress of heart disease for many Americans is high blood pressure. This disorder, also called hypertension, increases the risk of heart attack and stroke by placing greater strain on the muscles regulating blood flow (i.e., your heart). We measure blood pressure with two numbers. The first, called systolic blood pressure, measures the surge of pressure accompanying every beat of your heart. The second, called diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in between beats, while the heart is resting. The best range is below 120 / 80, with 139 / 89 being normal, and anything at or above 140 / 90 classified as high blood pressure. Your systolic blood pressure increases slowly throughout your life, but a proper diet and sensible lifestyle will slow this down, appreciably increasing your lifespan.

Diet is not the only factor in hypertension, of course; lack of exercise and smoking greatly increase the likelihood of high blood pressure. But the biggest contributor for most sufferers is the sodium content of the American diet, from meats to heavily-processed packaged food. Keeping to a vegan diet will lower the viscosity (thickness) of blood, which alone will act to reduce blood pressure (thinner blood is easier to move through the body). But cutting down on salt intake is the more tangible benefit of the vegan lifestyle, since most of the staple food items are naturally very low in sodium.

A study in Britain compared 115 vegetarians and 115 meat-eaters who closely matched one-another in areas not related to diet. They found that the vegetarians had systolic blood pressure 9.3% lower, and diastolic blood pressure fully 18.2% lower. This is far from unique, and there are studies dating back nearly a century demonstrating the powerful impact of diet on hypertension. And, whereas the diastolic blood pressure of meat-eaters tends to rise over one’s lifetime, the diastolic blood pressure of vegetarians actually decreases in the last decades of life. This can be compared with studies undertaken in Polynesia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America, where individuals keeping to a traditional diet showed no increase in blood pressure with age – but where there was an increase in places where canned and processed foods, and refined salt and sugar, had been introduced. Once again, we see that our prosperity does not carry with it a reduced risk of disease, but an increased risk.

6.2 - Cancer

The number-two killer after heart disease is another disease of affluence. Cancer kills more than half a million Americans every year, and more than one million are receiving medical care for cancer on any given year in this country. Cancer, from the Greek karkinoma, is a group of approximately 200 diseases that are characterized by growths that appear in or on the body, and can very often lead to the patient’s death. They can be malignant or benign, i.e., they are not all able to spread and invade other tissues, and we are concerned here mostly with the type that can.

Cancer begins with a single abnormal cell, and from that grows and grows until a noticeable tumour has emerged. Normal cells include a pre-programmed lifespan, and cell-death (and replacement) is a normal part of life functions; but cancerous cells do not have any signals to stop or control their growth. These unmanaged growths can then attack healthy tissues, and eventually subvert a substantial part of your body’s metabolism in order to fuel their own growth. Worse, they can metastasise – or spread via the bloodstream – to other parts of your body, for example, skipping from your lung into your brain. Cancer research now consumes a massive proportion of medical research spending worldwide, and the media keeps obsessing over this search for a ‘cure’. In fact, since about half of all cancer types are currently considered incurable, it might make more sense to focus on prevention rather than cure – but then, there isn’t nearly as much money to be made that way…

This brings us to one aspect of cancer research that gets very little attention: the sharp correlation between the Western diet and the incidence of cancer around the world. Researchers studying cancer were often struck by its geographic focus: certain parts of the world were far more prone to cancer than others. This might seem to imply a genetic component, but this was cast aside after numerous studies looked for it. Parts of China that now eat like Americans get cancer like Americans, and the parts who still abstain from most animal products do not. Japanese figures tell the same story. Peter Cox reprints an age-standardized mortality ratio from colon cancer in his book, showing the Japanese (still living in Japan) at 1.9, but Japanese-Americans at 6.3 – far closer to the 7.9 score for European-Americans. The connexion should be obvious: abandon the traditional Japanese diet and your chances of dying from colon cancer more than treble.

A statistical survey of 41 countries shows the impact of regional diets in very stark terms. Countries where rice, maize, or beans constitute the primary form of nutrition have a noticeable reduction in the frequency of breast and colon cancer versus a world average. Conversely, those countries where meats form a substantial portion of the typical diet have an almost inversely proportional increase in the incidence of both cancers. In fact, a huge number of studies have linked cancer to the American diet. All of the following forms of cancer have been associated with the consumption of animal products, and very often with a corresponding deficiency in plant-based foods: bladder, brain, breast, colon, endometrial, intestinal, kidney, leukemia, lung, lymphoma, oralpharyngeal, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, skin, and stomach. So why do we never talk about the rôle of our diet in cancer prevention?

Environmental factors – including our diet – are the driving force behind cancer, easily edging out genetics. Most cancers are caused or exacerbated by exposure to pesticides and fungicides, radiation, ingested carcinogens, and industrial pollutants. Some of these are outside the reach of your diet, but a majority of them are linked up with what you eat (or smoke). Between 35 and 60% of all cancers are driven by diet, with another 30% coming from tobacco. The remainder are so slight as to be insignificant: three per cent from alcohol, three per cent from radiation, another two per cent from medications – that is, from drugs we were taking to fight another disease – and between one and five per cent from pollution. This imbalance, where almost 90% of the risk from cancer comes from our own choices, points up a distinction we should make between what initiates a cancer, and what promotes it; i.e., exposure to a carcinogen (many of which also come from what we eat) may put you initially at risk of developing cancer, but it is primarily your diet and lifestyle that determine whether or not a cancer will develop from that exposure.

Lifestyle choices bring to light another little-understood factor in cancer development: its possible infectious transmission. That’s right, we have a good many studies now that suggest certain forms of cancer can be taken in through environmental exposure. The National Cancer Institute conducted a survey of slaughterhouse workers in the period 1949 to 1980, and found that lymphatic cancer was nearly three times more prevalent in these workers than in the general population. That study’s conclusions suggested that the persistent exposure to cancer-ridden animals heightened the risk of cancer in the men who worked with them. And before you ask about cancer in animals, it is worth noting that approximately 20% of dairy cows in the United States have leukemia, and nearly all commercially-raised chickens are infected with the leucosis virus. So long as the animals are not killed by cancer before we slaughter them, industry seems not to care one way or the other.

But can we get cancer from eating cancer-infected meat and dairy products? The jury is still out on this, but time (and more research) will tell. Regardless of whether we can take in cancer itself, we can certainly increase the risk of it developing by eating carcinogen-laden foods. Dioxin, for example, which is a long-lived and highly toxic chemical, was identified by a 1998 German study as being responsible for up to 12% of cancers in the West. And the US Environmental Protection Agency has stated that about 95% of our dioxin exposure comes from red meats, fish, and dairy. John Robbins cites a 1999 study that discovered a level of dioxin 200 times greater than the EPA-determined ‘safe’ dose in a serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream!

But all of this heightened risk aside, the simple fact is that the engine of cancer is driven by a fruit and vegetable deficiency. No other single factor will have a greater impact on your susceptibility to most forms of cancer. The National Cancer Institute reports that 337 different studies all agree that large consumption of fruits and vegetables will protect against nearly every form of cancer! And it is far from just the vitamins at work, since most studies have shown little or no impact of vitamin supplements on cancer prevalence. What we need are more healthy foods, not pills to make us feel better about relying on junk and fast food as our staple diet. If we want to beat cancer, it seems quite clear that the first step must be to increase our dietary consumption of fresh – preferably raw – fruits and vegetables.

The reason for that lies in the need for a healthy immune system. The body relies on it to fight off infections as well as cancer cells. Without getting into arcane details, the B-cells and T-cells are lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that attack cells that do not belong in your system. Phagocytes are another type of white blood cell, and these are constantly on the look-out for problems that the T-cells and B-cells should target. An improper diet can impact the functioning of phagocytes and T-cells, and diminish the B-cells’ ability to make antibodies. This is just another way to say that a healthy body, i.e., one that gets the right nutrients, is better able to keep us from getting sick, and is better able to fight off cancers and prevent them from developing.

When you think of lung cancer, chances are you picture a heavy smoker – or perhaps an industrial worker – yet almost unmentioned is the positive relevance of diet in averting this deadly killer. One study found that individuals who frequently ate vegetables were between 20 and 60% less likely to contract lung cancer. And a heavy consumption of fruit reduces the risk by 40%. Put them together and you have an explanation for the German study which found lung cancer rates of vegetarian men to be just eight per cent that of the general population.

About 50,000 American women die of breast cancer each year – so many that we now observe ‘breast cancer awareness week’ and a pink-ribbon campaign is raising the disease’s profile nationally. Yet it is estimated that genetic susceptibility accounts for between two to five per cent of the disease total, and diet is hardly ever mentioned. Some basic statistics highlight this unreasonable neglect: breast cancer is three times more prevalent in Italian women who eat a lot of animal products, versus those who do not; it is 4.5 times more likely to occur in Uruguayan women who eat meat regularly, as against those who do not; and the breast cancer rate for meat-eating Japanese women, versus those who seldom or never eat meat, is 8.5 times greater! Charts that are reprinted in The China Study show that as the total animal fat intake increases from country to country so does the incidence of breast cancer. It is possible that breast cancer could be virtually eliminated simply by adopting a healthy, natural diet. So why are we spending billions of dollars on research for drugs to treat this easily-avoided disease? And why is no-one telling our nation’s women to eat better?

Men have their own common killer – prostate cancer. Here are two chilling statistics: men who consume large amounts of dairy products daily are at 70% greater risk of prostate cancer versus the general population; and men who consume soymilk daily are a 70% lower risk of prostate cancer! Low levels of beta-carotene increase prevalence by 45%, and abundant lypocene reduce risk by 45%, and both of these are present at more than sufficient levels in a vegetarian diet. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage reduce risk by another 40%. But as we all know, most American men are far too busy with red meat to take in enough vegetables, and awareness of the impact this priority imbalance has on cancer is next to zero.

As we noted early in this paper, meat products take too long to pass through the large intestines, and some parts never get through at all, staying with you for the rest of your life. This has a direct and powerful impact on colon cancer. Individuals eating poultry four times per week have a 200 to 300% greater risk of colon cancer versus vegetarians. Those eating red meat daily have a 250% greater risk versus vegetarians. Even infrequent consumption spikes the prevalence of colon cancer: eating chicken once per week increases the threat by 55%, and eating beef once per week increases it by 38%. Yet eating a diet rich in legumes will lower the risk by 50%, and taking in a healthy amount of folic acid (a B vitamin) will cut it by 75%. Studies in China and across Africa have also confirmed that a diet high in fibre dramatically decreases the risk of colon cancer. The reason should be obvious but is worth mentioning: more dietary fibre means more healthy bowel movements, and hence less rotting meat left in the colon. Better still is a diet high in fibre and no meat to push through! Failure to heed this simple correlation adds up to another 55,000 American lives lost each year, solely on account of our meat addiction.

Approximately 40% of all new cancer diagnoses in the United States are for breast, prostate, or colon cancer. If we are right, and the single largest factor in the spread of these diseases is a diet inappropriate to our physiology, then there is no excuse not to be talking about this, loudly. If we can prevent even a tiny fraction of that half-million new cancers appearing every year in this country, we need to be talking about this. Otherwise we may be committing a slow and expensive form of suicide.

6.3 - Kidney Stones

Acute renal colic, the term used for the pain involved in moving a kidney stone through the ureter from the kidneys to the bladder, may be one of the most intensely awful feelings experienced by human males; those who have experienced it will never forget. Unfortunately, that means a lot of people: approximately 15% of Americans, mostly men, will experience kidney stones during their lifetime.

