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Scared vegan: global warming and The China Study

I haven't felt like this since I saw Alien and The Shining on the big screen, triggering a sleepless summer. But this time, the scary stories are real. I'm frightened, angry, and once again vegan. Last week, Bill McKibben of spoke in Raleigh at a small church crowded with environmentalists. He described our planet as being so changed that it isn't recognizable, so changed that it needs a new name. That's why he calls his new book Eaarth.

Still shaken from Bill McKibben's talk, I went to my first holiday party of the season, where a friend gave me a hard, hard time about writing another cookbook that included eggs and dairy. He'd gone vegan about 15 months ago after his fifth heart attack and was certain doing so had saved his life. Denny compared my choice to the one he'd faced recently: trade his red sports car to a father seeking a Christmas present for his daughter or stick with his old truck and know that he hadn't contributed to a sixteen-year-old's inevitable speeding and possibly serious injury or death. "I didn't want to do something that I thought might kill somebody," he said.

Denny and his wife were so convincing, so glowing with health, that I re-read The China Study this weekend. In its own way, it's as shocking a tale of willed blindness and corporate corruption as Eaarth. It made me rethink the way we eat and made me shift the focus of my next book.

Linda Watson drenched by gale-force winds and rain on the way to a party.In case that wasn't enough, I got a taste of Eaarth last night on the way to the first of two parties in downtown Raleigh. The rain had barely started when my Taster and I left the house, but was pounding down fifteen minutes later when we left the car two blocks from the first party of the night. The storm surged, nearly knocking me off my feet and drenching me with rain. My umbrella snapped inside out and broke; my Taster's "storm-proof" umbrella met its match too. I literally ran for shelter around the corner of a skyscraper, then fought my way back to the car and drove home, too wet and shaken for either event. If I hadn't been wearing sturdy shoes to baby my still-healing foot, I would surely have been blown to the pavement. Was this yet-another record-setting event of the sort that McKibben says should terrify us? Probably not, but it was to me: I worked downtown for eight years and had never before experienced such winds and rain.

Read on to get scared yourself ... and to see how we can make a difference with our food choices.

Why frightened?

  1. Eaarth says that the level of carbon in the atmosphere that will support life as we know it on our lovely planet is 350 parts per million or below. We're at 390 ppm plus now and rising at about 2 ppm per year. McKibben heaps on studies and examples to convincingly show that global warming isn't something we need to slow as a kindness to our grandchildren, it's a current danger for our parents. He says:
    We'll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations.
  2. The China Study says that eating animal products of any kind, especially milk but also meat, eggs, and fish, triggers many diseases of affluence, including heart disease, cancer, blindness, dementia, broken bones, MS, and diabetes. We're not talking about increasing your chances of devastating illness by 2 or 3%. The differences are enormous, such as the group that had 49 coronary events before adopting a healthy diet and zero for eleven years after they switched to a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Another diet switch eliminated chest pains in 60% of heart patients, sparing them and our health-insurance system around $40,000 per patient compared to the cost of by-pass surgery. The cover of The China Study says it is the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted. Over 8,000 statistically significant associations (95% certainty or higher) between diet and disease were analyzed to reach a compelling conclusion:
    Whole, plant-based foods are beneficial, and animal-based foods are not. Few other dietary choices can offer the incredible benefits of looking good, growing tall and avoiding the vast majority of premature diseases in our country.

Why angry?

