What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?
This is going to be a tough post to write, but I am going to attempt to do so as I believe it will help me understand all of the views around eating meat and where I stand. It's not that I've been avoiding the topic. It's just that this is a complex topic and I have been trying to wrap my brain around it. You see, I don't have a problem eating meat. Growing up in the Philippines, I've seen animals get butchered for food. I've witnessed chickens and pigs being raised only to be killed for a special event, mostly for a fiesta celebration. When this happened, we would be eating parts of that animal for days on end. Filipinos have a unique way of extending the life of meat using vinegar as a preservative. It’s part of the culture. Eating meat was not seen as a bad thing when I was growing up, partly because meat was saved for special occasions. Meat was expensive. We mostly ate rice, dried fish and whatever fresh vegetables and fruits were in season. My dad would barbeque on Sundays and that was the extent of our meat eating. Meat was also not factory farmed. Animals were raised independently by land owners in backyards with plenty of space to roam around. They didn't need antibiotics. There were fed leftover harvest fruits, vegetables and corn.
After we moved to the U.S. in the 1990s, meat became much more prevalent in our everyday diets. It was a centerpiece at most of our meals. I had an inkling of what it was doing to us, but at the time, I was young and had no concept of good vs. bad food. You see, my sister and I had been in the U.S. for a few years before we went back to visit family in the Philippines. In those 5 years, you could see how much bigger my sister and I were in comparison to my cousins. In hindsight, this was due to the kinds of foods we were eating in the States. Factory farmed meat loaded with antibiotics, lots of sugar and starches and lack of exercise and a lot of TV watching. I made it through college and in my 20's consuming like a typical, average American until 2013 when my husband and I joined Crossfit.
Change is Coming
We joined Crossfit as a way to do something together and as a way to lose weight. We were again a typical couple eating out, eating fast food after 9pm, drinking and not being active. After a few months of Crossfit, we joined the Paleo Challenge the gym was running and had an eye opening look into the kinds of foods we were eating. We significantly changed the way we ate: skipped grains, skipped vegetable oils, skipped fast food and learned to drink coffee without creamers or sugar, but continued to eat a lot of meat. We started learning about where meat came from and started moving towards grass-fed, organic meat. We paid a premium for this. Meat continued to be a central part of all of our meals as we moved towards Keto and Whole30. Our goal was to make sure we ate good meats with good fats.
Fast forward another few years and as I dove deeper into sustainability and eco-friendly living, there was this nagging feeling in me that I still wasn’t doing enough. How can I call myself an environmentalist and not be vegan or vegetarian? To be honest, a part of my thinking on this was a mindset that if I didn’t eat meat, what would I eat. I was trying to stay away from grains and gluten rich food, from soy, from beans (they don’t agree with my stomach after doing a few rounds of an elimination diet so this is self-diagnosed) so what would be left for me to eat?
Recently, I picked up Jonathan Saffran Foer’s book “Eating Animals” and was re-introduced to the way animals are treated in today’s factory farms. I knew this, had seen the documentaries before, had read Michael Pollan’s books, but this time, something clicked. In the book Foer does a great job providing the various perspectives of people involved in animal husbandry and animal farming. He doesn’t advocate for one or the other (even though he is a vegetarian) and he lets the reader come to their own conclusions. He makes you think about our relationship to animals, what meat means to us and what’s really going behind the closed barn doors. There were a few key points that I am going to highlight here and let you decide for yourself what it means to you.
If we are thinking about animals as meat, why don’t we eat dogs? Are all animals not equal then? Do we not eat dogs because they are companion animals? Do we not eat dogs because they have significant mental capabilities? But what about other animals that act as companions and are smarter than dogs. “Dogs are practically begging to be eaten. Three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized annually. This amounts to millions of pounds of meat now being thrown away each year…an enormous ecological and economic problem. In America, millions of dogs and cats are euthanized in animal shelters every year and become the food of our food. If we let dogs be dogs, and breed without interference, we would create a sustainable, local meat supply with low energy inputs that would put even the most efficient grass-based farming to shame. For the ecologically minded it’s time to admit that dog is realistic food for realistic environmentalists." (Foer)
(Note that in many parts of the world, including the Philippines, dogs are eaten.)
