What you eat matters, a lot

By Trish Anderson, MPH

How we do anything is how we do everything.”  -probably Buddha  

Our bodies are not like operating systems on a computer where we can decide how they work and update whenever our learning advances. Our bodies work how they work. There is a delicate balance of nutrients they need to work optimally and to stave off disease. 

Take vitamin D for example. Its (contested) importance is having a resurgence lately because it has been found to be inversely related to severity of COVID-19 outcomes. Meaning, the data is showing that having an unnaturally low level of vitamin D means the more likely you are to experience severe symptoms. Vitamin D isn’t a silver bullet by any means. Researchers are finding that there are many factors influencing the severity of this virus—comorbidities, age, viral load, genes. But it is widely known in the research community that low vitamin D status is related to pneumonia, which is the common name for acute respiratory distress syndrome, ARDS, the symptom putting so many COVID-19 patients on oxygen and ventilators. 

We were designed to get vitamin D from the sun and a little from food, but mostly the sun. Yes, we can supplement vitamin D and because of our modern lives, many should (check with your doctor.) But here’s the sticking point: without the presence of vitamin K2, all that supplemented vitamin D can be detrimental, resulting in excess calcium being deposited in our arteries and elsewhere instead of staying in our bones where it belongs. If we supplement with D but don’t get the K2, we’re potentially doing more harm than if we got neither.

Nature’s solution to this is that we get sun now and then and we eat the foods that supply vitamin K2.  The best, most bioavailable sources of K2 are found in pastured animal foods— nose-to-tail animal foods.

K2’s role is so important in our health that before it even had a name it was coined “Activator X” by nutrition pioneer Weston A. Price. By “activator” he meant that without the presence of K2 in the diet, no matter how many vitamins A and D a person intakes, the benefits of these nutrients will fall short. K2 is that important. 

Along with vitamin D, vitamin K2 deficiency is rampant in our society today. Makes sense because long ago our food system abandoned nature. We no longer eat traditional, pasture based diets because our “food system” turned our food, our sustenance, into a commodity. Today, we largely eat foods grown and raised on farms that resemble factories. We are also deficient in K2 because we were (falsely) told to avoid animal fats and cholesterol rich foods for fear they would clog our arteries. In fact it was never theses foods causing our artery problems (to the tune of over 600,000 heart disease deaths a year in the US), but rather the double whammy of sugar and fake fat processed foods that replaced nature’s foods plus the lack of K2 rich foods in our diet.

My point here isn’t just to highlight the importance of vitamin D and K2, but to illustrate how the balance of these nutrients matters and is planned for by nature. We get a little sun, we eat the variety of foods we need and as if by magic, our bodies are flooded with heart healthy, immune boosting, inflammation squashing nutrients. 

Nature wants us to survive, to fight off disease, to be a part of the finely tuned cycles of life. And we developed the ability to survive over millions of years evolving alongside our co-species…the creatures that have always given us our ability to transform sunlight into a robust immune system, among so many other things.

It’s not magic. This is just nature doing its thing. 

We exist in these tightly orchestrated, highly sophisticated feats of engineering and it’s totally lost on us…well, most of us. And that’s ok. We aren’t supposed to be constantly aware of the myriad of events going on in our bodies—so intricate that it makes the processors on today’s supercomputers look elementary.

A problem does arise however, when we start to think we can out maneuver millions of years of existence. Somewhere along the way we adopted an elite type of thinking, believing the very things that make us the physically evolved homo sapiens that we are, are unnecessary.

We can’t outperform the cycles of life. We can’t update the software.

If only we could, though. We have some serious problems here on Earth: human accelerated global warming, a heavily polluted planet, declining human health, and vast inequities. 

We need solutions…solutions at the scale of the planet. But also at the scale of nature. 

To those of us that have decided to forgo meat and animal products for the sake of your health, or animals, or the planet, I applaud your heart. We need more of that compassion and sensitivity and sacrifice in the world today, especially among meat eaters. 

Our livestock factory farming system is bad for the earth, and it is cruel, and dirty, and inhumane. It is inhumane for the animals, for the women and men who work at these factories and for the communities, almost always poor communities, that are near them. Not to mention the food from these factory raised animals barley resembles the nutrient profiles of their wild and pasture raised relatives. And, these animals that nourish us aren’t “livestock,” they are creatures of nature. Their fermentative stomachs are why we are here.  But our current system of concentrated animal feeding operations are just one more example of a system that tried to do right by us by providing food, but got a little too greedy and decided that stuffing thousands of living, breathing, feeling animals into a confined space, swimming in their own excrement, being force fed corn and soy and god knows what else, was somehow ok. I want to know, how do these people sleep at night?  

A 2020 op-ed in the NY Times wants us to believe that the “end of meat is here.” I’d like to go one step further from the cheap and easy ‘click bait’ rhetoric and acknowledge that the end of corrupt meat is here.  Not only will just removing meat not fix anything, it will also result in a decline in human health. It’s a superficial and naive band aid. Because if we don’t change the system and the people making the food, meat’s replacement will be no better for our health, or the planet. It will be just as greedy, wasteful, and toxic.

Going vegetarian or vegan, while almost always inspired by the right things, is not inherently healthy. It is definitely not healthy for children. Part of the problem is that the term ‘healthy’ got into the wrong hands, and now we are biased to equate a kale smoothie with health and weight loss and a ribeye with sloth and gluttony and heart disease. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Avoiding animal products for the sake of health or the planet, though done out of prudence,  isn’t really helpful. The statistics thrown around to support these dietary and environmental measures are usually about methane, water consumption, animal rights, heart disease, cancer, among other things. You and I both know that we can spin anything we want to tell any story we want. 

