Sunday 13 March 2011

"Toothless paper tigers"

Back in November, I decided I'd get my dad a copy of The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health, a book famous in vegan circles for confirming the healthiness of our dietary choices. The reason? My dad has heart disease and adult-onset diabetes. The last time I checked, he took approximately 70 pills each day and at least one of the diabetes pills had a possible side effect of heart attack.

This seemed insane to me, especially as, having spent several years volunteering with the Toronto Vegetarian Association, I kept meeting people who'd reversed their diabetes entirely by going vegan. So, I tried to talk to him. I offered to go and stay with him for two weeks and just cook and talk about food the whole time. I bought him and his wife some vegan cookbooks. He declined my offer and the cookbooks probably gather dust, if they even still have them.

Bad eating is a hallmark of my family, both sides, but I'll stick to the paternal today. When I lived with my dad when I was a teen, there were only 4 things you could be sure to find in the fridge at any given time: pepperoni, ice cream, the cheapest margarine in the biggest possible bucket, and peanut butter. If we ever ate salad, it comprised iceberg lettuce and a tonne of cheese, salt, and oil.

So, I moved away eventually and continued to eat badly. But then one day I made a connection between my pets and other beasties, and I decide to go vegetarian. After a few months of that, I went vegan; that was 7 years ago. In that time, my cholesterol has gone to a superstar low (it was actually high by the time I was 26!!!), I generally feel better, weigh a bit less, and in order not to fail at being vegan, I've learned to cook and so food has become a whole world of delicious awesomeness; before, food was just something I needed to take in to keep the machine running. All good, yes? Well, I've noticed a proliferation of vegan junk food and convenience items over the past 7 years which at first pleased me - because hey, look, vegan is becoming mainstream! - and has, in the past year or so, started to bother me - because hey, new vegans, there's this thing called "produce" that you should really try!

I've been somewhere in the middle ground between healthy and unhealthy vegan eating. Kale is my favourite vegetable, but until New Year's, when I resolved to begin eating salad every day, I ate salad maybe once a month. Blueberries are my favourite fruit, but until I started drinking fruit/veggie smoothies for breakfast in October or November of last year, if I bought blueberries they'd go bad in the fridge. And I ate so much processed sugar, it was obscene. Vegan junk food became too easy and being vegan erroneously allowed me to imagine it wasn't so bad for me. It was. I felt like shit by the time we closed our bookstore. So, my dad was maybe right not to take my advice when I offered it a few years ago (although I'm sure I ate better then than I was eating 6 months ago). My diet was certainly better than his - vegan food, regardless of how shitty it is, still doesn't have any cholesterol, after all - but it wasn't good enough.

This was where The China Study was to come in. If he didn't believe me, maybe he'd believe someone with the kind of crazy qualifications that Dr. Campbell has. Maybe he'd believe a man. Maybe he'd believe anyone who wasn't someone whose diaper he'd changed. Whatever - it seemed worth a try because I love my dad and I'm worried about him. So, I ordered it, it arrived and then I panicked, worried that maybe this Campbell fella was crazy and this would make things worse! I obviously had to read it first, and I did, though it took a few months as I read it in spurts and between lots of fiction.

The China Study is probably the most important book I've read. I had to take breaks from it because it was so shocking in its proofs in favour of a low-fat, plant-based diet it sometimes overwhelmed me. It turned much of what I thought I knew on its head. It convinced me that my intuition to send it to my dad was right on, but it convinced me of something just as important - that I, for my own well-being and quality of life, could be a much better vegan.

I want to do this right. Instead of treating what Campbell has to say about food - and in a nutshell it's that one can eat as much as one wants of all fruits, veggies, whole grains and whole grain products while minimizing oils, fish, and refined carbs, and avoid entirely all meat and dairy - as something I must accomplish immediately, I began working on a strategy for change. Building on the salad every day thing, I've cut out the fakey meats and fakey cheese that are so delicious and I haven't had processed sugar in almost a week. (The sugar cravings have dissipated much more quickly than I would have anticipated.)

And you know what? I have a lot more energy already. This is how I've been able to go to the gym every day (the diet changing began first) and why, I suspect, I've found it so hard to sit at the computer to blog - my body wants to be moving for a change! I will send my dad The China Study, but I'm keeping this first copy for myself.

The next step
In his book, Campbell refers several times and in significant ways to a doctor named Caldwell B. Esselstyn who worked at Ohio's world-famous Cleveland Clinic. Esselstyn has helped many heart patients, who were told (after multiple surgeries and tonnes of drugs) that the medical establishment could do nothing for them and death was imminent. Esselstyn insists near the beginning of the book that heart disease is a "toothless paper tiger" which is easily defeated - and the book shows how.

