alex,-lion-from-madagascar,-meat,-madagascar-130674

On the consumption of meat

945 million chickens were killed in the UK last year. Raised for the most part on large-scale industrial farms, with each bird given less floor space than the size of an A4 sheet of paper… forced to stand in their own wet litter soaked with enough ammonia to blister and scald their feet, they are bred to grow as fast as possible and exist only until they have reached slaughter weight – around six weeks, though they might otherwise live for up to eight years. They are then packed into trucks and taken to the abattoir.

Modern poultry processing is a production line business. Birds are hung upside down on a moving conveyor belt of shackles at the beginning of the abattoir, and in a sort of food Fordism, carried seamlessly through every stage from slaughter to washing, chilling, cutting and packing at high speeds. Large abattoirs typically run lines at a rate of 185 to 195 birds a minute, or nearly 12,000 an hour.

[The Guardian, 2014]

But whether or not you think that the transformation of animals into standardised industrial products, packaged and sold in supermarkets in nameless and generic containers of ‘meat’, now writhing and smoking deliciously in your frying pan, is morally objectionable… it is at least revealing of the strange ways in which we relate to food, and to the individual animals from which it comes.

Factory-farmed chickens

Humans and their animals

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

[Genesis, 1:26, KJV]

Without question, chicken tikka masala is a brilliant curry that makes people very happy.

[Jamie Oliver, Comfort Food, 2014]

Flagrant disregard for the lived experience of animals is nothing new. It was set out in Christian theology and in Aristotle’s Politics that the purpose of nature was to serve man. René Descartes justified his gruesome vivisection experiments – even on a live dog – by asserting that animals are essentially highly complex machines that do not have souls and therefore cannot experience pain. Animals have been used by man for centuries in transport, war, and agriculture; for clothing, companionship, and food.

What is new is that we all like animals and none of us really like to think of ourselves as perpetrators of animal cruelty. Instead we claim to believe in evolution – that there is an essentially seamless continuum connecting us with every other species on the planet, though most of the intermediates are now extinct:

It is, of course, true that there is a continuum between us and every other species, and it’s literally a gradual, seamless continuum, except, of course, that most of the intermediates are extinct. If they were not extinct, then we would immediately see the absurdity of the speciesist double standard, whereby we treat humans as special—even human embryos as special—as opposed to chimpanzees or gorillas. We would immediately see the absurdity of that because we would be linked to those species by an unbroken chain of intermediates with whom we could interbreed. So if you really understand the implications of evolution, it becomes extremely hard to uphold the speciesist morality and ethic that we more or less universally live by. 

[Richard Dawkins, 2004]

And more than simply recognising our profound kinship with animals, we seem to genuinely like them… We own pets which we feed and take for walks and dress up and take pictures of. We develop interest in charismatic animals given their own names and stories in documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. We give our children soft fluffy animal toys to play with and Disney films to watch on DVD. We love animals!… But beneath the pretty, well-manicured appearance of our engagement with them, the appallingly short and artificial lives of the billions of animals raised on factory farms worldwide are rarely mentioned.

There’s a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals today in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us ever pause to consider the life of the pig – an animal easily as intelligent as a dog – that becomes the Christmas ham.

[The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2011]

We are for instance, appalled at the thought that our burgers may contain horse meat; the horse is an animal which we carefully romanticise in books and films, a beautiful animal, a noble animal. This is a very old sentiment, and it was used by Anna Sewell to great effect in Black Beautyperhaps the most famous novel to be told from an animal’s perspective, in order to garner sympathy for the blinkered and hard-pressed horses used by London taxicab drivers.

“… it is dreadful… your neck aching till you did not know how to bear it… [the bit] hurt my tongue and my jaw and the blood from my tongue covered the froth that kept flying from my lips”

[Black Beauty, 1877]

But is a horse so different from a cow? Clearly, we do not think about cows in the same way.

“… it is dreadful… being raised in good faith, fed and fed until you are big and fat, then walked into a crate, stunned, and bled to death for a human’s dinner plate.”

This is the most humane video of slaughter I could find; click here for the nauseatingly abhorrent ‘video the meat industry doesn’t want you to see’ (US version).

The nutritional importance of meat consumption?

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with killing animals in order to eat their flesh. In fact, the consumption of meat was a vital component of human evolution, facilitating the development of larger brains, smaller guts, bipedalism and even language:

Larger brains benefited from consuming high-quality proteins in meat-containing diets, and, in turn, hunting and killing of large animals, butchering of carcasses and sharing of meat have inevitably contributed to the evolution of human intelligence in general and to the development of language and of capacities for planning, cooperation and socializing in particular… there is no doubt that the human digestive tract has clearly evolved for omnivory, not for purely plant-based diets. And the role of scavenging, and later hunting, in the evolution of bipedalism and the mastery of endurance running cannot be underestimated

[Should Humans Eat Meat?, 2013]

Vegans often make the claim that eating meat is unnecessary and even unnatural; that a vegan diet ‘is not only better for the planet, it’s better for you!’. But if veganism – complete abstention from the use of animal products – does not make great sense in evolutionary terms, it is not a scientifically unreasonable philosophy either. In fact, numerous studies have linked the consumption of meat with higher risk of mortality both in the USA and in Europe.

Within the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) including more than 500,000 participants from ten European countries and, thus, reflecting a very heterogeneous diet, we examined the association between meat consumption and the risk for overall and cause-specific mortality…. The results of our analyses suggest that men and women with a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases but also to cancer. In this population, reduction of processed meat consumption to less than 20 g/day would prevent more than 3% of all deaths. As processed meat consumption is a modifiable risk factor, health promotion activities should include specific advice on lowering processed meat consumption.

