Both Cheetos and kale are vegetarian. Are they the same thing?
Both Chicken McNuggets and chicken are animal foods. Are they the same thing?
Alas, many people don’t bother to make distinctions beyond the plant/animal status of foods. Let’s explore how this might drastically misguide your food choices!
Overheard at Cookouts
It’s cookout season here in Portland so I’ve been around a lot of people eating recently and that means I’ve been around a lot of people talking about eating. One thing I hear often is the blanket deification of plant foods and the blanket demonization of animal foods.
(referring to their plate full of food) “I know, I know, I should eat a salad.”
(referring to the large piece of meat on another person’s plate) “Whoa, you went with the heart-attack special, huh?”
(referring to the piece of lettuce on their hamburger) “Well, at least I have some green on my plate.”
(referring to the cake their eating) “Don’t worry, it’s vegan.”
(denying the offer of a chicken kabob) “No thank you, I don’t eat meat. I have high cholesterol.”
As we all know, eating well is a big part of being well. But what exactly is eating well? It’s a big question I’m going to tackle today with some other big questions, lots of information, and two very mind-expanding scientific studies.
Today, we’re not going to talk about the myth that, for an omnivore (that’s us), plant foods are superior to animal foods. By definition, an omnivore thrives on both plant and animal foods. That’s the foundational fact for busting that myth. We’ll come back to that, in much more detail, another day.
Today we’re going to discuss the full spectrum of choices available to us as omnivores because it’s a much more important topic.
The key word here is: choices. I won’t make any recommendations or even suggestions as to what you should eat. To do so would be an act of force against your very being on something very personal and very sacred: how you feed yourself. I value your freedom and autonomy as much as any person does, maybe even more than you do. I won’t tell you what to do. Instead, I’ll offer a great deal of nuanced thinking to bestow you with the power to make the best choices you can make for yourself in your self-care.
I acknowledge that ideas counter to the wholesale deification of plant foods and wholesale demonization of animal foods might seem very strange at first. But I invite you to explore this with me with an open mind and a desire to lean toward the truth.
Let’s get started. Buckle your chinstrap. We’re about to go for quite a ride.
Question 1: Are Cheetos the same thing as kale?
Both Cheetos and kale are vegetarian.
Cheetos are unnaturally orange, unnaturally crunchy bits made of corn processed to oblivion combined with corn oil, canola oil, or safflower oil (most likely whichever is cheapest at the time (and remember: you get what you pay for)) and finished off with, among other ingredients, maltodextrin (highly processed sugar) and a substance known in the food-processing biz as yellow 6 (other ingredients combine with yellow 6 to make the nuclear Cheetos’ orange). Frito-Lay also lists “natural and artificial flavors” among Cheetos’ ingredients. They don’t tell us what those are.
Kale is a leafy, green plant that grows in the ground and is great in salads, soups, and smoothies. No yellow 6. Just kale.
Both Cheetos and kale are vegetarian. But they’re very different foods.
Question 2: Are Chicken McNuggets the same things as chicken?
Both Chicken McNuggets and chicken are animal foods.
Chicken McNuggets are, in fact, nuggets that contain chicken, along with over 40 other ingredients including autolyzed yeast extract, modified food starch, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added, and dimethylpolysiloxane. That’s just the McNuggets; don’t forget the dipping sauce. McDonald’s Tangy Barbecue Sauce is mostly high fructose corn syrup (highly processed sugar) and is made up of over 20 other ingredients including dextrose (more highly processed sugar), natural smoke flavor, caramel color, and sodium benzoate.
Chicken is great rubbed with lemon zest and herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme and roasted in an oven. No doctorate in chemistry required to read the ingredient list. Just chicken.
Both Chicken McNuggets and chicken are animal foods. But they’re very different foods.
Question 3: Is spinach grown 3,000 miles from where you live the same thing as spinach grown 10 miles from where you live?
Both spinach grown halfway around the world and locally grown spinach are vegetarian.
Spinach grown states, countries, and continents away from you is picked, then “preserved” from the time it’s picked until it arrives in your locale, which can be as long as a week. As soon as spinach is picked, it begins losing nutrients. Spinach in an airplane or tractor trailer is losing nutrients every minute. As the clock ticks, the nutrients disintegrate.
Locally grown spinach is picked the day before you buy it, sometimes even the morning of the day you buy it. No lag time between picking, purchasing, and consumption. Just really fresh spinach.
Both spinach grown halfway around the world and locally grown spinach are vegetarian. But they’re very different foods.
Question 4: Is cod fished from the ocean 3,000 miles from where you live the same thing as cod fished from the ocean 10 miles from where you live?
Both cod fished halfway around the world and locally fished cod are animal foods.