Multiple studies have shown that kidney stones are caused by excessive levels of protein in the diet, which affects the way the body manages calcium levels. It is not, as some have thought, merely caused by calcium intake levels, despite the fact that most types of kidney stone are literally formed by calcium concretion. Reducing the dietary intake of calcium can be effective in preventing kidney stones, but only if this involves reducing the normal forms of calcium intake: high-protein dairy products.

An excess of protein in the system over time causes immense strain on the kidneys. It signals the bones to release calcium, which is needed to alkalinize this excess protein in the blood, resulting in an elevated levels of calcium in the urine. This can combine with oxalate, which also enters the system with the consumption of animal protein, to form kidney stones. Charts from long-term studies of animal protein in the UK are reprinted in The China Study, showing a remarkable correlation between rising animal protein consumption and increasing prevalence of urinary calculi, and with increased levels of calcium and oxalate in the blood. The work of W. G. Robertson, one of the world’s leading kidney experts and a researcher who has published more than 100 peer-review articles, has also demonstrated that diet is the main factor in stone recurrence. He has shown that patients who are treated for recurrent stones can solve their problem completely by abstaining from animal proteins.

Further, the emergence of kidney stones has been linked to the presence of free radicals in the body, which suggests that larger doses of antioxidant-containing plant foods will decrease the risk of stone formation. Once again, we can see that not only does an unnatural (meat-based) diet increase the risk of a disease, but that a proper (plant-based) diet actively works to prevent that disease.

6.4 - Diabetes

The United States is home to over seven million diabetics, ten per cent of whom are dependent on insulin injections, and the total number affected is climbing steadily. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that impacts a body’s ability to process carbohydrates for energy. Our metabolism typically works as follows: we eat something; the food is digested, with the carbohydrates broken down into simple sugars (glucose); that glucose enters the bloodstream, and insulin acts to deliver that glucose to cells, which use it for energy. Some glucose is used immediately to drive the body, while excesses are stored in fat deposits for later use.

The hormone insulin, produced in the pancreas, regulates the level of glucose in the blood by allowing that glucose to enter cells and provide energy. Glucose, or sugar, is our primary energy source; it is produced in plants through photosynthesis and is ingested by humans (and other herbivores) as a carbohydrate. If the operation of insulin is impaired, glucose builds up in the blood, leading to the elevated blood sugar (or hyperglycaemia) experienced by diabetics. This is caused by an excess of fat in the blood, which interferes with the ability of insulin to bind with cell receptors and allow glucose into the cells. Not only does this result in more fat deposits on the body, but the body is forced to rely more on fat stores for its energy, which can lead to diabetic acidosis; without insulin treatments, this can cause coma or death.

The overproduction of insulin, as the body tries desperately to manage its blood sugars, can also lead to hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar. That overproduction cannot do more than forestall the problems, however. Insulin becomes progressively less effective as the disease develops, and the high levels of insulin can trigger hormonal imbalances (and hence wild mood swings) as well as problems with blood cholesterol and the cardiovascular system as a whole.

As with most health complaints, Americans tend to treat their type 2 diabetes without addressing the problems which caused the disease to develop in the first place, so that the condition tends to worsen inexorably as the patient ages. It is typically assumed that diabetes results from an abnormally low level of insulin production, but this is blatantly false in type 2 diabetes. (Type 1 diabetes is characterized by a lack of insulin production, and is usually triggered by genetic anomalies or damage to the pancreas as through an infection.)

The real culprit in type 2 diabetes is the diminished effectiveness of insulin. In fact, type 2 diabetics generally have plenty of insulin, and often highly elevated levels of insulin, yet still cannot process glucose properly. This is described as insulin resistance, which is characterized by fatigue, dizziness, sweating, headache, memory problems, difficulties with concentration, and mental confusion. These symptoms are the main focus of diabetic medications. However, drugs cannot treat the underlying cause of the disease – a fat-rich diet – which means that diabetics are being condemned to a lifetime of expensive drugs and an impaired lifestyle.

The disease itself, in the sense of elevated blood sugar levels, seldom kills those suffering from it. Instead, complications in the overall health of the patient, which are either caused or exacerbated by diabetes, are to blame for the high death-toll of this rapidly-proliferating disease. For example, diabetes is the leading cause of terminal kidney disease, and increases the risk of stroke and fatal heart attack between two and four times. About 70% of all diabetics have some form of nervous system damage, and more than 70% have high blood pressure. Diabetes is also the leading cause of blindness, and of lower-limb amputation, and increases the risk of gum disease (thus driving up tooth loss).

Let’s look at one of these complications in more detail. We know already that excessive protein in the Western diet places an immense strain on the kidneys. This is important because diabetes itself places a strain on the kidneys, and the combination of this increased workload has frequently led to renal failure. Diabetes is the number one cause of kidney failure nationwide, and accounts for a majority of patients taking dialysis treatments. Once patients have found themselves on dialysis, they are forced to reduce their protein intake in order to keep down the frequency of treatments. Sadly, patients are seldom advised to cut their protein intake before kidney failure occurs. Doing so would dramatically decrease the pressure on a weakening kidney, thus helping to avert failure.

Diabetes is often treated with a diet that is low in carbohydrates and high in fat, such as the Atkins diet. This is sheer lunacy, and neatly inverted; a more sensible approach to diabetes management would focus more on fat intake than sugar intake. Careful research almost a century old, and frequently re-validated, demonstrate conclusively that glucose tolerance improves proportional to the replacement of animal fats with carbohydrates in the diet. Meaning that the carbohydrates which many diets ask you to reduce, on the justification that they are broken down into glucose thus raising blood sugar levels, actually have a positive effect for diabetics. This applies even to alcohol, which has long been considered off-limits for diabetics. It has since been demonstrated that, far from worsening the condition, a judicious and moderate use of alcohol in the diet actually improves insulin sensitivity! This is not to say that diabetics should all start drinking, but it does suggest that – once again – the standard medical ‘wisdom’ is out of step with the scientific evidence.

The diet recommended by the American Diabetic Association is in truth substantially flawed. A recent study conducted by the University of California showed that patients following a low-fat vegetarian diet lost weight much faster than those on the ADA diet, and while vegetarian cholesterol levels dropped substantially, those of patients on the ADA diet actually worsened! A vegan diet can be even more effective: a study in 2006 found that 43% of subjects with type 2 diabetes who kept to a vegan diet for 22 weeks reduced their need to take medications to manage the disease, compared with only 26% of those who followed the ADA diet.

That’s right: switching to a vegan diet may actually begin to correct your diabetes! This is an astonishing validation of recommendations first published in Julian Whitaker’s 1987 book Reversing Diabetes, and that book has since helped hundreds of thousands of Americans to reduce or eliminate their dependence on drugs. More recently, the path-breaking research of Neal Barnard has further bolstered the case for a vegan diet in the treatment of diabetes. Several studies have found that changing over to a starch-based, no-cholesterol, low-fat diet will reduce the insulin requirements of type 1 (childhood-onset) diabetes by 30%. The very same diet will almost eliminate type 2 diabetes, with 75% of patients no longer needing insulin, and 95% no longer needing pills to manage the disease symptoms!

A cursory review of the literature on diabetes turns up a great many supporting facts. For example, taking in sufficient quantities of dietary fibre – which is found only in plant-based foods – significantly decreases the risk of diabetes by lowering glucose levels in the blood. Taking in the wrong kind of dietary iron (i.e., heme iron, which is found in animal products) will increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Studies around the world have shown that the proportion of carbohydrates to animal products is inversely correlated with diabetes incidence. We could go on and on.

Finally, it is worth pointing up two well-known facts: that the risk of diabetes rises dramatically with obesity, and that it is much harder to end up overweight as a vegan. With fully 90% of diabetics meeting the clinical definition of obesity, this approach to treating diabetes can be substantially corroborated by the simple recognition that the weight-gain itself (and the lifestyle that produced it) underlie the whole modus operandi of the disease. The same eating habits that make you fat are the cause of diabetes, and changing those habits will eliminate both problems.

6.5 - Obesity

Do we even need to mention that Americans are the fattest people on Earth? This is an inevitable outgrowth of our combining unprecedented material wealth with a pretty thorough lack of wisdom. We naked apes seem to buy and eat whatever foods are placing in front of us and are made to taste appealing. By taking in huge amounts of zero-nutrient (i.e., junk) foods, and then avoiding physical activity to a greater and greater extent, we are swiftly transforming our society in the most appallingly negative ways. Roughly 40% of the American population is now obese, and if the current rate of increase stayed constant, by 2030 nearly the whole country would be obese.(19)

The simplest explanation for this has nothing to do with body type and genetic destiny, and has everything to do with the kinds of food we eat. Not only do we have the improper animal-based diet this polemic is assailing, but an ever-increasing proportion of our caloric intake comes from heavily processed foods. Joel Fuhrman has observed that fat is a very effective appetite stimulant, and that the more you eat, the more you want to eat. Excess dietary fat, particularly animal fat, and processed, packaged foods (i.e., refined carbohydrates) act in concert to stretch your waistline.

It works like this: Refined foods cause a spike in blood sugar levels, which triggers a surge of insulin from the pancreas to drive the sugar out. That insulin promotes fat storage on the body, and as fat builds up the insulin’s uptake efficiency is diminished, which leaves the sugar levels too high. This results in a vicious feedback loop, with more insulin being pumped out to compensate for its weaker effectiveness, and more fat being packed on because of that greater insulin level in the blood. With processed and refined foods taking up such a massive proportion of the American diet, is it any wonder that we’re all so fat, and that diabetes is now so common?

But it does not have to be this way. Even if we can be fairly certain that the majority of Americans will never care enough to spend the time researching what they are putting on their plate, we could solve much of the problem by adopting two simple rules: do not eat foods for which your body was not designed; and do not eat what isn’t food! If we simply avoided eating foods packed with garbage like high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and stayed away from animal products, not only would most of our health complaints disappear, but obesity would be as rare as the occasional hormonal imbalance or genetic defect would allow. Almost no-one would be fat. Given that our bodies are made to run on plant foods, we can process such a diet so effectively that most of us would find it pretty hard to pile on the pounds.

Despite the ease with which nature could keep us in shape, 95% of the people who end up obese stay that way, year in and year out, and this in spite of – or perhaps because of – a multi-billion dollar weight-loss business. Are we really going to allow countless companies to profit by our foolishness forever?

6.6 - Escherichia Coli 0157:H7

Better known as E. coli, this is an infectious health problem exclusively related to an animal-based diet. It most often enters the human body through the consumption of contaminated beef (usually hamburger or other ground beef) or through unpasteurized dairy products. As you may recall from the physiology section far above, the human stomach is not nearly acidic enough to kill all of the bacteria we introduce through our food, which means that factory-farmed meat products pose a particular health risk. The Centers for Disease Control report that 200 people contract E. coli poisoning every day in the United States, and several of these individuals die.

It is named for a class of normally-helpful rod-shaped bacteria which inhabit our intestinal tract and aid in digestion. This particular strain of E. coli is different; it attacks the lining of the colon, causing internal bleeding and discomfort. For most, the infection is not overly serious, and some may show almost no symptoms. Others report diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, and bloody stool.

But for a few, particularly children under five years old or persons with a depressed immune system, an E. coli infection can produce a complication called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS). This is a very serious disease in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail, and it can easily end in the patient’s death. Prolonged hospital stays are usually required, and care may involve blood transfusions and kidney dialysis. Most people can recover fully from HUS, but this depends largely upon the patient’s health overall.

The threat of E. coli infection has the meat industry calling for widespread irradiation of animal products, irrespective of the dangers this can introduce itself. It has also become standard practice to encourage the thorough cooking of meat to kill off the bacteria; while this may cut down on the meat-eater’s chances of contracting E. coli, it increases their risk of developing cancer.