Essylstyn's program involved a rigourous dietary overhaul - to a whole foods, low-fat, plant-based diet. This program was apparently extremely successful so I decided to read Essylstyn's 2007 tome Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease to see if that also would be a good book for my dad. In fact, I read the whole thing today and am really excited to try the many recipes that comprise the second half of the book.

And again, this book was good for me. Esselstyn insists on his patients eating no oil at all, which scared me not a little. I know how to fry something fierce. I once tried to find oil-free salad dressing recipes and in all my vegan cookbooks (12) found only 3!!! Anyway, that's what the recipe section is for, in part. I won't do justice to the science if I try to explain why oil (and animal products) are bad for you; I understood what Campbell and Esselstyn said but I worry I wouldn't get it right enough if I tried to briefly paraphrase for you. If you're still reading this post, I'll assume you're interested in the topic and just say - read the damned books. They're worth it. My dad will be getting Esselstyn's book as well.

So, my plan now is to continue upping the veggies and fruits and whole grains in my diet while lowering the oil until it's eventually zero, avoiding processed sugar and fakey products, and generally getting my fat intake down to approximately 10% of my diet. I'm doing this slowly and in stages so that I do it right and don't get frustrated and because I want it to stick. I want high quality of life for the rest of my life.

If you're still reading this post but aren't interested in health and diet, it's probably because you're wondering why I believe these books. There are a lot of fad diet books out there, I know - hell, there was a whole shitty section of them in my bookstore when I bought it. The reason I believe these two books is that both their studies (very different in nature - Campbell's used a lot animal testing as well as focusing on population studies (25 years), while Esselstyn's focused on his group of patients and their diet change tracked over a twenty-year period). It was the nature of the studies, their length, and the scientific rigour with which both men conducted their work that convinced me. Campbell especially backed up every single claim he made with an abundance of evidence; when he wasn't entirely sure he used words like "probably", "likely", "possibly", etc to indicate things that he believed to be true but which he thought could use more proof.

Imagining eating a no-oil diet is probably the hardest thing for me in terms of change at this point so as I said, I'm grateful for the recipes included in Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. Something in Esselstyn's book made me suspect that the cookbook The Engine 2 Diet (which I don't yet have) might also be oil-free so I checked it out, and yes, it is - it's written by his son, Rip, who was a crazy pro-athlete of some sort on this diet and is now a fire-fighter and, if I'm going to be honest, is absolutely dreamy. I am broke as hell right now so can't afford to buy any of these books, but luckily some of the Engine 2 recipes are online.

And, if you can't read this stuff, there's always the movie version. Not kidding! Forks Over Knives, in which Campbell and Esselstyn appear to both feature heavily, is due to be released in the US starting in May.


Jess said...

I read The China Study earlier this year and was kind of blown away by it. I'm sort of a lapsed vegetarian turned lapsed vegan. The chapter on cancer was really scary but I still have a hard time getting rid of cheese. That is cool you took the time to read Essylstyn's book too. Dr. Dean Ornish's book Eat More, Weigh Less seems to be similar, a 1990's take on preventing heart disease and eating healthy. It is mostly vegan + seafood and fat free with an extensive recipe collection. I've found many of the recipes to be pretty good.

It was interesting to see your take on the book! Thanks.

Stefanie said...

I've heard about the China study and read some of the results but not the whole study. It's pretty amazing. When my husband and I went vegan back in 1993 there were very few "convenience" foods but you are right the way the fake food has been proliferating has been scary. We fell for it briefly but have now given up almost all processed foods. We eat better and for less.

Do you have community supported agriculture in your area? A couple years ago we began buying a full share of an organic farm and is it ever amazing. We get more kale in our weekly box than you can shake a stick at and all kinds of other fresh deliciousness too. Sadly it only lasts during the growing season but we find we eat better in the winter because we crave all the good stuff and not the processed crud.

Heidenkind said...

I'm not interested in becoming vegetarian or vegan, but I was sick for almost two weeks this month, and started having insane cravings for raw tomatoes and fruit. When I ate some I almost immediately started feeling better. Fresh produce is definitely the way to go, but it's so expensive and goes bad so quickly (especially berries), so that makes buying problematic.

J.G. said...

I really need to get on this. I recognize processed food is an addiction . . . but it's hard to be clean.

Glad to hear you've steered away from the fakey meats and cheeses. They have always seemed creepy to me. But I recently discoverd seitan and it rocks!

