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Plant-based yumminess

March 18, 2009

So, I love meat, don’t get me wrong. Pork, chicken, turkey, beef, it’s all yummy. But for some reason, the USDA got it into it’s head in the 1950s that animal protein was really, really good for you. As in, on par with fruits and vegetables.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think animal protein and fats are essential to human health. After all, it’s what we’ve been eating since time immemorial. However, protein should not make up the bulk of our diet.

To me, the bulk of our diet should come from whole grains and vegetables.

In fact, I made a new food pyramid (like the old-school and far more understandable USDA one), a very simple little one, to illustrate.

new-food-pyramid1See? Now isn’t this much nicer? The bulk of one’s diet comes from grain and starchy veg (beans & rice, anyone?), supplemented by fruit & green veg. Eggs, nuts, fish, and dairy provide more protein than meat & poultry.

Except, unlike the USDA rules of at least one serving per day, this one is a little different.

I think that a good general rule would be one serving of meat OR poultry per day, although apparently some American consume 3 or more servings per day!

Bottom tier: three servings of each per day. Second tier: 2-3 servings of fruit per day, unlimited servings of green veg per day. 2-3 servings of dairy per day (I’m counting milk in dairy, and I like to drink it with every meal, so I guess I would OD on dairy with this pyramid), 1-2 servings of eggs/fish/nuts per day. 1 serving of meat/poultry per day. Scant servings of butter, sugar, & animals fats per day.

Does that sound sensible to you? It does to me. Of course, most Americans probably wouldn’t recognize this pyramid, nor half the things listed on it. Notice that white bread, pasta, and other refined carbs aren’t listed anywhere. This is partly an error of omission, but also because I don’t think they should really be a main part of any good diet. I would put whole grain or potato pasta probably on par with meat & poultry; meaning, it’s okay to have one serving per day, but more than that is probably not a good idea. White bread (even though I love me some biscuits and dinner rolls), I would probably put up with butter & sugar. As for where to put whole grain bread? I’d probably put it with the pasta, because I personally don’t eat more than one serving of bread per day, anyway.

Okay, so maybe my pyramid is a little flawed, but in terms of nutrition, I think it’s pretty okay. Research has shown that diets rich in plants (meaning, less rich in meats) have only positive health benefits, reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.

Now, I’m not a vegetarian by any means. But I think if we all went half-vegetarian, meaning eating a lot more veggies, some more fruits, and not as much meat, the world would be a better place.

After all, there are environmental impacts to eating lots of meat. Our demand for meat has led to the rise of CAFOs (centralized animal feeding operations), also known as feedlots. These horrific places cram animals (pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, etc.) into very small spaces indoors, often with extremely poor sanitary conditions. The main point is to get animals up to slaughter weight as quickly as possible. For most, this means growth hormones. And because conditions are so terrible, antibiotics are used and administered en masse to all animals, whether they need them or not, to prevent the wildfire spread of diseases. It is illegal to administer either growth hormones or antibiotics to poultry. I forget which.

So, not only do you have terrible living conditions for these animals, you are also dosing them with human antibiotics when they don’t need them, which evidence strongly suggests is helping to create super-bugs that are antibiotics-resistant (of course, antibacterial soaps don’t help either, but that’s another rant). Did I mention the terrible slaughter conditions? It’s Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle all over again.

Animals also transfer energy from plant materials into energy from protein. But the transfer is inefficient, so it takes a lot of plant material to equal energy in protein. Meaning that it is more efficient agriculturally and environmentally to feed humans plant materials than animal proteins.

Vegetables are also a more efficient use of soil than grain, but we depend on grain culturally, which is why it’s at the bottom of my pyramid.

So really, we need to get back to the subsitience farm way of eating: lots of vegetables, grains, fruits, dairy, and eggs, with some meat, sugar, and fat. Our health could also benefit from changing our meal structure to one like farmers used to use: medium-sized breakfast, big hot lunch meal (aka “dinner”), light supper. A structure like that means that you burn through the calories from breakfast and lunch during the day and a light supper is meant to tide you over until breakfast. Our current structure of large, calorie and protein-rich meals late in the day, after we’ve already burned most of our calories, and then sleeping, is what I believe to be one of the main reasons Americans, even those who eat relatively healthily, are so overweight. I mean, look at European nations where the midday meal is the big meal of the day: France, Spain, Italy, Greece. These are among the healthiest populations in the world. Of course, it helps that they know the meaning of portion control, but still.

Okay, so this was a really, really long rant about a lot of things. But I still advocate basing your diet on veggies and consuming less meat. I know that when I get a kitchen of my own again, though I will not be able to resist the temptation of baking cakes and bread, I am going to actively try to eat more veggies! Now if only the USDA would get out of the pockets of the industry lobbyists and act accordingly.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. snapdragons permalink
    March 26, 2009 5:32 PM

    Your pyramid isn’t far removed from the 2005 revised food pyramid, really. I was looking at it yesterday and playing around with mypyramidtracker.gov. Have a look some time when you’re bored.

    Good luck on the move to New York. I am interested to see if, after six months there, you are doing like the locals and buying dinner from the deli every night 😉

  2. e.m.smith permalink
    March 31, 2009 2:38 AM

    Looks great to me! Only thing I’d do differently is maybe put the legumes down in the base & put the carrots / squash up one (they don’t really have much starch in them).

    They way I learned to do meals was: Soup or Salad, then the main section that ought to be in three parts: Protein, starch, vegetables (where the protein can be something like beans or noodles with cheese, not just a meat lump). Followed by a desert (often fruit or pies). That would be easy to do with your pyramid.

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