6.7 - Alzheimer’s Disease

Speaking of hamburger diseases… Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disorder that progresses through stages of dementia and mental decline, and ultimately results in death. Alzheimer’s has gone from being completely unknown just one century ago, to being one of the most feared diseases afflicting the elderly in America, killing nearly 54,000 each year. The relative youth of this disease is particularly striking, and worth reiterating: there is nothing like it discussed in the medical, religious, or scientific literature prior to the twentieth century. Something appears to have changed to introduce this nightmare into the lives of senior citizens, and a large and growing body of research points to the shift in common Western diets.

In fact, recent and not-so-recent studies agree that a diet high in saturated fats more than doubles your chances of developing Alzheimer’s, whereas those with a very low intake of saturated fat – such as vegans – have a 70% reduction in risk. Not only have elevated levels of blood cholesterol been shown to have a marked effect on Alzheimer’s frequency, but higher intake levels of whole grains, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals found in a vegan diet have been shown substantially to reduce risk factors.

One of the promising correlations to have emerged points to elevated levels of the non-essential amino acid homocysteine as a central factor in determining Alzheimer’s frequency. Homocysteine is a temporary and chemically-reactive substance produced in the body by the transformation of methionine, another amino acid, which is itself found in high concentrations in meat and dairy products. Excessive homocysteine levels have been implicated in several health concerns, from cardiovascular disease to weakened cross-linking of collagen fibres, in addition to increasing the likelihood of Alzheimer’s. Switching to a vegan diet has been shown in some studies to reduce homocysteine levels by as much as 20% in only one week!

Another theory for Alzheimer’s involves the consumption of certain proteins called prions. These are misshapen versions of proteins routinely found in the central nervous system, and when prions come into contact with healthy proteins they deform them in a chain-reaction which steadily decreases the effectiveness of neurological functions. This point, along with the amino acid imbalance mentioned above, should suggest that whilst we may not yet have identified the precise mechanism used in Alzheimer’s, the links to meat and dairy consumption are clear.(20)

Even more intriguing are the potential links between Alzheimer’s and another degenerative condition: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It is becoming apparent that many Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia are actually suffering from CJD. An increasing body of evidence ties the specific effects of CJD to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and that disease to ‘Scrapie’, long a scourge to sheep farmers. Each disease attacks the brain in a very similar manner, and is transferred to a new victim through ingesting the meat of diseased cattle. (Kuru, a degenerative disorder once common in cannibal tribes of New Guinea, has a similar pathology.) It is this link which has inspired much of the response to ‘mad cow disease’ (BSE). The reason is simple: American cattle are routinely fed ‘ruminants’ – the leftover bits of other cattle. These herbivores-turned-cannibal are frequently eating diseased cattle, and since they – like us – cannot kill off the bacteria in the meat, they are easy prey to the disease.

The concern over linkage between these diseases is more than justified. It takes many years for the symptoms of CJD to show up, and neither the meat industry nor the United States government are taking sufficient precautions to keep contaminated meat out of the food chain. The USDA did not outlaw the use of so-called ‘downed cows’ until 2003, and studies in the past two years have shown that USDA inspectors still routinely allow these diseased animals to be slaughtered for food.(21) Worse, the USDA tests less than one per cent of slaughtered cows for BSE (as compared with 100% tested in Great Britain and Japan), and actually obstructs the testing of animals at the slaughterhouses, for fear of the economic impact of a panic in the American beef industry. This is a shameful dereliction of responsibility.

6.8 - Osteoporosis

Before we close this section, we’ll look back to a much earlier discussion of healthy calcium levels. There we talked about the part calcium plays in alkalinizing the blood, and pointed especially to the danger of introducing an inappropriate level of dietary protein as this causes the bones to excrete calcium to restore the proper pH levels. When this continues for too long, a condition called osteoporosis results, which is a fancy way of saying that your bones have become too thin and brittle.

Repeated epidemiologic studies of osteoporosis have demonstrated a connexion, not with low calcium intake, but with high levels of calcium loss in urination. Which means that an improper diet leads you literally to piss away your calcium! Grouped roughly in order of their severity, the following dietary factors have been proven to induce calcium loss in this way: animal protein, salt, caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol, nicotine, certain drugs and antacids, and vitamin A supplements.

Studies in China have shown that even with a calcium intake less than half of the American norm, though with almost none of it coming from dairy products, osteoporosis is extremely uncommon – and despite a very high life expectancy, especially amongst women (who are most at risk of osteoporosis in the United States). Uncommon, that is, amongst Chinese who keep to a more traditional diet; populations that adopt a Western diet high in protein and fat report rates of osteoporosis that are essentially identical to that in the West, proving there are no genetic factors involved.

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(18) By way of comparison, the average blood cholesterol level in the Philippines is 147, and in Ghana only 128.

(19) For those who care about such things, we’ll note quickly that there are two types of adipose tissue, or body fat, though we need concern ourselves with only one: adipocytes, or white fat cells. Without getting too technical, these are comprised of a large lipid droplet surrounded by cytoplasm, and they contain a semi-liquid material made of triglycerides and cholesterol ester. Your body has these spread in a thin sub-dermal layer, and provided their size and density are kept at a reasonable level they help us with temperature regulation.

(20) For an in-depth exploration, see Murray Waldman’s book Dying for a Hamburger.

(21) A ‘downed’ cow is an animal too sick to walk or stand. Recently the USG initiated the largest beef recall in American history after a hidden camera uncovered the use of diseased cattle in a major California abattoir.

This is article is continued in the next post; find it here.

‘Health And The Human Diet’, Part Five

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5.0 - Childhood Nutrition: A Brief Excursus

In the section following this one I will discuss a handful of major diseases afflicting our nation, but before we get to them I wanted to point out the rôle that childhood nutrition plays in setting us up for those diseases. The simple fact is that most parents are harming their children, directly, measurably, and in many cases, permanently. No parent wants to hurt their child; what we are facing here is a case where not knowing something can and will harm the people we care for most. There are two factors at play here: we do not give children the nutrition that they need, and we given them plenty of things they should never have.

It is an inescapable fact, given an expanding body of scientific studies, that what we feed to children early in life can set them up for diseases much, much later. By not providing adequate nutrients during the period when the cellular structure is being laid down, we are creating an environment that is very hospitable to cancer. Your child’s diet will have a massive impact on their likelihood of developing cancer as an adult. As adults we simply cannot do as much to reduce risk factors, because the basic conditions that will persist throughout life are put in place during the first decade or two of life.(17)

Cancer is one thing, but what about the risk of heart attack or stroke? Heart disease commonly follows from the build-up of plaque in the arteries; this is not a function of age, but merely of diet. American soldiers as young as 18 killed during the Korean War were found on autopsy to have a highly advanced form of atherosclerosis, and I have seen one paper suggest that more than 60% of children under ten years old have some evidence of atherosclerosis.

But it’s not just the big killers that we need to worry about. Allergies and asthma are becoming increasingly common, and again we suspect that diet is to blame. Milk and eggs are major triggers for allergies, and studies on children who are not fed dairy products (other than mother’s milk, of course!) in the first year of life are far less likely to develop allergies or asthma.

Let’s boil this down to a few simple numbers, just to be clear. Joel Furhman points out that only two per cent of the dietary intake for children from the developed world comes from plant-based foods. Given that such foods contain all of the nutrients the human body needs to develop properly, that figure is appallingly low. American children now move into adulthood with 90% of their diet filled up with dairy products, white flour, sugar, and oil! Even small children are affected by this imbalance, with 25% of toddlers eating no fruits or vegetables at all.

The replacements for healthy plant foods are animal products and ‘junk’ foods, which do not provide the range of nutrients that a body needs in order to grow up healthy and strong. Not only do we see this in rising levels of childhood illness and obesity, but much of the current rash of adult-onset diseases can be traced to inadequate nutrition when the body needed it most. And it is to those diseases that we now turn.

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(17) Many studies claim that diets in the first ten years of life have by far the greatest impact on life-long health, but others claim that choices made throughout the first 25 years or so (i.e., until growth finally stops) are still very important for reducing risk factors.

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‘Health And The Human Diet’, Part Four

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4.0 - Eating to Live: The Rôle of Basic Nutrients in Human Health

In this section we will discuss some of the clear facts about the appropriate human diet, and contemplate some of the implications of continuing to ignore those facts. The scientific idea of the human omnivore depended upon certain assumptions based upon what humans actually drew nutritionally from meat sources, such as very high levels of protein. This has historically blinded experts to the actual requirements of the human body, and to the damage caused by overstepping those requirements. In this section we will survey a number of common nutrients – and common dietary forms of many – and address the routine myths and misconceptions associated with them.

As an aside, just to show the direct correlation between diet and human health, it is worth mentioning that even intelligence is partially determined by what we eat. Studies have shown that memory and brain function are boosted by eating carbohydrates in the morning meal. Inadequate carbohydrates in the diet essentially cut off the sugars that the brain needs to function. Animal-derived fats, on the other hand, cut down on the brain’s energy supply and promote insulin resistance (a factor in diabetes). Excessive weight also cuts into mental functioning by making it harder for the circulatory system to supply the brain with blood and oxygen. A study conducted by the American Dietetic Association showed that whilst the average I.Q. of American children as a whole was 99, the average I.Q. of vegetarian children was 116.

4.1 - Amino Acids

The human body mixes and matches about twenty separate amino acids to create proteins, but nine of these are not produced (synthesized) within the body and must be taken in through diet. The levels of each amino acid, essential and non-essential, have serious implications for health overall, and a proper diet should ensure that adequate levels of these essential amino acids are consumed, and that excessive levels of these amino acids (and of the others) are avoided.(11)

It is important to bear in mind that plants are the original sources of all amino acids, and it is not necessary to consume animal products to acquire them (the animals we eat did not do so, either). On the contrary, high-protein animal products can introduce vastly elevated levels of certain amino acids – since they are used to make proteins, this should not surprise us – and elevated levels are a key factor in many diseases.

4.2 - Proteins

The most frequent objection people have given me for a meat-free diet is a perceived lack of sufficient protein. The truth is that most of us take in too much protein, and that the concentrations found in animal products can lead to significant health issues. But we should first look at the evidence for a low-protein diet.

A Danish nutrition study in the 1960s reported on the energy output and endurance levels of athletes using a stationary bicycle. Those participants on a diet of cereal grains, fruits, and vegetables clocked an average of 2 hours 47 minutes. Those on a mixed diet including animal products only reached 1 hour 54 minutes. Those on a high-protein animal diet including milk, meat, and eggs managed only 57 minutes on the bicycle. That’s a nearly two-thirds reduction in energy levels!

The simple truth is that plants contain more than adequate amounts of protein for even the most strenuous levels of human activity. The primary sources of protein in our natural diet are legumes, nuts, and grains. Kerrie Saunders gives the following examples of food choices, highlighting the percentage of total calories from protein: beans – 26%; oatmeal – 16%; whole wheat pasta – 14%; corn (maize) – 12%; potatoes – 11%; rice – 8%. Given that a salubrious diet should acquire no more than 15% of total calories from protein, these sources should prove that plant-based foods contain more than enough. By contrast, we can note the following protein levels in animal foods: lobster – 88%; turkey – 68%; chicken – 61%; pork – 42%; beef – 26%; whole milk – 21%. With these in the diet,we can see how easy it is to slip over the desirable percentage of protein in total calorie intake.

We know that taking in too many fats or carbohydrates results in the accumulation of fat deposits on the body. This can lead to a wide range of health complaints, but is nowhere near as harmful as excessive protein consumption. Unlike fats, the body cannot store extra protein, and it is consequently forced to process all of the proteins which enter the system. This places immense strain on the kidneys, which over time can lead to kidney failure. In fact, the protein intake level that is recommended for those patients in kidney failure – 0.55 grams per kilogram of body weight – is actually the same as the international guidelines for a healthy person’s diet! Needless to say, the American diet includes far more. What possible justification is there for waiting to adopt a diet appropriate to your body’s capabilities until after your kidneys are collapsing under the strain?

