Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oh, The Wonders of Those High-Protein Diets!

Everywhere I turn these days I'm reading about people eating more meat. Meat prices are soaring, and the "meat packers" (a euphemism if ever there was one) can scarcely keep up with demand.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the "millennium bug" (which, as we all know, turned out to be nothing more than an entomological hoax cooked up by former KGB agents now in the flashlight-battery business in New Jersey). I can just hear people all across America in mock despair the day after New Years: "Oh gosh, I bought 300 pounds of sirloin steak to get me through the Y2k crisis. Guess I'd better eat it this weekend before it goes bad!"

Of course the current trend towards flesh foods goes way beyond purchases made by America's 250 million militant survivalists the last 2 weeks of December. Indeed, if you look at the numbers you'll find that meat consumption in the US has been way up for some time. (It's a "bull" market, you might say.) The #1 reason for all of this is no secret: Everybody and his brother are on high-protein diets.

I first realized something was up when people started to react to my vegetarianism a little differently. Instead of the usual excuses ("Of course I'd be a vegetarian [sigh]—if only my Bohemian husband and sumo-wrestler son didn't have me chained to the stove boiling hot dogs…"), I started getting aggressive responses ("Vegetarian, huh? [sneer] That's fine for you, but a finely-tuned body like mine needs extra protein [more sneers]."). And my friends changed too. Suddenly, all they wanted to talk about was protein, and how they'd reached dietary Nirvana.

I decided I'd better learn more about these high-protein diets before I got left behind. Here's what I found out:

1. High-Protein Diets are the Latest Thing. Whereas vegetarianism is old news (Adam & Eve, and all that dusty stuff), eating protein is a new and exciting cutting-edge idea. It's the subject of dozens of new self-help books, so you know it must be the right thing to do for the new century. Funny though, I could swear I was on one of these diets myself when I was a fat little kid back in the 1960s. (I was still a fat little kid when I went off that diet, too.) And weren't high-protein diets fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s? (Do the names "Stillman" and "Scarsdale" ring any bells?) Whatever happened to all the folks on those diets?

2. High-Protein Diets are High-Tech Weight Reduction Programs. For years we all thought it was calorie intake vs. calories burned that determined whether we'd be overweight. Now we know better. As long as we don't eat those evil carbohydrates our bodies will burn fat. Isn't it great to discover that those stuffy old laws of thermodynamics don't apply anymore? (It sure makes me feel better about not paying attention in science class!) Of course, there are vegetarian doctors who claim to be able to prove that people on high-protein diets only lose weight because they (1) become dehydrated, (2) go into an abnormal and dangerous state called "ketosis", and/or (3) starve themselves. But what do those doctors know? The algebra they base their calculations on is hopelessly old-fashioned too.

3. High-Protein Diets Cure Diseases. In a recent interview with CNN, protein diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins said his diet, which includes rib-eye steak, roast beef, lobster and butter, cures diabetes and high blood pressure, and reverses heart disease. (With news like this it's no wonder he's sold 9-1/2 million books!) And to think—for so many years everyone (with the possible exception of Woody Allen in Sleeper) believed it was just the opposite. Thank goodness we've finally learned the truth! Thank goodness all those silly health organizations (the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program, the American Cancer Society) that have been endorsing high-fiber, low-fat diets, have finally been put in their place.

4. High-Protein Diets Get People More In Touch With Their Bodies. This has happened to many people I know personally. My friend John, for example, found out from a "doctor" that his blood chemistry was practically screaming at him, demanding that he eat high-protein foods. (This isn't to be confused with the blood-type diet—my friend Sandy is on that one!) My old college buddy Lee, who's never been healthy a day in his life, has been on a hundred different diets over the years and swears high-protein is finally "it". His body is at peace now that he's given up fruit and grains entirely and eats 3 eggs with bacon every morning for breakfast.

And several of my friends claim to have "protein meters" in their bodies that tell them when they are running low. (Are these the same things "Morris the cat" has? How come I didn't get one???) My friend Patty went into virtual "protein shock" one day when she was visiting my house. She ran to my refrigerator for a protein fix and flung open the door with the highest of expectations, only to be hugely disappointed. ("Isn't there anything dead in here?")