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

But the important point here is that it is processed meat which is particularly harmful. This most recent large-scale study in fact found no statistically significant association between red meat intake and mortality, and no association at all with the consumption of poultry. By contrast, processed meat consumption  was associated with increased risk of death from cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Processed meats such as sausages, salami and bacon have a higher content of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol than fresh red meat; the latter is often consumed after removing the visible fat tissue, whereas the proportion of fat in sausages often reaches 50% of the weight or even more. Both high saturated fat and cholesterol intake have been found to be related to the risk of coronary heart disease. Also, processed meat is treated by salting, curing, or smoking in order to improve the durability of the food and/or to improve color and taste. These processes, however, lead to an increased intake of carcinogens or their precursors (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heterocyclic aromatic amines, nitrosamines) or to a high intake of specific compounds possibly enhancing the development of carcinogenic processes (for example, nitrite).

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

Consequently, while the consumption of processed meat may be – and probably is – highly unhealthy, this in no way means that we should never eat meat, or that eating meat is ‘unhealthy’ full stop.

Although some observational studies have described the health benefits of vegetarian diets, these tend to be plagued by various kinds of healthy-user bias in which one apparently health-conscious behaviour – vegetarianism – is associated with others such as non-smoking or exercising, and vice versa. By contrast, recent studies which have controlled for this bias by examining health-conscious vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, have found statistically significant differences only when comparing the two groups with the general population.

In fact, so far as good nutrition is concerned, several studies have shown that both vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in B12, calcium, iron, zinc, the long-chain fatty acids EPA & DHA, and fat-soluble vitamins like A & D. While various vegan foodstuffs and plant-foods may contain the individual nutrients required – as vegans are keen to point out – such arguments do not take into account the bioavailability of these nutrients, or the presence of various inhibiting factors and anti-nutrients within vegan diets.

The EPIC results do not show the lowest relative risks (RRs) for subjects in the lowest meat intake category, but a slight J-shaped association with the lowest risk among subjects with low-to-moderate meat consumption. This was observed for red meat and poultry. Also, taking into account the results from the studies that evaluated vegetarian and low-meat diets, it appears that a low – but not a zero – consumption of meat might be beneficial for health. This is understandable as meat is an important source of nutrients, such as protein, iron, zinc, several B-vitamins as well as vitamin A and essential fatty acids (linoleic acid and to a minor extent eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids also). A sub-optimal supply of some of these nutrients due to an unbalanced type of vegetarian diet seems possible and might be associated with an increased risk for morbidity and mortality. 

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

Meat, fresh and in moderation, is an important component of the human diet. You can get by without it, and may even experience improved health outcomes if your preceding diet was poor, especially if you are eating larger quantities of fruit and vegetables. But from an evolutionary perspective, it is difficult to justify a diet low in several nutrients critical to human function.

While it may be possible to address these shortcomings through targeted supplementation (an issue that is still debated), it makes far more sense to meet nutritional needs from food. This is especially important for children, who are still developing and are even more sensitive to suboptimal intake of the nutrients discussed in this article.

[Chris Kresser]

So unless you are prepared to compromise as a vegetarian consuming liberal quantities of high-welfare eggs and full-fat dairy, or else unless you can afford to consult with nutritionists and purchase a wide array of plant foods and supplements, be wary of evangelical vegans claiming that meat is ‘unnatural’. Then again, depending on the strength of your convictions, you may see the sacrifice as worthwhile.

The ethics of meat consumption

How vile a crime that flesh should swallow flesh,
Body should fatten greedy body; life
Should live upon the death of other lives!
With all the bounteous riches that the earth,
Earth best of mothers, yields, can nothing please
But savage relish munching piteous wounds,
A Cyclops’ banquet? Can you not placate
Without another’s doom – a life destroyed –
The urgent craving of your bellies’ greed?

[Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Melville]

Where vegans of course tend to have the upper hand is in the ethical arguments relating to the unceremonious slaughter of animals raised expressly for their meat. Humans may have been killing and eating animals for tens of thousands of years – though many such as Ovid, Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Gandhi, found this contemptible – but only since the 1960s have we been doing it in such grotesque and depersonalised ways.

The ethics of meat consumption has never been a straightforward issue, but at least humans used to work hard to justify it. Even the barbeque may originally have developed only as an offering of smoke to the gods. People rarely ate meat, but when they did they appreciated the sacrifice that had been made by the animal to afford such rich sustenance. The ancient Greek word for ‘priest’ is also the word for ‘butcher’ and ‘cook’: mageiros. People participated in the hunting and slaughter of the animal – not just the eating – and were fully aware of the individual death entailed.

But we no longer hunt for our dinner. We no longer stare the animal in the eyes and chant prayers of thanks and offering as we cook it in a blaze of fire and smoke. Instead we buy it, pre-prepared in plastic boxes. We rarely pause to consider the journey of that flesh from the farm to our fork. Inside the supermarket, even in the butcher’s shop, it is no longer part of an individual animal, but a saleable product with standard price and packaging, a commodity, a noun, a thing. A cow has been transformed into ‘beef’, a pig into ‘pork’. And in this transformation we lose our moral obligation as consumers of meat to the individual animals from which it comes. We may even forget entirely that it has come from an animal, so detached are we from interaction with the processes of birth, growth and slaughter involved, so beguiled by descriptions of how ‘moist’ and ‘succulent’ is this ‘tender’ and ‘delicious’ piece of neatly-packaged meat.


