Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday - In Defense of the Omnivore

One frequently reads, in the world of food politics, all-or-nothing responses to a kaleidoscope of concerns about food. Fresh. Local. Organic. Vegetarian. Vegan. Paleo. Sustainable. Gluten-free, Grain-free, Nut-free, Casein-free.

I have to admit, these discussions make me cringe. I have no problem with any of the above approaches to diet, or many other diets I've seen out there, and, indeed, an individual's health may depend on a particular diet. While I appreciate the perspective of people who take food seriously and are trying to eat thoughtfully, I'm concerned that the waters of the food world have become very, very muddy and confusing. I fear the negative trickle-down effect of publicizing restrictive and dogmatic eating is that people who don't have time, energy, education or money to follow suit make even poorer choices. Advocates need to leave room for options in the food world.

For example, I have no doubt anyone can eat healthily without consuming animal products, provided sufficient resources for a varied diet and some basic education. My experience is that many people don't have access to those resources. Certainly, Americans need to reduce animal products in our diet, but this does not automatically mean that a vegetarian or vegan diet is good for everyone. Animal products remain an efficient way of delivering calories and nutrients to consumers. Successful anti-starvation programs include animal-source food: in fact, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has been lobbying to include animal-sourced foods in USAid, which currently provides grain-based CSB (a fortified corn-soy blend) to countries with vulnerable populations at risk for starvation. In the same way that it's possible to eat healthily without animal products, it's also possible to include them in a healthy diet - and it may well be simpler.

Unfortunately, the dual message of "eat well" and "eat less," is a tough sell. Add in complex arguments about sustainability, humane treatment of animals, carbon footprints, food sensitivities, BPA, GMO: I can't blame people for throwing up their hands and running for the nearest McDonald's. As an advocate for dietary health, I'd like to stay on-point with the simplest, most broadly applicable message possible: Make half your plate fruits and vegetables, eat less protein, and less refined grain.

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