Interpolations said...

The China Study was roundly debunked by Gary Taubes in Good Calorie, Bad Calorie.

A truly extraordinary read.

The China study isn't a scientific study.

It's merely an observational one.

Which means that it's good source material for generating hypotheses about diet and health, and then testing them in a randomized-controlled setting.

When this is done, Campbell's thesis that a high-carb, low-fat is optimal for human health doesn't fair very well, in terms of inflammation markers and lipid profiles, as counter-intuitive as that may sound.

Sounds like your dad needs low-glycemic foods, like fish, eggs, avocados, and grass-fed meats, which are WAY healthier than their factory-raised counterparts.


Talking about diet and nutrition is a dangerous affair, I know.

I was vegetarian for years before a health crisis forced me to reevaluate the stuff I was shoving in my mouth, as well as the stuff I was avoiding.

I'd rather talk politics and theology than diet & nutrition.

Friendships will fair better.


Bookphilia said...

Jess: I haven't read Ornish's book; in fact, I'm not really a diet book reader, generally. But I'll check out the recipes - the more variety the better!

Stefanie: We do have CSAs here, yes. The problem is, we live in an apartment building and I'm not sure where they could safely leave our fresh box...

heidenkind: Hmmm, interesting. Dehydration? Low vitamin C? I don't get very sick often, but when I do, generally the only thing I crave is sleep and ginger tea.

J.G.: Love seitan! If you're buying it, email me and I'll send you a recipe for making it homemade - it's easy and much, much cheaper than buying it.

interpolations: Have you read The China Study? If not, why do you value Taubes' methods over Campbell's? If you have read The China Study, same question.

Campbell started his life's work on nutrition believing in the standard American diet and against his will concluded that low-fat, mostly plant-based was healthiest - can Taubes claim to be as disinterested? Can you? I don't personally claim to be disinterested on my own behalf - I'd be vegan if I felt worse being so than being omni, but I never have; indeed, even as a junk food vegan, I've felt better vegan than omni because at least eating never made my heart race so much I couldn't sleep. As for my dad, he's tried everything but this and continues to be absolutely fucked. I am not a nutritionist, but I fail to see how an organic cholesterol/fat bomb diet will be appreciably better than an inorganic one. Esselstyn's book uses human subjects - who were desperate and handed death sentences by the best heart doctors in the US - and confirms Campbell's findings.

Interpolations said...

Ay, I've read TCS. From a scientific standpoint, its greatest flaw is that it doesn't control for confounding variables. But that's a limitation of all observational studies, not just TCS. I'm afraid I've rubbed you the wrong way. I don't want to do that. There were three big turning points in my relationship to food. One was the health scare. The other involved a study of the Masai, Polynesians, and Inuits, all of whom have a very VERY high-fat, low-carb diet but none of the chronic diseases predicted by TCS. Lastly (and anecdotally), I overhauled my diet six years ago and have monitored my blood panel very closely. As my meat consumption (pasture-raised) went up, not only did I lose weight, but my LDL-HDL ratio actually improved, and so too has my fasting glucose number, which has improved year over year over year. That's probably the single most important number for me, especially since I come from a family of diabetics.


Bookphilia said...

Interesting. TCS doesn't address Masai, Inuit, etc diets. And I can't account for it, especially as I know only a little about the Inuit and nothing about the other two. Does Taubes address all of the evidence in favour of a plant-based, low-fat diet? Online commenters elsewhere say he purposefully ignores the work of Campbell, Esselstyn, Ornish, MacDougall, etc. If so, how is he more reliable than Campbell? As for low-glycemic foods, all the best staples of a low-fat, plant-based diet are included in this category - so, how is a meat-based one better?

Stefanie said...

Your CSAs deliver to your door? We have to go pick ours up from a drop-off location (aka someone's garage). Just thinking about that lovely box of veggies has me craving them and I won't get my first box until sometime in June. The anemic produce at my co-op must sustain me until then. sigh.

Can your low fat diet do nut butters? I have a chedder "cheese" spread recipe that uses almond butter and is delicious as well as a dressing recipe that uses tahini and miso.

Bookphilia said...

Stefanie: I've been thinking about a CSA box ever since you mentioned it. I've got to find a way to make this work; it'll give me even more variety and help me save time on shopping.

Yes, nut butters are fine. I'm cutting out cooking oils and trying to figure out what to do about salad dressing at this point. And tahini and miso are two of my fav things in the world, so please pass along your recipe! I still owe you that chocolate pumpkin pie recipe...I haven't forgotten!