4.3 - Calcium

Protein does more than harm the kidneys, though. For decades we have been told that in order to prevent bone deterioration a very high daily calcium intake is necessary, when in fact we can obtain all the calcium we need from vegetable sources, and those populations with the highest calcium intake also suffer from the highest levels of osteoporosis. The problem lies in the sources of calcium in the Western diet: protein-rich animal products. These actually cause the body to lose essential minerals – not only calcium, but magnesium, zinc, and iron, too.

As a glance at the supplements section in your local grocery store can attest, and at the labels on the beverage bottles, we have chosen to make up for this loss through ever higher calcium intakes. And since the most common source of normal calcium is dairy products, which are high in protein and fat, we only make the problem worse. The problem here is that the body must maintain a careful balance of pH levels in the blood, and any change forces the introduction of an alkalinizing agent. The most readily-available source is the calcium which is stored in our bones, meaning that when you take in too much protein – even when that protein comes from dairy products high in calcium – your body is stripping calcium from your bones in order to restore the acid balance in your blood.

A high-calcium diet during childhood is also unnecessary, contrary to the received wisdom. Studies amongst the Bantu-speaking populations of Africa document a daily calcium intake of approximately one-quarter the recommended minimum: a mere 350 mg compared to the minimum Western recommendation of 1200 mg. Yet their children never experience calcium deficiency, seldom break a bone or lose a tooth, and grow up fit and strong – all without drinking milk. The secret? A diet low in protein, which allows the body to retain its calcium. The inescapable conclusion is that calcium deficiency and osteoporosis are a direct result of a meat and dairy-rich diet, and that milk is not good for your children.

4.4 - Dairy Products

Having broached the subject, however, let us briefly consider milk. We are raised with it as such an unquestioned part of the human landscape that we never stop to question what it is. At its most fundamental level, cow’s milk is a protein and fat-rich product of modified sweat glands, produced by female mammals for the purpose of feeding their young. The bodies of humans are adapted to consuming this for the first few years of life, and then a gene switch changes the way that milk is processed by the body. Of course, it is worth noting that humans are only supposed to consume the milk of their own species. Numerous studies have shown that non-human milk in baby formula can lead to asthma, allergies, and a whole host of other diseases, and that human breast milk from a mother eating a healthful diet provides optimum nutrition for any infant.(12)

But back to cows. Milk is taken from cows that have recently given birth; in order to keep them producing milk, dairy cows are impregnated each year through artificial insemination. The calves are then taken from their mothers, generally within one day; the females are reared as new dairy cows, while the males are killed to make veal. The milk which is produced to nourish those children is then taken from them with machines, and processed for human consumption. Dairy cows have a relatively brief lifespan; once their bodies are exhausted from repeated pregnancies, they are slaughtered for meat.

This is important to our argument in this paper for two main reasons. First, to remind the reader that cows do not willingly produce milk for humans, and that our drinking their milk is no more natural than would be killing a litter of puppies and suckling on your family dog’s teat. And secondly, we need to highlight the conditions under which the milk you drink is produced, for it has a significant impact on its qualities. Most dairy cows are cloistered in narrow stalls, spend their lives standing in deep pools of faeces, and are dependent upon drugs to counteract the negative impact of this environment on their health. These factors have a measurable effect on the milk they produce. Milk, as it comes from the cows, contains pus, dead cells, bacteria, pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically-engineered growth hormones that are increasingly linked to disease in human and cow alike.

The chemicals that are injected into the cows routinely pass into the milk they produce. But by itself it already packs a wallop, providing massive injections of fat and cholesterol, and contributing to heart disease and weight-gain. Bovine milk protein destroys the insulin-producing beta cells of the human pancreas. The consumption of milk is directly implicated in childhood allergies, asthma, colds & congestion, earaches, headaches, colic and colitis, osteoporosis, diabetes, and cancer.

And for all of that, milk isn’t even a good source of calcium! A 1995 study found that humans absorbed only 25% of the calcium contained in milk, but absorbed 42% of the calcium in apple juice. According to another study, the following percentages of calcium absorption were documented: Brussels sprouts – 63.8%; mustard greens – 57.8%; broccoli – 52.6%; turnip greens – 51.6%; kale – 50%; cow’s milk – 32%. Not only do we need less calcium than the dairy lobby would have you believe, but we do not process the calcium in dairy products nearly as efficiently as we do the calcium found in our natural (vegan) diet. Dairy cows obtain all of their calcium from plant sources, and so can we.

But arguably the worst aspect of our dairy addiction is its activity at the level of our genes. Many dairy cows are now treated with a Monsanto product called recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH. Cows so treated have been shown to possess massively elevated levels of the growth hormone IGF-I (insulin-like growth factor I) in their milk. IGF-I is, in fact, not just found in cows: it is the exact same hormone found in humans – it is the same 70 amino acids in the same gene sequence. If this hormone has a measurable effect on a cow’s body, why should it surprise us that this hormone will bind to the appropriate receptors in us? In fact we know that it does, and it is only through a web of sleazy deals and ideological blindness that rBGH use has been able to take over the US dairy market, in spite of concerns in Europe and a mountain of evidence linking it to cancer proliferation.(13)

4.5 - Fats

Given the complexity of the issue and the potential for errors (I’m a historian, not a physician!), I will stick to the basics in this area. Fats (which is short for fatty acids) come in two general categories, saturated and unsaturated, with the latter broken into a number of sub-categories. I will talk briefly about each and note common dietary sources. The important thing to bear in mind throughout is that fats are a normal part of the human diet, and it is only the kind and quantity of fat that need concern us.

Saturated fats are by far the worst (natural) type you can take in, and most studies have shown that as the proportion of saturated fats decreases (and is replaced by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) the likelihood of many diseases begins to slip away. Saturated fats are associated with greatly increased risk of atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, and coronary heart disease, among other things, and have a direct impact on the level of cholesterol in the blood. The most common sources of saturated fats are meat and dairy products (especially butter, cheese, and cream, as well as chocolate), but they are also found in some natural oils (coconut, palm kernel, and cottonseed). The American Heart Association recommends that these fats comprise no more than seven per cent of total calorie intake, but in general the lower you can bring your intake level the healthier you will be. Saturated fats are not good for you!

Monounsaturated fats are another thing entirely. Although they have been shown to increase insulin resistance (a factor in diabetes), they have a positive effect on cardiovascular health. Numerous studies have shown that they can lower your “bad” cholesterol (LDLs, or low-density lipoproteins) and raise your “good” cholesterol (HDLs, or high-density lipoproteins). The LDLs transport cholesterol to the arteries, where it can build up and cause atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, and so forth. HDLs, on the other hand, actually pick up free bits of cholesterol and carry it with them, preventing it from bonding to the artery walls. Monounsaturated fats are an important component in the traditional Mediterranean diet, which has been proven to carry with it a far lower incidence of heart disease. In reasonable amounts, therefore, the monounsaturated fats are actually good for you. Common dietary sources include things like nuts and avocados(14), and the healthier oils (olive, canola, flaxseed, sesame, and even peanut).

Polyunsaturated fats are also generally salubrious, and in moderate quantities have been shown to decrease blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease. As with nearly anything, however, too much is bad for you; excessive intake of polyunsaturated fat has been linked to the generation of ‘free radicals’ (more on these below), and hence to an increase in susceptibility to certain cancers. The polyunsaturated fats are usually taken in the form of either omega-6 or omega-3 fatty acids. The important point is the proportion of omega-6 to omega-3; whereas the optimum ratio is thought to be four to one or lower, the typical American diet is about ten to one, and can range as high as 30 to one! There is just no shortage in our diets of the common sources of omega-6, which is taken in primarily through cereal grains, but is also found in nuts, soybeans, and fish oil.

Omega-3 fatty acids are likewise healthful in moderate amounts. The body converts omega-3s into docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, which helps to reduce the level of triglycerides in the blood. DHA is especially critical for the brain development of foetuses and newborn babies, and is useful in maintaining the brains and retinas of adults. In addition to nuts and fish (as above), omega-3s are found in flaxseed oil (a very good choice for supplements) and in some berries (such as raspberries and lingonberries). Again, the most important thing to remember is the proportion of omega-6 to omega-3, and for the typical American diet that means cutting back on omega-6 and adding more omega-3.

Finally, we need to comment on a scourge of the American processed food industry. Trans fats are created through the partial hydrogenization of plant oils; in essence, this tries to make the unsaturated fats more saturated, turning a healthful food item into a killer. Trans fats have no place in the human diet, and should be avoided entirely if possible. Items using partially hydrogenated oils contribute to higher LDL levels and greatly increase the risk of heart disease. The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that these fats are unsafe in any quantity, and parents would do well to check the packaging on common processed food items in order to weed these out.

We need to be concerned with more than just dietary fats; we also need to watch the fat on our own bodies. But I will take the topic up later, in the section on diseases.

4.6 - Vitamins and Minerals

I’m sure we all learned from early childhood that fruits and vegetables have a lot of vitamins in them. This is one part of the conventional wisdom which has not been overturned by later studies; plant-based foods remain the single best source of the full range of vitamins and minerals that human beings need for optimum health. We will discuss only a few of these here.

It is commonly believed that iron must come from animal products in order to be useful to humans, but this is inaccurate. Absorption levels of iron depend upon both the overall level in the system (a body deficient in iron will absorb more of it through food), and upon the levels of certain other dietary factors. Vitamin C, for example, has been proven to improve the absorption of iron, whilst caffeine diminishes it. Since approximately five per cent of the population (irrespective of diet) has some degree of iron-deficiency anaemia, we should all monitor our levels of it.

Early studies of vegans often turned up a vitamin B12 deficiency, which did have a negative impact on health. As it turns out, B12 is readily available if you are living in the wilds like (other) animals, but less so for those of us living in the industrialized world. The reason is that B12 is produced by bacteria naturally present in water, rich soils, and many plants – but the chemicals used in modern farming, and the processing of water before consumption, all-but eliminate B12 from our diet. If we were eating like our ancient ancestors, we would be taking in sufficient amounts of B12 from the dirt on potatoes and in the grooves of carrots, and by drinking from rivers and lakes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not planning on drinking from any lakes around here! Even if we wanted to pick up B12 from natural sources, the contaminants would (or should!) discourage us. Fortunately, a great many vegan products are fortified with B12; check the labels on your soy milk and you’ll probably find it.

Vitamin D helps to regulate blood clotting, optimizes nerve and muscle function, and helps to keep the immune system in tip-top shape. More importantly, it is vital to the remineralization of bones, as it is a primary factor underlying the absorption of calcium and phosphorus. It is normally synthesized in the body under exposure to sunlight, and the most desirable amount of time spent in the sun varies according to skin tone and climate. When insufficient quantities are produced, as in the case of older individuals (whose bodies do not produce it as efficiently) and those in areas of lower sunlight, it may be prudent to seek additional levels from food sources. Vitamin D is often added to milk, but it is not naturally found there; it is added during processing. Many vegan products are similarly fortified, but good natural sources include certain mushrooms and cereal grains.

Most vegans routinely exceed the daily requirements for everything from vitamin C to folic acid, and it is worth noting that very few of the common plant-based nutrients can lead to harm when taken in excess. Indeed, there is good anecdotal evidence that overshooting the daily recommended allowances of many of these can reduce susceptibility to a variety of common ailments. For myself, I have found a drastic reduction in the number of days per year that I have a cold or flu since I started supplementing my diet with whole-food vitamins.(15) Incidentally, for those considering the use of a vitamin and mineral supplement, I would recommend highly the ones that are comprised of natural plant elements, as this dramatically improves the percentage of nutrients successfully absorbed by the body. Chemically-derived supplements like Centrum are not nearly as effective (in my not-so-humble opinion!).

