Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Listen to Grandma!

It's no surprise that most Americans don't eat a lot of vegetables, but I think I can offer more than Kim Severson does both to solve the problem, and scream and yell for it's importance.

First, the importance part. Eating a diet based on veggies and whole grains is the most important thing people can do to maintain a healthy weight, and prevent diabetes, strokes and heart disease. Although recent research is disappointing as far the cancer prevention potential of diet, it does help prevent colon cancer, and keeping a good weight also helps more generally. For whatever reason, supplements that contain the kinds of vitamins found in vegetables don't work -- you have to eat the real thing.

Heart disease and strokes (which are really manifestations of the same underlying disease) along with diabetes add up to by far the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S. Actually heart disease alone does it but the other two are part of the same picture. You don't want any of that, live or die. These conditions also place an enormous burden on health care resources and impose other costs from lost productivity etc. -- $503 billion a year, sayeth CDC. We could solve on hell of a lot of other problems with that kind of dough.

But wait, there's more! Mark Bittman tells us that:

[A[n estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation.

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Oh, did I mention antibiotic abuse and the possibility that we will lose some of our most valuable weapons against pathogens? Eutrophication of lakes and streams, dead zones in river estuaries, and a few more things you can probably think of? I'll leave the ethical treatment of animals to your own personal feelings, but it may be very important to you.

So this perhaps unglamorous seeming issue is as important as any of the myriad crises facing humanity. It may be the single most important area where we can take meaningful action to save our sorry butts.

Severson says that people don't eat veggies because a) they are more expensive than alternatives b) people just don't like them and c) they're a pain to prepare and don't keep very long.

There are simple and powerful solutions to all of these. We can stop using your taxpayer dollars to subsidize production of animal feed, and we can also tax meat producers to capture the true social and environmental cost of meat production, e.g. all that nitrogen in the Mississippi and carbon in the atmosphere. We can use some of that money instead to encourage sustainable vegetable growing. You can even grow your own. It's fun!

Second, it's easy to make vegetables taste good, with simple techniques including healthful ingredients like olive oil, white wine (with the alcohol poached out), garlic and herbs, etc. If you really still aren't satisfied, you can add a little dairy -- which is less environmentally destructive than meat. A bit of cheese for flavor and texture goes a long way. Brown rice and legumes give you your macronutrients as we say (protein and calories). If some of the produce in your refrigerator is getting a little tired, make icebox soup, or use it up in a tomato sauce. There are all kinds of possibilities. Or, if you have trouble dealing with all that, buy frozen veggies - they keep their nutritional properties very well.

It isn't at all difficult to cook this way, people just aren't in the habit. As a matter of fact, if you're really lazy, just cut up some crudities and eat them with a little salad dressing. By the way, romaine keeps for a long time in the fridge.

This is just a matter of culture and habit -- there isn't really any truth to the excuses people make. We're accustomed to eating meat, that's all. It isn't actually any easier, or cheaper, or better tasting. That's b.s. So let's change our ways.

Update: After I wrote this I happened upon the comment to my previous post, which would have been on topic here. It's a web resource for people in India, but they actually have some recipes you might want to check out. Indian cuisine offers a lot of great ways to get major flavor into vegetable dishes.


roger said...

we love the veggies. we eat a lot.

Anonymous said...

For 5 endives in 5 minutes

Put whole endives all resting on bottom surface of pan.

Add water and a chicken stock cube, liquid rising about 2 cm.

Sprinkle 3-4 soup spoons of olive oil on top of endives.

Season from above, with liberal amount of powdered ginger, coriander and a little paprika, pepper from the mill.

Put a well fitting lid on.

Cook 30 mins on medium-low heat or until endive feels soft if pricked with a fork.

Do nothing else, of course liquid must not evaporate, add water if necessary.

Serve colored (spiced) side up.

For 5 endives 10 minutes upscale version.

Use very finely grated fresh ginger instead.

When endives are cooked, remove from pan. Thicken remaining liquid - cornstarch perfectly ok - and add: a tiny bit of tomato paste and ground paprika for color. Dribble sauce over endives with artistic glee.

Well that was my contribution for the day!