Tag Archives: biology

Do We Need to Eat Meat?

19 Dec

On my belated introductory post a few months back, I asked readers to contribute any questions they have about me, my blog, my diet or why I eat the way I do, and I got this great question from Cristina of An Organic Wife:

You went vegetarian for moral reasons. Do you want to comment on whether we “do or don’t need to eat meat” as some vegetarians argue?

For those of you who don’t want to reading a wandering, musing answer that touches on much more than nutritional needs, here’s the short answer: Some people need to eat meat. Others need to eat less.

It’s been my experience that middle-class people in developed countries (such as myself) do not need to eat meat. We need much less protein than we eat as a nation, and we are capable of getting it from other sources. While there are other nutritients included in meats (zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids in fish, etc.) these are also widely available from other sources in our world. And if you’re in any doubt about what you need to eat, and in what quantities, you should talk to a nutritionist, as they have the knowledge to measure your body’s particular requirements.

But I think there’s more to the question than simply a nutritional response.

I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this, because the word “need” can convey so many different ideas. Do we need to eat meat for nutritional purposes? Do we need to eat meat for biological purposes? When I was first considering eating meat again, I had already  been convinced that I could do so environmentally, locally, and that I could support small-scale, non-corporate entitites by doing so.

But I still struggling with the notion of whether or not it was “right.” And for me, right in this sense, at that time, meant natural. The question for me was: given that I have alternative sources of protein and other nutrients that I would get from meat, can I justify the fact that an animal dies for me to eat? Given that we are no longer hunter-gatherers, do we, as a society, need to eat meat?

So you can see that for me, need has also always been a muddled question of moral rights, humanity and our place in the natural world, as well as one of health and nutrition. My idea of what is “natural” has always been rooted in my firm belief that we humans are still mammalian pack animals. Much as we may have accomplished by way of civilization, our bodies are still animal bodies with the same basic animal needs. What follows below are a few short excerpts that have recently been excised from my book that try to explore my answer to Cristina’s question.

Be warned: my extreme nerd obsession with biological anthropology is heavily present.

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Meat, we in the developing world have been told for awhile now, is dangerous. Coronary heart disease. Heme iron, present only in animal meat, appears to change the lining of the colon, and cause abnormal cell growth, leading to an increased risk of cancer. Same goes for breast and prostate cancer.

According to a massive study headed by the National Cancer Institute, conducted over the course of a decade on half a million Americans, people who eat more red or processed meat were also more likely to: smoke, weigh more for their height, consume more total calories, consume more than the recommended weekly amount of alcohol, consume more total fat, consume more saturated fat. Subjects who ate more red meat were also less likely to: eat fruits, eat vegetables, eat the recommended daily amount of fiber, take vitamin supplements, be physically active. But the study controlled for all of these other factors and conclusively isolated increased consumption of red and processed meat as a cause for increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

In other words, science agrees that eating more red meat is, in fact, bad for you.

Consuming more red meat, or more processed meat, significantly and conclusively increases our chance of dying sooner than we ought to. All other things being equal, eating more than four ounces of red or processed meat a day makes a person 20 to 40 percent more likely to die.

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Biological anthropologists study the evolution of modern humans by examining hominid fossils and modern human populations, trying to draw connections from past to present. They hypothesize, because of what they know about bones and brain size, about bipedalism and cranial anatomy, that modern humans still inhabit prehistoric bodies. So, the nutritional requirements of modern humans were probably established at some point in our past, as part of an endless cycle of evolution. The food we ate dictated how and in what ways our bodies were able to grow and change, and our new bodies affected our ability to gather, prepare and eat new foods.

