With our ongoing application of observation and reason, we have come to deeply understand many aspects of the nature of the Universe, including living creatures and humans. What have we learned about nutrition and the food we eat – among the most intimate aspects of our lives? Where do we get to if we start with the question, “what food items are nutritious, and not so nutritious, for humans?"
Since there is big money in food and medicine, large stakeholders devote lots of money to research – and to skewing the research and promoting the skewed results – we are left, understandably, always doubting what we hear. So how do we arrive at an answer to our question that is more true than not? We could go to PubMed and search for papers on particular topics, read them, read the papers they cite, read the papers that cite them, figure out who was industry funded, evaluate the quality of their science and, with time and work and careful thought, arrive at a sense of what is most likely true. We could also go the USDA’s Nutrient Database and sort through what nutrients are in what foods. Obviously this is a lot of work, and much more work than any of us is likely to do. A trusted guide would be helpful; someone who has done a lot of the above work, is not sponsored by a stakeholder, who is asking the same question about what is actually most nutritious, and who provides links to the papers they discuss so we can look at them ourselves and see if their reasoning holds up. (Still plenty of work: all this extra work needed to get accurate nutrition information is a result of the efforts of stakeholders to confuse us, to get us to buy their products. I think of this as a tax: a tax imposed by the stakeholders on the public, enriching the stakeholders at our expense.) Are there any such guides out there? I have found a few; perhaps there are others. Dr. Michael Gregor's Nutrition Facts is one, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is another.
My studies, aided by these guides, have led me to include fiber and antioxidants on my mental list of primary nutrients, in addition to carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins. They have also led me to believe that the nutrients provided by animal-based foods, mainly protein and fat, are easily obtained from whole-plant foods but without the cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other health risks intrinsic to animal-based sources. Fiber is only found in plant foods, and plant foods are dramatically better sources of antioxidants. Most of the items that are nutritious for humans are of plant (or fungal or bacterial) origins, and getting them directly from these sources is preferable to getting them second hand via animal foods and incurring the significant risks and undesirable health effects inherent in them (bovine leukemia virus, causing an estimated 37% of breast cancers, is just one recent such discovery). The highly beneficial, preformed omega 3 fats promoted in fish oil, for example, are not made by fish, but by algae that the fish eat. Like the fish, we too can get these essential fatty acids directly from algae, sparing our bodies from the mercury and PCBs in fish, and ocean ecosystems from destruction.
As I have studied, a general taxonomy of foods has begun to develop in my thinking:
- Poison or Neutral: No nutritional value to eating under any circumstances.
- Amanita phalloides, plutonium, diesel fuel, PCBs, mercury, lead, Olestra, etc.
- Dyes, flavors, preservatives, conditioners, growth hormones, pesticides, infectious microbes, ethanol, etc.
- Avoid: These provide nutrition, but at a cost to our health; eat these when they are all that's available.
- Animal-sourced foods: meat (including fish); eggs; dairy.
- Refined sugars: sucrose (table sugar); HFCS; honey; agave; fruit juices; maple syrup.
- Refined oils: corn oil; sunflower oil; cotton seed oil; palm oil; olive oil; etc.
- Trans fats: margarine and any hydrogenated oils
- Refined grains: white flour; white rice; etc.
- Prefer: These provide nutrition and promote health; eat these if they can be procured.
- Whole grains and beans.
- Vegetables and Fungi: beets; sweet potato; onion; carrot; mushrooms (cooked); fresh garlic; artichoke; crucifers (kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, radish, etc.); squash; tomatoes; bell peppers; etc.
- Fruit & Berries: black raspberries; black currants; barberries; blueberries; strawberries; raspberries; blackberries; goji berries; cherries; grapes; watermelon; apples; lemons; citrus; dates; plums; kiwi; pears; raisins; apricots; etc.
- Nuts & Seeds: walnuts; almonds; pistachios; peanuts; flax seeds; pumpkin seeds; tahini; chia seeds; sunflower seeds; unsweetened cocoa or chocolate; etc.
- Spices: turmeric; marjoram; cumin; oregano; fennel seeds; fenugreek; black pepper; cayenne; peppermint; cilantro; ginger; rosemary; Ceylon cinnamon; cloves.
- Beverages: water; black, green, or white tea (without added dairy or sugar); coffee.
- Supplements: Vitamins D3 and B12 (mandatory); Algal Omega 3; iodine.
We have also discovered that who we eat with, our emotional relationship with eating and what we eat, presentation and rituals, and the social and cultural setting significantly affect our health and physiology. Though these factors are hugely important, my focus here is simply on our discoveries about the direct effects of what we eat on our physiology.
While this approach to eating yields a diet that overlaps with a vegan diet, it is not, however, defined the same way – and with significant implications. Beer and potato chips, twinkies and coke, sugar and palm oil, are all "vegan" but are not nutritious and a diet defined by not eating animal products, rather than one based on nutrition, can lead to serious malnourishment and illness, facts that have, appropriately, given "vegan" a bad name. If we eat a nutritious diet, it turns out we will also be eating a vegan diet: the inverse is not also true.
Independently, and in addition to the health risks of eating animal-based foods, there are also a number of modern-day problems with the animal-based food industry, including ecosystem destruction, high fossil-fuel consumption, air and water pollution, antibiotic resistance, health impacts on folks working in the industry, and the maltreatment of animals. If one of the greatest benefits provided by Civilization is an increase in the level of respect and compassion we have for each other, other creatures, and ecosystems, reducing (eliminating) animal-sourced foods in our diet not only provides optimal nutrition, but also a way to embrace, celebrate, and advance our outrageous good luck to live at this time. And since reductions in animal-based food consumption also dramatically reduce carbon emissions and ecosystem destruction, not eating animal products is a choice we can each make to strike directly at corporate malevolence, political corruption, and to increase the chances of Civilization’s persistence.