Sunday, April 22, 2012

List-server: 5 reasons to go vegan for a year

Yep, I’m doing lists now. Why? Because it has come to my attention that humans find lists irresistible. Actually, I noticed this phenomenon some time ago whilst compulsively purchasing yet another periodical offering “The 20 Best British Singles from 1974 with the word ‘blue’ in the chorus” (or something similarly useful.) But it only recently occurred to me to incorporate the format into this blog. Lists are fun, and they help us remember which items we need to purchase at Home Depot. Trust me, you don’t want to have to go back there a second time. So are you ready to discuss veganism with the aid of numeric headers? Let’s do it then…

This past week’s New York Times Science section kicked off with a front-page article about the hardships of espousing a vegan diet. With the best intentions I’m sure, the author sympathetically cataloged the “social, physical and economic challenges” of veganism, exaggerating the difficulties while underemphasizing the many benefits. Having myself spent a couple years living la vida vegan, I can tell you that it’s not so damn hard. (And my stint sans animal products occurred in the 1990’s, when products like coconut milk creamer had yet to be invented. Nowadays, it should be an Almond Breeze by comparison.) While no longer a vegan for reasons we’ll get to a bit later, I consider myself better off for having tried it. Here are a few of the potential perks awaiting those willing to temporarily part ways with cheese and eggs.

1) You’ll learn what’s in your food
While meat is relatively easy to spot, other animal products, like butter and eggs, can sneak into food unnoticed. Thus, being a vegan means mastering the art of reading food labels. Ingredients lists, particularly on processed foods, often read like chemistry lab manuals, so their comprehension necessitates doing some research. You’ll ask important questions like, “What the hell is casein?” (It’s a milk-derived protein used to make cheese, including many soy cheeses. Not vegan.) And, “What the hell is xanthan gum?” (It’s a polysaccharide used as a thickening agent. Vegan) Eventually, you may even ask, “Why is there so much weird, unpronounceable crap in my food?”

Along the way you’ll discover other interesting details. A simple can of beans or jar of peanut butter can contain added sugar. Something as seemingly benign as hummus can harbor flavor enhancers. Who knew? Reading labels cultivates a healthy sense of outrage about the volume of superfluous nonsense added to the things we eat daily. Ultimately, this might make you opt for less synthetic purchases, leaving more room on your plate for real food.

2) You’ll cook more often, and more interesting dishes
When I began college I was a lousy cook. The most complex meals I prepared involved boiling a box of pasta or rice and tearing open the accompanying “seasoning packet.” On less ambitious days, I’d open a can of soup, throw some grated cheese on it, and heat and serve. But once cheese was off limits, canned soup tasted pretty bland and I was forced to learn to cook for real.

With many restaurants offering lackluster vegan options and processed foods often containing animal ingredients (“ugh, whey powder, I can’t use this”), the logical reaction is to cook more from scratch, using easy to manage items like vegetables, grains, beans and maybe even tofu once you pass the beginner stage. In doing so, one quickly discovers that beans and tofu don’t have a ton of flavor on their own. Thus the next step in vegan cooking is learning how to use spices. As a vegan, I acquired cumin and coriander and their ilk. I learned to make curries and peanut sauces. (Which, btw, are excellent options even for those who re-incorporate animal products into their diet.)

A lot of people approach veganism by trying to replicate their favorite animal-based foods. But the best vegan foods are alternatives rather than mere substitutes. They’re things that were vegan all along. Pseudo meat-textured veggie burgers don’t taste like beef and vegan cheese doesn’t melt. But falafel and tahini dressing are delicious and surprisingly easy to make.

3) You’ll save money
The Science Times piece makes several mentions of the financial strains imposed by a vegan diet. For instance, “…vegan specialty and convenience foods can cost two to three times what their meat and dairy equivalents do.”  But “convenience foods” are processed or pre-fab foods, which shouldn’t be the bulk of anyone’s diet. Fresh produce is expensive only when compared to fast food burritos and Walmart frozen pizza.