Cod fished from seas that aren’t the ones you can also go swimming in after a short weekend drive or sooner (I’m lucky to be able to smell the ocean from where I write this article) is often frozen in order to preserve it for its long trip to your neck of the woods. We all know that freezing changes the nature of fish. And if it isn’t frozen, it’s slowing rotting and losing its nutrients as it makes its thousands-of-miles trip to you.
Locally fished cod is fished nearby and delivered to your food store immediately. No previously frozen cod that just earned frequent-flier miles. Just really fresh cod.
Both cod fished halfway around the world and locally fished cod are animal foods. But they’re very different foods.
Question 5: Are factory-farmed strawberries the same thing as organically grown strawberries?
Factory-farmed strawberries and organically grown strawberries are both vegetarian.
Factory-farmed strawberries are grown in overworked soil depleted of nutrients and sprayed with pesticides like tetrahydrophthalimide, pyraclostrobin, and fenhexamid, to name a few.
Organically grown strawberries are grown in carefully managed soil rich in nutrients and left alone to grow naturally. No pesticides with names you can’t produce. Just strawberries.
Factory-farmed strawberries and organically grown strawberries are both “vegetarian”. But they’re very different foods.
Question 6: Are eggs from factory-farmed chickens the same thing as eggs from free-range chickens?
Eggs from factory-farmed chickens and eggs from free-range chickens are both animal foods.
Factory farmed chickens are forced to “live” in tiny pens with no room to move and limited access to the outdoors, are forced to eat grain that isn’t natural for them to them to eat at all, and are frequently treated with antibiotics (because they’re sick) that end up in their eggs.
Free-range chickens, although not wild animals, live a much more natural life by comparison. They mostly live outdoors with ample room to move, they mostly eat foods that are natural to them, and nobody shoots them up with drugs. No antibiotics (because the chickens are well and don’t need them). Just eggs.
Eggs from factory-farmed chickens and eggs from free-range chickens are both animal foods. But they’re very different foods.
Question 7: Are organically grown blueberries the same thing as blueberries gathered in the woods?
Organically grown blueberries and blueberries gathered in the woods are both vegetarian.
Like organically grown strawberries, organically grown blueberries are grown in carefully managed soil and otherwise left alone. They’re also grown in rows largely in isolation from other plants and from animals which isn’t the way blueberry plants exist naturally.
Blueberries gathered in the woods aren’t directly manipulated by people very much, if at all. They’re a truly wild food.
Organically grown blueberries and blueberries gathered in the woods are both vegetarian. But they’re very different foods.
Question 8: Is grass-fed beef the same thing as venison that has been hunted in the woods?
Grass-fed beef and venison are both animal foods.
Grass-fed cattle, like free-range chickens, mostly live outdoors with ample room to move, aren’t given antibiotics or hormones, and primary eat grass, the food natural to them. The males are also often castrated. These are very much domesticated animals. Grass-fed beef is meat from domesticated animals.
Deer are wild animals. Fully wild. They live a wild life from the second they’re born until the second they die. Venison is a truly wild food.
Grass-fed beef and venison are both animal foods. But they’re very different foods.
Question 9: Are vegan donuts the same thing as a vegetable salad made from locally grown, organically grown vegetables; other locally grown, organically grown plant foods; and other foods locally gathered from the woods?
Vegan donuts and a vegetable salad are both vegetarian.
Vegan donuts are made from highly processed flour and highly processed sugar, and are deep-fried in highly processed vegetable oil. All of the ingredients are grown in a distant locale. All of the ingredients are factory farmed. Many of the ingredients are genetically modified.
A spectacular vegetable salad could contain a plethora of locally grown, organically grown vegetables; other locally grown, organically grown plant foods like fruit, nuts, and seeds; and could even include locally gathered wild foods like mushrooms (mushrooms aren’t a plant or an animal for the biology fans keeping score at home). No processing at all. Lots of life in this food.
Vegan donuts and an amazing vegetable salad like are both “vegetarian”. But they’re very different foods.
Question 10: Are fish sticks the same thing as striped bass fished from the ocean two miles from where I live?
Fish sticks and striped bass fished from the ocean two miles from where I live are both animal foods.
Fish sticks are pieces of white fish (the flesh is white) like cod, haddock, hake, or pollock breaded a mixture of highly processed flour, highly processed sugar, and highly processed vegetable oil. The fish is fished in a distant locale. All of the plant ingredients are factory farmed. Many of the plant ingredients are genetically modified.
Striped bass, like venison is a 100-percent wild food. A striped bass lives a wild life from birth to death. No processing at all. Lots of life in this food.