Of course, our ignorance regarding the conditions and practices of intensive livestock farming is not totally our own fault. Browsing the aisles of your local supermarket, it is easy to conclude that animals exist to serve us. Neatly arrayed on display, in familiar boxes for us to pick up and put down however we please, to peruse like CDs and cereal cartons without a moment’s thought for the individual lives involved, we are encouraged to feel comfortable with the idea that these animals were glad to service our needs and attach sustenance to our forks.

The language which supermarkets use to describe these ‘British’ animals raised on ‘farms we know and trust’, further instils in us the unconscious feeling that buying this meat is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, even a kind thing, which demands of us the same virtues of trust, loyalty and patriotism. And what of the animal from which the meat comes? We are usually given only a cartoonish picture of a single animal, perhaps just a silhouette, in complimentary colours.

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Natural daylight, straw bales and perches, oh my!

Animals are sentient beings, capable of compassion and feeling pain; even the chicken should be regarded as an intelligent and cognitively sophisticated animal. Do we owe it to them to punch holes in the absurd rhetoric and advertising strategies of supermarkets? To fight for truth and justice and their dignity; to plaster stickers of headless bloody animals hanging in dim grey abattoirs over the images of heartlessly misleading advertisements; to stop people in the street, in the supermarket aisles, at restaurants and at their desks, and tell them TO STOP, think – look at this page – please? Are we obliged to do this, or is it enough simply to go vegetarian?

Happy_Egg_box
The greatest abomination

Illness and the enviroment

In considering our answers, it is important to recognise that the state of modern agriculture and intensive livestock farming is not a question of ethics alone. In fact the lack of our engagement with these issues and our lack of concern for the animals which provide us with food, in poorly regulated systems intent on minimising running costs, produces a great number of highly serious yet under-appreciated problems.

The Guardian has in fact just recently published a report on ‘the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry’; that is, that two thirds of fresh retail chicken in the UK are contaminated with campylobacter, a potentially deadly bacteria linked to poor hygiene standards:

The concern centres on the bacteria campylobacter, which at the last count was present in two-thirds of British fresh chicken sold in the UK. Although the bug is killed by thorough cooking, around 280,000 people in the UK are currently made ill each year by it and 100 people are thought to die. Contamination rates are known to have increased in the past decade.

[The Guardian, 2014]

The Guardian investigated the weak links in the chicken chain, gathering material from undercover film, photographic evidence and whistleblowers, to determine why campylobacter is so prevalent in UK chicken meat.

Just last month – on a not untypical day, according to sources – at a vast chicken abattoir in Anglesey owned by the UK’s largest poultry company, 2 Sisters Food Group, something of the nature of the problem is revealed…

The pump system has broken down again, and the channel that is supposed to drain away the innards from the tens of thousands of chickens killed and processed each day for supermarket orders has been blocked for a prolonged period. Guts and offal extracted during a process called evisceration are piling up to form a gory heap of high-risk material. The floor around is wet with blood. Campylobacter is carried in the guts and faeces of chickens and evisceration is one of the key points in the processing chain at which contamination occurs.

[The Guardian, 2014]

Here is a picture of the broken pump system at the 2 Sisters abattoir in Anglesey, which supplies chicken for ready meals sold by Tesco, M&S and Asda – imagine these guts on the floor of the supermarket next time you visit the meat aisle.

Poultry offal piles up during a pump system failure at the 2 Sisters factory in Anglesey.

And then aside from the issues of bacterial infection, antibiotic resistance ‘sending us back to the Dark Ages‘, parasites, cancer, bird flu… there is also the question of the environmental degradation associated with animal agriculture.

Agriculture is in fact the main driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss worldwide. And it is animal agriculture which is particularly devastating.

“There are basic laws of biophysics that we cannot evade… The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals that provide meat for humans.”

[Bojana Bajzelj, Cambridge University]

In all, livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planetThe amount of vegetable protein fed to the US beef herd alone would feed almost the entire populations of India and China – two billion people.

These statistics are important, because, as populations rise and global tastes shift towards meat-heavy Western diets, increasing agricultural yields will not  be able to meet food demands of what is expected to be 9.6 billion people by 2050 – making it necessary to bring more land into cultivation.

Recent studies show that current trends in yield improvement will not be sufficient to meet projected global food demand in 2050, and suggest that a further expansion of agricultural area will be required. However, agriculture is the main driver of losses of biodiversity and a major contributor to climate change and pollution, and so further expansion is undesirable.

[Nature Climate Change, 2014]

Indeed deforestation is not problematic simply because of its effect on global biodiversity – and currently we are experiencing the highest rate of extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago – but because deforestation is directly linked to climate change and pollution.

The great rainforests represent the detoxifying lungs of the planet, and their clearance to make way for agricultural land makes very little environmental sense. Especially so since increasing populations of cattle – prolific producers of methane – alongside the industrial processes involved in manufacturing fertiliser for farmland, are likely to cause greenhouse gas emissions from food production to increase by almost 80% by 2050. This will put emissions from food production alone roughly equal to the target greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 for the entire global economy.

If we maintain ‘business as usual’… then by 2050 cropland will have expanded by 42% and fertiliser use increased sharply by 45% over 2009 levels. A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests would disappear over the next 35 years.

[Cambridge University]

The authors of this most recent study published in Nature Climate Change say we should all think carefully about the food we choose and its environmental impact.

“It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland. Food production is a main driver of biodiversity loss and a large contributor to climate change and pollution, so our food choices matter.” 

