Standard American Diet Essay

"You are what you eat", goes a famous saying. And if that is truly the case, then a lot of Americans would appear to be unhealthy, chemically treated, commercially raised slabs of animal flesh. And while that is not a particularly pleasant thought, it is nonetheless a description of the typical American omnivore who survives on the consumption of Big Macs and steak fajitas.

But there are individuals who do not follow this American norm and have altered their diets so that they do not consume any meat. These people are vegetarians, and they are the new breed of healthy Americans who refuse to poison themselves with fats, cholesterol, and the other harmful additives that come from meat. And while once thought to be a movement that would never gain much momentum, it has nonetheless moved itself to the forefront of Americans’ healthy diets.

The word vegetarian, used to describe the diets of people who do not consume animal flesh, was not used until around the mid-1800s. The concept of vegetarianism, however, dates back much further. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, considered by many to be the father of vegetarianism, encouraged a non-meat diet among his followers as a diet that was the most natural and healthful (Messina 3).

A vegetarian diet excludes the consumption of meat, and can be exercised by people for a number of reasons. The largest majority of individuals chose vegetarianism for health related reasons. For example, someone with an ulcer might be prescribed a strict diet of vegetables in order to promote the healing process. Or someone with a dangerously high level of cholesterol might be advised to follow a vegetarian diet to lower his or her fat and cholesterol intake.

The immorality of consuming animal flesh is another argument touted by a smaller group of vegetarians. R.G. Frey describes this moral argument for vegetarianism and the effect that meat eating might have on the character of humans:

Some people have come to believe and fear that, in the suffering and killing which occurs in commercial farming, we demean ourselves, coarsen our sensitivities, dull our feelings of sympathy with our fellow creatures, and so begin the descent down the slippery slope of torture and death, to a point where it becomes easier for us to contemplate and carry out the torture and killing of human beings. (20)

This moral argument for vegetarianism is also noted by John Robbins who states that "the suffering these animals undergo has become so extreme that to partake of food from these creatures is to partake unknowingly of the abject misery that has been their lives"(14).

But whatever the reasons behind a person’s choice to be a vegetarian, it is important to understand the different diets that individual vegetarians can choose. In the widest sense of the word, a vegetarian diet is a diet that is made up of grains, vegetables and fruit, but does not include any animal flesh, such as fish, pork, poultry, or beef. But beyond these standards, there are many variations of diet that occur within the world of vegetarianism.

The first, and most prominent, category of vegetarianism is a lacto-ovo vegetarian. Mark Messina describes a lact-ovo diet as "…a vegetarian diet (that) includes dairy products and eggs but no animal flesh"(7). This means that there is consumption of animal byproducts, such as milk, eggs, or honey, but there is no consumption of animal flesh. Another variation is the lacto-vegetarian diet that allows the consumption of milk and other milk products, but does not include the consumption of eggs. And like all vegetarians, these two groups do not consume fish, poultry, or meat (Messina 7).

Another category that vegetarians can fall into are vegans. The vegan diet is by far the most strict of all the vegetarian diets. According to Mark Messina, "Vegans avoid meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs. There are many other foods that may not be acceptable to many vegans, however. Foods that involve animal processing to any degree are often avoided"(11). This means that vegans can consume no foods containing animal byproducts, such as milk, eggs, or honey. Being a vegan often dictates an "animal friendly" lifestyle that, aside from not eating anything that came from an animal, also abstains from buying or using products that were tested on animals or are made from animal hairs or skin, such as leather shoes or belts (Messina 11).

A common misconception of vegetarians is that they are all a bunch of skinny, malnourished idealists who live on plants and soy milk. And another, related common misconception is that a diet of meat is a diet that builds strength. Professor Irving Fisher of Yale designed a series of tests in which he compared the strength and stamina of meat-eaters against vegetarians, with three groups of individuals represented: meat-eating athletes, vegetarian athletes, and sedentary vegetarians. His studies showed that the average score of the two vegetarian groups was over double the average score of the meat eaters, even though half of the vegetarians were sedentary people and all of the meat-eaters were athletes. Fisher concluded that:

…the difference in endurance between the flesh-eaters and the abstainers (was due) entirely to the difference in their diet…There is strong evidence that a … non-flesh … diet is conducive to endurance.(206)

A comparable study was done in 1968 by a Danish group of researchers that tested a group of men on a variety of diets, using a stationary bicycle to measure their strength and endurance. The group fed their test subjects a diet that was comprised of mixed amounts of vegetables and meats for a period of time before testing the men on the stationary bicycle. The average time that they could pedal before muscle failure was 114 minutes. The very same group of subjects was then fed a diet that was comprised of only meat, eggs, and milk for an equal amount of time, and then re-tested them on the bikes. On this diet, their pedaling time before muscle failure dropped dramatically to an average of only 57 minutes. That same group of men was again fed a diet that this time was comprised entirely of grains, vegetables, and fruits before once again testing them on the bikes. The lack of animal byproducts didn’t seem to hamper their performance, as many people would have thought, and the men were able to pedal an average of 167 minutes before muscle failure (Robbins 156).