But complications arise when examining the diets of early hominids who ate many different types of diets over the last five million years or so. Australopithecines of Africa were scavengers, eating a mixed diet of animal protein killed by other animals, plants and nuts. Homo erectus was a hunter who used stone tool and developed the ability to cook or roast animal flesh, who also ate plants extensively. Neanderthals hunted large game in cold climates, relying on fruits and nuts during the coldest months when access to animal game was limited. And the earliest incarnations of Homo sapiens hunted small mammals, dug and foraged plants, and picked berries. Importantly, these early humans—who would not look out of place if they walked among us today—developed the ability to gather wild grains to grind and bake into breads or cakes. Later, descendents of the same species, our most recent chronological ancestors, ate a fully mixed diet: roots, fruits, leafy vegetables, nuts, and a small proportion of animal fat, smaller than at periods earlier in human history.

So the question is not only what did our ancestors eat but also who are our ancestors?

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Changes in the human diet spurred changes in human society, both nutritionally and socially. When Homo sapiens learned how to harvest wild grains, they began the process of learning to cultivate those grains—the very first farmers. Once we could plant crops in rows and have ready access to food, once that reliability was secured, humans could relax a little. We could stay in one place, making us safer from predation, helping us to begin building what we now know as civilization.

But earlier than that, about two million years ago, when early hominids began eating meat regularly, we suddenly saw a rapid increase in growth and development. Our bodies received the energy they needed to stitch together thicker, stronger muscles. Calcium shot into our bones, and our skeletons began to shift and expand, growing taller and more narrow, for better balance. The dense vitamin value of meat—those b-12s and zinc and iron—went straight to our heads, feeding the evolution of our massive brains in both size and ability. Modern humans use nearly a quarter of their resting energy to feed our brains. Chimpanzees use 10%. Gorillas use 8%. Meat was the most nutritionally-dense, energy-rich food available to people over the course of our development, and meat has therefore caused much of that development and that is what makes people say we are “meant” to eat meat.

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Hunter-gatherer societies still exist in the world. Here in the United States, we may sometimes forget that there are places on the planet without Wal-Mart or interstate highways or suburban subdivisions, but they are there, and biological anthropologists spend most of their time in the field studying these people, mostly in rainforests and Pacific islands, in order to better understand how our ancestors might have lived. Modern human hunter-gatherers move, on average, eight miles a day in search of food. No McDonald’s drive-thrus. No Chinese take-out. No home delivery of groceries. If they want meat, they need more than a phone to get it.

It is this distinction that led to the consensus, among biological anthropologists, that it is not only the amount of meat consumed that causes obesity and other diseases in developed countries—but that the amount so drastically overestimates the amount of work done to get it.

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While many people in the developing world eat or have available enough food in sheer caloric intake, their diets are severely lacking in micronutrients that can only be derived from animal-source protein. Livestock consumption provides a micronutrient-rich supplement to a staple-plant based diet in developing nations. Animal-source foods (including meat, milk and eggs) are particularly appropriate for combating the range of nutritional deficiencies faced by people in developing nations, from providing them with additional iron, calcium, and zinc, to stabilizing a food supply which often fluctuates seasonally.

Beyond limited access to food, the developing world is full of people who have trouble eating even when food is available—like children whose stomachs are small, whose intake is physically limited, or HIV/AIDS patients whose bodies are slowing, sluggish, reduced to fulfilling basic needs, for whom digestion is a full day’s work. Because it provides such a high amount of protein per ounce, meat is uniquely poised to help fulfill nutritive requirements for those populations.

The truth is, there’s no one answer to the question of whether or not we need to eat meat — the answer is different for everyone.

Some people need to eat meat. Others need to eat less.

Do you think people need to eat meat? What have your personal experiences been with trying to — or trying not to — eat meat that might impact this? Leave a comment or drop me an email and share your thoughts!

How to Stop Being a Vegetarian

5 Sep

Ladies & gentlemen, I have meat back in my life.

After a successful trip 90 miles to the nearest co-op this weekend, along with some great advice from my colleagues for a more local source of grass-fed, chemical-free meat, I will finally be able to happily eat humanely-raised, good-for-me-and-the-planet meat again. A celebratory recipe post will surely follow.