  1. It's like a scene early in a horror movie, when most of the townfolk are humming along with their daily lives, while a giant comet plummets toward them or an irradiated rabbit starts snatching babies, but no one will listen to Lassie. On the local front: I live about 15 miles from the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, a place positively aglow with environmental awareness. But go out on the highway and even the Prius drivers tear around at 70+ miles per hour, burning up our precious fossil fuel to get to work a minute or two early. On the global front: this is the first time in years that not even one U.S. Congressperson is attending the United Nations climate talks, now taking place in Durban South Africa. As Michael Jacobs writes in The Huffington Post:
    And then, of course, there is the United States. Its position is straightforward: it wishes this whole subject would go away. In a pre-election year, facing a Republican Party in which climate scepticism has become an article (literally in some cases) of faith, the last thing President Obama wants is to drag global warming back into the domestic debate.
  2. The China Study was published in 2006 and Dr. Esselstyn's Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease was published in 1995, but diet change did not even serve as an hors d'oeuvre in the health-care talks of 2009.  It's absent from the post heart-attack nutritional training at a well-respected local hospital, as I was shocked to find out when accompanying a friend to the sessions. The hospital's nutritionist focused exclusively on choosing better processed foods and making better choices at fast-food restaurants, with no idea how to advise vegetarian patients. And the healing effects of a plant-based diet isn't old news or small news: Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn combined forces in the current hit documentary and book Forks Over Knives.

In short, our planet is sprinting toward becoming uninhabitable and our standard American diet is making our very bodies uninhabitable, with our leaders ignoring or contributing to the well-documented situation. As Bill McKibben said, the CEO of Exxon would make an unbelievable Bond villain, one who wakes up every morning to change the very climate of the world for personal gain (bwha-ha-ha-ha!). Who could be evil on so large a scale?

What to do? Part of me wants to curl up under the couch and shiver. Part of me wants to jet down to a tropical island to snorkel among the coral reefs while they still exist. Yet another part thinks I should have some bacon cheesecake, because living to see the next phases may be downright unpleasant.

But instead, I'm going to drop the dairy, make my next book vegan, and continue working as energetically to slow global warming and promote health as long as I can. You may barely notice this on the Cook for Good site and in the recipes. I'll still be cooking delectable dishes with affordable, seasonal, real food. There just won't be any more eggs or dairy. You can mix these plant-based recipes in with your current favorites, vegan or not. I'll be writing about how to convert some Cook for Good classics to this new way of cooking too.

Please join the movement to help slow global warming and to eliminate the needless suffering from diseases of affluence. Watch the world's leading climatologist James Hansen in the video above say:

Probably the single action that a person can take ... to reduce carbon emissions is vegetarianism....My message to you is go green, be veg, save the planet.

Read or watch Eaarth, The China Study, and Forks Over Knives. Then do what you think is right, even if that's only starting with Meatless Mondays or going Vegan before Six. It's likely that once you find out how easy and delicious the food is, you'll wind up doing more. Let's move as gracefully as possible into this next phase of life on Eaarth.

Reader Comments (11)

Linda, I'm just delighted that your next cookbook will omit dairy and eggs, and that you're now vegan. Thumbs up to you and your Taster!
Betty Amer

Dec 9, 2011 | Registered Commenterbettya

Thank you! for posting this!

Dec 9, 2011 | Registered Commenteremanuelakh

Thanks so much, Betty! After only five days, I already feel even better. And it's been easy!

Dec 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterLinda Watson

This topic interests me for a number of reasons.

In the last year, I lost around 20lbs on a low-carbohydrate diet. Physically, I felt great. All of my blood makers improved, too. However, I began to feel quite bad about the negative ethical impact that my diet could have on the planet. Most low-carb diets (even the more humane ones, such as an all-organic, free-range paleo diet) seem so . . . indulgent.

Consequently, I'm shifting back to a mostly vegetarian way of eating. However, I am concerned about the negative impact that eating grains and legumes will have on my health. More than a few recent studies suggest that grains and starches do little for our health.

In trying to sort all of this out, I just find myself becoming more and more overwhelmed with information and downtrodden. I want to do what's best for me, for others, and for the non-human life(forms) on this planet. But the data -- especially with respect to personal health -- don't seem to point definitively in any one direction.

Linda -- do you plan to review research literature on grain/bean consumption for your upcoming book? Or maybe even just a blog post? I'd really love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Regardless, I look forward to your new book (which I hope will be made available for the Kindle :-) In my opinion, your "Cook for Good/WAO" project is one of the more useful and inspiring things happening in the U.S.

