By: Administrator Date: 02/26/2012 Category: | Animal Agriculture | Animal Rights Extremism | Animal Welfare |
It is a widely accepted belief that you should never talk about religion or politics in polite company -- assuming you want to keep the company polite. There is a lot of truth to this idea, but in 2012 it is incomplete, as it leaves out food and nutrition, a topic that has recently taken on the most ferocious characteristics of both religion and politics.
This is where Denise Minger comes in. A young woman whose impressive critiques of The China Study have made her a sort of revelatory hero in some quarters, a shadowy supervillain (secretly funded by the meat and dairy industry) in others. At the core of her work, and why it pushes so many people's buttons, is the idea that food derived from animals isn't inherently bad for you (in fact, it might even be good). Given the emotions surrounding this issue, and how important it is for some people to have proofs -- like The China Study -- to support their beliefs, it is no surprise she has agitated the waters.
Minger has kindly agreed to be our first interview for the new NAIA website; with our 2012 conference being in part based on the "Mythology of Meat" (people's beliefs, misconceptions, bugaboos, etc. regarding animal products), it would have been hard to come up with a more appropriate beginning.
Could you give a brief background about yourself and your own dietary evolution?
Sure thing. I’m a 24-year-old Portland resident currently working as a health writer, editor, tutor, and collector of flame mail (just kidding—kind of). I run a blog at www.RawFoodSOS.com that focuses on battling bad science in the world of nutrition.
My “food journey” began at age seven, when I almost choked on a piece of steak and immediately became phobic of anything with a meat-like texture; a decade of vegetarianism ensued. (Although my initial abandonment of meat was probably a form of neurosis, I was also a huge animal lover, and it didn’t take longer than third grade before I started embracing the ethical arguments behind vegetarian diets.) After getting extremely sick with mysterious flu-like symptoms during fifth grade, I was diagnosed with a wheat allergy, and became the only student in class who couldn’t eat the cupcakes people brought in for their birthday. That was kind of traumatizing. But not as traumatizing as having to cut out dairy and soy a few years later when I developed food sensitivities to those as well. By the time I was fifteen, I was a full-on vegan—eating healthy by default, because I was allergic to everything bad for you—and thoroughly believed that animal foods were not only contributing to unnecessary suffering, but were also terrible for the human body.
That’s when I learned about raw foodism. It was sometime in 2002. Previously, I’d resigned to the fact that I didn’t seem to have a functioning immune system and was just doomed to catch colds twice a month for the rest of my life. But after reading the glowing testimonials of raw vegans who claimed they resolved every health problem under the sun (or under the clouds, here in the Northwest), I decided to become a raw vegan and see what happened. Nothing but fresh fruit and vegetables and smoothies, and some nuts here and there—all unheated. As usually happens with this diet, I felt incredible for the first few months, but eventually landed in a pile of nutrient deficiencies and dental cavities at the tender age of 17. That’s when I decided to seriously start researching nutrition. I’d experienced firsthand how profoundly diet can affect how you feel, for better or for worse, and wanted to understand what foods are best for the human body. Although most of my diet is still raw fruits and vegetables, I eventually added back high-quality animal products like fish, free-range eggs, organ meats, shellfish, and broth made from bone. This has been a very happy medium for me.
That’s the short version.
You are often referred to as "Denise Minger: ex vegan." Does that ever get annoying?
It’s a little annoying, but I’ve been called a lot worse. I definitely prefer “Denise Minger: ex vegan” over “Denise Minger: shill for the meat and dairy industry” or “Denise Minger: uncredentialed bonehead” or “Denise Minger: #&@$*!!!”
Speaking of "ex vegans," was it more or less difficult to view food ethics through a black and white lens?
Oh, it was much easier. When you have all the rules laid out for you and everything’s either “definitely good” or “definitely bad,” you can let your brain go on lunch break and not spend time mulling over the issues for yourself. When you step back and notice the shades of gray, that’s when everything gets more complicated. Is a piece of bread on your plate more ethical than a piece of meat? The Magic Eight Ball of black-and-whiteness says “all signs point to yes.” But what if we consider all the little animals massacred by wheat threshers when the grain was harvested, the creatures that lost their habitat to make room for the wheat field, the living organisms harmed by pesticide runoff, or even the crushed bones use to fertilize the soil the wheat was grown in? And what if we choose meat that’s wild-caught or pasture raised—in which case the meat on your plate involved only one death and no environmental harm? It’s incredibly hard to justify that black-and-white lens once you look at the bigger picture. Especially when you consider that the production of meat and dairy doesn’t always require animals to lead terrible lives, and that vegan foods still result in death and suffering in less direct ways.
