As a vegan you likely have a healthier diet than the average omnivore; however, there is a cycle of pollution associated with factory farming that can affect plant-based foods, and processed goods are found down every grocery aisle. This can lead to mass confusion when people ask themselves, what types of food are safe anymore? Michael Greger, M.D. is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker who has the 411 on important public health issues. Dr. Greger also serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, and he recently took time out with Vegan Mainstream to discuss some truths about food and how we can protect our families.
Vegan Mainstream: Why did you go into medicine?
Michael Greger: Well, I wanted to do good in the world, and standardized testing came easy for me, so that offered me the option to do basically whatever I wanted. I could have been a lawyer and
VM: Your “Latest in Human Nutrition 2010” presentation at the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii provided surprising facts about foods…what do you think non-vegan consumers would find most shocking about meat?
MG: …It’s industrial carcinogenous pollutants that really surprised me in terms of building up in the food chain. In Biology 101, you learn that at each trophic level persistent organic pollutants get more and more concentrated. So [for example] the eagles at the top [of the food chain] are really contaminated. But why are people [who are] eating the standard American diet so contaminated if we’re just basically eating plants and plant eaters (herbivores)? We’re not eating top predators…but what we learned during the whole Mad Cow fiasco is that most farm animals are no longer herbivores. We take millions of pounds of fat scraped from the carcasses of livestock every year and dump it straight back into animal feed. So this turns chickens, cows and pigs into not only “carnivores” but cannibals as well. With every successive generation the levels of these toxins get higher and higher because they’re fat soluble and we’re feeding this fat back to animals. So [humans] really are eating at the pinnacle, at the top, of the food chain. We are the polar bears and eagles of the world, and are exposed to levels of toxic pollutants [that are something to be concerned about].
By choosing organically raised meat — these animals are not allowed to be fed slaughterhouse waste, blood and manure — one can drop down to just eating one step up on the food chain. But in terms of strategy to decrease one’s intake [of toxins], the best [thing to do] is to eat as low as possible on the food chain, which is the plant kingdom.
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VM: Your research found that only 2.1 – 14.8% of American fast food hamburgers are muscle flesh, and the rest is other tissues, fillers, parasites, etc.—even ammonia, added to ground meat to kill off E. coli. You found that even schools were buying this processed meat for students since it was cheaper…why do you think our society continually chooses quantity over quality?
MG: Look at the daily advertising budget of any of the fast food giants. We’re being constantly bombarded [about] what to eat and typically [the message is coming] from entities that don’t have our best interests at heart. Some of these unhealthy options are so cheap, thanks to the agri-business influence here in Washington giving subsidies to artificially lower production costs. Because of the artificially low cost of corn and soybeans, for example, animal feed is so cheap that you can churn out these dollar burgers. But we have to ask what the true costs are in terms of the environment, public health, and the stress on our healthcare system—so-called negative externalities that corporations transfer onto the rest of society, potentially profiting at our expense.
VM: Why are vegans significantly “less polluted” than non-vegans?
MG: That’s a finding from my 2010 Latest in Nutrition DVD. Industrial pollutants are certainly found on plant foods, but by eating chicken, pig or cow, it’s like you’re eating all the plants that those animals ate. In my 2009 DVD I show this published graph of toxin burden versus years without eating animal products, and there’s a dramatic linear drop. It may take 30 years, but eventually your body can cleanse itself and get rid of these toxins. But, the first thing people need to do is stop putting so [many toxins] into their bodies.
VM: How can vegans and vegetarians prevent vitamin B12 deficiency? What can result from vitamin B12 deficiency?
MG: It’s so easy! All you have to do is get a regular source of B12, and there are only two ways to get it: fortified foods and supplements. One 2,000 microgram tablet of vitamin B12 once a week is all you need. B12 deficiency can lead to all sorts of terrible things, including psychiatric, intestinal and neurological problems as well as paralysis and death. It’s something that can’t be ignored, but it’s something that’s very easy to take care of.
VM: In your opinion, when it comes to food and eating, what is the healthiest behavior our society can engage in?
MG: …I’d decrease our saturated animal-fat intake, because our number one killer is heart disease — killing about every other American. The number one risk factor for our number one killer is our serum level of LDL, or bad cholesterol. And the number one determinant of your LDL is your intake of saturated fat.
VM: What’s the best way to eat?