As I mentioned when I first wrote about the drought of sustainable meat in my little town in Kansas, it’s actually not that difficult for me to go without meat for awhile. We all know that my seven years as a vegetarian were not all spent cooking and eating well, but they did successfully help me break myself of the notion that a meal must have meat to be complete.

But I really like meat. I cannot describe to you all how excited I was to put a package of Applegate Natural’s Sunday bacon in my basket at the co-op on Saturday (well, maybe you can understand. See header photo). I also got some new meats to try, including ground turkey and buffalo stew meat (I’ve had both turkey and bison before, just not in those forms). So in honor of the fact that I can eat meat well again, I thought I’d dedicate this week’s “advice” post to an issue that seems to drive a lot of traffic to the site that I’ve never directly addressed:

How do you re-incorporate meat into your diet?

In fact, I’m a bit surprised it’s taken me this long to think about writing on this topic. Two years ago, when I was considering making the transition back into meat-eating, I spent a lot of time looking for advice, even other individual stories, on the internet — and I really didn’t find much at all. So let me share with you all some of the things that did and didn’t work for me. Hopefully this post will answer questions for vegetarians thinking about making the transition, but I think it should also prove useful to anyone who would just like an insight into the issues of health, sourcing and ethics that go into dietary choices.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a health or nutrition expert. The advice in this post is based on my individual experiences ONLY, and anyone with health considerations should consult a physician or nutritionist before switching their diet dramatically.

What should I eat? How will my body react?

We’ve all heard those horror stories of vegans who accidentally swallow a sip of beef broth and vomit for three days straight. We’ve all also probably heard stories of people who spent nearly a decade as a vegan and then downed an entire package pf pepperoni in one sitting without so much as the hiccups. So it can be difficult to know how your body will react to a reintroduction of an unfamiliar food. The approach that worked for me here was to start small,start slow and stay in your comfort zone.

When I visited Africa with my mother in the middle of my time as a vegetarian, I ate a bowl of soup that had been cooked with meat in it — I didn’t eat any actual meat, but I was basically eating goat broth. I was violently ill, in uh, more than one way, for a few days after that.

In contrast, my first meal with meat after seven years was pasta with my Nonna’s red sauce with cut up bits of a chicken breast mixed in and a side of green beans. I was perfectly fine, and didn’t experience even a minor bout of indigestion.

I think the difference between the two meals was that one was almost entirely familiar to my body, while the other was foreign. But it was Adjoa’s (delicious) super-spicy pepe soup that was unfamiliar. Even though I hadn’t eaten chicken in years, the rest of that meal was something I ate often, so my body hardly noticed the addition of a small amount of meat. But  my body very much noticed, and violently reacted to, the hint of meat when in combination with spicy food, unfamiliar ingredients, and days of 120 degree heat.

The lesson here is eat something you are very used to eating. Cook it yourself to ensure that all the ingredients other than meat are familiar to your digestive system. And only eat small amounts of meat to start, gradually building up to whatever you consider “normal.”

How should I prepare my meat?

I have to give a big shout-out here to Scott, the person who actually cooked that first chicken breast for me a few years ago. This is an issue I don’t think most vegetarians consider when they think about going back. But the seven years I spent as a vegetarian were ages 19-26. Which meat that I’d gone from my parent’s house to a college dining hall to a vegetarian — which meant that at age 26, I did not know how to cook meat.

Because with meat there are very real food safety issues, I think it’s a great idea to have a trusted carnivore around to help you out, not just the first time, but the first few times (since different types of meat have different requirements).

If it weren’t for Scott, I wouldn’t know, for example, that you shouldn’t use the same plate or fork to carry the raw meat and the cooked. I wouldn’t know that pink in the center is good for steak but bad for chicken. On a more practical level, I wouldn’t know how truly disgusting meat packaging smells in the garbage after a few days. There’s a lot that I wouldn’t have been prepared for — that I wouldn’t even have thought to look into. I still sometimes send him a picture message asking whether the center of a lamb loin is supposed to be that deep purple of a color, or what it means if the chicken smells like feet.