5. People Love to Eat High-Protein Foods. Who can argue with this? Wouldn't everyone rather eat a high-protein meal (e.g., a hamburger—plain) instead of something they'd get on a stupid vegetarian diet (e.g., a veggie burger on a Kaiser bun with pickles, lettuce, tomato, onions, roasted red peppers, and a pile of fries on the side)? A while back I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant with a couple of high-protein dieters. After they carefully picked all the green peppers out of their beef stir fry (vegetarians in reverse!) they liked their food so much that they decided to take 90% of it home in a Styrofoam box so they could savor it later. Now that's enjoying a meal!

It's great that the news about the benefits of high-protein diets has gotten out to the masses. The meat industry is happy, the lobster folks are raking in the money, and I guess no one has to feel guilty about anything anymore.

I do feel kind of sorry, though, for all the older vegetarians out there who have already lived, say, 95 or 100 years outside "the Zone" on their outdated high-carbohydrate, low-cholesterol diets. The great news about protein may be coming too late to do them much good. As for the rest of us, though, thank goodness we've been enlightened. If we can just get our protein meters adjusted, we're fixed for life.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

People (“People who need people…” and all that)

The other day I was talking to a friend in the animal rights movement, and I happened to mention that people are my favorite animal. I guess that didn't impress her. She looked at me like I'd been eating those funny mushrooms again, and said, "Oh, I don't feel that way at all!"

I can certainly see her point. A quick perusal of the local TV news on any given night will tell you exactly what kind of selfish and vicious animals humans are. Kidnapping, rape and grisly serial murders are everyday events—and that's just in your neighborhood! It's all become so commonplace we take it for granted. Just this past week a friend of mine came home from a business trip and found her house had been robbed. Most of what was taken had little or no value to the thieves, but represented huge sentimental losses to her. Who would do such a thing? People, that's who.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the horrors of the factory farm, the slaughterhouse and the medical research laboratory. There's seemingly no end to the violence and the suffering, and virtually everyone we know is in on the action. It's enough to make any vegetarian swear off the human race and spend the rest of his/her life cavorting with frogs and trees.

Okay, so it's no secret that humans are the only animals that commit "inhuman" acts. Sometimes, though, that reality can be overwhelming. It causes us to lose perspective, and that, especially for vegetarians, is a very bad thing.

In those moments when I'm not too depressed about the state of the world, I try to focus my attention on the other side of human existence—the kind and good side of people. Take war, for example. (Yeah, war. There's something that makes me want to live out my life on a deserted island away from people!) But even in war, amidst the pervasive death and destruction, there are constant examples of humans doing extraordinary things. People who have lost everything find something inside them to reach out and give comfort to those in similar circumstances. People give their very lives for their countries and causes. (As misdirected as those efforts sometimes are, the act itself is noble nonetheless.)

And of course astonishing courage, valor and selflessness aren't limited to times of war. I see those values in the people I come in contact with every day—from my friends who are teachers and social workers, to cancer patients dying with dignity, to the retarded man who always bags my groceries with a smile and a cheerful greeting. I see it every day in my vegetarian friends too—people who care so much, and work so hard to eliminate the suffering and disease and environmental destruction caused by eating meat.

People are my favorite animal. I think that's because the same mental and physical capabilities that allow them to do so many horrible things empower them to do extraordinary things as well. And I love those extraordinary things! I can't watch a space shuttle launch without getting a lump in my throat, and when I listen to a Beethoven piano concerto… well, let's just say I've never been anywhere closer to God.

I hate it when I hear meat-eaters say to vegetarians: "You don't care about people." It's an easy cop-out that allows them to feel better at our expense, and it's never true. On the other hand, it's sad when vegetarians and animal rights activists and environmentalists get so caught up in their causes that they momentarily lose their goodwill for humans. Without people the world would be an awfully lonely and boring place.

