This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
This year I did a vegan(and later semi-vegan) paleo self-experiment that I never wrote up. I guess I never wrote it up because it wasn't terribly successful and I didn't finish the run I wanted to try. I wanted to go for a month on this diet, but I only made it a week on totally vegan and two more weeks on a modified version.
Why did I do this to myself? Is curiousity a good enough reason? After all, a similar diet is eaten by most of the Melanesian foragers popular in the paleo community. I also had a fantastic amount of access to amazing and cheap sources of starch in NYC. There are other reasons, but I feel they would weigh this post down with too many details about my personal life at the time.
The original diet was based on fruit, roots, nuts, coconut, tubers, and other assorted vegetables. At the local market I could get ten green plantains for a dollar. I could get a massive true yam as big as my head for about two dollars.
From the outset I was limited by my own food sensitivities, which limit vegetables, particularly brassica vegetables. These contain large amounts of galactans and raffinose, so-called FODMAPs that wreck me, but for vegans they are one of the best sources of calcium. I also seem to be sensitive to something in nuts, so I tried to limit them.
So my diet was mainly:
A typical meal was chopped starch boiled in coconut milk with some vegetables and a serving of fruit on the side. I focused on fruits and vegetables high in Vitamin A because I knew I would need more since I am a poor convertor of beta-carotene to retinol.
Where is the protein? I thought perhaps I wouldn't need much if I were only eating this way short term, but after a couple of days I felt a little off and I figured it would make a difference. I added skinless urad dal, the rare legume that doesn't upset my stomach. I stopped buying cocoyam because it was mediocre and taro because it was too hard to cook. The major issue I seemed to suffer from was just not feeling very energetic, so I gave up on the vegan angle and added in shellfish and then regular fish.
Oh great, another taro-ble meal
The shrimp-spinach-coconut milk curry from Primal Blueprint Quick and Easy Meals became a staple. But even while eating fairly energy-dense dishes like this, I still was usually getting fewer calories a day than I was used to. When I read about the two low-reward food self-experiments at Whole Health Source, in hindsight I realize that I was on a pretty low-reward diet. Lots of plain bland boring starches. Even when I tried to make them more exciting with spices I seemed to make it worse since most spices tend to dampen my appetite. I started making smoothies towards the end because it was just so hard for me to eat enough starch. And I knew that if I didn't get enough calories I would feel tired and irritable.
Don't get me wrong, I love plantains. I love them fried in bacon fat. But boiled in coconut milk I got sick of them pretty quickly. If there is one lesson I learned from this is that you can make some pretty cheap and delicious meals out of starch cooked in leftover animal fat. And really, did it make sense for me to stuff myself in imported coconut products and shrimp when I had local meat? This plus issues with low energy led me to end the experiment about a week early. I had similar, but worse, problems on a raw vegan diet.
Perhaps this diet would be a good one for someone who wants to save a lot of money or lose weight? I also think it could be hacked by fermenting some of the starches, which would increase their caloric value and some fermented starches (like fufu) are quite tasty. A low-meat diet based on traditional African recipes that involve starches with animal broths and fermented fish sauces would also be a lot more delicious. I also didn't try supplementing the diet with DHA, taurine, and carnitine - nutrient candidates that might be the missing piece in understanding why some do not do particularly well on plant-based diets.
Self Experiment Results
It's bad enough that I'm dead
It's unfortunate that well-meaning health bloggers and personalities have joined grave robbers around the world in misusing mummies, particularly since there aren't a lot of them. It's clear they had some pretty tough lives and in death they are being paraded around to debunk various popular diets. If you think high-protein diets are bad, you have a tiny selection of Siberian, Aleut, and Eskimo mummies to defame. If you think grains are evil, you have a nice selection of Egyptian mummies with a few bog and ice mummies from various agrarian settlements thrown in.
But if these diets are all so horrible, why do mummies from diverse places all seem to have atherosclerosis? And the other problems commonly represented in mummies, osteoporosis and cavities, don't seem to track with particular diets at all. For example, caries are present in Aleut mummies AND copper-age grain-eaters like Otzi. Osteoporosis is present in some Eskimo mummies, but also low-fat grain-eaters from South America. With sample sizes so low and the same problems present in all kinds of populations, I'd think nutrition geeks would be happy to leave mummies alone.
But tragically, mummy abuse is rampant in the nutritional community. I recently saw a anti-paleo vegan Youtube Series that used the poor Eskimo mummies to say "What we see here are effectively long-term studies of an animal-based Wise Traditions diet and the results are not pretty." (Credit to Cordain for first abusing these particular mummies).
Yikes, that's one sad little study, but it's not just vegans who mistreat our poor mummy friends. Dr. Eades has written quite a bit on Egyptian mummies. While I agree it's quite hilarious that their low-fat diet didn't do much for them, I'm not sure there are a reason to throw out the kamut just yet.
You see, while mummies are great for understanding how people lived in the past, they aren't great tools for shooting down diets. There aren't very many of them and their health problems weren't all caused by their diets anyway. An excellent book if you are interested in mummies is Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures, which includes an excellent survey of various mummies and what modern science can tell us about their health problems. Like the original scientists who studied the Eskimo mummies, this text concludes that their methods of heating and cooking were extremely detrimental to their health: "The winter houses were semisubterranean with a tunnel entrance and heated by small seal oil lamps. The hot air in the house would not sink into the tunnel when the door, in the floor of the house, was opened. This effect also trapped smoke in the house. In addition it was the duty of the women to trim the lamp at night; sleeping next to the lamp increased the exposure to smoke, resulting in severe anthracosis* at an early age and lung damage, including bronchiectasis and emphysema."