If you look at the raw ingredients used to make vegan and non-vegan meals, the opposite pattern emerges. At my local grocery store, a 1 lb bag of a 100% vegan carrots sells for about a buck (give or take depending on whether or not you opt for the organic ones). Meat and cheese, on the other hand, can be pricey. And even the lower quality versions of animal products are still more expensive than dried beans. I mean, check out this recipe for dahl. Main ingredient: lentils. It doesn’t get much cheaper than that.* Here’s another one for middle eastern chick pea stew (pro tip: throw in some green vegetables and raisins for extra awesomeness.) You’re welcome. Those hard-to-find “vegan specialties foods” are hardly essentially to good vegan cooking. † But if you’re longing for the novelty of seitan (it is great for stir-fries) but you live in the sticks, you can always make it yourself.

If a switching to a vegan diet is driving you into debt, it’s probably an indication that there’s too much junk food in your life.

4) You’ll be thinner and healthier
In case you haven’t heard, America (along with much of the developed world) has a colossal weight problem, and with it a slew of obesity-related ailments. Also old news are the many studies finding correlations between plant based diets and lower body mass index (BMI), as well as lower LDL cholesterol levels (that’s the bad kind), lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and lower overall cancer rates. If you don’t believe me, have a look at this American Dietetic Association (ADA) paper about vegan and vegetarian diets. In addition to pointing out the above-mentioned benefits, they conclude that such diets, when properly planned, “are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” Yes, you read that correctly, even pregnant women and athletes can be vegans without keeling over from anemia.

However, it’s important to note that the ADA also claims that there is no sufficiently bioavailable plant source of vitamin B-12. So total vegans need to obtain this nutrient through a supplement or in B-12 fortified foods (fortified cereals, for instance). There seems to be a bit of debate over this, with some folks still insisting that dark green vegetables, or at least seaweed can provide enough B-12. Personally, I would (and did) play it safe by taking a B supplement. ‡

5) You’ll change the way you think about food
Despite nixing the strict vegan diet ages ago, I still eat mostly plant-based foods. Having animal products off limits for a spell taught me to view them more as garnishes than necessities. Remember, meat and cheese and the like aren’t just rough on your body, they also require more resources to farm than do plants. Given the environmental impact of animal products, using them in moderation is advisable. This handy graphic from Environmental Working Group (EWG), which visualizes the carbon footprint of various protein sources by comparing them to miles driven in a car, may help put things in perspective. Note that cheese is even higher up on the shit list than pork or chicken.

So if being a vegan is freaking fabulous, why did I ever stop? Mostly, it was the “social” component of the Times’ triad of terrors. It’s enough of a pain telling friends who invite you to dinner that you don’t eat meat. Explaining that you also don’t eat eggs, butter, milk, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, and pretty much everything else they were planning to serve can easily disqualify you from future invites. It’s not ideal for travel either. While I somehow successfully navigated both the Scottish Highlands and parts of Eastern Europe as a vegan, it was rough going at times. Basically, humanity eats a boat load of animal products, so unless you have a strong moral objection to their consumption, the “When in Rome” approach gives you a lot more flexibility. Plus the occasional dash of feta cheese or fresh mozzarella is a fine, if non-essential, addition to the menu. Though I do sometimes wish I still had an easy excuse to avoid queso. §

Perhaps you’ve already five for five on the above qualities. Not everyone needs a major dietary upheaval to learn to cook decent meals. I always suspected that my readership was composed of an elite group of health and environment conscious individuals with well-stocked spice racks. But do realize that you’re in the minority, and consider suggesting an animal product sabbatical for any of your less fortunate friends, relatives and coworkers.

* Some people will argue that all these spices are expensive. But you don’t have to buy them every time you cook. Once you assemble a starter set of seasonings, you’re good for a while. Also, if you do live somewhere with a health food store or a well-stocked supermarket, check to see if they sell spices in the bulk food section. Bulk spices are insanely cheap.