Here’s a story, do with it what you will…

…methane isn’t the problem, it’s our broken carbon cycle that is largely the result of dead soil and deforestation. Everything we make consumes and wastes a lot of fresh water—calorie for calorie, the water involved in raising animals is better used than the vast amount of water used in, for example, growing almonds. More species die in the creation of mono-crop agriculture than not eating meat saves. Eating pasture raised animal foods protects us from heart disease. Evidence links cancer to many things, including exposure to synthetic toxins (e.g. glysophate aka RoundUp), and insulin and inflammation run amok, largely caused by diets high in refined carbohydrates and other processed foods.

We are heating up the planet at an alarming and unnatural rate. But methane isn’t our problem— if only it were that simple. If forced to choose, many of us would probably rather give up steaks than give up gas burning cars, flights to anywhere, over-powered homes and offices, and excess stuff.

No wonder there’s a war on meat right now— the idea of a less consumptive, non-fossil fuel based lifestyle is uncomfortable. 

But we’re scapegoating.

There are a lot of problems throughout our agricultural system, the crop growing and the animal raising. There’s no way around the fact that we need agriculture. But we need agriculture that answers to nature’s laws, not industry’s laws.

Going vegetarian or vegan isn’t the panacea it’s made out to be. But eating whatever animal products you can find on the grocery store shelves is not ok either.

Our problems – people’s and the planet’s – and their solutions are much more nuanced than just picking a dietary side in the ever growing list of sides. Today, it’s not enough to be plant based, or vegan, or meat based, or vegetarian, or omnivore, or Paleo, or Keto, or carnivore, or IIFYM, or whatever. 

Today, we have to be conscious eaters.

Conscious of the system that produced the food in your shopping cart, in your refrigerator, on your plate. 

There is a better option for both raising crops and raising animals: the smaller, local, traditional farm producing food closer to the way nature does, or at least did, before we destroyed habitats for factory “farms” growing and raising products not actually beneficial to us or the planet.

By transitioning our food system back towards nature’s systems we can nourish our bodies, protect our health, and live compassionately. We can take better care of all creatures and their habitats while significantly cutting back on our abuse to the planet—and it is abuse—and help it heal.

This better system isn’t complicated. A diet that supports this better system doesn’t need a name, it’s just eating the way nature intended, not industry. It’s a conscious diet:

A diet that nourishes us as we were designed to be nourished.

A diet that is aware and takes nothing for granted.

A diet that does right by the creatures and species and habitats that give us our life.

A diet that does not pollute the planet, but helps to heal it; that does not destroy habitats but recovers them.

A diet that supports local economies and workers rights.

A diet that involves so little waste, requires so little fossil fuel, it almost feels like nature itself.

By decentralizing our food system—bringing it back to the communities that have the climates for farming and helping our international communities restore their ability to grow their foods (systems broken a long time ago by unfair tariffs and trade policy)—we can feed everyone.  And we can feed ourselves better, more nutritious foods than we are today. We can begin to repair the soil and habitats that are crucial for helping reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. It won’t be easy, or quick, or perfect. But what we’re doing now is incredibly harmful, not to mention tenuous.

I can hear the naysayers now…”This is great and all but there’s no way to feed 7+ billion people this way.” But the research has been done, and the answer is we can. More importantly, we have to.

We are sicker. Our planet is sicker. Our distribution of wealth and health is so perverse no wonder we are teetering on collapse.

You don’t have to go vegetarian or vegan, risking your own health and that of the next generation to fix the problem. Neither should you stay an unconscious omnivore. So what should we do? 

Know as a consumer that you have enormous power. It’s called your wallet.

Know who is growing the food you buy and eat and feed your family. It doesn’t all have to be perfect. But if you could start by getting 50% of your weekly food from smaller, more local, regenerative type farms, that would be a huge step in the right direction. Shop your famer’s markets, learn about CSA’s in your area, shop for pasture raised animal products from farms in your region. Stay away from food like products that come in packages, and through drive-thru windows. Ask your favorite restaurants to buy more locally grown ingredients. 

Know that your good intentions to help the planet through your diet are worthy. Stay educated on what our problems and their solutions really are. There’s a cacophony of misinformation out there, especially via the ever so popular tool for propaganda: the documentary. Question everything. Read those you agree with and those you don’t. 

A conscious, planet based diet

…no dogma, no sides to take, no preaching, no vitriol, no pointing fingers, no excess corporate interest. Just a common desire for lasting, robust health for all people, all species, and the planet. It means progress measured by reduction in heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, allergies, violence, depression, suicide. It means reduction in health inequities, and reduction in greenhouse gasses, polluted waterways, aquatic dead zones, and endangered and extinct species.

In its place, there’s a regeneration of our health, of important jobs, of the soil, of habitats, of necessary diversity, of local economies.

I for one am tired of the selfish and destructive behavior we’ve adopted as success. Our current food production and distribution systems are damaging—they serve to line the pockets of their stakeholders at the expense of health. Underneath our advancements and freedoms, lies an archaic system badly in need of updating.

Repairing our agricultural system feels daunting. But it is doable. Every day we are playing a part in what exists today. Whether we accept that or know it consciously, it is true. 

Know that your choices actually do matter. 

I for one set out each day to live as compassionately as I can. First and foremost towards myself. That means understanding my biology, my being, and how to nourish it…and that includes more than food. Next, towards my loved ones and community. That means being aware of and sensitive to the things I don’t know or understand—the ways our lived experiences are incredibly unique, and sometimes similar. And, always towards the planet, and all it needs to not just sustain us, but to be the very thing we interact with, learn from, and derive meaning from. 

None of us have it all figured out, or are as smart as we think we are. But we are all capable of becoming more aware, more sincere, more compassionate. And I don’t know a greater purpose in living than this.

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