How long until I can eat normally again?

Even after reading about the dramatically different reactions people can have to a reintroduction of meat, many people want to speed ahead to the time when they can officiallysay they are no longer a vegetarian. They want to get “back to normal,” to stop being the annoying friend who needs to make sure everyone eats out somewhere with vegetarian options, they want to go to Taco Bell again.

I do have an answer to that question, but first I want to take a moment here to say: never lose those standards. Retaining some of the habits of vegetarianism is one of the things that’s made me such a healthy, sustainable omnivore. Do not go back to eating fast food. It’s not good for anyone. Don’t let up on insisting that a restaurant at least offer a few vegetarian options — any place that doesn’t is behind the times, and less likely to offer sustainable, local or organic options. Apply the same principles of health and ethics that you did to vegetarianism to meat-eating again, and above all, don’t just revert to eating meat with every meal.

All that being said, you should take your time in ramping your meat consumption back up from zero to sixty. After my completely innocuous and pleasant experience with the chicken pasta, I was feeling pretty good. I thought sure I’d crossed the threshold and so two days later, at brunch out, I order a quiche with little bits of local, uncured bacon.

Later that day I experienced some… digestive issues. Nothing major, but unusual for a leafy-green eating vegetarian, and I largely attribute that to the bacon. Even though it was a small amount, and a healthy bacon (as opposed to packaged Oscar Meyer), it was unfamiliar to my system, and as a processed meat, a leap from a chicken breast.

I would say for at least a few weeks, eat meat less frequently than you think you “normally” would (only 3-4 times a week, maybe, instead of every other meal) and cook it exclusively at home. That way, the meat is the only unfamiliar ingredient. This is all precautionary, of course, but when it comes to my digestive health, I say better safe than sorry.

How will I feel?

This actually isn’t a question a lot of vegetarians ask — or if they do, they are refering to a physical feeling. But I want to take a minute here to talk about the emotional impact of eating meat again.

I think to make the transition away from vegetarianism, you need to be able to be honest with your feelings and intentions. Don’t just pretend you changed your mind, or that it’s not a big decision. It is, and should be treated as such. Spend some time, whether with yourself, or a friend, talking about why you became a vegetarian in the first place, and what made you think about bringing meat back into your diet. Whether these are issues of ethics, or simply of health or taste preferences, important issues will come up in these discussions that will help direct you towards the kind of meat-eating (the style, the frequency, the sourcing) that you want yours to be.

Before I decided to eat meat again, Scott and I spent an entire Saturday morning talking about all of the issues that were tied, for me, into the notion of meat. Acknowledging that I still objected to a factory farming system helped me decide on the standards I would set for farms I’d source meat from. Debating the role of protein in the development of the modern human  body helped me figure out how often I saw myself eating meat. And being open about the real reasons I wanted to stop being exclusively a vegetarian, what I was eating that simply was not “natural,”  pointed me down the path of selective omnivore, the path that led me here.

And after about three hours of talking, including some of my patented off-the-wall references to primatology, I knew I was ready.

The process of reintroducing meat should be a slow one, should be one of trial and error and the discovery born of that experimentation. Allow yourself the time and space to do it right, and you never know what you will find.

Have you made the transition into or out of vegetarianism? Was it smooth, or rocky? What obstacles did you hit? What advice do you have from others? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

If you’re thinking about making this transition and have any questions, please feel free to get in touch with me by email: marissa@wemeatagain.com

Eat Like An American

4 Jul

Every year on July 4th, we set off fireworks to commemorate when the fireworks were bombs. I celebrate Independence Day – love it, actually – because as I mentioned in my last post, I think the creation of the United States of America, and the Constitution that came along with it, was some of the most radical, optimistic thinking in the course of human history.

