Sunday, April 26, 2009

Understanding (?) “Supplements”

As a vegetarian, people are constantly asking me what kind of "supplements" I take. I grin meekly and try to change the subject. You see, I don't understand nutritional supplements. And since personal involvement with them is almost mandatory for vegetarians and others concerned with their diets, I feel left out. I'm somehow missing the attraction.

Everyone I meet seems to think life itself depends on taking some kind of supplement, or more often many supplements, on a regular basis. Consider my friend Lee, for example. At every meal he sits down with a little plastic bag filled with various kinds of pills. He claims that these little babies, combined with his new diet (lots of protein, no starch, no fruit) have brought him back from the very brink of metabolic disaster. I guess I can't argue the point. He seems pretty much like always to me though, except that he's getting thinner every time I see him. "No fruit?" I say. "Are you sure that's healthy?"

My friend Cheryl is awfully skinny too, although she'll never admit it. She drinks bright-green fruit shakes every morning that have algae something-or-other powder in them. I'm sure they're healthy as all get out, but how much healthier does someone who would never touch a speck of meat, dairy, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or refined anything really have to be?

I guess that raises one of the questions I have about nutritional supplements. How come the people who eat the healthiest diets and have the healthiest lifestyles are a zillion times more likely to buy these products than the folks who live on pizza and wouldn't know an antioxidant if it crawled up their shins? Why should it be us vegetarians, who already eat a diet that is by its nature steeped in vitamins and minerals, who buy all the supplements? If organic foods are so great, why do we need pills and powders and potions besides? Did the Almighty design humans wrong, or was it his/her design of food that was in error? How did people survive for the first 4 million years before the GNC store opened up in the local mall?

Okay, I know I'm getting carried away here. I know that the soils our food is grown in get worse every year, and our scientific knowledge of what our bodies need gets better.

And I know that I'm jealous too—because every time I have tried to supplement my diet with the latest recommended new and exciting vitamin or mineral I haven't felt a darned bit of difference. Nothing. Nada. Nil. It doesn't matter whether I'm megadosing (is that a word?) on vitamin C, or cramming down organic multi-vitamins the size of avocado pits. I can take a whole bottle of melatonin and still lie awake at night. I take the same echinacea and zinc cold remedies everyone else swears by, and all I manage to do is cut the length of my colds from a week to seven days.

I don't think it's because I'm doing anything wrong. I think it's me personally. My body is somehow stifled from all those years of living on beer nuts and New Coke. My special neuron-fired nutritional supplement receptors are all shot.

The other day someone recommended a new supplement that's all the rage. She claimed it would fix my lousy knees—guaranteed. I went to the natural foods grocery all excited. This time I was going to make it work.

I was only in the store a minute, though, before I realized there are two more good reasons why I don't take regular nutritional supplements. Most of the bottles of this wonder drug I looked at were replete with animal ingredients. Whoa! I thought. Maybe it isn't vegetarians who take most of this stuff after all. Or at least they aren't vegetarian when they finish taking it. The other big shocker was the sticker price. Thirty-six dollars for this tiny bottle of pills? What do they put in here? Is one of those animal ingredients Beluga caviar? Is each pill individually wrapped in mink??

I went over to the other side of the store and spent my $36 on good-old vegetarian food, and to console myself a pint of dairyless ice cream. When my knees get real, real bad I'll probably break down and buy some of that magic potion. Until then, let me pout and wallow in my cynicism. Maybe I'm not ready to understand supplements.


P.S.: Americans spend $5 billion a year on nutritional supplements. That's cheap compared to the $1 trillion we spend on non-preventive health care every year, but it's still an awful lot of money. (Heck, for that amount of money the government could buy almost a dozen screwdrivers and/or toilet seats. Even better, Hollywood could make Titanic II-The Resurrection.)

As this is being written, the Food and Drug Administration is proposing new rules that would prohibit supplements, which are not required to undergo rigorous scientific study, from claiming they can diagnose, treat, prevent or cure a disease or disease symptom. It may be time for some regulations like this, but let's not single out the nutrition industry. Hopefully the fine folks in Washington can work on the claims of the meat and dairy folks next!

Just for grins, I looked at some of the claims now being made by nutritional supplements in their advertising. It took me less than 5 minutes to find these:

• "strengthen the immune system, enhance memory and fight the effects of aging"

• "keeps your brain in shape"

• "earth's healthiest superfood"

• "fight the effects of pollution, stress, bacteria, and the passage of time"

• "provides you with what you desire most: energy"

• "achieve optimal health"

• "may serve as your body's own 'internal sunglasses'"

Wow! If all of these claims were true, why wouldn't I want to take all of these products, and many more? Wouldn't I be the healthiest guy alive? Wouldn't it be great to never have to worry about losing my sunglasses again? Of course, if I took all these products I know I'd be the busiest guy alive—just from swallowing all the pills. And at $36 a bottle, I'd probably be the poorest as well!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Stalking the Enemy

It's a war out there. In the constant battle between us vegetarians (a/k/a, "the Forces of Good") and the animal agriculture and exploitation industries (a/k/a, "the Forces of Evil"), we have to be ever-vigilant. We have to know our enemy's every move lest we awake one day to find him (her/it) milking the innocent public or selling flank steaks on our very flanks.

As a public service of this column, (and as a way to make up for past damage), I maintain a large and talented staff of professionals who constantly monitor our adversaries and report back in exhaustive detail. …Well, actually, I just manage to check a few press releases every couple of years. But with the thought that some information is better than nothing, and with the added thought that "This page intentionally left blank" makes lousy reading, here are a few of the things the Forces of Evil have been up to lately (oh yeah, I've added a few comments of my own, too):

• The National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Beef Quality Assurance program has some exciting new research underway. In one program at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, one hundred breastfed infants are being studied to document the "advantages" of the early introduction of beef as a weaning food.

