One of the strongest indictments of the meat industry I've ever seen is my good friend Mark Bittman's TED talk, "on what's wrong with what we eat." In this talk, Mark discusses the benefits of eating plants and the problems of eating meat, including the extreme cruelty of modern farming, the harm to human health of eating so much meat, and the environmental nightmare that meat production causes.
In the talk, it's the environmental nightmare that seems to most capture Mark's imagination: He begins the talk by comparing modern diets to the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb. Stating that modern meat production is "a holocaust of a different kind," Mark discusses the fact that about one-fifth of all global warming gases come from the meat industry, and then proceeds to detail other environmental problems with meat production -- desertification, water use and pollution, loss of biodiversity, and so on.
Throughout the talk, Mark makes it clear that "we don't need animal products [for health]," and that plants should be supplanting animals in the human diet. Mark has been beating the drum of responsible eating as well as anyone in the three years since he delivered this TED talk, most recently with a thought-provoking Opinionator blog that raises many of the same issues, but with a brand new target that I find curious and a bit counter-productive.
To be clear: I am okay with the fact that Mark does not in the end -- now or in his TED talk -- decide that the solution to the problem of the meat industry is to advocate veganism; after all, he is honest about the tragic consequences of meat consumption, and many who read his influential words will move in the direction of conscious eating, and others will go farther, doing as he says, which is even more than he (laudably) does.
Mark and I differ over the issue of meat alternatives; I like them, he doesn't. His indictment of them appears to be based on the fact that they are processed, which is true (there are, of course, many more processed foods with animal products in them, but let's not go there). But unlike the subjects of his usual culinary fusillades, high protein meat alternatives are not packed with fat or simple carbohydrates, they are environmentally exponentially superior to meat, and they don't support the egregious cruelty to animals of the modern meat industry. Honestly, it seems to me that his objection is more aesthetic; faux meat offends Mark as a gastronome, not on any real ethical grounds (as far as I can tell).
Here's why I'm unabashedly pro-faux, and why I promoted faux meat for Oprah's 378 staffers who went vegan for a week: It's much better for human health, exponentially better for our environment, and infinitely better for animals.
Like Mark, I wish that we lived in a world where every family had the time, know-how, means, and motivation to prepare healthful, from-scratch meals brimming with organic vegetables, whole grains, and slow-cooked beans; and I agree with Mark that encouraging movement in that direction is important. There is no doubt that this is the ideal, and that we'd all be a lot better off if we ate this way.
But we don't live in a perfect world. As Mark pointed out in his TED talk, the vast majority of Americans are surviving on frozen pepperoni pizzas, buckets of chicken, Big Gulps, chips, and chocolate bars. The closest many kids may get to eating a vegetable on any given day may be the French fries on their lunch tray.
That's why, when I led Oprah and her Harpo staffers through a 7-day vegan challenge recently, my approach was to take their current lifestyle and eating habits into account, and ease them into eating vegan by showing how easy it is to swap out fattening, high-cholesterol animal products for vegan versions of their traditional favorite foods.
The Oprah staffer, Jill, featured on the show didn't go from eating whole foods from the farmer's market to packaged vegan convenience foods. Rather, instead of buying a carton of cow's milk, she bought a carton of almond milk. Instead of a bag of dairy cheese, she chose a bag of tasty Daiya vegan cheese made from tapioca and other natural ingredients. Instead of buying plastic-wrapped meat that was produced with antibiotics and other drugs, she bought delicious (and drug-free) Gardein brand faux meats, which are made from amaranth, quinoa, soy, and wheat.
Simply by choosing vegan versions of the staples she already used, Jill effortlessly and dramatically reduced her family's intake of saturated fat, completely eliminated cholesterol from their meals, and reduced their risk of many of the nation's top killers. In one week, Oprah's staffers lost 444 cumulative pounds, and many said they planned to stick with eating vegan, because they had so much more energy and simply felt great. That's not surprising: According to the American Dietetic Association (link above), vegetarians are less prone to heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes than meat-eaters.
She also made her family safer from the pathogens and toxins found in animal flesh, including salmonella and campylobacter (in a Consumer Reports study, two-thirds of grocery market chicken was found to be infected with one or both of these dangerous bacteria) and arsenic, which is fed to chickens to stimulate growth.
As I mentioned on the show, for me the big thing is cruelty to animals: The average meat-eating American consumes about 35 farmed animals every single year, and each of these animals is raised and killed in ways that would warrant felony, cruelty charges were these protected animals, like dogs or cats. When we eat meat we are basically paying people to do things to animals that none of us would engage in personally; just because we don't see it up close doesn't mean we aren't culpable.
And as Mark so eloquently detailed in his TED talk, by dropping meat, eggs, and dairy products, we eliminate the largest contributors to climate change and other serious environmental problems from our family's lifestyle. That's why Mark began his talk with the mushroom cloud comparison -- it wasn't even the sodas and other processed food he was most assiduously indicting; it was meat.
Showing people who are trying to move toward a plant-based diet that they can still eat their favorite comfort foods is an important way to break down barriers and resistance to a new way of eating. Once the mind opens, it continues to expand. For many people, starting out on transitional foods like vegan meats, cheeses, and milks is a first, fantastic step, and they'll likely later incorporate more "real foods" like unprocessed grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits into their diet.
Moving toward a way of eating that is kind to our bodies, the earth, and animals is about progress, not perfection. It's about leaning into it by making smarter everyday choices. We may take different paths to get there, but in the end, any step away from a meat-and-dairy-centric diet and toward a plant-based way of eating is a tremendously positive (and delicious) step.
Not convinced? Watch Mark TED talk.
Please check out my new book, "Veganist," for more on how a plant-based diet affects your health and the world around you.
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