So their cooking and heating practices were the equivalent of working in a coal mine and definitely worse than smoking modern cigarettes (which almost always have a filter). Needless to say, this is not good for your lungs, heart, or bones. Indoor air pollution from cooking and heating fires remains a major health problem in developing countries. If anything, these mummies are an excellent reason to me to be thankful for my gas stove and radiator heating during this cold December. And a reminder that things like lung and heart problems are not diseases of civilization.
For the other mummies, in the age of modern dentistry and antibiotics, it's easy to underestimate the contribution of dental disease and infection to atherosclerosis. It's also easy to overestimate the certainty of paleopathology, which can be quite controversial:
The development of vascular calcification is related not only to atherosclerosis.4 Other conditions may lead to the formation of such lesions, including aging, diabetes, disorders of calcium-phosphorus metabolism, chronic microinflammation, hyperhomocysteinemia, and chronic renal insufficiency.3 Moreover, given the poor state of preservation of the organic tissues, a differential diagnosis for the findings should include parasitic calcifications in lymphatic vessels (particularly from filariasis).
Conclusion on Mummies:
Relevance to your health: low
Chance of being haunted by vengeful undead: high
*= AKA "black lung"
I'm not big on making desserts, but for special occasions this is a great quick recipe and I think it's quite a fun project for kids. It's also very filling and makes small servings, which makes it an ideal treat.
It's simple: just halve a Lara Bar of your choice and either use a silicone cupcake mold or your hands to make it into a "cupcake" shape. Then I made some icing with mixing some coconut manna/butter with a dash of honey, lemon juice, and vanilla. Then I mixed some delicious Kelapo Fair Trade coconut oil into that until it was the right texture to ice. I decorated with coconut flakes.
Since a diet a raw vegan of only raw fruits, vegetables, and nuts is not an appropriate diet for our species, many people suffer from health problems on such diets. When I get comments from healthy long-term raw vegans here, I take it with a grain of salt since I know that people are so attached to the "purity" of raw vegan that they will engage in denialism before they admit they have a problem.
A questionnaire study of raw vegan diets found that many women on them suffer from amnorrhea, which means they stop having their monthly periods. They concluded that "Since many raw food dieters exhibited underweight and amenorrhea, a very strict raw food diet cannot be recommended on a long-term basis." (note the study did not include raw foodists who include animal products in their diets).
Unfortunately, instead of admitting their diet was deficient, many have written articles about how periods are bad anyway, because it's not something wild animals or our primate relatives have and it's a sign that we have "toxins" on our bodies. Here is one from Debbie Took (who later confessed on Letthemeatmeat that she was considering adding raw dairy into her diet and has since stopped posting on her blog, though I hear she is fruitarian now):
To many feminists, the idea of the menstrual blood as being 'impure' is heresy, but...'The toxicity of menstrual blood has been well substantiated. Mach and Lubin (Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapy 22:413 (1924)) showed that the blood plasma, milk, sweat and saliva of menstruating women contains a substance that is highly toxic to protoplasm of living plants. This toxic substance is not present during the intermenstrual periods.' Even the sweat and saliva! And these toxins are not present when not menstruating. It's as if the body is 'gathering together' toxins in the period preceding menstruation, prior to expulsion at menstruation, to get the body all nice and clean again for possible impregnation the following month. But, sure, the study's old, and if anyone knows whether any subsequent studies have refuted it, let me know.
I thought of this post because Dr. Kate Clancy, a physical anthropologist, just posted about it in her blog:
Dr. Bela Schick, a doctor in the 1920s, was a very popular doctor and received flowers from his patients all the time. One day he received one of his usual bouquets from a patient. The way the story goes, he asked one of his nurses to put the bouquet in some water. The nurse politely declined. Dr. Schick asked the nurse again, and again she refused to handle the flowers. When Dr. Schick questioned his nurse why she would not put the flowers in water, she explained that she had her period. When he asked why that mattered, she confessed that when she menstruated, she made flowers wilt at her touch...Dr. Schick decided there was something nasty in the sweat of menstruating women. Others took up the cause. Soon, people were injecting menstrual blood into rodents, and those rodents were dying (Pickles 1979). Others were growing plants in venous blood from menstruating women to determine phytotoxicity; the sooner the plants died, the higher the quantity of menotoxin assumed in the sample.
It reminds me of elementary school science fairs and of the people who claim vegetables are toxic because of some study that put something ridiculous like purifiedcapsaicin on a cell culture and...no surprise the cells died! As if that is like eating peppers. These experiements were badly done and produced invalid results, the modern scientific understanding of periods is that they don't have to do with toxins:
Thankfully, the most accepted idea is that menstruation did not evolve at all, but is a byproduct of the evolution of terminal differentiation of endometrial cells (Finn 1996; Finn 1998). That is, endometrial cells must proliferate and then differentiate, and once they differentiate, they have an expiration date. Ovulation and endometrial receptivity are fairly tightly timed, to the point that the vast majority of implantations occur within a three-day window (Wilcox et al. 1999). So it’s not that menstruation expels dangerous menotoxins, but rather that menstruation happens because the endometrium needs to start over, and humans in particular have thick enough endometria that we can’t just resorb all that blood and tissue.
Guess what? Plants didn't evolve to grow in menstrual blood, just like we didn't evolved to eat uncooked animal-free food. The essential factors of cooking or eating animal fat is that they are appropriately calorically dense for our small digestive systems and giant hungry brains. Physical anthropologist Dr. Richard Wrangham discusses his book Catching Fire here:
I think we can probably digest them—this is guesswork because we don't really know—but the point is they're very full of indigestible fiber. So the average human diet has, even in the more fibrous hunter-gatherer types, 5 to 10 percent, say, indigestible fiber. With our chimp studies, they eat 32 percent indigestible fiber. So that is something that the human body is not designed to handle. And the reason we can say that is that we have small colons and small stomachs which are adapted to food that has high caloric density. And food the chimps eat has low caloric density.