When you switched back to being an omnivore, how were you able to reconcile the reintegration of animal products into your diet with your ethical dietary views?
It was hard at first, because I initially went back to animal products to salvage my health, and my ethical views didn’t shift until sometime later. So there was a limbo period where I was eating animal products, feeling much better physically, but still wracked with guilt because animals were dying for my benefit. But the more I learned about how our food system (and the world in general) works, the more I realized that even vegan foods can leave a trail of blood, and it’s impossible to truly remove yourself from the cycle of life and death that defines our experience on earth.
I also started questioning whether my desire to be vegan was truly altruistic, or if its appeal was more about relieving my own guilt. Humans typically have more empathy for creatures that are similar to us—facially expressive animals like cats and dogs tend to be easier to bond with than pokerfaced fish and snakes, for instance—and even if we find theoretical ways to argue that all animals should have equal rights, it’s harder to enforce that in reality. There’s a natural hierarchy where we favor some creatures more than others. I doubt even the most passionate vegan would rather see one kitten die than see ten mosquitoes die, even though the latter is quantitatively more deaths. PETA protests outside of KFC, but not in front of insecticide companies. Seal hunts make us sad and outraged, but we’d never lose sleep over the dead bugs on our windshield. Why is this? Is a cow’s wellbeing worth more than an ant’s? How do we rank the value of a life, or judge a creature’s capacity to suffer?
In the end, vegan ethics are a human construct, influenced by human psychology and human bias. In my case, acknowledging this made it easier to stop thinking of animal food consumption as something inherently wrong. I still love animals, but given the broader context of our food system, my goal now is to support only humane farms that treat their animals well, and encourage others to do the same.
How would you describe your current view toward the ethics of the omnivorous diet?
This is tough to answer, because “omnivorous diet” embodies such a wide range of food choices. I don’t think highly of any menu that relies on factory-farmed animal products, though unfortunately this is what an “omnivorous diet” ends up being for most people because it takes more effort to track down humanely raised meat than grab a burger at McDonald’s. Even if someone considers it ethically acceptable to kill for food, that doesn’t justify forcing animals into a lifetime of atrocious living conditions, cramped cages, and species-inappropriate diets like we see with factory farms.
But conscious omnivores are perhaps in an even better position than vegans to help transform the way farm animals are treated. By redirecting our financial support away from factory farms and towards small, local operations that give their animals good lives, we can essentially “vote with our dollar” and help those smaller farms flourish. This is at the core of omnivore ethics—working towards a major reform of the way we incorporate animals into our food system.
So why on earth would you willingly dive into something as vicious as food politics? Is this issue just that important to you, or do you simply enjoy being called names?
Although I love being called names as much as the next person, I consider any foray into food politics more of an “accidental slip” than a “conscious dive.” I try to keep my public writing focused only on nutritional science—debunking bad studies, examining how certain foods affect us physically, the healthfulness of various diets, and so on—rather than delving into their political implications. When food politics do enter the discussion, it’s usually tangential, and my reaction is typically to close my laptop and think happy thoughts instead of engaging in open warfare about what are largely subjective issues. It keeps me sane.
Do you have any guidance for people suffering from health problems that might help them avoid falling prey to the many faddish, cultish, or simply unscientific diets out there that promise to relieve everything from gout to diabetes to cancer (hello, China Study)?
It’s definitely a red flag if a diet promises to cure every ailment under the sun, turn you into a supermodel, purify your soul, save the children, and increase your height four inches as an adult. The flag gets even redder if a diet requires you to buy an expensive line of supplements the author happens to sell. But beyond the truly obvious scams, it does get tricky figuring out which claims are legit, because so many diet plans cite just enough science to sound impressive.
My best advice is to avoid short-term fixes—e.g., diets that drastically undercut calories or limit your menu to just a handful of foods (like grapefruit and cabbage)—as well as diets that don’t make sense in the context of human history and biology. Veganism is a recent invention that doesn’t jibe with our anatomy, and we have plenty of examples of human populations that thrive while still eating animal products. Our grain-and-vegetable-oil-based USDA diet is also a recent invention, and shamelessly caters to the food industry rather than human health. Any diet that relies on meal-replacement shakes or packaged foods is also unlikely to be optimal in the long run.