Image courtesy of herdaily.com

But most of us who went to high school know America’s not such a simple idea anymore – or that it ever was. We know the millions of Native people who were killed so that we could start from scratch on a new continent with our new ideas. We know how slavery and inequality was written in to that radical document. And we know that the building of America was, and continues to be, a bloody affair.

I learned this past week of a new HBO minisereies documentary called “Citizen U.S.A” in which filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi traveled the country, visiting citizenship ceremonies and interviewing immigrants, both famous and everyday, in order to answer the question, What does it mean to become an American? (For those interested, the film premieres tonight on HBO.)

In the driving spirit of that question, I hope your holiday moods will allow me to indulge my creative side today with a list that seeks to marry the complexity of the American idea with the musings on food, sustainability, and equality that I try to work through on this blog.

What does it mean to eat like an American?

To eat like an American is to overeat. To eat more calories, to eat larger portion sizes, to eat more frequently.

To eat like an American is to eat a lot of meat. Or, to be more accurate, it is to eat a lot of highly processed meat laden with saturated fats that cause cancer and cardiovascular disease. And to eat a lot more of it in caloric intake than matches our level of exertion to get the meat.

To eat like an American is to eat a lot of corn.

Image courtesy of Julia Gillard

To eat like an American is to eat out, to eat in restaurants and diners and convenience stores, to eat in our cars, out of drive-thru paper bags.

To eat like an American is to eat food that comes in a package. To eat like an American is to favor the fast, the easy. To eat something that lives in the freezer and is cooked in a microwave. That is, to eat foods stored and prepared with technology that many in the world cannot even access.

To eat like an American is to eat the food of many other cultures, to eat foods invented in other times and places, to meet other cultural needs. To eat like an American is to alter those foods and reclaim them, for better or worse.

To eat like an American, as to do anything like an American, is to rely heavily on oil, on automobile gas and electric power.

But for all that, to eat like an American is, fundamentally, to eat better and with more hope that to eat almost anywhere else in the world.

Not for all of us. But for the lucky percentage of us who were somehow able, through circumstances of birth or education, to access that elusive American dream of middle class, to eat like an American is to eat well.

Image courtesy of Julia Gillard

To have access to some of the best, most creative farmwork being done anywhere in the world, and to have access to places to buy that food at a fraction of its true worth.

To eat like an American, then, is to eat with the weight of a great responsibility. To eat with the full appreciation of all that we’ve been given and to eat with our hearts, to eat knowing that each time we do, with each bite we take, we are making a choice. Our food choices determine how much the workers picking our produce get paid, and how many tons of chemicals are dumped onto our land and into our mouth. Our American choices dictate land use across the globe, dictate the number of animals raised and how they are slaughtered, dictate how much fossil fuel is extracted from our planet.

To eat like an American isn’t unlike most of our American existence: to be grateful, every day, for all that we have been given. To try our very best to honor all that has been taken from others on our behalf, by using our massive influence to give back, and give back, and give back.

Eat Less to Lose Weight — Or Is It That Simple?

27 Jun

A new study out this week in The New England Journal of Medicine is making waves in the waters of food and nutrition policy. The study, which measured weight gain and chronic disease development in more than 120,000 men and women over several 20 year intervals, seems to suggest that gaining or maintaining weight over a long period of time might be linked to specific dietary choices, rather than such weight gain simply being a result of sheer caloric intake.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and the experts have mixed interpretations. Some major news outlets are fixating on one of the examples that the study provides of high calorie foods: potatoes.

Nutritionist Andy Bellatti has a  more nuanced view of these dietary culprits, suggesting that we need to examine the quality of the carbohydrates (and refined sugars) that are increasing our waistlines.

Similarly, food policy guru Marion Nestle urges us to look beyond the headlines and question what other unhealthy choices might contribute to weight gain in a person who eats more French fries than the average.

In general, this study seems a perfect example of the “learn what’s behind the label” principle. Michael Pollan’s twitter summary of the TIME coverage of the study was spot on:

Quality of food may affect weight more than quantity.

