Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Game Changers: A Bit about Persuasion and Reason and Eating Your Vegetables

I've come to believe that determining the very best diet is as individual as figuring out the best course of action to treat anxiety or depression. We are each our own guinea pig. Individually, we each have to try a few things, gradually, while monitoring our energy levels, abilities, and general feelings of good health and wellbeing, to see what actually works for us. That takes time to get right. I was raised on meat and potatoes, but then I read Diet for a Small Planet when I was a teenager, and it convinced me to eat low on the food chain. Ever since, I lean towards fruits, vegetables, and grains with the occasional brick of cheese melted on top, and an even less frequent gorge on chicken wings. After having cancer and reading many studies on the correlation between animal consumption and cancers, I hesitate to eat animal products quite so much. To clarify, I still eat them because ... yum!, but I sit with some cognitive dissonance each time. I clear my conscience with my favourite salad: a bowl of raw vegetables smothered in cilantro and basil, no dressing. I don't get repeat invites to potlucks.

I just watched The Game Changers (their sources are here), and I'm going to try to sort out the fact from fiction in the film as well as in some of the many 'debunkings' I've found, which are sometimes equally suspect.

It's fascinating to me how often passion overrules reason in these discussions. What is it about food that makes people swing to the extremes? I've written before about even the brilliant Chris Hedges getting sucked into some weak evidence, and I've met many reasonable people who don't see any problems with some of dubious claims on only this issue. There's often an outrage just below the surface of these docs that suggest that, if you don't believe it, then either you're a horrible person or a complete idiot. I'm not convinced by the outrage. I'm not a nutritionist, and I'm definitely not a foody, but I do have a background in research methods and in logic and critical thinking. And some claims made in this field, on both sides of the aisle, are really problematic. Full disclosure, I have been vegetarian a couple times, for a few years each time, but I've never even tried to be vegan despite opening my classroom doors for a plant based club each week. Maybe this is the time to give it a shot.

What's really baffling to me is that there are some really good reasons to go vegan or near vegan. It can be better for your health; specifically, to reduce rates of cancer,  inflammation, and cardiovascular disease. It is really good for the environment because feeding animals in order to feed us uses up more land and water than feeding the world the plants directly. Animal agriculture also creates more GHGs than plant agriculture. AND animals are sentient beings. No animals should be living like they do in factory farms. Pigs are about as smart as border collies, and cows like to play fetch. Why kill animals for food if we don't have to? You'd think, as such an intelligent species, that we'd be able to figure out how to live without being so barbaric to other living creatures!! There are also some false concerns about veganism. From what I've seen first hand (anecdotal evidence) you can be as strong but you won't always look as strong without taking anything extra. But you can definitely be a competitive vegan athlete. That's the main takeaway of the film.

Meat promotion is big business. In Canada, farmers have to pay $1 per head of cattle towards marketing the beef industry. And despite all their efforts, vegans haven't significantly grown as a group in the past fifty years, and meat consumption is rising along with the negative health effects. Maybe it's from being the little guys all this time that plant-based docs are often riddled with questionable claims in a frantic quest for followers. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! That's my biggest concern with the film. I'm afraid that one discounted claim will destroy the entire push towards getting people to eat less meat. And I'm also concerned that the push for total elimination of animal-based products shuts the door on this issue for too many people. This could be, ironically, one of the reasons the movement hasn't grown as much as it could! But taking a measured stance doesn't always get the attention this needs either. It's an important issue that has to be taken serious. Some suggest a meat tax is in our near future. It might be the only way to turn this corner.

Try this experiment on yourself: Track what you eat and how you feel every day for the next week (body health, energy, and moods). Then sign up for Challenge 22, which will help you get going on a vegan diet for 22 days. After two weeks, track how you feel each day for the final week of the challenge. Draw your own conclusions! (If it's all new to you, maybe wait until after Christmas to start. and, be forewarned, going straight from the rare plant consumption to tons can make for a few uncomfortable days of digestion as you, basically, empty out.)


Follow the Money: (ad hominem fallacies)

Many of the take-downs (like this keto site) use ad hominem circumstantial arguments, attacking the people involved rather than their claims: because the producers are vegan and promote veganism, therefore they're biased, and, it's implied, we can't trust what they say about veganism. That's just a weird argument. By that logic, anyone who's an expert on something that has influenced how they live can't be trusted despite their expertise. Wha...? But, the other part of that concern is that James Cameron owns a pea-plant company, Verdient, so he could make money from people who switch to fake meat products. Aha! He has an ulterior motive! The producers were careful never to mention the name of the products, but it still makes it feel like one long advertisement when you find out that tidbit, doesn't it. BUT, even though I advise students to check who funds which studies when researching, a financial benefit from the argument doesn't necessarily mean the argument is wrong. It does, however, mean that we should scrutinize it all the more, just in case. So I also advise to look for at least three other sources that can back up the claims or at least one exceptional source. I've tried to do that here.