4.7 - Cholesterol

Cholesterol has no place in our diet and should be kept to an absolute minimum. We make all of the cholesterol we need, and taking in additional cholesterol from animal products only clogs the arteries. It probably goes without saying, but blocked arteries lead to heart disease, stroke, and impotence. The average cholesterol level for all Americans is 210. Vegetarians, who continue to take in cholesterol from dairy, still see reduction to an average level of 161. But American vegans, who have removed all of the cholesterol from their diet, have an average of only 133. Needless to say, this puts them at a much reduced risk of heart attack and stroke. I’ll have more to say about this in the section on heart disease.

4.8 - Carbohydrates

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the proper rôle of carbohydrates in the human diet. In their natural form they are not bad for you, much less fattening. Complex carbohydrates are, in fact, the body’s single most effective source of energy, and are essential to normal functioning. The trouble with carbohydrates has nothing to do with them as a food source, and everything to do with food processing. Refined carbohydrates are found in things like packaged foods, snack foods, candies, and many bread products. These are genuinely bad for you, and have been connected to many of the diseases I will mention below (and many that I will not). They are also extremely fattening, as they produce a spike in blood sugar levels, which in turn sparks insulin release in a process I will describe later.

Complex carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in order to produce the energy molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is what keeps us moving. Carbohydrates are the most efficient sources of ATP available to us, and limiting their place in our diet forces the body to produce its energy from less sanguine elements. Naturally-occurring complex carbohydrates have their sugars packed into a fibrous structure, which helps to space out the glucose release and keep down the insulin production. This serves to regulate the body’s energy supply throughout the day in an efficient and healthy manner. The closer you can get to the natural state of these carbohydrates the better, and good sources include oatmeal, cornmeal, bran, rice, maize (corn), potatoes, lentils, barley, and wheat germ. Common products comprised of complex carbohydrates include high-fibre breakfast cereals, whole-wheat pasta, some granola bars, instant oatmeal, and wholegrain breads.

Having said all of that, the Atkins diet should be singled out for particular criticism. This popular approach to weight loss has absolutely no scientific basis for its claims, and has been tied to a huge list of long- and short-term health risks. The principle behind the Atkins diet and other low-carbohydrate plans is simple: by cutting down on the amount of dietary carbohydrates, the body is forced to turn to other energy sources, such as protein and fat. Their claim is that, with the body processing fat for energy, weight loss is dramatic. However, whilst there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that weight loss is quite rapid, most studies have shown that the weight lost is quickly regained, and that overall weight loss is no better than in any other diet plan. Indeed, the biggest factor appears to be limiting calorie intake, and the Atkins diet performs no better here than competing plans.

Where carbohydrate-reduction diets do excel is in the destruction of human health. These diets have not been practised long enough for scientific studies to track the health of users over any significant amount of time, but the evidence from general studies of diet – where the relative predominance of various food groups can be compared with health overall – have raised significant questions about the impact of reduced-carbohydrate diets. In fact, most dieticians agree that a diet based upon the foods recommended in the best-selling book Dr Atkins Diet Revolution increases the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, several forms of cancer, osteoporosis, and decreased kidney function.

Additionally, the participants in a six-month study of low-carbohydrate diets showed a marked increase in cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and reported increased levels of headache and digestive troubles, including constipation. This should hardly be surprising, given what we observed earlier about the foods which the human digestive system is designed to process. Indeed, as one source after another has shown, as the proportion of protein and fat in the diet increases, so too does the prevalence of digestive complaints.

4.9 - Antioxidants

Antioxidants are the chemical mixtures that underlie photosynthesis, and give to plants their various colours. Plants use them to protect their inner workings from the complex reactions that turn sunlight into glucose (energy), and thence into carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. This shield of antioxidants acts to prevent stray electrons from smashing about and creating ‘free radicals’. Many of them produce distinctive colours in their hosts, such as the red of the tomato’s lypocene, the yellow of the squash’s beta-carotene, and the orange of the (duh!) orange’s crytoxanthins. How is this relevant?

A number of diseases have now been linked to the spread of free radicals in the body. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules produced naturally within the body which, as they build up over time, can impair mental functioning and compromise health overall. For example, free-radical damage has been noted in the neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s sufferers. Our bodies create free radicals at fairly low levels throughout our lives, but exposure to sunlight and industrial pollutants can increase them dramatically.

However, we do not produce any natural barriers to free radicals. We need to take in a steady supply of them through plant-based foods, in order to shore up our defences against the damage caused by free radicals. Studies have shown that individuals with higher concentrations of antioxidants have a far lower incidence of dementia in old age, for example. Antioxidants, such as vitamins C & E and beta-carotene, are found only in fruits, grains, and legumes.(16)

4.10 - Fibre

Fibre is actually a complex carbohydrate, but its special properties seem to warrant a separate section. Fibre is what makes the cell walls of plants rigid, and it is found only in plant-based foods. We do not actually digest most of the fibre we take in, but it is an absolutely essential element in a healthy diet.

Soluble fibre (i.e., fibre that breaks down in water) helps to decrease LDL cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure. It is also useful in treating diabetes, by making insulin work more efficiently. Common sources of soluble fibre include beans, oats, lentils, carrots, peas, maize (corn), barley, citrus fruits, apples, and strawberries.

Insoluble fibre, sometimes called roughage, is more coarse, and is not digested at all. The body uses it to draw water into the intestines, which keeps things moving on through. More importantly, it can collect ingested carcinogens and carry them right out of the body, helping to prevent countless diseases. Without consuming a sufficient amount of dietary fibre we leave ourselves open to constipation-based diseases, such as colon cancer, haemorrhoids, diverticulosis, and varicose veins. Common sources of insoluble fibre include whole grains, rye, wheat bran, rice, cabbage, turnips, beets, cauliflower, carrots, and the skin of most fruits.

Fibre also dilutes the caloric density of food, which helps to shut down the appetite and make us feel full. And contrary to earlier Western theories, high doses of fibre to not decrease iron absorption into the blood. This means that increased fibre consumption can safely help in weight-loss plans, and bring along the added benefit of better digestion and fewer toxins.

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(11) The following nine amino acids are considered essential for humans: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

(12) It is perhaps worth stressing here that human infants absolutely should be drinking their mother’s breast milk. It is the products of other animals that we should be avoiding, not the natural products of our own procreative cycle.

(13) As well as lowering the age at onset of puberty in human females.

(14) Though we’ll note that avocados also contain saturated fat, and should be eaten sparingly.

(15) Having grown up without a lot of fruits and vegetables in my diet, there are a good number that I still cannot stomach. As I gradually improve my diet, I have been hedging my bets with a good selection of vitamin and mineral supplements. These have been dropping away over the years as my overall food selection improves.

(16) Animals do not produce antioxidants, but trace amounts can occasionally be found in animal products; having been taken in from plants, small quantities were absorbed into the tissue.

This is article is continued in the next post; find it here.

‘Health And The Human Diet’, Part Three

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3.0 - Historical and Physical Anthropology: An Introduction

The idea that humans are omnivores is very old: as old as the idea of classifying creatures by their diet. Yet it is also false. The reasons underlying the human diet are historical, not biological. Until relatively recently, most scientists were as much affected by the cultural construction of the human omnivore as the rest of us, and gave a slanted appraisal of the facts. I remember my junior college anthropology textbook talking about the essential amino acids that could only be found in animal products, and of how the increased demands of pregnancy, lactation, or disease make a wholly vegetarian diet difficult to sustain. A very large number of careful studies in the past three decades have shown this picture to be hopelessly flawed.

Its origin, however, is not in any doubt. Human beings have hunted for far longer than recorded history, and all of the evidence surrounding the development of our particular hominid species is bound up inseparably with a hunter-gatherer existence. Earlier in the evolutionary record this evidence disappears, as well it should given that primates are singularly ill-suited to a carnivorous existence. The primate physique is ideal for climbing and acrobatics, but does not have the high-speed sprinting of a cat or the long endurance of a dog; in fact, primates have none of the generally-recognized physical attributes of carnivores, as the section above should have made clear.

3.1 - Hunting: Basic Adaptations to a Changing Landscape

But as we were saying, the picture of humans as hunters and meat-eaters is as old as humans beings themselves. Early Homo sapiens, and perhaps some earlier hominid types, lived as hunter-gathers, where scanty meat provided by male hunters supplemented the main dietary staples plucked from the earth by the women and children. The early human diet consisted primarily of nuts, fruits and berries, buds and shoots, tubers and roots. This is apparent in the high nutritional content of all of these foods to-day, with fruits and nuts being among the very best things you can feed yourself. This diet was supplemented by small quantities of meat, primarily from birds and eggs, reptiles, insects, fish and molluscs, and small mammals. The driving force behind the addition of these things to the human diet was environmental circumstance, pure and simple; it came about through necessity, not nature.

The short version of this story, so as to avoid a lengthy detour into anthropology, goes something like this. The earliest species now considered to be in the human family is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, which lived approximately seven million years ago. If this specimen proves not to be a direct precursor, falling back to better-established fossils would still place the earliest humans into the six-million-plus range. There are likely several species for which we have substantial evidence that are not, in fact, direct relations, as the transition that our ancestors made was undoubtedly made more than once, though ours is the only branch to have been preserved. But by the time we get to the species that are grouped into our own genus, such as Homo habilis and Homo ergaster, which began to appear around two million years ago, the line of descent has become fairly clear.

Back at around the time of Sahelanthropus, six to seven million years ago, Africa had been slowly drying for several million years. Where once the continent was covered in lush, green forests and ample vegetation, large patches of drier country with only seasonal rainfall were breaking up the landscape. With climate change shrinking their habitats, many populations of early human would have been forced to the edges of the forests, and then slowly out onto the open plains and savannahs where they were in direct competition with other animals for scant resources. Those species who remained in the forests gave rise to the other remaining great apes, whereas those who proved adaptable and clever enough to survive outside of the forests gave rise to us.

The limited availability of previous staples such as fruits forced us to compete with the great cats and other carnivores for meat. The shift to a carnivorous diet was therefore driven by necessity, not by choice or suitability. Once out of the forests and wandering the wider world, humans were forced to continue this pattern of infrequent meat consumption in order to maintain sufficient nutrient levels – at least until the development of settled agriculture around 10,000 years ago (a period called the Neolithic age).

The important fact to note here is that the change in our diets took place sufficiently long ago to have led to adaptive changes in our behaviour, but not nearly long enough to have altered many of the fundamental, internal characteristics of our bodies. There has simply been no evolutionary need. The other great apes have remained within the warm embrace of dense and fertile jungles, and eat a diet largely consisting of fruits and nuts. Like us, they are adapted to eating small, frequent meals, and cannot tolerate large quantities of protein or saturated fats. Humans also share much of their natural personality with the apes, from our individualism to communal organization.(8)

Human beings, however, are a singularly violent species of ape, and this anomaly can be explained by the adaptive changes in personality wrought by a migration from the verdant environment of a primaeval jungle onto the jealously-guarded carnivore territory of the open plains. Forced to compete with these specialized animals, humans began to utilize their larger brains to work around the absence of natural hunting ability, through tool-use and labour division. Human males set out to kill wild animals, bringing these back to supplement the diet gathered by the females – mainly nuts, fruits, roots, and grains. Thus human beings came to supplement their natural diet, which was found in far shorter supply in this challenging environment, with a new food source: animal proteins and fats.