The problem with the animals that we eat today is the way they are engineered, raised, slaughtered and marketed. “…poultry companies began to achieve total vertical integration. They owned the genetic pool, the bird themselves (farmers only tended to them, like counselors at a sleep away camp), the requisite drugs, the feed, the slaughtering, the processing, and the market brands. It wasn’t just that techniques had changed: biodiversity was replaced with genetic uniformity, university departments of animal husbandry became departments of animal science, a business once dominated by women was not taken over by men and skilled farmers were replaced with wage and contract workers. Virtually, none of these commercially available birds are capable of reproducing, and serious health problems have been bred in to their genes in the process of engineering them (the chickens we eat, like turkeys) are dead-end animals – by design they can’t live long enough to reproduce.)" (Foer)
Living Healthier Longer
I’ve been fascinated with this concept of bio-hacking in which you figure out how to optimize your health. The goal is not just to live longer, but to live healthy longer. A lot of these ideas came from Tim Ferriss and his cohorts, but a part of this is also because my grandfathers at the time of this writing are in their 90s. That’s a long time to be alive and well. Both are mentally on top of their game, but getting physically frailer by the year. A part of me feels and knows I might live as long as them so I want to make sure the years from now until then are as optimized as possible. My husband and I joke around that we have 60 more years with each other, let’s not kill each other just yet. With this, I’ve been doing a lot of research into longevity and came across fasting as a way to help renew the body. This led me to Dr. Valter Longo, his research and eventually his book “The Longevity Diet.” Dr. Valter Longo is the Director of the University of Southern California (USC) Longevity Institute and the Program on Longevity and Cancer at IFOM (Molecular Oncology FIRC Institute in Milan. Watch him speak here and here about fasting. I was excited to pick up the book and read what he had to say about the ideal diet for longevity. I knew his work already on fasting and I continue to be fascinated by it. I’ve already done several fasting breaks and continue to practice intermittent fasting almost daily. I was disappointed at his diet recommendation, frankly because I thought it was going to be wildly new and unique. I’ll get to the diet in a little bit.
I want to spend a paragraph plugging in his book because I think it is an important book to read for those interested in living longer, healthier. What I love about Dr. Longo’s research is that it doesn’t just focus on a specific disease but “to exploit our body’s innate ability to regenerate itself at the cellular and organ levels.” We know that our bodies have not evolved significantly in the past few hundred years. In fact, it’s our sedentary lifestyle, our exposure to manufactured food, our re-engineering of everything else that is leading to many of today’s health problems. This book is slightly different from all of the other nutrition or diet books out there because it includes clinical studies, basic juventology research, epidemiology research and study of centanarians.
I passed this book on to my mother who is undergoing her second round of chemotherapy for breast cancer. As a nurse, she found value in it. The book explains the various ways fasting and the longevity diet helps with various diseases: cancer, Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune disease. I think it’s worth picking up for those wanting to learn a bit more about fasting and how a specific diet could help with these various diseases. Specifically, I was fascinated about how fasting triggers normal cells to go into survival mode thus rejecting the chemotherapy and protecting normal cells from being affected by the poison. The cancer cells on the other hand don't know the difference and readily accept and eat what is given.
These findings on fasting were important to me because it gave more credibility to the kind of diet that would be recommended for a longer, healthier life.
For some time now, since I've started delving into optimizing my health, I've been fascinated about the role of antibiotics in our food system and have been personally trying to combat this by taking probiotics and eating a more gut friendly foods, but meat was still a big part of my diet. There’s a little bit of an irony in what I was doing because instead of trying to eliminate the source of antibiotic rich food, I was taking something else to combat it. It’s interesting to note how quickly we fall into using medicine as a solution instead of going to the source of our ailments and allowing our body to return to its normal state and do the fighting. This reminds me of how quickly we also take medicine when a fever comes on. Part of the reason a fever comes on is because the body is responding to something foreign and increasing temperature is one of the ways it knows how to fight off a foreign bacteria or virus.
The Longevity Diet
In his book, Dr. Longo outlines his recommendation for the Longevity Diet based on his research and various clinical studies. It boils down to this:
1. Eat a mostly vegan diet with some fish.
2. Consume low but sufficient proteins.
3. Minimize bad fats and sugars and maximize good fats and complex carbs.
4. Be nourished.
5. Eat at the table of your ancestors.
6. Eat twice a day plus snack.
7. Restrict eating to a small window per day.
8. Follow periodic prolonged fasting-mimicking diets.
9. Exercise for longevity.
10. Find happiness in little things.
11. Spend time with people.
Part of the reason why I was disappointed with the diet recommendation was that it didn’t feel unique to me. I guess that’s what makes it work. It’s simple. It advocates for eating mostly plants, eating like our ancestors ate, eating in a way that mimics our fast/feed cycles of the past and moving the body instead of remaining sedentary for 12-14 hours a day.