I think this study is telling us what we already know (or are learning): the healthiest diet is one that consists mostly of whole, unrefined foods as much as possible. So, yes, it really is that simple.

Do you keep track of calories, or measure with other nutritional yardsticks, or just eat what you want and hope for the best? Am I just using a ‘go with the flow’ argument here to justify my love of potatoes? Leave a comment or drop me an email to let us know what you think!

What’s In a Label?

16 Jun

At the beginning of the week, I wrote that I’d try to delve into demystifying realities of the food system, including confusing labels for nutritional and ethical standards on food. One of the biggest obstacles to consumers choosing better (by this I mean healthier, more sustainable and more humane for workers and livestock) foods is that it can be pretty tough to know what “better” really means these days.

Eggs can be both cafe-free and free-range? Pop tarts have whole grains? I can lose weight eating chocolate? These are the kinds of questions we face now that healthy, sustainable food is “in” and corporate producers know they need to start marketing to this desire. So I was going to write a post in which I attempted to break down some of the mystery behind food labeling, to decode some of these phrases.

And then I realized I couldn’t. Not just in one post anyway.

Because these questions exist for nearly every kind of label — whole grains, sweetener types (corn sugar, anyone?), egg-raising practices, slaughter practices, organic, industrial. All of it.This isn’t one blog post’s worth of information — it’s one whole blog’s worth.

What I’ve decided to do instead is two-fold. First, today, I’ve provided a few links to general info that I think is under-acknowledged about nutritional guidelines. The basics, if you will, of what you don’t yet know that you ought to.

And then, I’d like to hear from you all about what questions you have. What do you want to better understand? Which labels most intimidate you at the grocery store? Which seem too strange to be true? I’ll use your responses to form a series of posts in which I explain the labels in detail — what they mean, what you should choose to focus on, and why they matter. Because I believe it is very important for us to be educated consumers. I don’t want us to abdicate responsibility and just choose the easiest option. We’re investing, every time we shop for food, in our bodies, in our economies, in the well-being of so many others. These choices matter, and they do require effort on our part to make the best choices possible.

But we can all have a little help understanding along the way.

Here are a few links to begin. These focus on basic nutritional info for now, but there’s plenty more confusion to go around when it comes to labels for sustainability, fair trade, organic and other practices of raising or distributing food.

  • From Kristin Wartman at Civil Eats, a general explanation of the new USDA nutritional guideline MyPlate (which replaced the food pyramid). This article provides background information on the main food groups displayed in the Plate graphic,  but also explains what the graphic masks in terms of healthy eating.
  • Notes from the project Rethinking the Food Label on why such an endeavor is necessary, and what nutritionists/designers are doing to fix it.
  • Notes on whole grains, a popular nutritional standard these days that’s easy to fake. From GOOD magazine, a summary of whole grain inflation, and then from the wonderful 100 Days of Real Food Challenge, a succinct explanation of why whole grains are important and tips for choosing “real” whole grain foods at the store.
  • Finally, a more light-hearted cautionary tale of why it’s valuable to know the science behind the label. Because otherwise, the food writers at even a usually decent magazine like Men’s Health will be able to convince you that chocolate milk is a diet food.

Don’t forget to leave a comment and let me know what labels you want explained, or what food standards you’d like demystified. Then come back tomorrow for a lengthier essay on how and why we should all do our own food investigations.

Eat Your Veggies…or Get Fat!

9 Jun

I may be falling victim to the grabby headline impulse with that title. Just so everyone’s aware, I’m a rabid feminist with a healthy body image. I don’t want to instill fat fear in anyone. But I do want to share with you all the story of how much weight I gained (and lost and gained again) during the seven years I spent as a vegetarian–and why it happened.

Hint: It has to do with vegetables.