Fish sticks and striped bass fished from the ocean two miles from where I live are both animal foods. But they’re very different foods.
Question 11: Which is more nourishing? Vegan donuts or striped bass fished from the ocean two miles from where I live?
Vegan donuts are vegetarian. Striped bass fished two miles from where I live is an animal food.
Vegan donuts are a vegetarian food that contain almost no nourishment, are processed beyond recognition, and contain known harmful ingredients.
Striped bass fished from the ocean two miles from where I live is an animal food that’s full of nourishment. As natural as food can be. The definition of natural.
When making choices of what’s a more nourishing food, there’s a lot more to compare than simply the plant/animal status of the foods.
Question 12: Which is more nourishing? Fish sticks or a salad made from organically grown vegetables and other plant foods gathered from the woods?
Fish sticks are an animal food. A vegetable salad made from organically grown vegetables, other organically grown foods, and other foods gathered from the woods is vegetarian.
Fish sticks contain some nourishment since they are made with wild fish (cod, hake, haddock, and pollock are never farmed), but not much since they’re a highly processed food. They also contain known harmful ingredients.
A vegetable salad made from locally grown, organically grown vegetables; other locally grown, organically grown plant foods; and other foods locally gathered from the woods is a “vegetarian” food that’s full of nourishment. Not the definition of natural. Not as natural as food can be. But very, very natural.
When making choices of what’s a more nourishing food, there’s a lot more to compare than simply the plant/animal status of the foods.
Expanded Selection of Choices
We now have four more layers of choice available to us:
- We can choose foods based on their level of processing.
- We can choose foods based on their freshness.
- We can choose farmed foods based on how they’re farmed.
- We can choose between farmed foods and wild foods.
When we consider these choices, and consider the questions we’ve reflected up today, it becomes clear that plant and animal foods can both range from horribly farmed and severely processed to absolutely wild and the epitome of natural (or very close to it). There’s much more to consider than only the plant/animal status of a food.
Food Wars: Episode V—The Science Strikes Back
This brings us to the results of a scientific study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (1). Researchers determined the risk of developing coronary heart disease from three ways of eating: what they called a way of eating based on “healthier plant foods” (think vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes), what they called a way of eating based on “less-healthy plant foods” (think processed grains and processed plant foods of all kinds), and what we could consider the typical way of eating of a person in the United States.
They assigned the way of eating of a typical person in the United States a hazard ratio of 1. This gives us a way of comparing the other ways of eating to a norm.
A person who ate a lot of “healthier plant foods” had a hazard ratio of 0.75. They were 25 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease.
If we stopped there, we’d be back at the cookout demonizing animal foods and deifying plant foods. But the study revealed a great deal more information.
Can you guess what the hazard ratio for developing coronary artery disease was for person who ate a lot of “less healthy plant foods” like possessed cereal, processed crackers, processed juice, Cheetos, vegan donuts, etc.?
I’ll tell you this: It was higher than it was for those who ate a lot of “healthier plant foods”. Do you think it was still better than the hazard ratio for the typical way of eating of someone in the United States? About the same? A little bit higher? Remember, this is a vegetarian diet.
What do you think the hazard ratio was for those who ate a lot of “less healthy plant foods”?
I won’t keep you in suspense any longer: it was 1.32. A way of eating based on “less-healthy plant foods” made a person 32 percent more likely to develop coronary heart disease!
There’s a difference between tomatoes/bananas/almonds/pumpkin seeds/oats/chickpeas and highly processed plant foods. The level of processing, the level of life left in the food by the time we eat it, is a major factor in how nourishing a food is.
In the words of the researchers:
“Higher intake of a plant-based diet index rich in healthier plant foods is associated with substantially lower CHD [coronary heart disease] risk, whereas a plant-based diet index that emphasizes less-healthy plant foods is associated with higher CHD [coronary heart disease] risk.”
Food Wars: Episode VI—The Return of the Science
Let’s now consider the results of a scientific study published in another cardiology journal, Circulation (2). Researchers determined the association between eating two particular types of meat and the development of both coronary heart disease and type-2 diabetes. They specifically examined the association between processed-meat consumption and these diseases and red-meat consumption and these diseases.
What did they find?
Processed-meat consumption was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease and a 19-percent higher risk of type-2 diabetes compared to their norm (also a typical western way of eating). Sorry Oscar Meyer; this isn’t good marketing for you.
What about red-meat consumption? This is red meat we’re talking about. You know what they say at about red meat at cookouts, right?
Before you read the answer, jot down a guess. How was red-meat consumption associated with coronary heart disease and with type-2 diabetes? What do you think?
You might want to double-check your chinstrap at this point.
