First up: Bill Clinton’s transition to a vegan diet, which continues to make the media rounds. This USA Today article took me aback with its cautionary and semi-discouraging tone.
Especially off-putting were the words of Gina Lundberg (interesting note: when the article was originally published on Wednesday, she was credited as a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association; in the most recent version, she is referred to as a ‘preventive cardiologist’):
“[A vegan diet] is so limited in variety and taste that people get sick of it, and they don’t stick to it.”
Casting a vegan diet as “limited in variety” is grossly inaccurate. Removing animal products from the diet leaves thousands of foods: nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, vegetables, grains, not to mention spices and herbs.
I am disappointed that a preventive cardiologist did not acknowledge the heart-healthy contributions of the fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and healthful fats in plant foods. I am not arguing that the sole way to health lies in veganism (after all, Coke, french fries, and Pop-Tarts are all vegan). However, there is no doubt that increasing the amount of plant-based foods in the diet is something everyone can benefit from.
I also wish the the last third of the article included a list of five reasons to eat more plant-based foods, rather than a list of five ‘common mistakes’ vegans make and fears of nutritional deficiencies (consider that the average American is omnivorous and does not consume sufficient amounts of calcium and magnesium, among other nutrients; yet have you ever heard the media state “omnivores are at risk for deficiencies”?).
Topic #2: It must have been a slow news day on the Today Show yesterday, since the show’s diet and nutrition editor decided to trot out the good ol’ orthorexia story. The term, coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, has been used as sensationalist news filler for several years now. It is not a real diagnosis, but rather a ‘pop-therapy’ term to describe someone who is preoccupied with the food they eat.
Let’s examine the claims made in the Today Show piece:
- Orthorexia focuses on the quality of food: Which begs the question, “So what?”. Examples of ‘symptoms of orthorexia’ include shunning food dyes, trans fats, pesticides, or groups of food. What’s the problem? I know some individuals who shun white flour. Is shunning white flour a prerequisite of eating healthfully? No. Is there anything wrong with shunning white flour, provided the person doing said shunning enjoys a myriad of other foods? Absolutely not.
- The “key thing that is missing is moderation”: Ah, my favorite meaningless, toothless, abstract term. So as to not repeat myself, please see point #2 of this post to read my thoughts on “moderation”.
- Is about being virtuous and being “a better person” if one restricts: I’m curious as to where this fact came from. I dislike that it gives the impression that avoiding harmful ingredients or unhealthy foods is based on elitism or moralism, rather than what it is truly based on for most people — health!
- Spending 3 or 4 hours a day reading labels is a sign, so is “cutting out lots of things” and worrying about pesticides on produce: If orthorexics avoid processed foods, what labels are they reading? Fruits and vegetables don’t have any, and whole foods like brown rice, nuts, oats, and whole grain breads have ingredient lists that can be read in ten seconds.
- If you suspect someone has orthorexia — “take action! It can lead to protein deficiencies.” Americans’ fear of protein deficiencies never ceases to amaze me. Every single food (except cooking oils and solid fats) contains protein. Unless someone subsists on olive oil and butter, a protein deficiency is unlikely provided they consume a sufficient number of calories.
This has more to do with psychological issues of control and compulsion, but is framed through a nutrition lens. There is a world of difference between someone who inherently fears and mistrusts food to the point where they jeopardize their health and someone who is well-informed and aware of what they put into their body.
The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, half of the recommended fiber intake, and 150 percent of the daily maximum sodium limit. Many college students eat no more than one serving of fruits and vegetables each day. Data from The Institute of Medicine shows that by the time they are 14 years old, 52 percent of male adolescents in the United States drink 24 or more ounces of soda each day.
In light of that, one fact should be presented without any disclaimers: no harm can come from eating more plants and less processed food. “Going vegan” or scouring ingredient lists for harmful ingredients should be supported, not stigmatized.