[Bojana Bajzelj, Cambridge University]

“This is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as part of healthy, balanced diets… Managing the demand better, for example by focusing on health education, would bring double benefits – maintaining healthy populations, and greatly reducing critical pressures on the environment.” 

[Keith Richards, Cambridge University]

This is not a straightforward issue by any means, and migratory cattle herds may be used to fertilise desert regions in the future, though this suggestion has been criticised.

Many of these arguments – as well as the difficulty of making any headway against the hugely influential and powerful meat industry – have been highlighted by the upcoming documentary, Cowspiracy:

Think deep

Each year, meat eaters in Britain consume their own weight in animal flesh. Over the period of a lifetime it amounts to: 5 Cattle / 20 Pigs / 29 Sheep / 780 Chickens / 46 Turkeys / 18 Ducks / 7 Rabbits / 1½ Geese. [Viva!]

How much is your life worth? How much is theirs? Do not be fooled by the easy appearance of meat in supermarket aisles and on restaurant menus – it comes at a price. And for all the arguments of scientists and activists, for all their most shocking facts and figures and disgusting pictures, you are the one who decides the value of that price… Animals must die, and we must die with them, but for all the existential meaninglessness of our existence on this tiny blue dot in the midst of space… we can decide in what kind of a world we want to live, we can decide what kind of people we wish to be.

So whenever next you see some laddish bunch of men, wolfing down sausages and burgers at the local all-you-can-eat grill, remember it is not greed or cruelty which they offer with the blood staining their fingers and trickling down from their lips… it is disconnection, it is alienation, it is the absurdity of existence. What is right? What is wrong? Whether you are vegan or vegetarian or simply a very grateful consumer of meat, thinking more deeply about our food and where it comes from, can only be a very good thing – for us all here on Earth.

 

elvisss

‘That’s All Right, (Mama)’

On July 5 1954, Elvis Presley was halfway through his first recording session with Sun Records, when, during a break, he started playing a fast, lusty new version of blues number ‘That’s All Right’, and the world changed. Heard through an open door from the control room, owner Sam Phillips quickly realised he’d found something special: a white singer who could perform ‘black’ rhythm & blues.

My mama, she done told me, papa done told me too
“Son, that gal you’re foolin’ with
She ain’t no good for you”
But that’s all right now, that’s all right
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do

[‘That’s All Right‘]

Recorded that night, the single was broadcast by Memphis radio station WDIA two days later. The phone rang off the hook; callers loved the song, and they all asked the same question: ‘Is this a white singer or a colored singer?’… In a still-segregated and racist American society, what they were really asking was, ‘am I allowed to like this song?’. 

The announcer came on and said, “Here’s a guy who, when he appears on stage in the South, the girls scream and rush the stage.” Then he played “That’s All Right, Mama.”… I thought for sure he was a black guy.

[Paul Simon]

Elvis himself was deeply attached to African American culture. He was encouraged by Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King while living in Memphis. He shopped at Mr. B’s, the city’s leading store for African American fashion. He admired and absorbed the style and stagecraft of black singers such as Jackie Wilson and Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup – the man who wrote and first recorded ‘That’s All Right’ in 1946. In Elvis’ own words:

If I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.

[Elvis Presley]

As a white singer, Elvis gave Americans cultural permission to love African American music. ‘That’s All Right, (Mama)’ was the rupture in the fabric, regarded by some as the ‘big bang’ moment when race and hillbilly music collided to become rock & roll… For the few weeks following its radio broadcast, Memphis teenagers greeted each other with Elvis’ scat singing from the song – ‘dee dee-duh dee dee de-lee-dee’ – as if it was a generational call to arms.

When I first heard Elvis’ voice,
I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody;
and nobody was going to be my boss.
He is the deity supreme of rock and roll religion
as it exists in today’s form.
Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.

[Bob Dylan, 1977]

Well, that’s all right now mama
That’s all right with you
That’s all right now mama, just anyway you do
That’s all right, that’s all right
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do

[Lyrics]

rebel-kitchen

Rebel Kitchen

On its way to a shop near you… tearing up convention like a guest ticket to Weight Watchers… a healthy snack with a badass personality.

Gone are the days of not-so ‘innocent’ smoothies (a company owned by Coca-Cola) masquerading their high-sugar contents as angelic sources of goodness. Of healthy nutrition being a matter of boring food and cod liver oil sipped reluctantly upon rising. A new gang is in town…

Forget oily denims and bar brawls – we’re vigilantes fighting a new kind of battle. A battle against illness, obesity and snacks that taste like rubbery old boots.

Yeah, we’re hard-wired to like salt, sweet and fat because in nature we didn’t get much of it and had to work hard to find it. But mother nature didn’t plan on big corporations processing food within an inch of it’s life, lacing it with too much sugar, salt, fat, additives and preservatives, where the lists of ingredients are so long and so hard to pronounce that they are no longer even food. We’ve been delivered a bum deal for far too long.

[Rebel Kitchen]

Rebel Kitchen offer a range of dairy-free mylks with ‘no additives, no preservatives and so no worries!’ … and it is refreshing to hear a company talk about health in such terms. The Hell’s Angels would no doubt have been appalled at the adoption of a rebellious aesthetic by a health food business. But the times have changed.

banana rkitch
From the 200ml kids range

Rebels past and present

The outlaw biker gangs of the 1950s and 60s – of which the Hell’s Angels became the acid-tripping, jailbird archetypes – were the losers of American society, alienated and cut off from an American Dream which recognised them only as a problem….