Anthroologists will continue to argue about which is more important- animal foods or cooking, but either way, a raw vegan diet doesn't fit our anatomy.
This lovely little piece of woo makes the claim that healthy humans eating a "natural" diet don't have periods.
The majority of women in modern cultures however, experience instead a copious disabling monthly bleeding - that neither their wild primate cousins nor humans living close to nature do (2:30; 15:232). Insightful doctors have long been aware that nature did not intend the ovulation cycle to be accompanied by cramping, nervous tension, or any of the long list of symptoms we've come to associate with "having a period" - let alone by the days of bloody flow we now accept as "normal", but which they rightly call a hemorrhage:
That's also nonsense. It's not discussed often enough in ethnographies, but it's clearly there. The biography of Nisa, a !Kung woman, discusses it. And I doubt that if it were unnoticeable and rare that some Melanesian societies would have taboos about it.
That said, if your period is disabling, that might have to do with a modern diet. I've definitely had shorter, lighter, and less painful periods since I started eating whole unprocessed real foods, but I would be very alarmed if I didn't have a period. If you aren't getting one, you do need to see a doctor, and if you are paleo you need ton consider whether or not you are eating enough calorie-dense foods.
If you do not want to eat animal-based foods, consider following Wranghams example and eating some cooked food. I think a lot of vegans initially benefit from raw veganism because so many vegan foods are so horribly processed (and it is an excellent weight-loss diet). Some of them succeed because they are able to eat massive amounts of fruit or tons of calorically dense nut concoctions, though many eventually succumb to nutrient rather than calorie issues (or they are post-menopausal and telling young women that not having a period is normal, which just boggles my mind). When I think of what unhealthy veganism means, I not only think of raw veganism, I think of Foodswings in Williamsburg, which serves up such unhealthy delicacies as breaded fried processed soy-meat. There are plenty of alternatives to both diets, such as steamed root vegetables, soaked or sprouted lentils, or fermented buckwheat.
Regardless of the uniquely nourishing properties of meat, there are people who just don't want to eat meat. There are also people who might want to abstain from it periodically. Sometimes in the blogosphere it might seem as if it's a choice between steak and absurdly dysfunctional raw vegan diets. This is a false dichotomy perpetuated by people who have a bizarre distorted views about animals.
Enter animals that definitely don't have feelings or interests beyond very basic biological urges. In his excellent essay on the idea of oysters being OK for people who otherwise would be vegan, Christopher Cox says:
But what if we could find an animal that thrived in a factory-farm cage, one that subsisted on nutrients plucked from the air and that was insensate to the slaughterhouse blade? Even if that animal looked like a bunny rabbit crossed with a puppy, it would be A-OK to hack it into pieces for your dinner plate. Luckily for those of us who still haven't gotten over the death of Bambi's mother, the creature I'm thinking of is decidedly less cuddly. Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants. Oyster farms account for 95 percent of all oyster consumption and have a minimal negative impact on their ecosystems; there are even nonprofit projects devoted to cultivating oysters as a way to improve water quality. Since so many oysters are farmed, there's little danger of overfishing. No forests are cleared for oysters, no fertilizer is needed, and no grain goes to waste to feed them—they have a diet of plankton, which is about as close to the bottom of the food chain as you can get. Oyster cultivation also avoids many of the negative side effects of plant agriculture: There are no bees needed to pollinate oysters, no pesticides required to kill off other insects, and for the most part, oyster farms operate without the collateral damage of accidentally killing other animals during harvesting. (Relatedly, although it's possible to collect wild oysters sustainably, the same cannot be said for other bivalves like clams and mussels. These are often dredged from the seabed, disrupting an entire ecosystem. For that reason, it's best to avoid them.)
If you are slightly less sensitive as least less than David Foster Wallace (as I am), you might want to also consider the lobster, as lobster harvesting has also become much more sustainable. Other shellfish options are a bit more murky. Good shrimp is exceedingly hard to find, most of it raised in polluted cesspools in Asia or caught from a now-destroyed Gulf. Clams are often harvested through dredging, which destroys the sea floor. Overall, while I do have some access to things like local diver scallops, I have found that even though I live on an island, meat is much easier to source.
The role of shellfish in human evolution is controversial, but they are very easily gathered and treasured by many cultures. In Human Brain Evolution: The Influence of Freshwater and Marine Food Resources there is a wonderful table, which is "amount of each major food groups required to meet the daily requirement for five brain-selective minerals- iodine, iron, zinc, copper, and selenium." You only need 900 g shellfish vs. 5000 grams meat vs. 9300 grams fruit vs. 47,000 grams cow's milk. The book notes that in evolution "a combination of shellfish, fish, nuts, eggs, meat, and fruit seems to be more likely than exclusive consumption of one food group..." Either way, you don't need much shellfish in your diet to make a difference between a mediocre vegetarian/vegan diet and an excellent omnivorous one. Besides those minerals so important in brain development, shellfish also provide DHA, B12, and taurine, also very important for the brain.
I have occasionally relied primarily on a shellfish-based diet and the major limit to this is shellfish don't have much in the way of calories. Eat just oysters for dinner and you will be hungry. You also need to rely on a variety of other nourishing calorie sources like coconut, roots, and fruit. An excellent staple is shellfish boiled in coconut milk with some roots. Mmm.