This led humans to develop characteristics unique amongst the apes, such as coöperative hunting and territorial instincts. Changes such as this are comparatively easy to effect through natural selection. Adapting the body to its new diet would prove far more difficult. The digestive system of human beings was fashioned over many millions of years of evolutionary changes and competitive pressures, and whilst the new animal-based diet was harmful to overall health, its effects are often felt most acutely later in life. And it is a simple fact that our ancestors did not live very long; they were cut down by disease, starvation, violence, or bad luck. But biologically speaking, and in terms of natural selection, a being is successful if it lives long enough to reproduce, and this we can do in despite our poor diet. Evolution, then, had no reason to favour adaptation to this diet, since the organism was already working well enough.

Many of these newly-’carnivorous’ apes would have died from bacterial infections taken in through meat, but enough would survive to guarantee the next generation. When we combine the extreme brevity of life which would have made diabetes or heart failure comparatively infrequent, with the knowledge that earlier human populations took in far less meat than we do and that this meat was leaner than factory-farmed meat, we can see that evolution would have had little impact on our digestion. Besides, if it had been necessary to develop a carnivore’s specialized internal adaptations in order to survive in some fashion on a diet that included meat, we would simply have gone extinct.

One area in which we have differentiated ourselves from other great apes is in our sub-dermal fat layer. This is a cluster of fat deposits stored around the body which allow us to horde energy supplies for periods of reduced food intake. The evolutionary logic for this fat is obvious: once out on the open plains we were no longer guaranteed a regular food supply, and needed to adapt to cycles of feast and famine. This is one of the very few ways in which humans resemble some carnivores. As these natural hunters cannot be assured of a regular kill, many are equipped with a very large stomach and are able to gorge themselves and then survive for many days without eating.

Humans, however, did not develop the larger stomach because the food that we would stuff ourselves with is not meat, but carbohydrates. We have the ability to turn an excess of plant foods into fat, and store this for almost-certain periods of scarcity over the long millennia before we learned to farm. During a season when grains and nuts are plentiful, humans would stuff themselves and put on weight, only to lose that weight over a subsequent period of months when fewer such food items were available.

Interestingly, this adaptation may even explain the common human impulse to overindulge in sweet and fatty foods. We are driven by an ancient evolutionary instinct to store up fat for periods of starvation, but living in a society of plenty those periods never arrive. Consequently, many of us put on a layer of fat that we then struggle to be rid of. As anyone who has tried to diet will attest, it can be extremely difficult to resist the urge to down that last piece of cake, or to pass on that plate of French fries. Ironically, the impulse that is now leading so many to an early death may have originated as a life-saving adaptation in the distant past.(9)

3.2 - Farming: Basic Adaptations to a Sedentary Lifestyle

By the time humans began to settle in larger communities and farm the land, the pattern of meat consumption was deeply ingrained into our cultural psyche. We chose to domesticate animals and make use of them in our diet, rather than return to a physiologically-accurate diet that no human population could any longer remember. This meant that the specific demands of a long-ago time and place were retained and accepted as normal; the historical experience of meat consumption made it seem perfectly natural.

But in a demonstration of how minor mutations can occur and be preserved, we can note that even in the very short span of time since the Neolithic era the dairy-rich diet of the ancient Middle East has produced a useful adaptation. To-day, approximately ten per cent of Europeans are lactose-intolerant, whereas the totals in much of Africa and Asia are closer to 99%.(10) That’s right: milk is literally indigestible to a majority of the world’s population, which certainly argues against any supposed ‘need’ for it.

One of the main ingredients of milk is the sugar lactose. The bodies of young mammals produce an enzyme called lactase that allows them to break it down, but in most human populations the genetic coding for lactase production shuts down after infancy, making lactose intolerance the norm. The descendants of European and Middle Eastern populations to-day can tolerate low levels of milk, but even these still suffer the effects of lactose intolerance if too much dairy is ingested. Difficult for the body to process, milk will often ferment in the intestines and cause serious gastrointestinal upset.

The cultural habits of meat and dairy consumption in the West have also led us seriously to underestimate the impact of some very sinister changes in farming techniques in recent decades. The animals hunted down by our ancestors had a much lower level of body fat; wild animals simply eat less often and get more exercise. The carcasses of wild animals such as those eaten by hunter-gatherers were about four per cent fat, whereas those slaughtered on factory farms to-day are easily 30% fat.

The physical impact on the body of this fattier – and far more frequently consumed – meat is considerably greater than what could have been expected for early meat-eaters. This problem is also exacerbated by the common American practice of feeding rendered left-over meat to cows, effectively turning these gentle herbivores into cannibals just to make them fat enough for slaughter a little sooner. As we will see later in this paper, this practice has other, more harmful effects.

There is no reason to dwell extensively on the practice here, but it is also important to be aware of the further applications of industrial technique to the raising of animals for food. The expanding use of growth hormones and antibiotics is disturbing enough, given the degree to which such chemicals can come into our own bodies through the meat, but we must also wonder about the introduction of genetic tampering and cloning. Are there any potential health risks of eating chickens whose genetic structure has been altered to give them breasts so heavy that they cannot stand? And will the use of cloned cattle increase the chances of genetic disease, just as monocultures in cereal farming have decreased the level of natural biodiversity to a point where we risk a massive blight and the collapse of our food supply?

These and many other troubling questions remain unanswered, because the Food and Drug Administration has decided that corporate scientists do not need to prove that their technologies are not harmful to the public health; it has been left to us to prove that they are, after the fact! The American public has unwittingly become participants in the largest scientific experiment in human history, and we may be looking into the results for decades to come.

3.3 - The Savage Human Hunter: A Reassessment

Another significant argument against humans as natural meat-eaters, and for the dependence of this practice on culture and technology, can be found in our instinctive reaction to it. When you see a dead animal on the side of the highway, do you find yourself tempted to stop for a bite? Does the sight of a bloodied carcass make you salivate? Do you find attractive the idea of sinking your teeth into the neck of another animal, and feeling the hot, sticky blood washing over your lips? If the answer is no, congratulations: you are a normal and healthy human herbivore.

The simple fact is that carnivores enjoy eating meat: raw, bloody, and right from the corpse. Human beings only enjoy the taste of meat once it has been divorced from the circumstances of its origin. The idea of tearing the flesh from a living or freshly-killed animal makes every sane human being sick. Fresh blood and exposed organs flowing from the side of a downed animal do not make our mouths water, and are much more likely to make us vomit.

We compensate for this instinctive revulsion by forcing the rôle of hunter and butcher on the more callous of our males, and by preparing meat in such a way as to disguise its taste and natural appearance. We cook our meat in order to eat it; what other carnivore has done that? Cooked meat does not even taste right to other carnivores.

By now we should have seen some of the ways in which history can affect our eating habits. What we need to ask ourselves is whether or not we must be slaves to precedent; whether we should allow the long cultural memory of meat and dairy consumption to override solid common sense. Forced to compete for scarce resources in an African environment filled with hazards, the naked apes that we call humans were forced to adapt to eating meat. This was accomplished despite its inherent repulsiveness and the increased incidence of disease-related deaths. Given the much shorter life expectancy of that age, and differences in the kind and quantity of meats available, the longer-term health impact was far less obvious. Sadly, we cannot say the same.

Desperate situations have often called for extraordinary responses, yet we seldom treat those responses as being natural in themselves. When the Donner Party was forced to eat the corpses of their fallen companions, did we assume thenceforth that humans were naturally cannibals? Of course not; we recognized that they did what was necessary to survive, and did not read into their actions some supposed lesson about the way humans ought to behave. Why not take the same approach to meat-eating in general? The fact that our ancestors had to eat meat at certain points in their history has everything to do with the demands of a harsh or changing environment, and nothing to do with what their biology was naturally suited to doing.

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(8) Human beings are, contrary to creationism mythology, a species of ape. The differences between Homo sapiens and the other (now extinct) hominids on the one hand, and the remaining forest-dwelling ape species (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orang-utans) are astonishingly small.

(9) Human females are expected to have between 18 and 24% of their total tissue mass from fat, and men should have no more than 12 to 18%. Sadly, most Americans are far, far above these levels. Obesity-related health complications are now among the leading causes of death in this country, killing more than 300,000 annually. With weight-gain directly linked to the spread of heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer, our addiction to fatty foods now adds up to a 100 billion dollar annual drain on the economy.

(10) Of course, milk is still harmful for Europeans, as we will note below. The only difference is that they can digest it without painful side-effects.

This is article is continued in the next post; find it here.

‘Health And The Human Diet’, Part Two

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2.0 - Comparative Anatomy and Physiology: An Introduction

Set aside for a moment the question of silverware, and try to picture life as one of our ancient ancestors. Better yet, imagine yourself in the position of one of our species’ ancient ancestors; we are, after all, members of the sole surviving variety of at least twenty-three distinct species of human being. These distant precursors did not have the luxury of slicing into a thick steak with a handy Ginsu knife, and cooking techniques were more primitive than we can likely imagine. How did early hominids, and indeed our own species in the pre-modern era, actually eat?

In this section, we will look at the physical composition of the human body, and explore the ramifications of that body-plan for a picture of the natural human diet.

2.1 - Defining Terms: Carnivores, Herbivores, and Omnivores

We should begin with some definitions. An herbivore is any animal which is naturally suited to eating plants, and for whom plants constitute the essential basis of a nutritious diet. A carnivore is any animal which is naturally suited to the consumption of flesh, and for whom a nutritious diet involves only the consumption of animal products. An omnivore is an animal which is able to derive nutritional value from the consumption of either plant or animal products, and for whom neither set of products presents a mortal danger.

Let’s look at this in more detail. Herbivores are designed to ingest only plants (grains, fruits, nuts, etc.), and can obtain all of the nutrition required for optimal health from those components.(3) The consumption of meat by herbivores has been known to cause serious or fatal side-effects, such as ‘mad cow’ disease (BSE), which developed from the habit of feeding cattle the ‘rendered’ carcasses of other cows in order to bulk them up for market. Carnivores, by contrast, are designed to ingest only the flesh of other animals, whether freshly killed or discovered as carcasses. They can derive all of their essential nutrients from animal products, and need never consume plants; in fact, many cannot digest them at all, or have been known to sicken if forced to do so. They are also extremely unlikely to take ill from eating meat, given the way it is digested (more on this later).

Omnivores can be expected to possess a tolerable blend of the capabilities of both herbivores and carnivores, in that they can obtain nutrients from either diet and will naturally consume whatever is available. It is important to note, however, that being an omnivore implies only that there is no general biological adaptation to the consumption of one or the other food type. In most cases this means that no significantly harmful effects will be found from either diet, and that the animal will show no preference. Some, however, do demonstrate a clear preference, and this is usually found to accompany certain biological factors making one or the other a healthier choice. Animals are naturally driven by instinct to consume the foods for which their bodies are best adapted.

It is generally asserted that humans are omnivores, and this is a plausible definition if certain factors are deliberately ignored. As we will see, humans have the adaptations necessary to digest – but only partially – certain animal products, but that this does not imply that their natural diet should include such items. In fact, the evidence indicates a strong preference for non-animal foods, if all factors are considered. First, we should address those indicators of omnivorousness in humans.

Carnivores have an natural taste for salty and fatty foods, drawing them to blood and flesh; herbivores, by contrast, tend to favour sweets. Humans, as should be obvious from your own experience, tend to like both, though to widely varying degrees. It would be surprising if humans had not grown to like meat to some degree after countless millennia of eating it. Humans, however, unlike carnivores, are not drawn to the scent of a fresh kill. Does the sight of blood arouse hunger in anyone you know? What about the sight and scent of blood pooling beneath a dead or dying animal? Chances are, if you are not deranged, such a thing does little to spur your appetite.