… like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarters asked and none given…

[Hell’s Angels, 1966]

Theirs was an existential battle intended to reclaim a sense of agency in a hostile world, though they may not have realised it at the time…

The Angels don’t like being called losers, but they have learned to live with it. ‘Yeah, I guess I am,’ said one. ‘But you’re looking at one loser who’s going to make a hell of a scene on the way out.’

[Hell’s Angels, 1966]

Rebellion today must work from a different starting point. And at a time when illness is becoming mainstream, disdain for the status quo may lead in a very different direction.

In particular so far as the food industry should be concerned, obesity has become a highly visible problem over the last forty years: in 1972, 2.7% of men and women in the UK were obese. Today, more than a quarter of the adult population of the UK is obese, and these figures are set to worsen:

In 2007, the Foresight report estimated that by 2025, 47% of men and 36% of women (aged between 21 and 60) will be obese. By 2050, it is estimated that 60% of males and 50% of females could be obese. More recent modelling suggests that by 2030, 41% to 48% of men and 35% to 43% of women could be obese if trends continue.

[Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2014]

BEFORE: Marlon Brando, Wild One
BEFORE: Marlon Brando, Wild One (1953)

 

Hairy Bikers
AFTER: The Hairy Bikers, TV chefs and authors of a diet book (2014)

Dietary advice and the obesity crisis

Many researchers have offered analyses and explanations of the obesity crisis. Zoe Harcombe for instance links the obesity ‘epidemic’ to flawed diet advice propagated by food manufacturers:

This book will take you on the journey that I have been through, as an obesity researcher, from thermodynamics and peanuts under Bunsen burners to obesity organisations sponsored by food manufacturers and carbohydrates being confused with fats. Out of an illogical assumption that people have made themselves obese (when this is the last thing that they want to be), through being greedy and lazy, may come a different logical conclusion that our current diet advice a) doesn’t work and b) worse – that it is actually the cause of the obesity epidemic that it is supposed to cure.

[The Obesity Epidemic, 2010]

The particular dietary advice Harcombe refers to is the government recommendation to replace traditional ‘energy-dense’ sources of fat with carbohydrate-rich starchy foods:

UK obesity levels were remarkably constant and small for decades… Suddenly, in evolutionary terms, and dramatically, in amounts, obesity levels increased from 2-3% in the 1970’s to 25% today… It seems so obvious that the starting point for understanding the obesity epidemic should be – what changed in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s? Was there one thing that happened that could explain the sudden and dramatic increase in obesity?

Yes there was. In 1977 the USA changed its public health diet advice. In 1983 the UK followed suit. A more accurate description would be that we did a complete U-turn in our diet advice from “Farinaceous and vegetable foods are fattening, and saccharine matters are especially so” to “base your meals on starchy foods”. Obesity has increased up to ten fold since – coincidence or cause?

[The Obesity Epidemic, 2010]

Even if Harcombe is correct, dietary advice and the food industry will not change overnight. The combined revenues of the (food, drink & drug) partners and premium sponsors of the American Dietetic Association are $467 billion… Illness and obesity are highly profitable industries, but things may yet be changed from the bottom-up:

I say in this chapter what I think will happen, rather than what would save the most lives the quickest – (immediate and unequivocal government leadership back to real food). I think that change will happen with a bottom up evolution of enlightened individuals. The sensible ones will realise that nature can feed us best and will eat nature’s produce. The gullible ones and the processed food addicts will likely continue to eat man-made food and will suffer obesity and various ailments as a result.

[The Obesity Epidemic, 2010]

Rebel Kitchen is just such a bottom-up venture, showing also that healthy eating can be made commercially viable.

 LET’S STAND TOGETHER AS ONE AND START GETTING THE GOOD STUFF IN. COME TASTE HOW NUTRITIOUS CAN BE DELICIOUS AND LET’S TAKE BACK CONTROL OF OUR HEALTH, AND NO LONGER BE PLAYED FOR FOOLS!

[Rebel Kitchen]

Being rebellious/Being healthy

Listen up: healthy eating is no longer a matter of boring food and doing what you’re told. It’s much more exciting than that… Against the vested interests of food manufacturers, even government advisers, good nutrition involves independent thought versus the faulty and failing recommendations of a consumer society…

It is not a political thing, but the sense of new realities, of urgency, anger and sometimes desperation in a society where even the highest authorities seem to be grasping at straws.

[Hell’s Angels, 1966]

Rebel Kitchen: keep fighting on.

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On mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of meditation which originated in the Buddhist traditions of Asia. It has been defined as ‘moment-to-moment non-judgemental awareness’ [Kabat-Zinn, 1990] and involves paying attention to the present moment with a non-striving attitude of acceptance.

Effectively, it’s about ‘being present’: quieting the endless mental chatter in order to fully experience everything the present moment has to offer. It means paying full attention to whatever you are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting. It means regarding thoughts and feelings which do arise in terms that emphasise their transience and subjectivity within a broader field of awareness.

It has become quite popular. Over the past three decades, mindfulness has gone from an obscure Asian religious technique to become a widely-touted panacea and serious money-making industry:

We now have advocates for and practitioners of mindful eating, mindful sex, mindful parenting, mindfulness at work, mindful sports, mindful divorce lawyers, mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based addiction recovery, and on and on… Today mindfulness is touted as a cutting edge technique said to provide everything from financial success to mind-blowing female orgasms.

[Mindful America, 2014]

Inspired by the success stories of Arianna Huffington et al., more and more people are taking interest. In February 2014, TIME even made the case for a mindfulness ‘revolution’:

time mindful rev

Benefits

Despite the often-exclusionary media depiction of mindfulness, meditation, yoga etc. as shallow activities for skinny white women, mindfulness may benefit anyone. In a stressed-out, multitasking culture the benefits of relaxing the emotionally-draining circuit of rumination may even be substantial.

