This month, our vegan Editor teams up with our omnivorous Conscious Curly to consider the impact of holiday food choices on human health.
Thanksgiving is a time many anticipate with mouth-watering glee. Popular culture tells us that there are few things better than a day with loved ones and delicious, home-cooked meals. Television floods our eyes with images of savory roast turkey and sausage stuffing dotted with tart, dried cherries. Grocery displays plop images of mashed potatoes swirled with butter and steamy green-bean casseroles in our faces as we walk through their doors. Pop-up ads remind us that no dinner is complete without a decadent dessert like pumpkin, pecan, mince, or apple pie (or maybe just one slice of each). We have been trained to think that having just enough food for everyone is unacceptable, which is why Thanksgiving dinners tip the scales compared to typical family meals. This all-encompassing build up for the biggest meal of the year excites a lot of us, but it also instills dread in others.
A general sense of unease or guilt can hang above a table covered with a feast full of fat, calories, and nasty additives. Health-conscious eaters become anxious around a gluttonous season. Many vegetarians and vegans worry about facing a Hobson’s choice when visiting meat-eating friends or family: alienating themselves or going hungry. And Thanksgiving is just the premiere for the holiday eating season. What are we to do in the face of the pressure to over-indulge?
The answer isn’t sexy: it’s simple moderation. This message tends to get sidelined in this season of excess. We approach relative risks with an all-or-nothing mindset, especially when it comes to our diets. This is highly problematic, especially as we’re finding that much of the advice we hear stems from the most over-hyped, misinterpreted, or just plain incorrect studies of the past.
For example, the USDA told us in the 1990s that saturated fats were pure evil and that they lead to high cholesterol and heart disease, but studies have proven over and over that they are fine in moderation. We get mired in debates about whether margarine is better than butter when it comes to fighting high cholesterol (it’s not) and ignore the fact that there are benefits to fats in grass-fed butter like Omega 3 fatty acids. Similarly, red meat and processed meat often come under fire as cancer contributors, but the headlines make it seem as bad for your health as smoking a pack a day. New York Times Reporter Aaron Carroll plugged his data into the The World Health Organization’s colorectal cancer risk assessment calculator and found that “if I decided today to start eating an extra three pieces of bacon every day for the next 30 years, my risk of getting colon cancer might go from 2.7 percent to 3.2 percent. In other words, if 200 people like me made that decision, one extra person might get cancer. The other 199 would be unaffected.” It’s a relative risk, Carroll notes, and that is our broader point here.
There are, of course, other reasons to question your intake of meat and dairy, such as the horrors of factory farming and the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to animal agriculture, but our concern here is purely on human health and skipping the unhelpful guilt trips we take ourselves–and sometimes others–on.
So, if your noble intentions to say no to your favorite foods are purely in the name of health, you might not be off the hook. Eating a diet devoid of salts and fats can invite other harmful additives into the mix or leave one depleted of important nutrients. It can be as harmful as overindulgence. Also, it can lead us to make crappy decisions, like picking the “low fat” cookie that is packed with extra sugar, or to choose the diet soda that has additives far scarier than high fructose corn syrup. Vegans and vegetarians can fall into the same trap. Just because a food is devoid of animal products doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy. Take non-diary milks, which (like the “low fat” cookie”) replace lactose with extra processed sugar.
We’re not saying one should eat three slabs of butter washed down with sweetened soy milk every day, but rather that moderation matters more than denial when planning a balanced diet. In 2017, a study called the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology study (PURE) followed135,335 people from 18 countries across five continents to track their habits and health outcomes. The results, published in The Lancet and presented at the European Society for Cardiology meeting in Barcelona, showed that “the healthiest people in the world had diets that are full of fruits, beans, seeds, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in refined carbohydrates and sugar.” That’s not really surprising, and it’s not difficult to guess. The study found that “Eating in ways that are good for our bodies isn’t conceptually complicated.”
Salt and fats and sugars are enjoyable. We are hardwired to like them. Richard Kahn, a former head of the American Diabetes Association, said that “Sugar is enjoyable to eat. It’s part of our culture, keeping our community together, our families together.” Choosing moderation over all-or-nothing can help us enjoy the communal power of tasty food. While one shouldn’t eat a Thanksgiving-style dinner several times a week, having an extravagant meal occasionally is fine. Especially if it is part of a social experience and if we cook, bake, and accept recipes that are made primarily of love. All the rest is just gravy.
Susan Swanson is an Associate Professor of English at Owensboro Community and Technical College in Owensboro, KY. She spends her time dabbling in various pursuits, from cooking to yoga to wine, and learning how to manage her curly hair (this takes more time than one might think). She believes in the sustainability of the planet as well as the self, and being conscious of those areas where we can improve in order to live healthier and happier lives.
Maggie Brown, the Editor-in-Chief of New Southerner, is an Associate Professor at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College, where she has taught writing, literature, film studies, and rock & roll lit. She resides in Louisville, Kentucky, and enjoys giving talks and leading workshops about her experiences with the zero waste and vegan lifestyles. Her philosophy is that sustainability for the planet perfectly aligns with sustainability for the self. She’d love to hear from you at maggie [at] newsoutherner [dot] com.