Let’s start with this. According to nutritionists at the University of Georgia, modern American vegetarians are, in general, healthier than their meat-eating counterparts. Vegetarians in the U.S. have a lower incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. There’s some evidence that vegetarians have lower rates of osteoporosis, kidney stones, gallstones, and diverticular disease. And an American vegetarian has a significantly lower chance of being obese than the average American.

So imagine my surprise. When I became a vegetarian, I was at 112. At my peak, about five and a half years in, I weighed in at the gym on one particularly low February afternoon at 138.  Though by the time I started eating meat again, I was back down to a very healthy 118 (and am now a few pounds up  from that) those changes in my body mean something when you look at them alongside my diet.

The numbers on the scale — which are by no means a be-all-end-all big deal to me — are clear evidence of unhealthy eating, despite the label I’d placed on myself by abstaining from eating meat.

I think a part of me just assumed that by being a vegetarian, I was being more healthy. But the truth is, in an affluent country like the U.S., the options for vegetarian food are so widespread and are relatively inexpensive. Combine that with the fact that I’d never thought I was much of a cook at all, and the picky eating which seriously limited my vegetable intake (because I indulged it) and what you end up with is a strictly vegetarian diet that consists of mostly junk food. Processed food. Chemical compounds.

I was a naughty vegetarian.

I ate mostly the same as I had as a meat-eater, subtracting the meat and filling in the blank slice of white on my plate with more of something else. Think frozen pizzas. Think tater tots and cheese sandwiches. Think Ramen. Think lots of Ramen (the mysteriously-named Oriental flavor, from Top brand only, not Maruchan, who added beef fat to theirs). Think Kraft’s blue boxes of macaroni and powdered cheese substitute.

And I discovered meat substitute products: Boca toaster-friendly Chick’n Patties (to go with the tater tots), “flame-grilled” veggie burgers and MorningStar breakfast “sausage” patties and “steak” strips for stir-fry and fajitas, the stuff of complicated chemical processing.

The two periods of time during which I gained the most weight also happened to be the times of my life I worked as a nanny. While I loved those jobs, I discovered something important there: kids eat like crap. Sugary cereal or frozen waffles for breakfast. Frozen chicken nuggets or fish sticks with frozen French fries. Chips, soda  and candy for snacks. And without any of the meat available to me, I just skipped over it altogether. I ate cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches, baked potatoes with cheese, pasta, frozen burritos, cheese quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches. Even as I feed the kids apples and peanut butter or veggies for snacks and sides, I skipped them for myself.

Somehow, though I’d declared a part of my identity as a conscious and ethical eater, I still prioritized easy, fast, cheap, comfort foods. The lesson in all of this isn’t that any of those foods are off-limits, or that being a vegetarian isn’t healthy.

I was just a bad vegetarian.

Remember how I mentioned at the beginning of the post that I had my weight in a healthy range (and was doing yoga five days a week) by the time I started eating meat again? That’s because when I moved to Iowa, I began the process of re-committing to a healthy diet, a diet that would fuel my body.

A diet based mostly on plants. Ironic, I know. I wasn’t eating a plant-based diet as a vegetarian. and I do much more so, now. I was shopping at the farmer’s market again and supporting my co-op. I joined a CSA just weeks before eating my first chicken in seven years. ‘

I focused on the big picture: vegetables. When vegetables are the center of your diet, you will be healthy. And even better, a healthy diet fuels a healthy body. I felt stronger, more capable. I had the energy — extra energy! — to hop on my bike, to run, to practice yoga. Before, I’d always been so tired.

Nutritionists know what they’re talking about. Our bodies are veggie-powered.

I learned here in Iowa that a plant-based, healthy, veggie-tastic diet and meat play nicely (like in last night’s dinner of grilled mojito chicken sandwiches to which I added many yellow peppers and onions!) Healthy eating and meat eating do not have to be mutually exclusive things.

But that’s a much longer story…

Ok, ok! You all cry. You’ve convinced me! I promise to eat my veggies. But how do I do it?! Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post with my tips for incorporating more produce into your diet. In the meantime, share your stories of food, body and fitness here. What changes have you made to your diet over time? How did they affect your health and energy level? What lessons did you learn?

