A lot of my friends who have known me for many years may be surprised to learn that I have started eating meat again after being a vegetarian for nearly 20 years (vegan and macrobiotic for about 7 of those). I frequently find myself having to defend this position, which I fully understand, having been a former enthusiast for animal rights and a vegetarian lifestyle. My reasons are varied and complex – but the biggest would have to be for health reasons. I’ve stated many times over the course of this blog that being a vegetarian, vegan, raw foody, etc… never made me a healthier person, and I question to this day if it even contributed to my declining health.
I had a heart attack when I was 39-years-old for reasons that still no one can explain. When I tell people that I was a vegetarian, a marathon runner, a devoted practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, and never had a weight, cholesterol, or blood pressure issue in my life – they are even more perplexed. After my first heart attack, I was put on the Dean Ornish /NO-FAT diet. This diet was basically vegan and meant no meat, dairy, or oils of any kind. I ate nothing but fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and grains. I had another heart attack two years later.
After that, I modified my diet to include “good fats” like olive oil, fish, and avocados. I incorporated non-fat dairy and other low-fat foods into my meals and increased my intake of soy products (which at the time was being touted by the medical community including the American Heart Association as a heart-healthy food). I still didn’t eat any red meat or chicken. I ate egg whites, a lot of whole grains, salmon, tons of vegetables, fruit, tofu, beans, nuts, tempeh, fake meat products made of wheat gluten, and helped myself to desserts that were “vegan,” “raw,” and anything that was made with agave syrup, soy, canola oil, and spelt. This was supposedly the perfect Mediterranean “heart healthy” diet. I had another heart attack five years later and then needed bypass surgery.
So why now have I changed my diet yet again to now include meat, animal fat, full-fat dairy and egg yolks? It sounds like a recipe for another heart attack, doesn't it? Well, actually no. I don’t believe it is. After spending the last 3 years combing through the medical literature that addresses the “lipid hypothesis,” I have come to the conclusion that it is all… inconclusive. It has never been proven that cholesterol causes heart disease. It has never been proven that animal fat raises cholesterol. It has never been proven that red meat causes heart disease and cancers. It has never been proven that vegetable fats are healthier than animal fats. It has never been proven that soy is healthy. It has never been proven that agave syrup is a “health food.” There have been correlations between all these things. But anyone that knows anything about science knows that correlation does not equal causation.
So here is what I do know:
- I know that sugar spikes insulin and that insulin spikes cause the body to store fat, cause inflammation, lower the immune system, and tax the body and all of it’s functions. This is the same mechanism that, in time, can also lead to the development of type-2 diabetes. No one is debating whether sugar is bad. We know it is – and that is in all of its forms – synthetic or not: fructose, sucrose, honey, maple syrup, agave, etc… are all high-glycemic foods and raise insulin the same way.
- I know that grains and carbohydrate-rich food turn quickly into sugar in your body, which also lead to spikes in blood sugar. I know that whole grains and refined grains both spike blood sugar (fiber or not) at the same rate, in the same way.
- Wheat and polyunsaturated vegetables oil also cause inflammation in the system and are linked to auto-immune conditions like celiac disease, chrohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, dermatitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Inflammation is now being considered the strongest risk factor for heart attacks and heart disease.
- Soy is not a health food and causes hormonal imbalances and fertility problems in both men and women (and boys and girls), which is why the American Heart Association has now pulled all their endorsements for soy products.
- 75% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, and vitamin D deficiencies are also linked to cancer and heart disease. The two major sources of vitamin D are animal fat and the sun.
- Carnivores in my family lived long, healthy lives. Vegetarians in my family did not.
- Cultures who still subsist on hunter/gatherer diets have the lowest (some non-existent) rates of chronic diseases in the world (Inuits, Kitavan, Masai, etc...)
Our ancestors lived on animal protein and fats, little sugar, no vegetable fats or other refined foods, and fewer grains than we do today – and exhibited much lower rates of chronic diseases.
- Many vegetarians have vitamin D, vitamin B, iron, and amino acid deficiencies. And I suspect that all of these deficiencies may pose a greater risk to one’s health than meat and fat consumption.
- Children under 5 who are deprived from animal protein suffer from malnutrition - often resulting in wasting, stunting, and in worse cases - death (see Doctors Without Borders study below).
So what about animal welfare, and the environment, and all of the hormones and antibiotics that are ever present in most meat and dairy products?
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3.
In the meant time, here are some fun resources:
Gary Taubs on PBS - transcript
The Cholesterol Myths
Dr. William Davis' take on cholesterol
The Dirty Little Secret of the Diet-Heart Hypothesis
Debunking the China Study
Vitamin D Council
Saturated Fat in non-industrial cultures
Read about the Masai!
Agave syrup is not a health food!
Doctors Without Borders on childhood malnutrition