But vegetarians are still often criticized by people who feel that vegetarians do not get enough minerals and vitamins as a result of their limited diet. But vegetarian food is among some of the healthiest foods available to mankind, and while there is no easy way to determine the extent to which a vegetarian diet can influence the health of those that follow its guidelines, the evidence is very indicative that it may be an important contributing factor. Registered dietitian Johanna Dwyer, of Tufts University Medical School and the New England Medical Center Hospital, Boston, summarizes these benefits:

… data are strong that vegetarians are at lesser risk for obesity, atonic [reduced muscle tone] constipation, lung cancer, and alcoholism. Evidence is good that risks for hypertension, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes, and gallstones are lower. Data are only fair to poor that risks of breast cancer, diverticular disease of the colon, colonic cancer, calcium kidney stones, osteporosis, dental erosion, and dental caries are lower among vegetarians.(53)

Vegetarian diets contain less total fat and less saturated fat, which are linked to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. In comparing the diets of vegetarians to omnivores, Mark Messina indicates that "American omnivores eat a diet that is 34% to 36% fat, lacto-ovo vegetarians eat a 30% to 36% fat diet, and vegans eat a diet that is about 30% fat" (59).This means that vegetarians also consume less cholesterol, which has been linked to an increase in the risk of heart disease and possibly even cancer. The amount of cholesterol of a lacto-ovo vegetarian is about 150 to 300 mg of cholesterol per day compared to the 400 mg of cholesterol that an omnivore consumes (Messina 59). Vegans, who exclude the intake of any food that contains animal byproducts, do not consume foods that contain significant amounts of cholesterol. The US Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have created a Food Guide to better advise Americans on how to eat healthier, more balanced meals, and which "advises using fats, oils, and sweets sparingly" (Farley 52).

Vegetarians as a group also consume higher amounts of fiber. Fiber, found mainly in grain products, is essential to healthy bowels and colons, lowers the risk for diabetes, helps control blood glucose levels, and also lowers the risk for cancer and heart disease (Messina 59). And it is grain products that form the base of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services’ Food Guide Pyramid, which recommends servings of bread, rice, cereal, and pasta 6 to 11 times per day. (Farley 52) The typical intake of fiber for an average omnivore is "about 12g of fiber each day,", with vegetarians eating "50% to 100% more fiber than nonvegetarians" (Messina 59).

A vegetarian diet also includes consumption of more antioxidants, which are believed to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, and possibly arthritis and cataracts. Dietary antioxidants include such vitamins as vitamin E, vitamin C- of which the typical vegetarian diet includes 50%, 100%, or even higher- and carotenoids as well as the many phytochemicals that are found in plants (Messina 59). They also consume less animal protein, with omnivores consuming 14% to 18%, lacto-ovo vegetarians consuming 12% to 14%, and vegans consuming only 10% to 12% (Messina 59). While vegetarians consume less total protein, they do consume adequate amounts to maintain a healthy balance, as demonstrated by modern nutritional science. Excess protein, and in particular excess animal protein, is linked to the increased risk for osteoporosis, kidney stone formation, kidney disease, and an increase in blood cholesterol levels (Messina 59).

The nutritional benefits of a vegetarian diet very clearly appear to be beneficial to human health. But a vegetarian diet can also be healthy to the lives of our planet’s other inhabitants, the very animals that are being eaten. Due to the increased demand for food, livestock farmers have had to keep up by devising new and more efficient ways to raise more animals, giving way to the industrialization of meat farming. As John Robbins accurately writes, "the raising of chickens in the United States today is not, however, a process which overflows with compassion for these animals" (52). Chickens, as we grew up believing, were farmyard animals that would root around in the soil for their food, and were deeply attuned to the cycles of nature, as evidenced by the rooster crowing at the break of day. But the industrialization of chicken farming in the past forty years has changed all this, and the days of the barnyard chicken are over, replaced instead with what Robbins refers to as "the assembly-line chicken" (52).

But the poultry farmers are not alone in its industrialization. The beef, turkey, pork and other meat industries have also had to adapt their methods of "production" in order to keep up with the demands of omnivores. This includes the use of growth hormones in the animals to produce more eggs and fatter animals, which are then passed on to their human consumers. John Robbins describes some of the products used in today’s pork industry in his book Diet For A New America:

… will also be given products like the new feed additive from Shell Oil Company. Called XLP-30, it is designed to "boost pigs per litter," though it has a name that sounds like it should be added to motor oil instead of animal food. Incredibly, a Shell official acknowledges- "we don’t know why it works."