Mindfulness has been associated with increased health outcomes. For example, Kabat-Zinn reported improvements in pain, body image, activity levels, medical symptoms, mood, affect, somatization, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem. Other studies have demonstrated benefits in helping people cope with many problems, including chronic pain, fatiguestress reduction, various forms of cancerheart diseasetype 2 diabetes, psoriasis, and insomnia.

[Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 2014]

Beyond merely a relaxation effect, meditation may also provide cumulative psychological and cognitive benefits via physical changes in brain structure:

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre-post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an [eight week] MBSR program.

… Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared to the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

 [Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011]

Perhaps the most engaging research has been conducted by Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist inducted as a ‘Medicine Buddha’ by the Dalai Lama. Blackburn’s research indicates that our thoughts and emotions – especially stressful emotions – influence the rate at which we age right down to the level of our cells and telomeres (‘molecular clocks’). In this context, Blackburn has suggested that meditation, as an intervention against stress, may slow the ageing process and help beat chronic age-related diseases such as diabetes, heart-disease, and dementia.

Nobel_Elizabeth_Blackburn
Elizabeth Blackburn, Medicine Buddha

McMindfulness

Mindfulness meditation may not be a miraculous cure-all, but it can provide substantial benefits in a stressed-out culture and is something certainly worth trying. (You can begin by reading any number of appropriate articles or books; you may realise benefits from as little as ten minutes of practice a day or less).

But the concept of a ‘mindfulness revolution’ is not so straightforward. As consultants work to detach mindfulness from its woo-woo hippie context so as to make it more palatable to the corporate world, they risk turning an ancient spiritual practice into what some critics are calling ‘McMindfulness’: a stripped-down, secularised technique detached from its original purpose and foundation in social ethics.

Buddhist thought already diminishes the value of worldly bonds and aspirations by celebrating the essential unity of all living beings with the cosmos. Absent any social or political imperative, and as a path to ‘inner peace’, mindfulness may become just another way for corporations – together with the $11bn self-help industry – to justify the status quo by blaming individuals for their own unhappiness:

Mindfulness is often marketed as a method for personal self-fulfillment, a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of cut-throat corporate life. Such an individualistic and consumer orientation to the practice of mindfulness may be effective for self-preservation and self-advancement, but is essentially impotent for mitigating the causes of collective and organizational distress.

… Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken western Buddhist monk, has warned: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one’s personal journey of self-transformation.

[Huffington Post, 2013]

A ‘nonjudging, nonstriving attitude of acceptance’ begins to sound oddly twisted; even as a corporate ‘opiate of the masses’… What’s the matter employee #1098? Feeling stressed? Sick again? Goddammit, why haven’t you been doing your meditation practice?

 

McMindfulness
Employee of the Month: McMindfulness
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vs Men’s Health

Men’s Health is the best-selling men’s lifestyle magazine in the world.

Millions of men worldwide subscribe to an extraordinary way of living – the Men’s Health way. Join them today and get the best out of your life… Men’s Health is the ultimate one-stop-shop for all things that matter to men…  

[Men’s Health / Why Men’s Health]

Really?

Let’s take the most recent issue.

Cover models

Nearly every issue of Men’s Health features a heavily muscled man on its cover. For August 2014 it’s Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson:

mens health

The assumption is that ‘men’s health’ is about looking like The Rock. There’s actually a feature on p36: ‘As solid as the rock’, complete with tips such as ’01: maintenance is for pussies’.

Because Men’s Health is not about how you feel, but how manly you look: the size of your biceps, percent body fat, six-pack visibility… The free book sold with the issue contains 47 recipes described as ‘FAST MUSCLE FOOD!’. Between adverts for watches, aftershaves and hair-loss foam, topless models are paid to pose for this kind of content:

Beside building the kind of leg muscle you’d normally find in an Olympic velodrome, this variation of the kettlebell deadlift works your lower back and torso in the highest gear. This means better core stability: not only will you have the balance to make the perfect beach-volleyball spike, there’s a chance the girl on the opposing team will be too hooked on your abs to notice.

[8-PACK ABS, NO EXCESS BAGGAGE, p19]

photo 2

Women

The only woman allowed her own voice in the magazine is ‘fashion comms manager’ and proud Brazilian Natalia Bojanic:

‘If you think women and weights don’t mix, you can think again. I’m always filled with pride when I’m squatting a bar that weighs more than the man next to me.’

[GO FULL BRAZILIAN ON YOUR CORE, p24]

Situated by a swim-suited picture (‘THE FITTEST WOMEN ON INSTAGRAM’), the bravado of Natalia’s statement heightens her sexual objectification rather than respect for weight-bearing women.

photo 4

Because the editorial team at Men’s Health enjoy sexual objectification. Men may be shallow and conceited, but, MH reader, at least you are a man – AND NOT A WOMAN! Any superficiality on your part, any interest in the subject of ‘health’, may even be excused through your need to attract image-obsessed members of an inferior sex.

01: HELP HER EYES DECEIVE HER… Since Adam first donned a fig leaf, there are certain garments women have become genetically predisposed to desire. Make the most of them when selecting what to wear on date night. Win her subconscious approval with this wardrobe edit and she won’t even know why she’s falling for you.