"Speciesism" seems to be a bad word in the vegetarian and animal rights communities. But I suspect all animals are inherently "speciesist," and a little of that may not be a bad thing for everyone's survival. Maybe it's not so wrong to revel in our humanity, as long as we keep it all in perspective and don't lose our compassion. (Compassion—another one of those characteristics at which humans are capable of excelling!)

Human rights is a mere subset of animal rights, but it's a necessary subset. You simply can't have one without the other. When every human being on earth finally realizes that it's imperative to love animals and humans, that's when we'll see real progress.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The “Essence of the Oyster”

A number of years ago I had the exciting and all-too-common experience of being in an unfamiliar restaurant and having the waiter make recommendations he thought would be appropriate for a vegetarian.

"You should have the oyster sauce with your vegetables," he suggested.

"But doesn't that have oysters in it?" I asked naively.

"Oh no! There aren't any actual oysters in it. You see, it's just made from…" he held his thumb and forefinger together, as if holding something precious, and smacked his lips, "…the essence of the oyster."

"Oh." I pretended to consider his suggestion for a second. "Thanks, but I think I'll just stick with the essence of broccoli."

For me the essence of the oyster incident has become a metaphor for a whole series of bad experiences. How many times have I found meat lurking in the supposedly "vegetarian" entrĂ©e? Wasn't it just the other day I had to tell the restaurant to leave the essence of the chicken broth out of my pasta? Wasn't it just last week that I found out my favorite brand of bread is now contaminated with the essence of whey? Wasn't it just today that a friend of mine who is deathly allergic to shrimp found shrimp in her "vegetarian" spring rolls? It seems to be our lot in life as vegetarians—everyone claims to know what's best for us, but what they deliver rarely meets our standards.

My mother says I'm too fussy. She hates it when I meticulously comb the ingredients in everything she buys at the grocery store. And the last time I ate out with her she was mightily embarrassed when I sent my salad back to have the hard-boiled eggs removed, and then sent it back again to have the bacon and cheese removed. (Well, how was I to know they were hiding under the eggs???) She's probably right. Eating a little bit of something bad probably won't kill me nearly as fast as agonizing about eating a little bit of something bad.

There are people who agree with my mother—arguing that from a health standpoint it may actually be better to not be so strict in our vegetarianism. I once knew a nutrition doctor (okay, so he wasn't actually a doctor) who had studied all of the world's cultures with long life expectancies. One thing he found that all of these cultures had in common was that they were almost vegetarian. They all followed a vegetarian lifestyle most of the year, but every once in a while they'd have a big blowout party where they'd roast the prize pig and wallow in greasy food. This "doctor" surmised that those occasional non-vegetarian indulgences stressed their bodies and actually made them stronger in the long run.

I was recently reminded of this theory when McDonald's made their now infamous admission that the French fries they have for years been promoting as "cooked in pure vegetable oil" are not really vegetarian—that they contain the essence of the dead cow for flavoring. The same day I heard this shocking news I read about Mary Clark of Montrose, Colorado. Mary is 106 years old, in great health, and practically lives for her daily fix of—you guessed it—McDonald's French fries. (The McDonald's corporation is thrilled with this, and has promised Mary free fries until she is 150.)

Could Mary Clark's health actually have benefited from the animal contamination in her favorite food? Would I be healthier now if I'd only eaten that essence of the oyster sauce many years ago? Would all vegetarians be better off if only we weren't so fussy?

Somehow I doubt it. First of all, any vegetarian in our society is going to ingest unwanted animal products from time to time no matter how careful he or she is, thanks to the antics of Bozos like Ronald McDonald. If our systems need occasional stress we're sure to get it. More importantly, though, there's more to being vegetarian than our own health. And the commitment we make to lofty goals—even if they are loftier than we can ever hope to achieve in the real world—is one of the things that keeps us going.

I think I'll stay fussy, and continue to object every time I'm faced with the essence of the oyster. Maybe it's silly and obsessive and irks my mother, but somehow drawing a line and sticking to it just seems like the right thing to do. Somehow it just seems like the essence of vegetarianism.