A genuinely omnivorous creature, on the other hand, has not only the digestive adaptations of a carnivore, but finds the carnivore’s diet appealing in itself. That is, the omnivore is interested in eating meat; it is naturally driven to eat meat. Food preference and selection is not driven by conscious choice, in any species. Humans are not driven to eat meats, and have evolved complex rituals – such as skinning and cooking – in order to be able to tolerate it in any quantity. Our earliest human ancestors, recently forced to take up hunting and unaware of how to make fire, would have had great difficulty forcing themselves to eat it.

To get an idea of what this must have been like, imagine killing an animal with your bare hands. Now, take a sharp rock and tear a jagged hole in the animal’s skin. Reaching through the blood, rip off a piece of muscle and take it straight to your mouth. The scent of blood is heavy in the air, and the flesh is soaked with it, and difficult to chew. And within minutes, you are joined in your meal by flies, ants, and all manner of other critters drawn to the scent of death.

I imagine that, if you have a tolerably good imagination, this image might be genuinely revolting. But what it should make clear is, no matter that we have evolved the ability to stomach meat and have a moderate taste for salt, humans are only meat-eaters with great effort.

2.2 - Human Beings: The Form of a Hunter?

The teeth of carnivores are designed to tear into flesh, and tend to be quite sharp for obvious reasons. Have you ever tried biting into a piece of leather? A common configuration for carnivores includes short, pointed incisors; long, sharp, and curved canines; and sharp, jagged, blade-shaped molars. Peer into the mouth of your family dog or cat to see what this looks like. The teeth of herbivores, by contrast, are designed for chewing. They tend to include broad, flat, spade-shaped incisors; dull canines of variable length, or none at all; and flattened molars that allow for the grinding of fibrous plants.(4) Sound familiar?

But it’s not just our teeth than point to the way in which we eat: think about the way that you use your jaw. Carnivores have their jaw joint on the same plane as their molars, and use it in a shearing motion – straight up and down, in most species with no side-to-side action even possible. Relative to the size of their skulls, carnivores have a very large mouth opening, with a noticeable reduction in the amount of facial muscles to allow for a wider gape, which is important since carnivores do not actually chew their food, swallowing it in whole chunks and leaving it to the stomach acids to break it down.

Humans, by contrast, along with all other herbivores, move their jaws side-to-side as well as up and down, making it easy to grind up food with the molars. The jaw joint is above the plane of the molars, and facial muscles are much better developed – reaching a point in primates that allows for sophisticated communication through facial expressions. Not only are there more facial muscles, but the major muscles used to operate the jaw are different.(5) Do you need to chew your food up in order to swallow it? Of course you do. Now consider just how much harder it is to chew up meat without cooking it first.

Along with their teeth, our ancestors would have used their hands to eat (obviously). Carnivores are equipped with claws to aid both in grappling and killing prey, and also with the rending of flesh for consumption. Herbivores do not need claws, and hence have only blunted nails or hooves. Humans, of course, have blunt fingernails which they must trim regularly; they do not shed claws. This would have severely limited the variety of foods available to humans in the pre-knife-wielding era; without claws or sharp teeth, we would have been unable to tear flesh or hide.

2.3 - Digestion and Indigestion

Now let us follow the track of food through the digestive system. Carnivores swallow their food whole, and hence depend upon highly acidic stomach juices to break it down. We use pH to measure the acidity of solutions: a pH of less than 7.0 is considered acidic, and pH of greater than 7.0 is alkaline or basic.(6) A carnivore with food in its stomach has a pH of 1.0 or less: highly acidic. Natural herbivores with food in their stomachs, humans included, have a pH ranging from 4.0 to 5.0. Greater levels of acidity are actually very painful for humans, as anyone with indigestion can tell you.

Acidity plays a dual rôle for carnivores, breaking down not only the meat itself, but the bacteria found in such great quantities within. And without that acid to neutralize the dangerous bacteria, meat would very quickly kill the creature consuming it. Human stomach acidity is inadequate to kill all of the bacteria found in meat, which is how we develop any number of ailments, from E. coli infections to certain forms of cancer. Plants simply do not require much acidity to break down, and consequently herbivores lack the pH levels that a carnivore requires.

Now let us extend that reasoning into the distant past. Without cooking meat to kill most of the bacteria, humans would die very quickly, which means that meat could not have been consumed in any great quantities before fire was discovered. Since this invention is relatively recent in our evolutionary history, there is little reason to expect that it has affected our digestive systems. Even less likely to have affected our natural physiology is medicine, and without pharmaceuticals to tackle the damage caused by the bacteria that survive our stomachs, we would not have anywhere near the life expectancy that we have to-day. This dependence on drugs has had a significant impact on our health overall.

Given its larger rôle in digestion, the stomach of a carnivore comprises approximately 60 to 70% of their total digestive tract. In herbivores, this percentage is much lower: less than 30%. How do humans measure up? Depending on our size, the stomach takes up anywhere from 21 to 27% of total digestive tract, which pushes more of our digestion out to the intestines.

Carnivores have relatively short intestines, generally from three to six times the length of their bodies. This allows the meat to pass through quickly, before it has a chance to rot and cause them illness. But with much of their nutrient absorption taking place in the small intestine, it can be very long in herbivores: from ten to twelve times their body length. The human intestine is on average eight to ten times body length, and generally runs from 17 to 30 feet.(7) This lengthy intestine is perfectly adapted for the processing of fibrous plants, which break down slowly on their way through.

Near the end of the intestines lies the colon, or large intestine. In carnivores it is simple, short, and smooth, and does not allow for the fermentation of undigested foods: they pass right through. Herbivores, on the other hand, have long and complex colons, wherein food which has failed to digest properly may ferment or rot. This is a crucial point, because colon cancer has grown increasingly common, and the simple fact is that human beings cannot fully digest meat products; they accumulate in the colon over a lifetime, contributing to a fantastic variety of diseases from herniated bowels to breast cancer to clinical depression.

These differences in the structure of the digestive tract have a direct influence on dietary requirements. Carnivores do not require fibre in order to move food through their shorter digestive tracts, whereas the long and convoluted track of the herbivore’s intestines demand large quantities of fibre on a regular basis in order to avoid constipation. And food that is being trapped in the intestines through want of sufficient fibre is actually rotting inside you. Needless to say, that’s giving the bacteria plenty of time to do their damage.

2.4 - Chemistry and Consumption

Even more important is the introduction of cholesterol via an animal-based diet. It is quite impossible to clog the arteries of a carnivore, as their bodies are designed to process fats and cholesterol, and they do not produce it naturally. You can feed a cat or dog 200 times the amount of animal fat and cholesterol taken in by the average American human and they will not develop any hardening of the arteries. Herbivores, however, produce cholesterol in their own bodies, and have zero dietary need for it. Quite the contrary: adding cholesterol to their diet leads directly to heart disease.

It is well known that humans, along with other animals, need to ingest proper doses of vitamins on a regular basis in order to maintain health. Some, such as vitamins C and B, are water-soluble, making them easy to process in the body. Vitamin A, however, is fat-soluble. Carnivores, with their adaptations to a high fat diet, can detoxify vitamin A in the liver; herbivores cannot. This means that an excess of vitamin A, more than the liver can process on its own, produces a toxic state that can lead to jaundice, muscle pain, blurred vision, vomiting, headaches, etc.

Finally, it is worth noting quickly that the functioning of our organs, and the diet we provide for them, directly determines the characteristics of the waste products we produce. The kidneys of a carnivore produce highly concentrated urine, whereas those of an herbivore produce only moderately concentrated urine. The excrement of a carnivore is also putrid, which is why cats – for example – are driven to bury it, thus masking their presence in a hunting ground. The excrement of an herbivore, though, is generally inoffensive. That of a human, of course, varies according to diet.

Though mostly unrelated to diet, it is worth mentioning a few other differences between herbivores and carnivores, to place humans in the proper light. The body of a carnivore is generally cooled through hyperventilation; note the panting of a dog and their inability to sweat. Humans, like other herbivores, sweat. The manner of drinking is also distinct, and depends upon the structure of the mouth – carnivores lap up water with their tongue, whereas herbivores sip. And the saliva produced by a carnivore is more acidic, whilst the alkaline saliva of an herbivore helps to pre-digest plant foods.

2.5 - A Human Omnivore? Hardly!

We should conclude this section by reflecting on one of the most pervasive myths about the human diet, and the method most often used to ‘refute’ the claims made in this paper. It is argued that, because humans can digest some animal products and derive some nutrients from them, humans must be omnivores. This is clearly false. Omnivores are far more similar to carnivores than to herbivores, as they can actually process animal-based foods properly, whereas for humans most animal products are literally toxic (more on this later).

The physical ability to survive (however unhealthily) on animal products does not change the nature of our internal organs – it is simply a matter of culture overriding biology which, as we will argue, humans are capable of on account of their higher brain capacities. We can pass behaviours and ideas to one another almost virally, which has given rise to our unique ability to evolve complex cultural, societal, and technological structures. But the ability to defy our genes does not mean that they go away, and it is solely our genes which determine the physical make-up of our bodies. It is a simple fact that the body plan bequeathed to us by our ancestors is that of an herbivore.

Another approach people have taken in challenging this is to fudge the definitions and call humans ‘opportunistic feeders’, able to adapt themselves to their environments, and to each person’s unique biochemistry. This is more or less absurd. The differences between individual humans are very small, and the aspects of our nature which determine our dietary requirements are fundamental and largely invariable. With the exception of rare disorders and certain allergies, nothing about the natural range of human variability suggests that some people are more suited to eating meat than others. Behaviour simply does not imply suitability, and we are all of us vegans, whether we like it or not.

But there is one good objection to my characterization of humans as herbivores, and it would be unfair to skip it over entirely. We know that some of the other great apes, such as gorillas and orang-utans, consume a trivial amount of meat. This is mostly in the form of small reptiles, and adds up to between one and two per cent of their total food intake. That really is an astonishingly small amount, mind you; it is probably no more significant than the amount of grass that dogs eat. They can’t digest that grass any better than we can digest beef, but they still get something out of eating it, and we may be no different in this regard.

In fact, it can probably be inferred that humans are able to tolerate a proportion of animal proteins in their diet similar to that taken in by orang-utans without significant risk to life or health. But as I have tried to make clear, none of the apes (including us) are able fully to digest meat, nor are they able to kill all of the bacteria that it contains. This means that, although we can probably take in a trivial amount without adversely impacting total cholesterol levels (for example), eating meat does still carry all of the dangers associated with our inability to process it. One final caveat: all of the other surviving great apes have canine teeth larger than our own. This may indicate that we are less suited than they to consuming even a trivial amount of meat.

Given the obvious uncertainties involved, I only mention the possibility of some small meat consumption as a crutch for those of us who would have a particularly hard time adapting to a natural (vegan) diet. While I advocate raising children without letting them develop a taste for the kinds of food that can kill them, those of us who grew up with cheese and milk and chicken may simply be unable to swear off it for the rest of our lives. So long as the intake stays in the one to two per cent range, that may not be such a bad thing. I, for one, will probably continue to indulge in pizza, but no more than once a month. I simply love cheese too much to ban it completely, even though with my cholesterol it is probably going to kill me…

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(3) Throughout this paper I will use words like ‘designed’ and ‘intended’, not because I presume that there was a ‘designer’, but for purely rhetorical reasons. It is essentially impossible to escape purposive language in the description of material function, and I see no reason to try.

(4) Some herbivores retain small points on their canines, and some are reasonably long, as they can also serve a defensive purpose. But no herbivore carries a set of canines like those of a natural meat-eater.