[SEDUCTION OF THE FITTEST, p48]

photo (2)

Science

Men’s Health is keen to appear scientific. The August issue we are told is ‘BROUGHT TO YOU BY… TOTAL 80 EXPERTS’. Men’s Health wants to convince you that you are not being conned but are getting ‘the most up-to-date and authoritative advice’ for fast results.

Good things come to those who wait, so they say. It’s a benign sentiment, but of no use to an MH reader. Tenacity and discernment are chief among your virtues; patience is a card game you stand to lose.

[NEVER TOO LATE TO BE GREAT (editor’s note), p13]

The magazine is packed with weird, unrounded numbers to provide the illusion of scientific rigour. Any opportunity is taken to magnify the numeric results of studies with minimal discussion of their context.

photo (3)
Advice to ‘make stress your bitch’ is pitched alongside the results of the dubious ‘Men’s Health MR AVERAGE SURVEY 2014’

And then there’s the feature articles.

On the cover, we are told there’s ’29 WAYS TO A V-SHAPE BODY!’ and ‘ADD 9 YEARS TO YOUR LIFE’. This would be fine if there was any reason for such numbers, but there isn’t. There isn’t even a feature on getting a v-shaped body, and the ‘add 9 years to your life’ thing (p28?) refers to a section entitled ‘BREATHE EASY WITH CANNABIS… and 13 other surprising ways to cure your respiratory ills and lift your lung capacity.’ The contents section actually refers anyone interested in living ’9 years longer’ not to p28 but to p147: ‘Our summer survival guide to playing safe (without raining on your parade)’.

Good advice and research is available to the discerning reader, but Men’s Health is more about the promise of science than its actual practice.

honest-slogans-mens-health

‘Men’s Health?

Men’s Health has a global readership of over 35 million. Every month they are sold an idea of health based on image: largely about looking good in order to have sex with women.

Health is not unrelated to looks, but the obsessive superficiality of magazines like Men’s Health alongside its association of health with sexual achievement and poorly discussed science has surely contributed to the increasing use of steroids among image-conscious young men.

If you are looking for workout and meal ideas, great: the magazine provides useful tips and references interesting research. But for the most part Men’s Health is just bollocks. The same formula is used every month to produce a magazine which emphasises design over content and never pauses to ask what ‘health’ is really all about.

gorilla
the man in the mirror
tommy ramone

‘Blitzkrieg Bop’

Tommy Ramone, last surviving founding member of the Ramones, died yesterday. He had been drummer for a band often credited with the invention of punk rock:

The Ramones revitalized rock and roll at one of its lowest ebbs, infusing it with punk energy, brash attitude and a loud, fast new sound… The Ramones got back to basics: simple, speedy, stripped-down rock and roll songs… And though the subject matter was sometimes dark, emanating from a sullen adolescent basement of the mind, the group also brought cartoonish fun and high-energy excitement back to rock and roll. 

[Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]

‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ was their debut single, released in April 1976. In less than three minutes it set the blueprint for punk rock. This was to be a music of ‘lightning war’, a supercharged outpouring of angry excitement. Co-written by Tommy Ramone, the track lives on.

Hey ho, let’s go
Hey ho, let’s go
Hey ho, let’s go
Hey ho, let’s go

[Lyrics]

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Stoic wisdom #2

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor of the second century AD who wrote a long series of aphorisms and reflections into a diary, as he had time to set them down. Written to provide personal consolation and encouragement without any thought of publication, the Meditations have been called ‘one of the greatest of all works of philosophy’. Elle Macpherson even named her son ‘Aurelius’ after the emperor.

The Meditations offer thoughts on life and death, on the beauty and purposefulness of Nature, and on man’s duty as a part of that ‘Whole’. Mostly written while campaigning along northern frontiers far from Rome, they allowed Marcus to retreat into his own ‘inner fortress’. Whether feeling anxious or frustrated, they may encourage you to do the same…

Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life.

… will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined. The whole earth is a mere point in space: what a minute cranny within this is your own habitation, and how many and what sort will sing your praises here?

Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement.

[Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Martin Hammond]

Marcus_Aurelius_Metropolitan_Museum
Aurelius: a lot to live up to
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Bad Pharma

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma (2012) offered this critique of the $600bn global pharmaceutical industry:

Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments… When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients… academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure.

[Bad Pharma, 2012]

It is not ‘a cartoonish story of evil’ Goldacre is interested in describing, but one in which real people overlook the flawed processes by which a drug arrives in hand:

Drug companies are not withholding the secret to curing cancer, nor are they killing us all with vaccines… [But] it’s possible for good people, in perversely designed systems, to casually perpetrate acts of great harm on strangers, sometimes without ever realising it.

[Bad Pharma, 2012]

0412BL Bad Pharma

 

AllTrials

The selective publication of drug trial results is perhaps the most obvious issue. Separate studies have investigated the selective publication of antidepressant and antipsychotic trials. More general research has also been conducted.

The linked cluster of papers on unpublished evidence… confirm the fact that a large proportion of evidence from human trials is unreported, and much of what is reported is done so inadequately. We are not dealing here with trial design, hidden bias, or problems of data analysis—we are talking simply about the absence of the data.

[British Medical Journal, 2012]

The current best estimate is that half of all the clinical trials that have been conducted and completed have never been published in academic journals, and trials with positive results are twice as likely to be published as others.

Hidden clinical trial data are systematically undermining doctors’ abilities to prescribe treatment with confidence. A whole range of widely used drugs across all fields of medicine have been represented as safer and more effective than they are, endangering people’s lives and wasting public money.