Lately one of the Asian groceries I go to started selling roasted Laver with olive oil. This is an important development, since in the past the only laver available at the store contained high omega-6 industrial oils like soybean or grapeseed. Also sesame oil, which is tasty, but still too high in omega-6.
Either way, for those not in the know, laver is a delicious seaweed. Delicious because when roasted it's crispy and salty, kind of like a potato chip. I have to have some self control and not eat it all at once. It's luckily very low carb and generally low-calorie.
I'm a little late for this, but perhaps St. Patrick also ate it? I was surprised to find that Laver isn't just an Asian food, but it was consumed in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in ancient times. Now its Celtic consumption is mainly limited to Wales. Traditionally they cook it for a very long time and mix it with oats and fry it in lard. I'll have to purchase some plain laver and give that a try sometime. In Wales that's called Bara Lawer or Laverbread.
Here is a recipe. I'm sure it could be simmered for ten hours on low in a crock pot- i'll report back on how that works out.
When I saw these photos of an "uncontacted" tribe it became very clear to me that we must contact them as soon as possible. As you can see in the above photo, they are consumers of cassava, which is a starchy tuberous root. Someone has gotta tell them that all that starch will make them obese.
In all seriousness, this morning I got an email from Maria Rainer, one of many content farmers who generously offer to write "guest posts" for my blog. I totally understand her plight, since the modern university scam is to give a massive percentage of undergraduates degrees in English regardless of the fact that only 10% have writing talent and there are almost no openings in writing jobs that require any sort of craft. The rest of the English majors are forced to work in debt collecting, retail, or content farming. I'm not judging. After all, I'm even more of a sucker since I thought I was getting a useful degree, but it has really only served me in blogging. OK, actually I am judging and would appreciate if content farmers would refrain from contacting me.
I shall not grace one of her pieces with hits, but her resume she sent me includes one on how to eat vegan AND paleo. It recommends you avoid coconut since cavemen didn't live in Hawaii (a simple Google would inform her that coconuts aren't even native there!). It mentions how some modern hunter-gatherers get over 50% of their calories from plants, but again enters major fail territory by saying NO to starchy tubers. Guess what plants those hunter-gatherers are getting their calories from? Hint: it's not lettuce.
Starchy tubers are exactly what most hunter-gatherers (or horticulturalists in this case I suspect) rely on for plant foods. The bitter cassava seen above is perfect because it can't be eaten raw by animals, but humans can soak out the cyanide and consume it.
Lately out of curiosity I've been experimenting with tropical starches. This weekend I made some sweet cassava (cyanide free) and it was surprisingly easy. The peel came off quickly and it boiled much faster than potatoes. It soaks up sauce wonderfully.
Another starch Chris and I tried this weekend was plantains. I'm surprised that more paleos aren't into it. Maybe it's the carbophobia. But it has the best of a banana and a potato. If you are eating bananas, might as well switch to green plantains since they are lower in sugar. And they get crispy in leftover bacon grease MUCH faster than potatoes and taste nearly identical. There are also sweet plantains, which make a decent dessert dressed with coconut oil and cinnamon.
Next up: The malanga(cocoyam), taro, and true yam. The true yam intimidated me this weekend. It's lumpy and unfriendly, though not as menaching as the cocoyam. I might have to check out a local Nigerian restaurant to learn how to do it the right way.
If you are venturing into paleo-izing a vegan diet, these starches are worth checking out. Personally, I feel quite good when I have a little starch with my meat.
Any tips would be appreciated!
It's fitting that we'd follow up yesterday's interview with a read question about how to transition to meat eating:
I'm hoping you can help me though, cause I think you have a unique perspective on this. My girlfriend has been a kind-of-vegetarian/overall-horrible-eater most of her life - we're talking grilled cheese and french fries for dinner. We've been together 3+ years and she's been eating healthier and healthier, but she still won't really cross that line to eating meat on any regular basis. She's been talking to me lately about wanting to incorporate more into her diet for health reasons (I've been paleo for 4 months, she's seeing the results and is intrigued), but she says she just doesn't like the taste of meat. I think that's an overly broad statement to make, but I was hoping you'd be able to shed some light on that, as an ex-vegan. When you switched over, what meat did you 'like' eating? I'd love to help her and will make any accommodation I can, but I've been a meat eater all my life and have no friggin' idea how I would help someone start to eat meat. Any help would be appreciated! =)
I think it depends where your coming from. I was an ultra-health conscious raw vegan, so I had a different experience than someone coming from grilled cheese. It was very hard to add meat to my diet though because I didn't know much about it. As a sad survey of my early paleo fridge shows, I ate mostly fruits, vegetables, and fish. I hated fish to death and pretty much had to bury it in sauce, but I really did believe it would make me feel better...and it did. It took me over a year to get into grease, braising, and offal. I was a faileo, but it was a start.
I've also had junk food eating boyfriends and while my current boyfriend is fairly health conscious, when we met he was mostly vegetarian and his staple meals were canned lentil soup and pasta. He said he really just didn't like most meat. But now he's happily ordering grass fed steak!
I think the most important thing is replacing things like grilled cheese and french fries with any healthier alternative, meat or not. Baked sweet potato fries dipped in homemade mayo are one of my favorite snacks. I also recommend kale chips.
If you cooking varied meals you can also let her try things. That's how I got my boyfriend to eat steak. I would make it for myself and offer him a bite. It was actually raw bison that was one of the breaking points and he realized he just likes his red meat kind of raw. Also, grass fed meat is more palatable to former veg*ns beccause it's lower in fat.