My Own Conclusions
Today, as I write this, I am making it a goal to eat a more plant-rich diet. I won't be giving up meat completely anytime soon, but am going to strive to eat meat only that has been locally raised and raised with high animal welfare standards. This does mean that I will have to pay premium for meat, but as long as it is in moderation, I don't think it will not hurt the wallet as much. I am also striving to eat more like my ancestors did and really incorporate listening to the body for hunger as opposed to eating when the time is right. I’m already following some of the points Dr. Longo points out in this Longevity Diet plan so continuing to do so will allow me to find that middle ground
We don’t eat alone. “We eat as sons and daughters, as families, as communities, as generations, as nations, and increasingly as a globe. We can’t stop our eating from radiating influence even if we want to….eating is a social act.” My own eating habits will influence the way my family and friends eat and I am prepared for that. Melissa Hartwig, of the Whole30 stated that “in our relationships, food is love, acceptance, bonding and comfort. Food is emotional. Changing the food you put on your plate can make others feel threatened, insulted, uncomfortable or rejected.”
At this point in my life though, I have come to my own conclusions about MY diet and how meat will play into it based on my own research and experience. So while I want to be sensitive to other people’s feelings about food and will continue to learn as much as I can, I am going to follow what I believe in. I do believe we still need to grow and raise animals. We are a planet of 6 billion people. It is not sustainable for all 6 billion of us to all be plant based. We need animals to help grow our crops. We need animals to help convert inedible crops to something that can be eaten. We need the manure of animals to grow organic food. We need a sustainable middle ground. The factory farm on the other hand is not sustainable in the long-run. We are destroying our planet and the lives of our children if we continue down this path. Not just from the environmental perspective, but from the over engineering of products. We are not evolving as quickly as we think and I worry that our bodies will not catch-up so easily to all of these changes we are making. We are destroying land, biodiversity, and our own healthy future.
So for me, I am not going to accept the factory farm animals and I will not feed it to my family and I will not support it with my money. I will support family farms with high animal welfare ratings even if it comes at a premium price. I will continue to eat animals, but at a significantly lower proportion than before. I think the fact that I will continue to eat animals means I need to continue to review and advocate how animals are raised, treated and slaughtered. It's one thing to turn your head against factory farming by not eating animals completely, but it's another thing to not do something about it. I also understand that "organic" meat that comes from large retailers are innately still part of a larger production farm where shortcuts may be made to produce large quantities of meat so I am now keenly aware of not taking all of that marketing at face value.
My personal goals then is to visit family owned farms in New Jersey and source our meats from them. I will move towards a diet that is more plant-rich, but continue to reduce/cut my intake of grains, soy and beans. These are the things that I can control and these are the things that I can influence others to do, but I cannot force them. If in the end, someone tells me, you are only doing this to make yourself feel better, then I am OK with it. It's a conclusion I've made given how I want to live sustainably and how I can influence my family to live healthier longer. I guess in the end too, a sustainable lifestyle is something that you can fully commit to and follow through for a long-time. This will vary from person to person so I encourage you to find what works for you.
My Longevity Diet
So here is MY Longevity Diet:
Move towards a more plant-rich diet.
Eat meat sparingly and eat meat without antibiotics, added hormones and meat that comes from farms with high welfare standards.
Practice intermittent fasting.
Complete 2-3 long fasts per year.
Take care of the gut through eating fermented foods or probiotic supplement.
Reduce all sugar intake.
Eat like my ancestors.
Move, stretch and get the body active everyday.
Get outside, breath fresh air and feel the sun.
Surround yourself with positive, supportive people.
Do what you love often.
P.S. Throughout this post, I've included links to my past posts as I experimented with whole30, keto, fasting, probiotics, etc. I recommend doing your own personal experiment. What works for your body? What inflames your body? How do you feel when you eliminate something? Only then can you truly figure out what your body needs to thrive and live healthy longer. The standard care prescribed by average American doctors clearly doesn't work so well so I encourage you to figure out what works for you.
P.S.S. I am not a doctor, don't claim to be one and don't run my own clinical lab except on myself.