Climate Change: (questionable data)

The film suggests that if we just stop eating meat, we'll affect climate change more than if we stop driving cars everywhere we go since cattle farming has more impact on the climate than all transportation combined. But can't it be both?? Meat production definitely affects the climate, but the film's claims are not backed up by the major environmental organizations. When measured by sector (including the fossil fuels used in farming and the deforestation involved), the EPA has it at 24%, the EEA has it at 9%, the FAO at 18%, Climate Data Explorer say 13% as does the Skeptical Scientist, and the Government of Canada has it at 8%. This link explains problems with the World Watch Institutes's data that suggested 51% in the first place, and that data was retracted (also see here and here). Finally, one model developed to see the effects of removing cattle farming in the states, provoked this conclusion:
"The modeled system without animals increased total food production (23%), altered foods available for domestic consumption, and decreased agricultural US GHGs (28%), . . . . Although modeled plants-only agriculture produced 23% more food, it met fewer of the US population’s requirements for essential nutrients."
We know that cattle farming has a negative effect on climate change. Does it matter than it has more or less than transportation?? What's with the drive to prove it's the absolute worst?  It's an inefficient way to feed the world. Isn't that enough? I'll get to that bit at the end about nutrients later on. But keep cycling and fighting for better public transportation - it's also an important way to decrease GHGs. We can do both.

After watching Before the Flood, I wrote, in summary,
Professor Gidon Eshel, PhD in environmental physics at Bard College, says the easiest and most important thing we can do is to change our diet. Tonight. The foremost reason for deforestation is beef, which is an inefficient form of food. 70% of agricultural land in the US is for cattle feed. And cows produce methane, CH4, which is 20 times worse as a GHG than CO2. It's great if you can go vegan, but it helps even to change from beef to chicken. And that's something we can all do immediately.
The highest number I can find to corroborate US agricultural land use for cattle is 41%. It's hard to find consensus on that methane stat. The closest I came to says that methane is 28 times worse as a GHG for trapping heat, but it dissipates much faster. It's been on the increase since about 2007 largely because of cattle farming and - wait for it - rice paddies. So, it's complicated. But it doesn't matter who's the worst. It's a contentious claim that just muddies the waters for too many people. If the concern is climate then definitely eat less meat, it's absolutely part of the problem, but also try to eat everything you buy.

Earlier this month, 11,000 scientists declared a climate emergency. We have to get on renewable energy massively and leave the bitumen in the ground, re-wild natural areas, improve our transportation methods, and reduce our population. They also said,
"Eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products, especially ruminant livestock, can improve human health and significantly lower GHG emissions. Moreover, this will free up croplands for growing much-needed human plant food instead of livestock feed, while releasing some grazing land to support natural climate solutions. Cropping practices such as minimum tillage that increase soil carbon are vitally important. We need to drastically reduce the enormous amount of food waste around the world."

Up Your Game!  (sample size, uncontrolled variables, and false cause fallacy)

One of the most provocative parts of the film is the elite athletes who boosted their own performance by changing their diet. It makes it feel like I could move mountains if only I could give up cheese! BUT, as debunker Tim Rees pointed out, for many of them, their diet was crap to begin with. The narrator had never heard of asparagus! Instead of comparing vegan athletes with athletes who ate a really healthy diet including meat, they compared them with athletes who lived on KFC or Popeyes and whose only plant based option was french fries.

I appreciate that the film is trying to break the bond between meat and performance, though, and between meat and masculinity in general that's stuck with us as if most men go out to kill their own game for the BBQ each night. There are lots of elite athletes who are vegan. It's possible, for sure! But comparing before and after with people who ate unhealthy diets is disingenuous. The vegan fighter triumph and that football team who finally won a game could have been due to so many other factors. Because, really, most high performance athletes eat meat. The fact that articles are written about the few who don't is because they're rare. There are people in their 90s who swear by yoghurt for better health. It doesn't mean we'll all live to be 90 if we eat yoghurt. And we won't necessarily improve our game by giving it up, either.

In terms of scientific studies, the problem with these cases is, because they're so few, then we can't generalize to the population. But, even if we could, and even if it's proven with a large randomly selected control group (healthy meat-based) and treatment group (healthy plant-based), in a match-pair analysis, all monitored carefully so they can't eat anything not provided for them, for a couple of months, and the vegan group does better on average, then it still doesn't mean this will work for you! It only means it's better on average. You really have to try it out for yourself.

BUT what does have some credence is the individual cases where people were able to improve their stamina by eating better. This is definitely something worth noting. Diet has a huge affect on how we feel, and we eat a lot of junk in general. Vegetables really do increase blood flow. It's uncontroversial to say "eat vegetables every day." It's a real problem that people don't automatically do that already! If nothing else, the film is an important reminder to eat your vegetables, and by doing so, we'll get fewer calories from meat. But, those anecdotal experiences don't translate to mean we should never eat animal products.