With fish, I could milder fish like striped sea bass and make good sauces to make the food more attractive. Also going together to a good market or getting a tasting menu at a restaurant that really knows how to make things taste amazing can help expose you both to new foods to try. Some of my first exposures to things like bone marrow were at top restaurants.
Also, if you are interested in improving her diet, the onus is on you to cook delicious meals. My boyfriend eats paleo....because who refuses free homemade food?
So there my secret has been betrayed: tasty paleo snacks, homemade delicious meals, and simple exposure to new foods. And remember everyone has to start somewhere. My pathetic salmon and chicken breast opened up a world of lamb shanks.
Have you checked out Let Them Eat Meat? If not, you definitely should. Filmmaker and writer Rhys Southan's blog explores the idea of veganism from the perspective of those who eventually gave it up (many of whom seem to adopt the paleo diet...). Why do people give up all animal products and why do some of those people eventually fold to the appeals of steak? Rhys explores this through interviews with ex-vegans, veg*ns and others with a "steak" in the food system...as well as jabs at vegan absurdity. Of course, many vegans think it's the worst blog in the entire world, but that speaks more to the power of the vegan diet than anything else. When was the last time someone who quit the South Beach Diet got called a "selfish murderer" or "pro-slavery?" Veganism is more than a diet and leaving it is not acceptable to the animal rights crowd.
But if you've never thought about giving up bacon before or the personhood of fish, why read Let Them Eat Meat? Personally, I find it a facinating exploration of the ethics of eating and what drives people into diets that aren't particularly good for themselves. Like it or not, distorted ethics affect us all when they become policy. Animal Rights organizations like PETA or The Humane Society now hold quite a bit of political clout.
Rhys himself was a vegan for nine years and now follows a paleo diet. Why did he give it up? Why did he jump into paleo? Does he feel guilty about the poor animals? After he interviewed me, I asked him these questions:
What made you decide to be a vegan? Why didn't it end up working for you?
Losing arguments with vegan and vegetarian friends in high school got me thinking that maybe I was on the wrong side. After I graduated, I wasn't around them as much, but the uneasiness with meat they had instilled in me lingered. About six months out of high school, I decided that meat was murder. Since I didn't like seeing myself as a serial killer, I began eating less meat. One day at a buffet I happened to get nothing but vegetarian food. The friend I was with asked me if I was vegetarian, and I said "Yes." So then I was.
I became vegan a year later to resolve the contradictions of ethical vegetarianism, since dairy and eggs lead to animal deaths even if you aren't eating animal flesh.
In retrospect, veganism was bad for my life in a few ways (though good in some, like the friends I met by living in a vegetarian co-op), but the main reason I left is that after nine years of not eating animal products, I felt physically awful. I was constantly tired and low on energy, my thinking had dulled and I was chronically depressed.
What made you choose the paleo diet?
Once I became fully cognizant of how bad I felt all the time, I compared this to my ex-vegan roommate, who was following Art De Vany's "evolutionary fitness" model and was healthier and happier than ever. Though I didn't get into veganism for health reasons, I had come to believe that if done right, nothing could be healthier than avoiding all animal products in favor of unrefined vegan foods. I should have been the healthy one, then, and my caveman-mimicking roommate should have been sluggish and depressed from all the cholesterol and saturated fat he injected into his arteries at every meal.
Much of what he said about evolutionary nutrition sounded right, though. I had always been wary of refined sugar, and he convinced me grains weren't much better. I started to glare at my millet with a more skeptical eye. One day I was cooking a meal that was almost pure starch -- brown rice and red lentils (with a little kombu thrown in to make the beans digestible) -- and I realized how crappy I would feel after eating it. That was when I stopped equating veganism with health.
At first I tried to be a more paleo vegan, cutting out grains and beans and eating more nuts and vegetables. I knew, though, that I was delaying the inevitable, so I convinced myself that eating animals wouldn't make me an evil person and I weaned myself onto animal products.
Knowing about paleo made it a lot easier to leave veganism. I was glad I wasn't abandoning all food philosophy. Going from veganism to an eat-anything omnivore would have seemed too chaotic and meaningless to me at the time. Now I could do it if I wanted to, but I don't see the need since I'm happy with paleo.
Since you've been paleo, have you noticed changes in your life?
I instantly felt better after going paleo (ie, adding meat and eggs to my paleo-ish vegan diet). I wonder if selective memory is making me exaggerate how quickly my mood improved and the brain fog dissipated, but other ex-vegans seem to have similar experiences. As a vegan, a lot of people had told me I was eerily pale; once I started eating meat again, a vegetarian who was shocked by my new meaty diet had to admit that my face had taken on a healthier hue. With my energy back, I got into weightlifting and quickly regained the muscle mass I'd lost by the end of my veganism. My nearly lifelong eczema, which had its worst breakouts during my veganism, hasn't been a problem since I've been paleo.
A less predictable change is that I became more assertive. I tend to be introverted, so maybe I lean toward meekness and passivity naturally, but veganism exasperated the problem. Veganism is a suicidal mentality in the sense that it's about doing your best not to exist (while still existing). Vegans don't believe they deserve to put their own interests before the interests of animals. Most humans, however, do think they deserve to put their own interests ahead of the interests of animals. So either vegans respect animals a lot more than everyone else does, or vegans respect themselves a lot less. In my case, veganism was more about lowering myself than raising up the animals.
The opposite of the self-sabotaging vegan mentality -- intentionally destroying as much as possible to make your mark -- isn't particularly great either. Going paleo helped me find a balance. As you have pointed out, there isn't really a moral component to paleo, though being against factory farms and supporting local food can be a part of it. Since paleo is about doing what's best for yourself, it was great for my self-confidence after sacrificing myself in the name of "the animals" for so long.