This is just one example of the chemical tampering that the meat industry is forced to do with its animals in order to fight off the diseases that the animals’ cramped, unsanitary living conditions bring with them. As discussed by R.G. Frey, this poses the most serious of threats to the health of Americans because "…the liberal use of antibiotics in animal feed may, in time, build immunity in animals and, through them, in us, to these drugs, some of which may play a role in the treatment of human diseases" (10).

Leonardo Da Vinci said "the time will come when men such as I will look on the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men" (Robbins 148). While the cruelty of murdering other animals for their flesh is a moral argument in favor of vegetariansim, it seems rather unlikely that amny Americans could ever be swayed by its message. However, many Americans are interested in preserving their own health and well-being, and that should lead many people towards a vegetarian lifestyle since a vegetarian diet includes the necessary vitamins and minerals to sustain human life, with out any of the negative byproducts of animal consumption, such as cholesterol, excessive fat, and excessive protein. A healthy lifestyle is something benefits us all, and yet most people are unwilling to give up the meat-filled diets.

If the phrase "You are what you eat" has any amount of truth to it, then Americans need to realize what they are ingesting every time they enjoy a Big Mac, some Whoppers, or a filet mignon. There are healthier alternatives to the meat eating that nearly every member of our society has been weaned on, and those alternatives all include the consumption of more vegetables and the absence of meats. It is now up to them to realize this and make the necessary adjustments.

Works Cited

Farley, Dixie. "More People Trying Vegetarian Diets." FDA Consumer October 1995: 52-55.

Fisher, Irving. "The Influence of Flesh Eating on Endurance." Yale Medical Journal 13.5 (1907): 205-221

Frey, R.G. Rights, Killing, and Suffering. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited, 1983

Messina, Mark, and Messina, Virginia. The Dietian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications. Gaithersburg: Aspen Publishers, Inc., 1996

Robbins, John. Diet For A New America. Walpole: Stillpoint Publishing, 1987

Works Consulted

Farley, Dixie. "More People Trying Vegetarian Diets." FDA Consumer October 1995: 52-55.

Fisher, Irving. "The Influence of Flesh Eating on Endurance." Yale Medical Journal 13.5 (1907): 205-221

Frey, R.G. Rights, Killing, and Suffering. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited, 1983

Kleiner, Susan M. "Vegetarian Vitality: Striking The Right Balance." The Physician and Sports Medicine August 1992: 15-16

Messina, Mark, and Messina, Virginia. The Dietian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications. Gaithersburg: Aspen Publishers, Inc., 1996

Robbins, John. Diet For A New America. Walpole: Stillpoint Publishing, 1987

Filed Under: Health, Social Issues

The American Diet Essay

We Are What We Eat: American Diet
In comparison to other countries, the American diet remains undoubtedly too low in fiber, fruits, and vegetables, yet is entirely too high in calories, fats, added sugars, sodium, and grains. The array of healthy food choices available in America essentially supports ideal dietary health; however lacking proper nutritional knowledge while living a lifestyle full of time constraints prevents many Americans from maintaining a healthy diet. Learning to choose nutritious foods that accommodate individual eating preferences such as convenience and appeal is essential in fixing the American diet with increased longevity.
Food appeal is an important factor teens and young adults consider when choosing which types of food they intake. Food appeal is defined as taste, appearance, and preference, and according to Stewart Tinsley, “food appeal has a strong effect on [young adults] food choices” (Tinsley 227). In addition, Tinsley identifies “taste as the most important factor teens and adults consider when choosing food” (Tinsley 230). Evidently, appealing food strongly influences young Americans in selecting digestible foods, regardless if their choice is unhealthy. This concept of choice is problematic for many young Americans who are unaware that choosing foods which do not necessarily comply with nutritional standards remains unbeneficial in strengthening their long term health. Instead of choosing foods primarily upon appeal alone for instant gratification, young Americans should strive to consume healthier foods which will ultimately promote a longer, healthier life.
In addition to food appeal, lacking proper knowledge in regards to nutrition affect food choices for Americans as well. Stephenson Kennedy’s studies suggest that individuals with supplementary information about nutrition are inclined to “eat healthier diets than those who are less well informed” (Kennedy 339). By using a corroborated measure of nutritional knowledge, researchers have proven that knowledge clearly accompanies healthy eating habits. Stephenson Kennedy conducted that Americans who were aware of simple nutrition facts were nearly “25 times more likely to meet fruit, vegetable, and fat intake recommendations than those in lowest quintile” (Kennedy 344). This remains significantly important in shaping the American diet for increased longevity since many Americans who are reportedly unaware of nutrition could establish a healthier diet by frequently acquainting themselves with nutritional knowledge. Americans can gradually build their overall knowledge concerning nutrition by reading and heeding nutrition labels, and gain a full understanding of which foods are healthier to consume.
Culturally comparing America’s nourishment to other countries illuminates the convenience factor of the American diet, which is a pitfall preventing many Americans from managing a healthy diet. Paralleling America’s food consumption to European cuisine...

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