† One poor soul quoted in the Times, a resident in the tiny town of Phoenix, Arizona (population 1.5 million), complained of having to drive 20 miles to obtain such delicacies.

‡ You, wise reader, are probably asking, “Wait, if there’s no plant source of B-12, then where the hell do these vitamin pills come from?” That occurred to me too. (Great minds think alike.) It turns out B-12 is made through bacterial fermentation.

§ For those unfamiliar with this item, queso – short for chile con queso – is a Tex-Mex chip-dipping favorite consisting of melted cheese and chile peppers. If you happen to express an aversion to the stuff, someone will immediately argue that you just haven’t tried the “good queso” and attempt to introduce you to this superior product at the next opportunity. From what I’ve experienced, there is no good queso. It’s just a bad idea. Order the salsa instead.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Climbing the ranks: social status changes gene expression in monkeys

Red carpet by chadmagiera.

Having low social status may suck for reasons beyond not getting invited to the swankiest parties; it could also be making you ill. A correlation between socioeconomic status and health in humans is well established. Most famously, the Whitehall studies of British civil servants found that workers in low status positions had worse health and earlier deaths than their higher-ranking managers.

But the reasons behind this relationship are not clear. Are low status individuals sicklier because their jobs expose them to grueling physical labor and dangerous chemicals? Do low wages make preventative medical care and good nutrition harder to obtain? Does the demoralizing experience of being ordered around all day stress the mind and body? Or perhaps we’re looking at it backward? Maybe healthier, fitter individuals naturally rise to the rank of CEO while less robust workers languish in the mailroom. Such are the chicken and egg conundrums facing human correlation studies, even large cohort studies like Whitehall. Sometime, when things get too muddled, it's best to grab some monkeys and head to the laboratory.

That’s what a group of scientists did in a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their monkey of choice was the rhesus macaque – a species whose lowest-ranking members, like humans, also exhibit poorer health.  Working with 49 monkeys divided into 10 social groups, the researchers demonstrated that the animals’ social status affected gene expression, specifically in genes relating to immune function. The effect was so pronounced, in fact, that it could even be used to predict status. Gene expression data from blood samples indentified with 80% accuracy the relative rank of the individual from which they were taken.

In case your recollection of genetics is a bit hazy, this might be a good time to clarify what we mean by “gene expression”. With the exception of gametes, every nucleated cell in your body contains a full set of genes (46 chromosome worth, assuming you’re human), but not every inch of DNA in those cells is constantly expressed (that is, transcribed into RNA and eventually translated into the proteins that run our bodies).* So while an individual’s genome is set in stone, gene expression varies between cell types and can also be impacted by environmental conditions.

To sort out the connection between the environmental factor of social rank and gene expression, the authors of the study took medium-ranking female monkeys and assigned them to new hierarchical social groups comprised of five individuals. Rank in these experimental groups could be manipulated by the order in which each member was introduced – the first ones in generally ranked the highest, while latecomers were stuck with increasingly lower statuses. 

Looking at thousands of genes, the authors found greater gene expression related to rank in 987 of them. (535 genes were expressed more in high rankers, 452 in low rankers). Additionally, monkeys that switched ranks during the experiment experienced changes in their gene expression shortly thereafter. This suggests that not only is it rank that controls gene expression, rather than the other way around, but that negative effects of low status on health might be reversible through changes in the social environment.

How are we to interpret these results? Very carefully. Monkeys and humans differ genetically and socially, so we shouldn’t just assume the results apply to our own species and call it a day. Human civilization is a complicated affair, and status can’t easily be reduced to resource access and grooming privileges. What determines our status within society? Is it just economic? Does it extend to race and gender? To high school cliques and Hollywood A thru D lists? As they say in the science biz, more research is needed, but it’s an intriguing start.

* If that’s still too vague, or you’re just needing a break from your job, I found this website that lets you build your own virtual protein. Weeee! Internet!

 In the wild, female rhesus macaques typically stay with the social group and rank they’re born into.