Red-meat consumption wasn’t associated with coronary heart disease or type-2 diabetes. Not at all. Not even a little bit.
Just as we discover in the first study, processing is a big factor in how nourishing a food is. Processed-meat consumption was associated with a much greater risk of developing both coronary heart disease and type-2 diabetes. Red-meat consumption (this is unprocessed red meat we’re talking about) wasn’t associated at all with the development of coronary heart disease or type-2 diabetes. The level of processing, the level of life left in the food by the time we eat it, is a major factor in how nourishing a food is.
In the words of the researchers:
“Consumption of processed meats, but not red meats, is associated with higher incidence of CHD [coronary heart disease] and diabetes. These results highlight the need for better understanding of potential mechanisms of effects, and for particular focus on processed meats for dietary and policy recommendations.”
The Shortcomings of Studies on Vegetarianism
These studies don’t even consider how fresh foods are, how the farmed foods are farmed, or if any of the foods are wild. Simply by exploring the effect of processing on food, we lean toward some profound truths.
There are hundreds of studies that could appear, to the untrained eye, to demonstrate that vegetarianism fosters wellness, but most studies comparing vegetarian ways of eating with ways of eating that include the consumption of both plant and animal foods make one massive oversight: they consider all plant foods to be the same and they consider all animal foods to be the same. Their most egregious error is that they consider all meat to be the same. In most studies, “meat” could be anything from wild scallops to Chicken McNuggets. From free-range chicken to Oscar Meyer bologna. From wild lobster to the beef jerky for sale at the gas station. From grass-fed beef to SPAM. This is a spectacular error. If we’re going to make the distinction between foods like whole grains and Fruit Loops, between cauliflower and Twinkies in our investigation of and discourse around eating well, we must make the same distinctions between natural meat and highly processed meat. If we’re being intellectually rigorous, it’s an absolute necessity that we do so.
Other Ethical Considerations
Many people, myself included, choose foods based not only on how well they feed us, but based on other ethical considerations as well. I consider how my food choices affect other people, other animals (it’s true, we’re animals; ask the biology fans keeping score at home if you don’t believe me), and Earth.
It’s far beyond the scope of this article to take a deep dive into this topic. That said, for those interested in exploring this on your own, I encourage you to consider doing an exercise like the one we’ve done above by asking yourself a series of similar questions. For example:
Which is better for my fellow people, other animals, and Earth? Vegan donuts or striped bass fished from the ocean two miles from where I live?
Explore these questions about other ethical considerations with the same level of scrutiny we’ve applied to nourishment. Consider the plant/animal status of the food. Also consider all of the other factors about foods as we’ve done with nourishment.
For example, for vegan donuts, consider that all of the grains that go into making the flour and all of the plants that go into making the oil are farmed. This farming is large-scale factory farming of the highest order. Consider the impact of this kind of industrial farming on other people (like immigrant farmers working in deplorable conditions), on other animals (like the dozens of animals displaced from their natural habitat as a result of the clearing of a single acre of woods for plant farming; like the dozens of animals killed in the tilling of a single acre of land for plant farming), and on Earth (like getting blasted with pesticides).
I don’t use this example to make a case against vegetarianism. I use it because it’s an excellent example of clear, critical, empirical thinking. This is thinking that acknowledges what’s actually present, everything that’s actually present, not only the parts of what’s present that we “like”, and dismisses anything that isn’t actually present (things we manufacture in our minds).
The cookout talk about plant and animal foods often extends beyond considerations of nourishment to equally short-sighted statements about the impact of consumption of plant and animal foods on other people, other animals, and Earth. I continue to vehemently stand for your freedom to choose to eat what you want to eat. I also vehemently stand for intellectually honesty in discussion of these topics. That’s why I used the example I used. Not to make a case against vegetarianism, but to offer some facts you probably haven’t been told so you can be better informed. With full information, you can be truly free to make choices that are yours. With only some of the truth (which is no truth at all), you’re being subtly, but very powerfully controlled by languisites. But when you really think for yourself, you have the possibility of true freedom. And true freedom is a prerequisite for true wellness.
I encourage you to continue to explore what you eat, and if you want to go even bigger, how you live, with this level of open-mindedness.
“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
(1) Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2017, 70(4), 411-422.
(2) Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Circulation, 2010, 121(21), 2,271-2,283.
Epilogue (Comedy for Wellness Geeks)
I literally can’t pronounce the pesticide “tetrahydrophthalimide”. How does one make a “phth” sound? Are there any chemists or linguists out there who can help me out?
I want to be a fly on the wall when yellow 6 and natural smoke flavor go on a first date. Which one of them will be more fake?
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.
There’s a place below to share your feelings on this article if you’d like. I’d love to hear from you.