Another advantage of paleo's lack of a moral component is that there's no reason for me to judge anyone who isn't paleo. I get along with people better now. (Except maybe for the vegans that I piss off with my blog.)
What is your main philosophy behind eating now?
I think the best way to eat is a locavore paleo with a focus on offal, insects and hunted meat for protein. This way animals suffer less compared to a standard American diet, and I certainly suffer less than I did as a vegan. But I'm not living up to my own ideals yet. I'm far from a locavore. My preference for odd animal parts leads me to Asian grocery stores -- not the best source for local foods in the United States. I also have yet to find a steady supply of insects. I do eat pretty much any insect that crosses my path (as close as I get to hunting at the moment), but they seem to be aware of this and aren't coming around as much anymore. My current ideals are a lot more relaxed than my old ones, though, so I don't feel any guilt about not living up to them yet.
It seems like you are still very interested in having a diet that minimizes suffering. What sort of philosophy inspires that thinking? Wouldn't it be simpler if you took up Rob's challenge and just ate bivalves or just ate a diet of other animals that probably are incapable of suffering? At what point is it immoral to cause suffering?
I'm not sure how much philosophy is behind my inconsistent attempts to reduce animal suffering while still eating them. Maybe I could say that instead of the vegan idea of "least harm," my philosophy is "somewhat less harm." Yet I'm looking forward to eating live octopus while visiting New York, and there are probably less suffery ways for me to eat our tentacled friends. And I still eat factory farmed foods. I don't believe this is immoral, because if I thought that, I wouldn't do it. It's funny because I find myself wanting to say that it's wrong to cause suffering that is "unnecessary," which is a vegan argument. But for me, "necessary" could include eating live seafood. Vegans and I evidently have different interpretations of that word.
When I first wanted to leave veganism, I still believed that you couldn't care about animals and then turn around and eat them. So I decided to not care about animals. It helped that my vegan depression made me indifferent to my own life; the personal problems of animals then seemed especially worthless. Thinking that way made me okay with eating meat again, but once I got over that depression, I realized it didn't have to be so simple.
Recently I read about a woman in China who made a video of herself stomping a kitten to death. I couldn't deny that something seemed wrong with that, but I had trouble deciding what that was exactly, since I had no problem with animals being killed for food. I guess my reasoning is that it's humans who give animal lives any sort of meaning. And the meaning conveyed by stomping on a kitten is a disturbing one, even if I don't think that an animal's life is important in itself.
If you see animals as morally significant only in relation to us, factory farms can be defended without retreating to nihilism. From a human-centered perspective, what matters about animal suffering is how we feel about it. Are we repulsed because it's gratuitous, or do we accept it because it's for something worthwhile (such as mountains of affordable meat)? Since vegans think that eating meat is "unnecessary," the suffering of animals in factory farms is no different than Francione's example of "Simon the Sadist" torturing animals for fun. But again, I think vegans are being too strict with the definition of necessary. Torturing animals purely for sadistic pleasure is not a component of a rich, fulfilling life (at least not the way I envision one) in the same way that eating duck confit is. I'm not going to eat that live octopus because I hope to hurt it. It's just an experience I want to have and I don't expect to suffer any guilt over it.
I'm intrigued by the "ostrovegan" idea that the ethics behind veganism leave room for eating bivalves. That's a healthier and more logical approach than purity veganism, which says that you should never eat any animal products ever, even if doing so doesn't conflict with vegan ideals. "Rob" has repeatedly said in the comments that I have no excuse not to cut out all animal products except for bivalves, since those nutrient dense yet brainless shellfish could potentially address the health problems I had with veganism. If I still shared Rob's ethical views I would consider it. But I don't. I see veganism or ostroveganism as guilt abatement tactics. And since I no longer feel guilt about eating animal products, I have no need for self-restrictive eating plans tailored to dodge that guilt.
I've come to appreciate ethics as one possible ingredient in a meal, but not a mandatory one. If I eat kidney instead of chicken wings, I might think, "Maybe animals are suffering a little less because I'm eating the less popular parts. That's nice." But if I eat the chicken wings, I don't think "I'm a terrible person." I just think, "Yum."
Do the insects you eat actually taste good? How do you prepare them?
Most of the bugs I have are raw. I just pop them in my mouth when I find them outside. The first time I ate insects like that was on Toronto Island last summer. These bugs were either incredibly naive or suicidal -- they kept landing on me and didn't fly away when I reached for them. I enjoyed the experience of eating them, but I don't remember much of a taste. They were mainly texture. The other bugs I've had did taste like something, and mostly the taste has been good. I liked caterpillars a lot, but I can't place the taste. Once I had a small black bug that honestly tasted like oranges. I found a second one and that one tasted like oranges too. I now believe bug eating articles when they claim that a certain bug tastes like almonds or butterscotch and so on.
I say the taste has "mostly" been good because of the one insect I have prepared, silkworm pupae. I got these at a Vietnamese grocery store (packaged as "dade") even though I'd heard they were disgusting. To make them as palatable as possible, I toasted them for a while to get them crispy before I stir-fried them with vegetables. It didn't really work. They tasted musty, with a splash of flavorless juice as you bit into their centers. It was pretty much how you'd imagine a moth in a cocoon to taste. Mixed with vegetables they were tolerable, and I finished them all. A few weeks later I was kind of craving them, but that was a craving that I didn't satisfy.
Why did you decide to create a blog about ex-veganism?
