Since I started writing these posts on vegetarianism, I have been asked again “why [am I] a vegetarian,” asked if I “am still a vegetarian,” asked for advice about diets because I am an “expert,” agreed with, disagreed with, and generally been put at the center of some weird conversations about meat and food. I suppose that is why I write, to stir up some “food for thought” as one of my friends likes to say.
After all these posts on food and being a vegetarian you may be wondering where I am getting all this (Or simply that I am a hack, egotistically trying to make a big deal out of my latest lifestyle choice.) In my writings, you may also notice the lack of citations. It’s on purpose. I don’t link out too much in my writing anymore, because it has become a narrative. I write stories that dip in and out of logic and reason, facts and opinion, and are meant to pull you, my reader, along with my musings. That is not to say I am writing fiction, or am pulling your leg though. I just like to build a world where an idea can be stretched out for all its worth without being destroyed in a debate. Parallel thinking if you will. It’s more entertaining and informative that way.
Much of my thinking on food comes from a combination of media, observation, and experience. I think that can be a pretty powerful combination even if it doesn’t live up to scientific standards, or classification as art. This is a place of Arte de Timo after all. (Look on the About page.)
Here are some of my pivotal “sources” for my writing, and things I recommend.
Media – Books I have read other books and lots of specific articles online, but the following are the big philosophical ones.
1. The first book I read about food was Coming Home to Eat. The book deals with eating locally and thinking about where food comes from. The author took the idea of locality to the extreme by conducted an experiment where he only ate food from within 100 miles of his house in Tuscan for a whole year. The book taught me two things: 1. Think more about food, then act more on food. 2. Experimenting on yourself is fun and rewarding.
2. No conversation about food these days can start without bringing up Michael Pollen. Omnivores Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto changed my way of thinking about food, as they have for millions of others. I learned to be skeptical, persistent and in depth in my eating choices. Food is a hugely complex topic that reaches everything in life. To figure food out, I have to study, and test myself. What are those chemicals? Why am I scared of them? Is organic really better?
3. The latest book that has blown my mind has been Wendel Berry’s Bringing it to the Table. This guy has been thinking and writing about food for 40 years, and he’s nailed it since the beginning. Most alternative/sustainable food ideas stem from him. Michael Pollen even admits that Berry is the original. This book paints an amazing and complete picture of farming and food, and where it all went wrong. Berry’s arguments are vivid and enchanting. We know how to live better, and it ain’t through “bigger, faster, cheaper!”
Media – Movies I’m going to just list the best of them here.
1. Forks over Knives
3. The Future of Food
5. Broken Limbs
6. Food Inc.
7. King Corn
This will seem obnoxious, but hey, that hasn’t stopped me before, but I actually watch people eat, all the time. I pay attention to the reactions people have to their food. Admittedly, judgments do surface once in a while, but that isn’t the important part, so I try not to let that get in the way of seeing what’s going on. Watching people of all ages respond, for example, to salty foods and sugary foods is very telling of their overall eating habits. So are the vegetables on a person’s plate, and how they are eaten. These observations are along the lines of how we use and see manners at the table. “Please” and “thank you,” napkins and elbows, cookies and chips really do show off how considerate and civil we are.
In addition to watching others, I also feel and think about what I am doing in comparison to others. I can’t know what others are feeling when they eat, but if I eat similar foods and a build up a few different perspectives on what that food does to a person physically and emotionally, I can start to form a profile of food and people. For example, in my observations, people who like hot dogs often don’t like to eat vegetables, presumably because they lack the intense sensations that the salts and refined sugars in the hot dogs provide. Whereas, someone like me who eats a lot of fruits and vegetables finds sugary things like hot dogs, cake and generic purple jelly unappetizing and quite unpleasant.
This is a big topic for me, but I’ll give you the key points. Two years ago I got a letter from my doctor recommending that I join a study called E-LITE. The idea of the study was to determine what life tools are required to get people to change enough to improve medical health outcomes. They divided the participants into three groups. The first got some money, were told to lose weight, and left on their own to figure it out. The second, my group, was brought in for a 3 hour session, given a scale, pedometer, DVD’s and a regiment on how to count calories and record our activities. The third group was given all the same things but were also given access to personal trainers, and brought in for personal health sessions on a regular basis. In addition to all this, the participants were tested for weight and girth, plus our blood chemistry tested every few months.