Evolutionary Design (inaccurate data and fallacy of composition)

Then there's the bit where they look at our intestines and teeth to prove that we're not designed for meat eating. They use our closest primate relatives as additional proof since they're vegan. Except they're not. Most primates eat lots of bugs, and it takes them almost their whole day to get enough calories from bugs and leaves. Some chimps have been found to have adapted to deforestation by hunting with spears. They've adapted to their surroundings. And so have we.

Something that irks me about the film in general is the aura of privilege. Several converts had a personal chef or shopper help them along. And sure, it's better for everyone if we can slow down and cook at home with family or friends instead of scrambling from one activity to another. But it's not always a possibility for people working long hours or trying to manage the kids and/or other relatives in need of support. And we have to be mindful not to denigrate people's traditions. While there exists an entire city, in India, that's vegetarian, there are also cultures, like the Inuit, for whom meat is a vital part of their lives. Something to keep in mind.

Random Minor Arguments  (blarg)

The gladiator article doesn't really add or detract from the point, although some debunkers went to town on it because it's an article that discusses a study, but not a study in itself. Okay. It has been backed up with a study.

Estrogen from milk does affect testosterone levels a bit. Paul Kita, in a Men's Health article claimed it just decreased secretions, and I think he thought it meant external secretions (because... testosterone??) rather than endocrinological secretions (you know, how hormones are secreted inside our bodies, which affects us significantly). BUT so does soy milk. A bigger concern with cows' milk from the states is rBGH, but it's not in Canadian dairy products, so shop local!

Meredith Root, from Tactic Method, warned that veg is bad because of pesticides: "The vegetarian population may be more exposed to pesticide residues than the general population." The EPA counters that "very small amounts of pesticides that may remain in or on fruits, vegetables, grains, and other foods decrease considerably as crops are harvested, transported, exposed to light, washed, prepared and cooked." BUT there are herbicides and pesticides that get into cows, which means they get into milk and meat. In fact, "residues allowed in animal feed can be more than 100 times that allowed on grains consumed directly by humans, and the amount of glyphosate allowed in red meat is more than 20 times that for most plant crops." If you want to reduce toxins, then eat low on the food chain, and maybe buy from local farmers who use organic feed if you can find them!


So, where are we on this now.

There is significant evidence that increasing plant consumption and reducing animal product consumption is good for a lot of things, but nothing that suggests elimination of animal products significantly affects us. Reduction is good for reducing cancer and inflammation risks, increasing vascular health, securing animal's livelihood, maintaining efficient food production, lowering GHGs a bit, and reducing pesticide exposure. The studies that show cancer and inflammation benefits compare eating a lot vs a little animal products. None that I found show significant improvement with completely getting rid of animal products. There are definitely health benefits from eating mainly vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruit (in that order of daily intake), but I'm not convinced health increases are made with an all or nothing approach. And I don't think it's cheese that's keeping me from the Olympics.

If you can live without the meat substitutes, then another benefit is that food prep is easier and cheaper. I know, all that peeling and chopping! But you can do it all once a week and have dinner ready when you get home from work. It also helps if you can wean yourself from having a wide variety of food options. Variety in all things is a scam brought to you by capitalism! I can make a good chili or a lentils and rice-based meal in one pot and eat leftovers for days. There's a learning curve if you've been raised on meat, especially if you've based dinner on a different meat option each night, but it's definitely do-able, and there are sites that help!


But it does nobody any good to gloss over problems with a vegan diet. It's important we know all the facts before making a change like this. It's not without some cautions.

At one vegetarian juncture in my life, I was pregnant and struggled with anemia despite bowls of spinach and nuts. My doctor told me that I'd need a wheelbarrow full of spinach to get the same useable iron I could get from a small piece of steak once a week. So I added a bit of meat to my diet again.

It's not the protein that's the biggest concern; there's plenty in legumes and beans. But iron, essential amino acids, and B12 should be monitored. Some amino acids can be found in plant based diets if certain legumes or beans are mixed with grains. Vegans really do have to be careful about mixing the right foods together to get all their nutrients and supplements might be necessary, particularly for B12. Don't start eating dirt! B12 is found in ruminating animals (dairy and meat) or shellfish. Or supplements. One controlled study (published in Nature, a highly reputable journal) on the risk of fractures in meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans, found that vegans faired the worst: "the higher fracture risk in the vegans appeared to be a consequence of their considerably lower mean calcium intake." And another study cautioned that plant-based proteins have "lower leucine content and deficiencies in certain essential amino acids such as lysine and methionine." The study discussed in the Men's Health article said, "plant and animal protein sources appear to provide equivalent support to athletic training and performance" but cautions that vegetarians run the risk of iron deficiency. It may be easier to eat just an occasional animal product to make sure all nutrients are covered.

But forget about Meatless Monday. Aim for Meat ONLY on Mondays. We're running out of time!

ETA - This video helps answer some questions too.
ETA - This great article exploring the connection between the wellness movement and conspiracy theories. 

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