Dec 9, 2011 | Registered Commentersissiesue

Great comments, Sissiesue -- thanks so much. Thanks so much for this: "I want to do what's best for me, for others, and for the non-human life(forms) on this planet. " Please don't feel overwhelmed or downtrodden! We are in the middle of a great debate. Money, prestige, power, and tradition are all involved, giving incentive to those who would muddy the waters for personal gain.

I will review research literature on grain and bean consumption soon and will look into the challenges for the Forks and Knives diet. I'll also be looking into the effects of soaking grains, which I've heard may make them more nutritious (or make the nutrition more available).

What impressed me the most about The China Study was the way the Campbells pulled together so many studies that nearly all had a similar result: more animal protein lead to more diseases of affluence (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune disorders, ...).

Big hug to you!
... Linda

Dec 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterLinda Watson

Inspiring Linda! I also advocate a primarily vegetarian diet, but can't recommend vegan for everyone. I was vegan for 25 years, and ended up with arthritis and an auto-immune disease, probably from malnutrition. After increasing good fats (coconut oil is great!) and adding a little meat (local of course), my pain is now minimal and I'm much healthier with amazing energy. Also - no processed foods! We all have different bodies and need to do what works for us. Kudos to all of us who are consciously ethical about what they eat.

Dec 10, 2011 | Registered Commenteraliceanne

I'm very excited that Cook for Good is going vegan ... I want to and am trying to go vegan, and with your help may actually succeed -- Love "Wildly Affordable Organic" and look forward to the sequel. So, thank you!

Dec 15, 2011 | Registered Commenterjuliel

Thanks so much, Julie! It's going really well so far! I'm making big progress on converting some of the core Cook for Good recipes: scrambles, pudding, biscuit mix, pasta dishes, and even Ginger Glazed Carrot Cake. Details coming soon! ... Linda

Dec 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterLinda Watson

I'm a 30-year vegetarian (1980, I was 13 and in Texas).
I have read much of the animal rights philosophy that created veganism.
Where I get stuck is making a choice between a vegan processed product, or one with a lot of food miles (vegan marshmallows, I'm talking to you) and a local earth-friendly option.
Sometimes it is easy- make a bean burger or use a Boca. Sometimes it is difficult- a locally made soap with honey or a soap from 1000 miles away that is vegan. Sometimes I never have peace with the decision- local to me shoes made from nylon (Chacos from before the China move, and the consolidation with Wolverine) or leather that will biodegrade.

I ultimately am more environmentalist in my thoughts than animal rights based.
Seems to me that having a planet is pretty important to animals.i

I am glad to read that the next book will be full of strict vegetarian recipes.
Most of the ones I have made have been simple swaps such as almond milk, corn oil or arrowroot starch (eggs).

Jan 26, 2012 | Registered Commenterecoenergygirl

Thanks for the funny and thoughtful post. (Marshmallows ... ha!)

These really are complex issues. I'd probably buy the local soap, especially if the honey was from happy local bees.

I like the approach that says don't be so detailed that you make yourself crazy and make others think it's too hard to try. Getting one person to try Meatless Mondays has a big impact.

What do others think?

Jan 27, 2012 | Registered CommenterLinda Watson

I purchased WAO this past summer and my first time reading it felt a little overwhelmed, but I followed the plan, made some pudding, some sauce, etc., and was pleasantly surprised at the results. I kept these items in my regular menu planning, added more along the way and began reading labels and choosing less or un-processed foods and over these 8 months or so see a huge change in my food choices at the market and the menus I prepare for my family. It still feels overwhelming to consider all the ways I have yet to change up how I plan menus and prepare food, but when I see the changes that have come by taking one little step at a time I am encouraged to keep moving forward and, rather than getting stressed out by how far I have to go, to enjoy how far I have come. I so appreciate your work. Thank you.

Feb 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKathy
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