MG: Eat whole plant foods — that’s the number one guideline. Whole meaning unprocessed, so if you have the choice between a processed plant food and a unprocessed plant food (white rice versus brown rice), then you choose the whole food option. Also, one should eat the rainbow and increase one’s intake of brilliantly colored fruits and vegetables. The healthiest fruits are berries, and the healthiest vegetables are dark green leafies. The healthiest department of the supermarket is the produce department — that’s where the majority of one’s buying should be. Try not to get sucked into the middle of the store…
VM: You use humor in your presentations…do you find that people respond better when information is presented to them in a fun way?
MG: There’s got to be something to lighten it up. There are 5,000 articles published on nutrition every year…it’s dense information, so you have to make it entertaining or [people are] not going to be able to get through it. My DVDs go on for hours — how can anyone sit through all of that stuff without some element of levity? It’s scary stuff too, so [the humor] helps to let the medicine go down… It’s got to be exciting and interesting — it’s got to be something people remember the next time they’re shopping or cooking for their family…
Check out Dr. Greger’s latest DVDs.
VM: In your latest book Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching you discuss this waterborne duck virus and how people can protect themselves. Can you briefly explain humanity’s role in the evolution of this virus?
MG: …The reason we’re concerned about influenza is because it’s the only known pathogen capable of infecting billions of humans within a matter of months. In its natural state, the influenza virus has existed for millions of years as an innocuous, intestinal, waterborne infection of aquatic birds like ducks. OK, so how does a duck’s intestinal bug end up in a human cough? Well, in humans, the virus must make us sick in order to spread; it must make us cough in order to shoot virus from one person to the next. In the virus’ natural reservoir, though, the duck doesn’t get sick, because the virus doesn’t need to make the duck sick to spread. In fact, it’s in the virus’s best evolutionary interest for the bird not to get sick so as to spread even farther. After all, dead ducks don’t fly very far. So, the virus silently multiplies in the duck’s intestinal lining, is excreted into the pond water and then is swallowed up by another duck, and the cycle continues as it has for millions of years, and no one gets hurt… But, if an infected duck is dragged to a live poultry market, for example, and crammed into cages stacked high enough to splatter virus-laden droppings on terrestrial birds—land-based birds like chickens, then the virus has a problem. Like a fish out of water, when the virus finds itself in the gut of a chicken at one of these viral swap meets it no longer has the luxury of easy waterborne spread, right? Chickens aren’t paddling around in the pond. So the virus must mutate or die. Unfortunately for us, mutating is what influenza viruses seem to do best. In aquatic birds, the virus is has been described as being in total evolutionary stasis—harmless, but, when thrown into a new environment—land-based birds like chickens—it quickly starts mutating to adapt to the new host. In the open air, the virus must resist dehydration, for example, and may have to spread to other organs to find a new way to travel—the intestines ain’t gonna work anymore. And it may find the lungs, and become an airborne pathogen, which is bad news for terrestrial mammals such as ourselves. It goes into chickens as an aquatic virus; but may come out as the flu.
VM: There is so much pollution and viruses spreading from the industrialized animal agriculture…how can we protect our families?
MG: …I think vegans and vegetarians in particular are susceptible to this thinking that if I eat well, if my family eats well, if my little circle of friends and people I care about eat well, then that’s all I need to [worry about], my responsibility ends and I can go on with my life. But they need a reality check…When it comes to something like pandemic influenza, factory farms may be able to spawn some virus like H5N1 – which if it became easily transmissible could kill millions of people, no matter what they eat. Now with the emergence of these new animal-to-human diseases, it’s no longer enough that we make those right choices, we need to change the system itself. When people get food poisoning from intestinal bugs on their spinach and broccoli, it didn’t come from the plants—they don’t have intestines. It can instead be traced to runoff from adjoining industrial livestock facilities…this impacts everybody, the world. That’s why it’s important that people become active advocates as much as they possibly can. [We must all] become a part of the solution, which is working to reform our food system, which is making everyone sick regardless of what we eat.
VM: In your opinion, what is the most effective way to reach the mainstream population with motivating information about veganism and its health benefits?
MG: We can all be vocal within our own circles — our own social situations at work and [within] our family circles. To offer healthy options — giving food to people is a great outreach tool. Vegan Outreach has wonderful literature that people can [volunteer to distribute]…Once people understand how these animals are treated and once people understand the consequences, there are very few people who will be unpersuaded by the arguments. Even if they don’t change what they’re doing, it’s a very persuasive argument, and it’s important to plant that seed. I also encourage people to seriously consider devoting their lives to this work…This is an incredible time to be a part of an incredible movement for a healthy and humane society.
Take action and volunteer with the Humane Society of the United States.