When we look at the diets out there (cultish or not) that claim a high degree of healing success, they all have a few things in common: along with emphasizing whole, natural foods, they avoid vegetable oils high in omega-6 fats (like soybean oil, corn oil, and sunflower seed oil), they avoid processed grain products, and they avoid high-fructose corn syrup or other industrially processed sweeteners. This holds true for the paleo diet, the raw food diet, the macrobiotic diet, and even the plant-based diet espoused in The China Study. When a diet supports legitimate healing, it’s not because it omits meat or saturated fat or broccoli—it’s usually because it shuns those three big killers. Vegetable oils, most grain products, and refined sweeteners. Those things don’t belong in the human body, and virtually everyone can benefit from yanking them off the menu.
Your book, Death by Food Pyramid will be coming out later this year. Can you give a preview of what food issues it will be covering?
Death by Food Pyramid is all about improving our “nutrition literacy” in the most pain-free and awesome way possible. So many of our current health recommendations are based on bad science and money-driven public policy, but most people don’t know how to decipher the truth about what they should be eating. They don’t know how to translate the science jargon into plain English. They don’t know whether to believe one study saying eggs cause diabetes, or another study claiming they prevent it. Even the “experts” can’t reach a consensus—hence why we have medically qualified proponents of low-carb diets, plant-based diets, paleo diets, Mediterranean diets, and so forth, all drawing from the same body of research but reaching vastly different conclusions. Figuring out what to believe and who to trust is a major issue for anyone who wants to be healthy.
The book offers a Matrix-esque “take the red pill” reality check about our health recommendations—how the food pyramid turned into a food-industry shrine, how our view of saturated fat is based on some decades-old leaps of faith, how many of the foods we consider healthy are probably killing us, how we’re only told a small part of the story regarding heart disease, and other fun things. Along with ripping apart some of the most influential studies that sculpted our nutrition landscape, the book will teach virtually anybody how to look at a study or health claim and critically evaluate it on their own.
Basically, I want to close the chasm between the scientific community and the layperson—and my goal with Death by Food Pyramid is to give people the tools necessary to take charge of their health without needing a nutrition PhD and elaborate understanding of Latin prefixes.
Was writing a book on these issues simply a natural extension of your background as an English major – foisted upon you by fans of your blog and China Study debunkery, or was it something you actively pursued?
An even split between the two, for sure. All English majors secretly (or not-so-secretly) want to write a book and then be on Oprah because the book was so great. Now that Oprah isn’t running anymore, we don’t quite know what to do with ourselves, but the drive to put words on paper is still there. It never goes away. I’ve always considered it my liberal-arts-given duty to produce a large, unified collection of sentences at some point in life.
But Death by Food Pyramid is the product of something a lot more important than curing my Writing Flu. I want to help people. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the greatest thing any of us can do with our lives. I don’t know if my blog readers foisted anything upon me, but having such an amazing and thoughtful audience definitely inspired me to work on this particular book. There’s no way to describe this without sounding like a total hippie sap, but sometimes people send me messages that are just so kind and wonderful and supportive that I can barely finish reading them because I start dying of warm fuzzies. I want to give something of real value back to those people, and to all the health-seekers out there—something they can use to improve their lives, or the lives of their loved ones. I can’t think of any better way to do that than through a book.
It seems like every week, another book comes out detailing what people should and should not eat. Do you worry about your book being viewed as white noise in an oversaturated market? What sets your work apart from the others?
Even though a lot of diet books claim to not be diet books, my book really isn’t a diet book. I pinkie swear. The focus isn’t on telling people what to eat—it’s on showing them how to be critical thinkers, which is a skill our educational system isn’t always great at instilling. I think of it as a “teach a man to fish” book instead of a “give a man a fish” book.
From what I’ve seen, a lot of people assume they’re incapable of grasping sciencey things because they flunked biology in high school or they hate math or they tried reading a study on PubMed and couldn’t understand half the words. And then there are other people who are sincerely interested in nutrition, but the learning curve seems overwhelming and they don’t know where to start. Death by Food Pyramid aims to change all that. My book brings health science down to a very human, very graspable, very lucid level. Dare I say it’ll even be fun. I’m hoping it will appeal to a wide range of folks—not only the science nerds, but also people who never thought they’d want to read a book on nutrition instead of watching “Breaking Bad.”
At the very least, I know my mom will read it.
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