Veganism is such a compelling dogma that it can be hard to get out, even when it's hurting you. Initially I started the blog to help vegans with nutrition-related health problems make the connection between these problems and veganism. The way I thought to do this -- going to vegan and vegetarian events and snapping photos of unhealthy looking people -- probably was a bit misguided, though. It was also incredibly depressing to go to these things and I felt guilty about what I was doing, which made me wonder if I was really doing it to help. I also began to think that the health issues I associated with veganism might be the least of veganism's problems.
But the blog was never just photos. From the beginning I was writing entries about "the vegan mentality," and the alienation that comes from thinking everyone in the world is a murderer, and I enjoyed that more than posting the photos. This year I took down most of the photos and have been focusing on the writing and interviews.
As far as veganism, one assumption I used to have is that all long-term vegans quit because of health problems. I felt that anyone who had made veganism such a big part of their lives for so long would not think to question their beliefs unless physical reality forced them. (I probably thought that way since that's what happened to me.) Now I know about plenty of long-term vegans who left veganism for environmental reasons or because they no longer believed in the philosophy. I was wrong, but in a good way. I'd much rather someone leave veganism because they lost a bet and had to read The Vegetarian Myth than because they're on the verge of physical collapse.
Your blog is interesting because it makes so many uncomfortable- both vegans who believe their diet is the best possible diet in every possible way and omnivores who haven't really thought much about the ethics of food. Has there been anything you've rethought yourself since starting the blog?
Earlier this year I did an entry that included a dig at flexitarians. I wasn't trying to be mean, but it was obvious that I considered flexitarianism silly. A few flexitarians were upset about that, which surprised me, since I saw flexitarianism as a trendy label that nobody took too seriously. I still had my vegan thinking that it was either wrong to eat animals or it wasn't, so the idea of cutting back on animal consumption for moral reasons but not eliminating it entirely made no sense to me. An interview I did with an ex-vegan who is now a flexitarian helped me see that there could be a philosophy behind it. This shouldn't have been news to me. When I eat organ meats (which theoretically might otherwise be wasted) instead of muscle meat so that fewer animals have to be killed for me, that's the same sort of thinking that forms the basis of flexitarianism.
Have there been any negative consequences since you started a blog that many people feel is "anti" vegan?
Nope. Just kidding. Yes. It upset a couple of my vegan friends, and it really pissed off my brother, who is vegan. He found it hard to talk to me after he found out about the blog at the beginning of this year. But I recently had my birthday dinner, which brought together my vegan friends, my brother and my mom, and none of them seemed to hate me. (Not that my brother suddenly approves of the blog now.) Now I would say the main negative consequence of starting this blog is that my focus (obsession?) on veganism is keeping me from other projects I could be doing. I'm looking forward to finally saying everything I have to say about veganism and never talking about it again. It might still be a while, though.
You have one persistent naysayer, a vegan commenter known as "rob" who pretty much weighs in angrily on everything you post. Why do you think he's so obsessed with your site?
Rob first appeared on the site after I wrote an entry about Lierre Keith getting pied in the face. He seemed to detest Lierre Keith; he denounced her as a genocidal liar and has since compared The Vegetarian Myth to Mein Kampf. But Rob's interest in my blog extended beyond that entry. He started commenting on every single thing I wrote -- sometimes seconds after I posted it. I got into a long argument with Rob in the comments of one random, short entry, and was amazed at Rob's willingness to argue endlessly. And it wasn't just with me. If any commenter wrote anything vaguely anti-vegan, he made sure to critique their comment in some way.
Rob really got into my head at first, partially because I was trying to figure out who he was and why he was so persistent. Before I posted anything, I would think "What is Rob going to say?" And that would influence my editing, especially with the interviews. I dreaded checking my email for fear of finding more comments from Rob. I went through and deleted my own side of that long argument with him just to try to stop thinking about him. My blood pressure was up for days, and some nights I had trouble sleeping.
It's hard for me to understand now why he upset me so much, because I soon grew to love Rob. I did ban him twice, but each time lasted only a day because I realized how much he contributed to the site. Thanks to Rob, posts that would otherwise be non-substantial, like a quote or a link to someone else's blog entry, might end up with over 100 comments. Plus, he gives vegans someone to root for. I've seen a couple of vegans on message boards say that they read my blog only for Rob's comments. I was also amused when some vegans theorized that *I* was Rob.
Rob haunted me at first, but when I think of him now, I envision a straightedge vegan Ignatius Reilly, eating vegan hot dogs as he furiously types screeds against logically inconsistent omnivores. Which is to say, I think of him fondly.
But there's still the mystery of why Rob is obsessed with Let Them Eat Meat. After getting to know Rob a little through his comments, my guess is that the majority of pro-vegan blogs don't have much to offer him. As much as he will spring to the defense of most vegans in the name of supporting veganism, I can't see Rob getting along with other vegans very well. He is a distinct breed of vegan, what I would term a "logical vegan." These vegans are more interested in the airtight consistency of animal rights arguments than in animals themselves, who are just abstract variables ("sentient beings") in their philosophical equations. There are outlets for such vegans. Gary Francione, the cultish leader of abolitionist veganism, is a great example of a logical vegan. But Rob has said that he doesn't like Francione. That's certainly to Rob's credit, but it leaves him somewhat adrift. There are still a couple of blogs Rob can identify with -- Unpopular Vegan Essays seems to be his favorite -- but for the most part, he has nowhere else to go. It's not like he can go to Vegetarian Star or Ecorazzi and rant in the comments like this.
I also like to think that part of him knows he is destined for bitter ex-veganism and subconsciously sees me as a comrade in arms.
What do you think about the debates that happen in the comments?