Are there no child abuse laws in this country???

• In another study the "cattlemen" are trying to show that some bacteria in ground beef may actually help reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7.

Sure, we know that ground "beef" is full of bacteria, but using these little guys as a way to enhance the "quality" of this "food" is something only the meat industry could come up with.

Fur Age magazine reports that increased international demand for mink pelts is outpacing supply, forcing prices to skyrocket. That means the price for even "entry-level mink" coats has risen to $4,000 to $5,000 at the retail level.

Aren't you glad you have other things to spend your money on?

• The American Egg Board tells us that a blood spot on the yolk of an egg is an indication that the egg is fresh.


• "British Meat," a group from you-know-where organized to promote you-know-what, publishes "healthy eating" information and recipes under the slogan "The Recipe for Love…Meal solutions for every occasion."

If this is love, I'd hate to see what their "hate" recipes are like.

• In its official position on vegetarianism, the National Pork Producers Council describes that industry's killing of animals as "the pork industry's supposed destructive impact on a hog's right to 'hogness'."

Euphemisms get more euphemistic every day!

• And while we're on the subject of "hogness," the Wild Boar Farmers of Alberta want us to know that the use of a marinade or cooking sauce and oven temperatures no greater than 325°F will maintain a moist product and tenderize "The Meat fit for a King."

Does this mean that cooking it any other way may leave you with "the shoe leather fit for a soldier?"

• According to Lab Animal magazine the government breeding program for captive chimpanzees has resulted in significant surplus populations. Since the cost of maintaining a chimp over an average 25- to 34- year life-span is approximately $300,000, industry and government researchers have a real problem, and they are now encouraging animal-protection organizations to take them off the hook by developing sanctuary facilities for chimpanzees.

Sure, but are they willing to send money? Is this one of those "I told you so" situations?

• A survey of American eating habits commissioned by the American Meat Institute finds that more than 99% of Americans eat meat, and "self-reported meat avoiders and vegetarians" consume only about one ounce per day less meat than other folks.

Yes, but we vegetarians always lie to pollsters.

• That same survey, known as EAT II (really!), also finds that while most Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, we aren't (surprise, surprise!) eating too much meat.

And just how fat do they want us to be???

• By the time you read this the Veal Committee of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association will have introduced their new "veal" advertising slogan and logo. The tagline is "Veal. Eat Smart. Eat Well."

I guess if you can't manage to say something substantive, you may as well make up something silly. Hey, these guys should write this column!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Selling the Vegetarian Cause—Moonies, A Yawn, and No Respect

Some time ago I was at a party with a bunch of other vegetarians. One of the guests was bemoaning the fact that it was hard to make meat-eaters see the advantages of vegetarianism. "They don't get it," he kept saying. "They just don't get it."

At the time I thought it was an odd thing to say. You either "got it" or you didn't, as if vegetarianism was some kind of counterculture religion, or maybe the latest pop psychology trend? But the more I've thought about it, the more I feel that guy was exactly right. Just like religion, vegetarianism is a hard sell, and those who aren't buying really aren't buying.

Everyone in the world has a cause these days. But not all causes are created equal—at least in the eyes of the public. There are some things that almost everyone supports. Tell someone you're a Big Brother or you work for the Special Olympics, for example, and they'll immediately warm up to you.

On the other side of the spectrum are what I call the "love/hate" groups. They get an immediate reaction—pro or con—from almost everyone. Examples that come to mind are Planned Parenthood, the Neo-Nazis, and those "feed Jane Fonda to the Whales" people at the airport. And remember a few years ago when people were accusing the "Moonies" of brainwashing their kids? Not many people could remain neutral on that issue.

Most causes, though, are less controversial. They have their followers, and in some cases their detractors, but the majority of us don't really think much about them. I think for the most part vegetarianism as a cause is in this largely ignored group. But as the movement gains momentum I get the feeling we may be drifting into that small group of causes that people either love or hate. It seems that lately when I extol the virtues of vegetarianism I have been getting a stronger and stronger reaction.

It happened again the other day. A woman at work asked me why I'm a vegetarian.

"Well...," I said, giving her my most sincere smile. "...Let me just tell you."

I launched into my canned 10 minute speech on the merits of vegetarianism. Unfortunately, I didn't get far—maybe forty-five seconds into it—when I saw her eyes glaze over and she stifled a yawn. Knowing I was going to lose her if I didn't do something, I skipped straight to the end of my speech where I get to the heavy stuff like veal calves and world starvation. The bored look turned to terror, as if I was carrying a bomb or (even worse) asking her for money. She started taking large backward steps, and I suddenly felt about as welcome a Bobby Seale at a DAR convention.

I guess the message is clear. Everybody knows we vegetarians are around, and most of the time they don't really care. To the average meat eater out there our cause is about as important as the Rochester Worm Museum, of the Albanian Home for Aging Soldiers. When we really press the issue, though, it gets personal. At that point the meat eater will either "get it," or treat us like a Moonie hanging around the local playground. It seems that just like the Moonies and those other love/hate groups, we don't yet have the respect of most of those who disagree with us.

The early days of the anti-smoking movement must have been like this. Those people probably encountered lots of hostility from smokers and industry lobbyists. Their persistence paid off, though. As people started to learn and accept the facts, they became much more receptive. Even though there are still plenty of smokers in the world, the anti-smokers are generally acknowledged as having a legitimate cause, and being on the "right" side of the issue. Truth won out in the end.

Hopefully it won't be long before vegetarians get that kind of respect. I know the day will come, because vegetarianism is such a great cause. After all, look at its attributes: it doesn't cost any money to participate, we don't advocate the violent overthrow of the government, and we won't even try to brainwash your kids.

If only people knew.