[British Medical Journal]

The AllTrials campaign was launched in response in 2013; the group’s slogan is ‘All trials registered, all results reported’. The campaign attracted attention:

We were surprised and concerned to discover that information is routinely withheld from doctors and researchers about the methods and results of clinical trials on treatments currently prescribed in the United Kingdom. This problem has been noted for many years in the professional academic literature, with many promises given, but without adequate action being taken by government, industry or professional bodies. This now presents a serious problem because the medicines in use today came on to the market—and were therefore researched—over the preceding decades.

[House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, 2013-14]

Financial interest

The motives behind the selective publication of trial results, as well as other kinds of systemic bias, ultimately derive from financial interest:

Although the industry’s vast network of public relations departments and trade associations generate a large volume of stories about the so called innovation crisis, the key role of blockbuster drugs, and the crisis created by ‘the patent cliff,’ the hidden business model of pharmaceuticals centres on turning out scores of minor variations, some of which become market blockbusters.

[British Medical Journal, 2012]

Companies are delighted when research breakthroughs occur, but they do not depend on them. Since the mid-1990s, independent reviews have concluded that about 85-90% of all new drugs provide few or no clinical advantages for patients:

How have we reached a situation where so much appears to be spent on research and development, yet only about 1 in 10 newly approved medicines substantially benefits patients? The low bars of being better than placebo, using surrogate endpoints instead of hard clinical outcomes, or being non-inferior to a comparator, allow approval of medicines that may even be less effective or less safe than existing ones.

[British Medical Journal, 2012]

Bad Pharma

The shortcomings of pharmaceuticals have become well-known and steps have been taken.

But instead of waiting for politicians to make laws, you should recognise that while drugs can be life-saving, poorly tested drugs have also produced an epidemic of adverse reactions.

Caution advised when dealing with BAD PHARMA.

 

bilbo

On grounding

Grounding or earthing is defined as placing one’s bare feet on the ground (especially when humid or wet), whether it be dirt, grass, sand, or concrete.

In order to balance the electric charge of your body with the Earth:

It is known that the Earth maintains a negative electrical potential on its surface. When in direct contact with the ground (walking, sitting, or lying down on the Earth’s surface), the Earth’s electrons are conducted to the human body, bringing it to the same electrical potential as the Earth.

[Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal, 2011]

‘Grounded’ has been the natural bioelectrical environment of living organisms throughout most of evolutionary history. Only since the 1960s have humans insulated themselves from the Earth with rubber-soled shoes.

alig
Martin Freeman (of barefoot hobbit fame) explains that rubber-soled trainers do not conduct electricity.

Benefits of grounding?

Emerging research suggests that grounding has beneficial effects on human physiology:

As soil’s electrons are conducted to the human body, the grounded body assumes favorable physiologic and electrophysiologic changes. Attenuation of the inflammatory response and a favorable impact on blood viscosity and RBC aggregation have been the most recent findings. Previous studies have also demonstrated that grounding promotes favourable regulation of circadian rhythms, improved sleep with better night-time cortisol dynamics, and favorable ANS function.

[The Journal of Alternative and Contemporary Medicine, 2013]

Inflammation has been associated with almost every modern chronic illness. Grounding may be a simple way to reduce it:

Reduction in inflammation as a result of earthing has been documented with infrared medical imaging and with measurements of blood chemistry and white blood cell counts. The logical explanation for the anti-inflammatory effects is that grounding the body allows negatively charged antioxidant electrons from the Earth to enter the body and neutralize positively charged free radicals at sites of inflammation. Flow of electrons from the Earth to the body has been documented.

… The research done to date supports the concept that grounding or earthing the human body may be an essential element in the health equation along with sunshine, clean air and water, nutritious food, and physical activity.

[Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012]

Going barefoot for as little as 30 or 40 minutes a day can provide significant benefits.

Read the book Earthingor see the documentary Grounded:

This way up.

NEAT (?)

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is the energy expended from everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or exercise.

Because calories are burned not just in the gym but through ‘all the activities we undertake as vibrant, independent beings’:

NEAT includes the energy expenditure of occupation, leisure, sitting, standing, walking, talking, toe-tapping, playing guitar, dancing, and shopping… NEAT is therefore the most variable component of energy expenditure, both within and between subjects, ranging from ∼15% of total daily energy expenditure in very sedentary individuals to 50% or more of total daily energy expenditure in highly active individuals.

[American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2004]

Fidgeting can increase energy expenditure by 20-40%; ambling around a shop can double it and purposeful walking triple it.

The potential variance in NEAT is therefore substantial and can vary for a given person by as much as 2000 kcal per day.

[Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2006]

Justin Bieber: inventive ways of expending energy
Inventive ways to expend energy.

NEAT and weight loss

A number of studies have linked changes in NEAT to weight gain/loss:

In one study, 12 pairs of twins were overfed by 1000 kcal per day. There was 4-fold variation in weight gain, which by definition must have reflected substantial variance in energy expenditure. Because the changes in energy expenditure were not accounted for by changes in basal metabolic rate, indirectly changes in NEAT were implicated.

[Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2006]

And obesity has been associated with a genetic bias to sit down:

Obese individuals appear to exhibit an innate tendency to be seated for 2.5 hours per day more than sedentary lean counterparts. If obese individuals were to adopt the lean “NEAT-o-type,” they could potentially expend an additional 350 kcal per day. Obesity was rare a century ago and the human genotype has not changed over that time. Thus, the obesity epidemic may reflect the emergence of a chair-enticing environment to which those with an innate tendency to sit, did so, and became obese.

[Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2006]

NEAT is an important factor in the regulation of body weight. Increasing it may be a better way of losing weight than joining a gym. It may also be better for your overall health.