Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Forks Over Knives" and Some Thoughts on Protein

I have some confessions. I cut the fat off of grilled steaks and pork chops not to avoid it, but to savor it. I’ve eaten deep-fried cheesecake, and it was awesome. I like butter on my toast and cheese on anything. And I can’t imagine not eating eggs in some form or another—be it soft-boiled or baked into banana bread or something— at least several times a week.

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But I eat a lot of other things too of course. In addition to the foods mentioned above, I also really like pretty much any type of green leafy vegetable if it’s been sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil, I love fresh fruit, I could probably eat guacamole every day for the rest of my life and not get tired of it, and I think that roasted sweet potatoes are delicious. And I definitely don’t eat fried cheesecake or steak fat very often, and probably wouldn’t even if they were always available. Well, that might not be true, maybe I would if they were always available. But they aren’t, so I don’t. Still, the point is that I eat things that aren’t great for me and I enjoy them. But it’s more often that I eat nutrient-dense,  fresh or minimally processed foods, and I feel that overall I have a pretty good diet and a pretty good awareness of what a healthy diet is. However I started to question that feeling a bit when I watched Forks Over Knives.

As I watched Forks Over Knives, a documentary by Lee Fulkerson about the health benefits of eating whole-food, plant-based diet, I was thinking a lot about my diet and to what extend it does or doesn’t resemble the type of diet that the experts in the documentary recommended. To very briefly summarize, the documentary focuses on interviews with T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. and Caldwell B. Esselstyn, M.D.. Campbell (a nutrition researcher) and Esselstyn (a surgeon), with supporting interviews from doctors, researchers, food policy makers, and patients/converts to the plant-based whole food, low-protein diets, make a convincing argument for the health benefits of this diet (for more information about who was part of the documentary, click here). They claim that following this diet is not only a great way of preventing disease and feeling happier, healthier, and more energetic, but that it also is an effective way of actually curing/reversing diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and possibly even cancer. They even document people who have these types of diseases and stop taking all of the medicine that they’ve been prescribed (like blood pressure lowering medications, insulin, etc.) and instead treat their diseases by switching completely to a plant-based, whole food, low-protein diet.

I have to say, Forks Over Knives had me feeling convinced. Campbell and Esselstyn seemed to be pretty good authorities on health and nutrition—they’re professionals who have done a lot of research on these topics, they did a good job of explaining the research, they had a lot of “real people” examples, etc.  And since I’m not a nutrition expert (at least not yet!) I didn’t really have any counterpoints to their argument.

Now, after finishing the documentary and having time to reflect on it, I think I’m a little more skeptical about their “food as medicine” approach to treating chronic diseases—I believe in the importance of nutrition, but I for one would not be willing to try to cure myself of something like cancer with food alone. So I kind of don’t know what to say about that. But I actually think that one of the most interesting topics covered in the documentary, and which Campbell and Esselstyn focus on in relation to disease prevention, was that of protein.

Because the diet they advocate is low-protein, Campbell and Esselstyn discussed that I would call a sort of mythology surrounding protein among Americans: we think it’ll make us stronger, faster, smarter, more attractive, and just overall better. We tend to think that it’s something that you can practically never have too much of. That it is a valuable ingredient in food while grains and other plant-based foods are “fillers.” It’s tied up with ideas about masculinity, personal value, tradition, plentiful resources, etc. And because of this, consuming protein is just as much of a symbol/performance/status marker as it is a nutritional choice. So it makes sense to me that people are overdoing protein, and that that could have negative health consequences.

I’m not normally into keeping close track of my dietary intake, but I’m currently in the middle of a project in my nutrition class in which I have to keep track of everything I eat for three days and then assess my diet. My first day, I exceeded my daily recommended intake of protein by 75%! And it wasn’t like I ate a giant steak or something—I got my protein that day through things like cheese, milk, eggs, a turkey sandwich, etc. So whether or not the low-protein, plant-based diet proposed by Campbell and Esselstyn is as awesome and effective as they make it sound, I do think that a lot of people in the U.S.  (myself included, apparently) have a protein overconsumption problem, and would likely benefit from cutting back on it.  But making that change won’t be easy because not only are protein-rich foods pretty abundant and accessible in the U.S., they’re also really wrapped up in socio-cultural values, self-identification, and the food-mythology I mentioned earlier. And it’s really hard (and possibly not even ethical?) to tell people that their socio-cultural values, self-identification, and mythologies are flawed. But on the other hand, since protein overconsumption is responsible for quite a few environmental and health problems, maybe it's worth trying to figure out some way that the socio-cultural values, self-identification, and mythologies surrounding protein could be re-imagined.

P.S. I was going to include a link to a post titled "One Chicken Breast, Six Eggs, Two Dinners for Four" on a recipe blog called Nothing But Delicious that I thought summed up pretty well my view of meat consumption—that it should be savored, not wasted, used sparingly, etc., and that that we should be more mindful of where our food comes from and how we feel about it. Unfortunately that post seems to have been removed from the blog in the last couple of days, which is kind of weird considering it wasn't exactly controversial...? If the post reappears or I find out what happened to it, I'll include it in an upcoming post. 

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