(5) In carnivores, the temporalis is dominant, whereas in herbivores and humans the masseter and lateral pterygoids are.

(6) Possibly derived from the Latin potentia hydrogenii, pH is a number used to express the acidity of alkalinity of a solution. It is equal to the logarithm of the reciprocal of the effective concentration of hydrogen ions in moles per litre.

(7) Body length is measured mouth-to-anus, not by standing height.

This is article is continued in the next post; find it here.

‘Health And The Human Diet’, Part One

March 2008, Revision 2.1

This is a work in progress, so any comments are greatly appreciated. It is a long document and has been broken into many smaller posts. These will be linked from here.

Health and the Human Diet
An Argument for Rational Nutrition

i Preface: A Note on Inspiration, Tone, and Sources
1.0 Introduction: Goals and Means
2.0 Comparative Anatomy and Physiology: An Introduction
2.1 Defining Terms: Carnivores, Herbivores, and Omnivores
2.2 Human Beings: The Form of a Hunter?
2.3 Digestion and Indigestion
2.4 Chemistry and Consumption
2.5 A Human Omnivore? Hardly!
3.0 Historical and Physical Anthropology: An Introduction
3.1 Hunting: Basic Adaptations to a Changing Landscape
3.2 Farming: Basic Adaptations to a Sedentary Lifestyle
3.3 The Savage Human Hunter: A Reassessment
4.0 Eating to Live: The Rôle of Basic Nutrients in Human Health
4.1 Amino Acids
4.2 Proteins
4.3 Calcium
4.4 Dairy Products
4.5 Fats
4.6 Vitamins and Minerals
4.7 Cholesterol
4.8 Carbohydrates
4.9 Antioxidants
4.10 Fibre
5.0 Childhood Nutrition: A Brief Excursus
6.0 Nature’s Revenge: Disease
6.1 Heart Disease
6.2 Cancer
6.3 Kidney Stones
6.4 Diabetes
6.5 Obesity
6.6 Escherichia Coli 0157:H7
6.7 Alzheimer’s Disease
6.8 Osteoporosis
7.0 Concluding Thoughts
8.0 Some Suggestions for Further Reading

 

i - Preface: A Note on Inspiration, Tone, and Sources

The following polemic was written in response to real events in my life, as a consequence of which I felt compelled to extend and formalize my study of the rôle of diet in human health. Before I launch into my argument, I want to take a moment to explain what this paper is about, how I came to write it, and why I bothered to put it in front of you – the reader.

As one who obsessively reads the foreign press, I have often wondered at the prevalence of disease and ill-health in this, the wealthiest nation on Earth. In terms of capability and quality, we have the best health care system on the planet (though in terms of proper utilization and affordability, we have a thoroughly awful record). So why is it that, in the land of abundance, we have such an appallingly fat and unhealthy populace? I began to suspect that we were doing something wrong.

I have also, through personal experience of gross incompetence and malpractice, come to believe that many physicians in our nation are simply ill-equipped to dispense proper medical advice. Now, I am not reasoning out from my own life and trying to insult the medical profession as a whole, but as a social scientist I have also had cause to observe the institutional factors that encourage complacency and orthopraxy in the medical establishment. The simple fact is that we are a drug-oriented society, and your family physician has been trained to examine your symptoms and prescribe a chemical fix. Far too infrequently does a physician actually try to identify the root causes of disease, and as a consequence we are treating only the symptoms, and not the actual problems.

Having managed to accumulate a dizzying array of medical problems in less than four decades of life, I have had much cause to question those underlying reasons. Some of my problems were caused by errors in treatment, and others are driven by genetic failings, but I have a hard time ascribing all of them to such factors. Instead, I wanted to see if, and to what degree, my lifestyle was having a direct impact on my health.

This started a long-term, but often neglected, research project, and as each new piece fitted into the puzzle for me I began to introduce what I considered positive changes. My major conditions have not abated, but I am ill far less frequently and have a much easier time concentrating, and this alone is cause for celebration. I have suffered frequent bronchitis for much of my life, and to have been rid of it for so long was itself worth the time and effort. But I was still having no luck stemming the more serious problems, such as my abnormally-high cholesterol level and acute hypertension.

Given my relatively low cholesterol intake, I can buy a polite descriptor like familial hypercholesterolemia, but the moderate amount of cheese I took in was still enough to push my cholesterol level up to 300 or so, requiring substantial medications to keep it to a reasonable level and (hopefully!) to avert a heart attack. This is what led me to consider a complete elimination of cholesterol and saturated fats, and hence to begin researching the vegan diet.

Like many people I had grown up with stories of how meat was a normal and healthy part of the human diet, and that to cut it out entirely was dangerously stupid. So you can imagine that I began my research with a characteristic degree of scepticism (I am, after all, the sort of person who takes nothing on faith). I set out to read not only those works advocating a vegan diet, but those critical of it as well. I then looked through every interesting and popular diet book I could find, searching for a system that could promise – and deliver – a normal, healthy regimen. This search dragged on for quite some time, and I managed to examine – and dismiss as absurd – many popular diet programmes, such as the Atkins low-carbohydrate method, Barry Sears’ high-protein Zone diet, and the Eat Right 4 Your Type blood-based restriction. As it turns out, none of these made any scientific sense.(1)

Some developments in the lives of others gave these explorations a serious jolt. In particular, the continuing health travails of my closest relations have really shaken me up. Most of my family has died during my lifetime, and most of those remaining alive are diabetic, are battling cancer, or both. One individual, whom I not only respect and admire but care for a great deal, was recently close to death on account of an entirely preventable bacterial infection. Now, I suspected that these problem, as well as three other frequent health complaints, were actually linked to a poor diet, and if I could document that fact how could I keep quiet and still believe that I care? I simply had to look into this; I had to reëxamine the evidence, and do so with greater urgency.

My reading up to that point had already led me to suspect there were many health benefits in a vegan diet, but I decided two things needed to be done quickly: I needed to delve further into the details of how and why this might be, and I needed to collect that evidence into a compact and (hopefully!) readable format. I took advantage of being in an academic setting and started combing the medical journals for interesting articles. I also purchased a great many books, and read them all with the same degree of scepticism that I take to everything. I followed their footnotes into the journals and studies, and tried to eliminate all of the claims that I did not feel were adequately supported by the evidence. At the end of the day, I was more convinced than ever that we had been completely and fundamentally misled – for generations – about the natural diet of our species.

Given my personal need to get some of this information to those relatives as quickly as possible, I gave an early draft of my argument to that relative slowly recovering from his near-fatal infection. I subsequently re-wrote and greatly expanded my discussions of disease and nutrition, and have now reached a point where I think this paper hits enough of the important points to make an airtight case. Whether or not I have succeeded in this I will leave to the reader to decide.

Two last points need to be made before we get into the arguments. The first is that this is a highly polemical piece, and is intended to be read as an argument, not a research paper. I have tried – so far as is possible for me – to leave aside the stuffy prose with which I am (perhaps justifiably) associated. This is about as casual a tone as I ever adopt, and I have throughout tried to keep myself in the voice I use in Weblog posts and private correspondence. If there are sentences where I have failed to keep my tone as light and informal as intended, I humbly beg your indulgence; I am far more accustomed to writing academic treatments than polemical pamphlets!

My goal here has been to summarize months of reading in a fairly straight-forward manner. For readability’s sake I have stripped it of my normally-compulsive footnoting, and have instead included a brief ‘for further reading’ section at the end. I have also tried to move some of the more technical descriptions and asides into footnotes, so at not to disrupt the flow of the article. Please, then, take this paper the way it was intended: as an informed rant, calling on each of us to exercise better judgement about what we feed ourselves. As I am not a healthcare professional and can make no claims to infallible judgement, I must reiterate that this paper is not to be considered expert advice, and I will leave such to those more qualified to speak on these matters.

1.0 - Introduction: Goals and Means

Every year in this country, billions of dollars are spent in medical care and hundreds of thousands of lives are lost, all to teach a lesson that we are proving very slow to learn. All that pain and all those lives are sacrificed needlessly to tradition and convenience – twin gods who undeservedly claim the unquestioning obedience of a majority of this world’s inhabitants. Human beings are unique amongst the animals in the degree to which we can consciously order our lives, shape our environment, and override the dictates of biology and instinct. Perhaps nothing shows that more clearly than the ease with which our cultures have produced and perpetuated behaviours which violate our common human nature.

This paper has two principal goals: To demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that human beings are herbivores, biologically suited only to a plant-based diet; and that consumption of large quantities of animal products is causing immense harm to our bodies, by destroying health, reducing the natural lifespan, and bringing pointless suffering into our lives.

I will not dwell on the ethical or practical arguments against meat, though both are compelling. You will not find reflexion on the horrors of factory farms, filled with creatures that spend their entire miserable lives trapped in a small box, being pumped full of drugs to counteract the sickness that would naturally overwhelm any creature forced to stand in its own excrement. You will not find information on the frightful cost to the environment: from habitat destruction and the permanent loss of precious biodiversity, to the overtaxing of the Earth’s finite resources to produce an extremely inefficient food source for a massive and growing human population. Also set aside in this presentation are arguments against the consumption of heavily processed food, which have been linked to a stunning array of diseases. This is a topic for a separate discussion, but we should note that the impact of the Western diet on health extends well beyond a misplaced emphasis on animal products, and the long-term complications connected with food processing are just as severe.

What you will find here is solid reasoning applied to ample testimony from science, intended to prove that human beings are not biologically suited to the consumption of animal products. I have divided the paper up into separate, bite-sized chunks for ease of reference and reading (yes, I do know that this is fairly long).

In section two we will examine the evidence from comparative anatomy and physiology, and review some of the ways in which the structure of our bodies and the functioning of our organs can indicate dietary preferences. It will be helpful here to draw some initial conclusions from primatology, but we will focus most of our attention on the physical evidence from our own body parts. In section three we will turn to physical and cultural anthropology, where I hope to interrogate the omnivore myth, and examine the history of a changing human diet. We will then delve into the evolutionary record, take stock of the human family tree, and look at what anthropology and palaeontology have been able to tell us about our earliest ancestors. This will allow us to review the facile myths we have been told about early man as a hunter, and examine the context within which hunting took place historically.

This is followed (in section four) by a discussion of some common nutrients and dietary components, and then a brief excursus (section five) on childhood nutrition. I then tie things up in section six with an extensive – but far from complete – discussion of common diseases and their links to the American diet. We will find that many of the illnesses that plague our society, from cancer to diabetes to heart disease, are directly linked to a diet that is inappropriate for our physiology. And we will learn just how easy it is to fight some of these killers, through reference to studies showing that a plant-based diet not only decreases the risk of contracting disease, but can actual reduce or eliminate it in those presently afflicted.

One last point worth making in this introduction is a statement of fundamental biases. The data informing these conclusions were collected and articulated according to the scientific method, and were subjected to peer-review in books and journal articles. As a matter of basic principle, my selection of sources and approach to the material is entirely founded on natural science. I have consequently given no consideration to arguments based upon non-scientific sources, and do not consider objections that are founded on irrational superstition or cultural prejudices to be worthy of any response.(2)

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(1) For those who may be wondering, I am a historian and philosopher, not a scientist. I have, however, taken formal courses in biology and physiology, and have spent many years studying anthropology, evolution, and genetics. My current book project is on evolutionary theories in the late nineteenth century, and the cultural studies that will occupy my next book are founded on contemporary developments in evolutionary psychology.

(2)This includes arguments based upon the Christian Bible, as I consider any attempt to read that work as a factual account of the world to be patently absurd. This is not the place to enter into arguments against its historical veracity, but the methodological considerations that govern the operation of science itself must necessarily assume that supernatural origins and provenance have no explanatory power whatsoever.

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