I lost 15 pounds and got in shape in the first three months, plus I had the tools, both technically and skill-wise, I needed to keep the pounds off and monitor my activity. The cool part is that I also had detailed records of my blood chemistry to go along with all the other records I had for weight, physical activity and food. I could experiment!
What I learned was that the general advice given out by doctors about lessening health risks is pretty much right; nothing much more, and not much less. What I mean is that, is that as far as blood chemistry goes and the risks we can infer from them, getting the numbers into medically healthy ranges is usually as simple as losing weight and exercising. Not a very complicated recipe, but one that gets clouded because of all the lifestyle drugs and trendy diets out there. Reduce your intake by 3500 Kcal and you will lose a pound of weight. Once I realized all this it was a matter of planning how much to lose per week, eating to my numbers, doing a lot more exorcize, and tracking the decline of my infer-able health risks like diabetes.
Since I could track my blood chemistry through the study, I could test which behaviors were most important in my body. For example, I found that weight and then exercise controlled my blood sugar. As my weight went down so did my fasting blood sugar. As I got in shape and exorcized, so did my long term blood sugar level. Exercise! Exercise! Exercise!
An interesting result about vegetarianism was that since my decision lined up with a blood drawn, I could see how it affected in my body. The result was that it controlled my cholesterol somewhat. Since I became a vegetarian, my totals have gone down quite a bit (maybe 20%), though my HDL/LDL ratio’s are off because I also became out of shape in that time.
In the two years I also experienced a lot of ups and downs that were directly related to my eating. I had mood swings when I didn’t eat enough over the course of a day, and my elbows hurt if I was going low on calories for too many days in a row. I have done a lot of little tests involving salads and fruit, wheat flour vs. corn, caffeine or not, and generally how to balance hunger vs. healthiness. Together with my commitment to farmer’s market foods, gardening, and cooking and canning fresh foods, I think I have built up some good experiences with how to eat really well, maintain energy and health, and address many of the social concerns I have with food production. Answers? Maybe not, but experiences, I do have.
A great example of this knowledge comes from two restaurants I’ve eaten at lately. The first was an organic bistro in Paso Robles called Thomas Hill Organics. The other is a South Indian place here in Santa Clara called Dasaprakash South Indian. The first was a new place, I think. We obviously have never been there, but the place also seemed like it just opened. There were too many servers, and they were all a bit excited and nervous. Without getting into a lot of detail, the food was good enough, but my vegan pizza just didn’t fill me up. It wasn’t that it was too small, but the sprinkling of lentils and thin crust felt like the cooks had no experience actually being vegan or vegetarian. It gave me the impression they cooked it for a steoreotype that in their head about who vegans are.
It was a meal that followed the letter of the law of veganism, but lacked any sense of meality. The rest of the menu had steaks and salmon, etc. so vegetarian food wasn’t the focus. It felt like they were aware that their clients might be vegan or vegetarian, and so provide several options, but were also going to punish any vegans or vegetarians by making us/them order several items and glasses of wine to actually feel like a meal was had. It was uninspired to say the least.
Compare that to the vegetarian Indian restaurant, and everything about a vegetarian meal changes. That Indian meal made me feel like a king. It was fiery, complex and rich. We ordered three combo type platters and at the end of it all my stomach was screaming at me both because I ate a lot and because it was so confused about the ten thousand flavors I had just eaten. Both meals were comparable in price, service and portions. I was equally hungry going into both, and would say I like pizza and Indian food equally, so the difference was the experience of the meal making. The Indian restaurant wasn’t strictly traditional (we got served what was basically Mexican salsa on one of the plates), but it made sense because it had thousands of years of experience behind it. The organic vegetarian French bistro food was…, well, new.
Is a vegetarian diet right for you? After getting this far, my hope is that the answer isn’t simply “yes” or “no,” but maybe something with more nuance. Maybe the time isn’t right for you, or your lifestyle doesn’t give you the extra time to prepare better meals everyday. Or, you do so much exercise and have so little time to cook, that high calorie meats are where you have to be right now. My hope is that you will want to study your food a little bit, make some observations about how it affects you, then build up some new experiences with what it could be for you at this point in your life.
As some men realize, Polish sausages for dinner every night may have been tolerable in college, but will definitely cause problems after thirty. Look forward to changing your diet. It’s good for you, and you might just be better for it.