Test Tube Meat

30 May

My loyal readers (as I imagine those of you who are left after this hiatus must be loyal) I apologize for my extended delay from We*Meat*Again! I have missed thinking and writing about food even just since Thursday, and have an ever-growing collection of book-marked articles and ideas to work my way through. I’ve had a recent string of bad luck that culminated in a (minor) car accident Saturday evening, and so real life has gotten a bit too busy for me to keep the blog properly updated.

It may take a few more days before I’m fully back on track, so I thought now would be a good time for a question post, wherein I share a news item about which I can’t quite formulate an opinion and see what you all think! Now, as anyone who knows me in person can testify, I cannot promise I will just automatically adopt the opinions in the comments, but perhaps they will sway me one way or the other.

Today’s Topic: Meat from a Test Tube

The Brief Overview: Science is surprisingly close to being able to use stem cells or bioreceptors to grow animal protein in a petri dish. We’re not talking about growing full animals here, but rather growing just the protein from the animals we consume, starting only with cells.

For a more in-depth discussion of the science here, check out SEED magazine’s interview with a “meat alternative” developer.

This would mean producing animal protein food without any of the issues of environmental pollution discussed in this post, or under any inhumane conditions that made me a vegetarian in the first place. In fact, it would mean getting to eat hamburgers without any blood or slaughter at all.

And not fake burgers–nothing chemical or artificial here. This would be actual animal meat.

So why does it feel weird? Shouldn’t this, for an ethical omnivore, be the perfect scenario? There’s something holding me back from fully embracing this idea. It’s not taste or appearance, as I’ve never seen or tried in vitro meat. What is it that prevents me from seeing this as a sustainable, ethical way to consume animals?

Would you eat meat from a test tube? If not, why? What about this might make us uncomfortable? Here are some comments from folks via GOOD magazine’s twitter and Facebook feeds on this topic.

Grazing

7 May GrazingLunch1

There’s some debate, among biological anthropologists and eaters, about what diet is the more “natural” for humans. Historically, from an evolutionary perspective that is, are we omnivores? Hunters? Scavengers? What does this mean for our modern diets and the way they (negatively) impact our bodies?

I’ve done a good deal of research into it, and there isn’t, in my opinion, a right answer. Humans have been a number of things and eaten a number of diets over the course of our evolutionary history. And the trend, as I see it, is grazing. Whether we grazed off the remains of a lion’s zebra kill on the savanna, or grazed fruits and nuts from trees as our primate relatives did, we humans are firmly gatherers.

I am reminded of this at least once every spring, when the weather finally turns warm again–this is just now happening with any consistency here in Iowa–and I am overcome by a desire to eat nothing but whole, plain foods for lunch, in the sun, under the black walnut tree in my backyard.

There it is, today’s lunch in all of its uncooked glory. I promise I do cook, sometimes, and that I am pretty good at it, and that someday, I will have a recipe to share with you all, but for now, I revel in the ability to eat food without heat or condiment because it just tastes great that way. In the ability to get my hands on green beans so fresh they don’t need to be steamed, and mini heirloom tomatoes. In the memories those vegetables bring back of going to my mother’s backyard garden and picking whatever new veggies had sprouted and eating half the cherry tomatoes by the time I made it back to the house. (Ok, usually more than half.)

Most of all, I treasure the lesson that eating this kind of lunch reminds me of: that fresh, whole foods are delicious, are the most delicious of any kind of food. Once you have eaten enough fresh food to realize this, it becomes easier to incorporate fruits and nuts and veggies into your everyday life, without feeling like it’s a chore. You develop an interest in trying new produce, just because it’s seasonal.

And most of all, you remember the basics of eating that so many modern humans have forgotten, or have never had the opportunity to know: that food should come from soil, and should be enjoyed as close to that soil as possible. Just ask an orangutan.

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