I love the debates, even though I mostly stay out of them. That's really Rob's fault. I don't want to get roped into a forever discussion, so I usually only comment if I think I can do it without giving Rob much room for retort. Luckily, after Rob became so prolific, some articulate non-vegans (you, for instance) took it upon themselves to address Rob's points, leading to some great discussions (and entries with absurdly large numbers of comments). These comment threads add a lot to the blog.
I especially like it when the vegan commenters get super philosophical. The more intricate animal rights theory becomes, the more obvious it is that arguing about animals is nothing but human self-indulgence. An intelligent and convoluted argument for the rights of fish is like one of Armond White's film-theory laden reviews in praise of Hollywood dreck. The smarter the defense, the more laughable it is.
Consider the Mark Wahlberg film "Max Payne," based on the video game. "Max Payne rocks!," while a stupid thing to say, is far less ridiculous than Armond White's take: "The opening panorama of Max drowning, flashing back to the start of his aggrieved mission, recalls the magnificent underwater cruciform in DePalma’s Femme Fatale. ... Through Max’s confession, 'I don’t believe in Heaven. I believe in pain, fear, death,' Moore explores genuine, contemporary anxiety. ... These phantasmagorical visions have vigor as well as dread. Looking deeply into Payne’s pessimism, Moore stirs the energy of hope, of earthly, human possibility. Imagery this powerful redeems the ghosts of urban grief and 9/11."
That's what I think of when vegans get too clever. They just can't win with me, I guess. The better they argue for the rights of chickens, the more they remind me of Armond White.
A little bird tells me you are working on a book. That's quite a project! What sort of issues will it tackle? What made you decide to make the jump from blog to book?
When I first thought to write about veganism, it was going to be in book form. But I don't have a literary agent or connections at publishing companies and I'm terrible at self-promotion. So I started a blog instead. I'm glad I did, because it's a great way to get feedback and reformulate arguments. Seeing the vegan and non-vegan reactions to what I've written so far has influenced this non-existent book quite a bit. The content would be different than the blog, but the tone would be similar. You'll have to trust me when I say that it will be a good book if I ever get the chance to write it, because the imaginary agent in my head doesn't want me to reveal any spoilers.
I made this last week hoping to use it as a tool to talk with people about paleo and other alternative diets. It can be often be difficult because so many people tell me that foragers are not healthy and that our modern life is the best. They have images from National Geographic of impoverished "primitives" and the "didn't they only live to be 30" meme in mind. Often they will tell me that they are so glad for modern life because if they had been born back then they would have died because they need a C-section or had some horrible case of strep throat.
They aren't really separating environmental issues from food. In much of modern middle class America, our environment is low-risk. Notice that I didn't say better. There are plenty of things wrong with our environment ranging from over-sanitation to lack of sunlight. In fact there might be chronic low grade risks in the modern environment from environmental contamination, too much light, etc. But we generally don't have to worry about risky childbirth, lions, tribal warfare, malaria, tuberculosis, hunting accidents, and all kinds of nasty things that are out there in the wild.
Our hazards are largely caused by an inappropriate diet that leaves us with obesity, diabetes, cancer, IBS, GERD and other diseases that are almost exclusively present in modern society. The standard american diet leaves us in quadrant III, not worrying about lions, but worrying about blood sugar and BMI instead. Pairing nutrition appropriate for human beings with the benefits of modern life allows us to move to quadrant IV. Notice I include Whole Foods Vegan there. I certainly believe you can lose weight on such a diet, I just don't believe it's an optimal diet. A truly optimal diet like WAPF or paleo allows the possibility of raising truly healthy children with well developed teeth and bones. Personally veganism also wasn't adequate to help me heal from GERD and my teeth weren't in such great shape afterwards either. But I'm throwing a cookie here to vegans that at least don't eat processed crap, vegetable oils, and sugar. They are better off than most, especially if they are utilizing fermentation of grains, legumes, and vegetables. A vegetarian diet that includes fermented dairy and eggs is even closer to being appropriate nutrition for our econiche.
You'll notice that modern hunter-gatherers have less appropriate nutrition and a harsher environment than their paleolithic predecessors. Civilization has pushed them into unwanted land that less oppressed foragers would have shunned. They also struggle with diseases introduced by outsiders.
Nomads and agrarian peasant cultures are also relatively healthy. They are eating neolithic foods, but they have been eating them long enough to know how to derive nutrition from them and minimize their antinutritional factors through fermentation and soaking. Lots of people look at these cultures and think "oh, well I guess their genes adapted to agriculture and it's OK for me to eat this Nutrigrain bar since my ancestors were agrarian." Nope, most of the adaptation was not genetic, but technological. People figured out that if they fermented and limed their corn they didn't have malformed bones. I tell people who are skeptical of paleo to go ahead and eat grains, but at least embrace the technology so many of us have forgotten that allows us to not poison ourselves with them. So many people read about the Tarahumara made famous in Born To Run and think that their health means some boiled corn on the cob is superfood. Wrong- the Tarahumara soak and lime their corn.
I don't do grains much myself because while these technologies these traditional societies came up with are amazing, they don't completely rid grains of their problems. Most of these cultures still preferred meat and ate grains and legumes only because they couldn't afford it. Traditional agrarians aren't fat or diabetic, but their height and bone structure just doesn't approach that of coastal foragers from the studies I've read.
Regardless, this chart isn't any sort of rigorously scientific study- we could probably argue for days where to place things, but it's a decent matrix for separating appropriate nutrition from other factors. That's definitely only one part of the picture, but it's a very important part. The other pieces are important too- sunlight, community, loving child rearing, a not too sterile environment, and being physically active for example. But dealing with the diet is a great first step.