Wed, 06 Jun 2007 10:34 UTC
We've all heard it - from our parents, from our peers, from the news media, even from movie heroes. It is repeated like a mantra until it is accepted as fact without question:
"Eat your vegetables. They're good for you."
But are they? Are vegetables really the miraculous life-giving Food of the Gods they're made out to be? Are they really so good for you that you need to endure the hardship of putting these foul plants in your mouth just to stay healthy? Do the alleged benefits of eating vegetables outweigh the terrible cost of having to eat them?
In a word, no.
The myth that vegetables are "good for you" evolved at a time when our ancient ancestors had no other source of vitamins. If you didn't eat vegetables (or fruits) with vitamin C in them, you would get scurvy. The people of the time didn't know it was the vitamin C in the vegetables and fruits doing this, they simply knew that not eating vegetables or fruits meant scurvy. Similarly, if you didn't eat yellow vegetables, you would get night blindness from vitamin A deficiency. You could also get beriberi from insufficient thiamine (vitamin B1) and pellagra from insufficient niacin (vitamin B3). In the olden days, eating your vegetables really could spell the difference between life and death, because we didn't know what it was in the vegetables that gave them such great powers of health preservation.
But this isn't the olden days any more. Now we do know what was in the vegetables that gave them their powers of disease prevention. And, as a result, we have multivitamin pills now. Getting enough of the nutrients that vegetables traditionally provided can be accomplished by taking a One-A-Day™ tablet in the morning.
So why, with all these advances, are we still told that vegetables are necessary? Well, part of it has to do with plain old inertia - your grandparents had to eat vegetables to say healthy, and they passed this on to your parents uncritically, and they in turn passed this on to you with equal credulity. But that's not all there is to it. There's a bigger, more sinister force at work here. You'll notice that the more vile a vegetable is to eat - for example, Brussels sprouts - the greater is the pressure to believe that it's "good for you" and that you "have to eat it."
This wasn't the first time that enduring unpleasant things has been automatically assumed to be good for you. The practice of self-denial has a long and grotesque history.
Although the practice probably didn't start with them, the most famous early record of such beliefs came with the first Christian monks in the 2nd century C.E.. The monks believed that if you cut yourself off from the "sinful" world, and denied yourself all the pleasures of the flesh, you would become closer to God. Some of them even went as far as to flagellate themselves, believing that the greater their personal suffering, the more points they racked up in the afterlife. Although the population at large didn't follow these monks' practices, the monks were still held up as ideals that others should aspire to.
At the turn of the 20th century, castor oil and mustard plaster were widely believed to be effective cures for many ailments despite an utter lack of credible evidence supporting these claims. The belief in the curative power of castor oil and mustard plaster came not from their track record, but from the simple fact that they were highly unpleasant. If it's bad, it must be good for you. (And, of course, the inverse: If it's good, it must be bad for you. By the time the 20th century was in full swing, public sentiment against alcohol had become so strong that a Consitutional amendment had banned it outright.)
And what do we have today? Recreational drugs are almost universally illegal. The pursuit of romance is called sexual harrassment or stalking, and prostitution is called even worse. No pain, no gain. Feel the burn. Sugar Blues was a #1 bestseller, and Killer Salt has been the cover story of Time magazine. As soon as the slightest bit of bad health news about trans fats hit the street, health nannies instantly jumped up and screamed "I told you so!" about Oreos and French fries.
And, right up there with all the other old saws about the alleged virtues of self-denial and ascetism, we still have: "Vegetables are good for you."
But what about colon cancer? And lycopene?
Vegetable proponents are willing to go to great lengths to "prove" that their disgusting foodstuffs are indispensible. Now that the vitamins and minerals traditionally found only in vegetables can be eaten in convenient vegetable-free pill form, they've had to look long and hard for even the slightest hint that something else may be lurking in vegetables that makes them healthy.
The biggest "win" for these desperate, hard-pressed sleuths is vegetable fiber. The dietary fiber in vegetables is somewhat different than the dietary fiber in whole grains. And, lo and behold, studies on colon cancer have shown a reduced instance of colon cancer among people who consume vegetable fiber, but have not shown a reduced instance of colon cancer among people who consume cereal fiber. (Source: http://www.vegetariannutrition.net/vn_articles/fiber_colon_cancer.html.) Veggie advocates quickly jumped on the bandwagon and trumpeted their victory.
The problem is, their declaration of victory seems to have been premature. According to this article from April 2000, two large studies in the New England Journal of Medicine failed to find any correlation one way or the other between the consumption of any kind of dietary fiber, including vegetable fiber, and the incidence of colorectal cancer. A later study in the 8-February-2006 Journal of the American Medical Association confirms this finding. Apparently, eating more vegetables won't make you any less likely to get colon cancer.
Undaunted, the vegetable proponents continued on their mission to find "proof" that vegetables are good for you. They soon stumbled upon lycopene, a chemcial found in tomatoes. Lycopene is an antioxidant, which in the mind of a nutritional True Believer automatically means that it keeps you healthy, reverses aging, makes you a better lover, and increases your chances of winning the State Lottery. But to convince the fence sitters who wouldn't simply take the True Believers at their word, they presented epidemiological "evidence" that lycopene prevents digestive-tract cancer, prostate cancer, macular degenerative disease, and even lung cancer and skin cancer.
The epidemiological evidence for lycopene consisted of things like "Italians eat lots of marinara sauce, and they have a lower incidence of cancer of the digestive tract." This is true. But Italians also eat a lot of olive oil and garlic. Maybe olive oil and garlic protect against digestive-tract cancer. Italians also have a higher incidence of membership in the Mafia. Maybe being in the Mafia protects against digestive-tract cancer. Concluding that lycopene is responsible for Italians getting less digestive-tract cancer is like concluding that punk-rock haircuts are responsible for swearing. Correlation, especially when so many other factors are involved, does not imply causation.
The Vegetarian Agenda
If you haven't yet read Why I Am Not a Vegetarian, by Dr. William T. Jarvis, you should. Dr. Jarvis is a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, an organization whose moral stance on diet has always been one of strict vegetarianism. His article serves as a steamy exposé of the seamy side of vegetarian propaganda.
Basically, the alleged health advantage of a vegetarian diet isn't the real reason that many (if not most) vegetarians got that way. The thing that drew these otherwise sane individuals into a sordid lifestyle of meat denouncement and vegetable hype were two moral arguments: (1) The doctrine of self-denial I've already described above, and (2) The conviction that it's wrong to kill animals for food. The former moral conviction led the Seventh-Day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg to engineer Corn Flakes as a cure for masturbation (!). The latter moral conviction has resulted in organizations like PETA who bombard us with mental images of cute fluffy bunnies and kitties being raised in cramped, squalid factory farms and then ruthlessly murdered for their flesh.
There may turn out to be something to the second moral conviction. There may even be a few limited circumstances where the first moral conviction has some merit. But the point is, the alleged health benefits of a vegetarian diet are a smokescreen for the vegetarians' real agenda. Having a vegetarian argue that vegetables are good for you is like having an elected Republican congressman argue that Republicans are good for you - it's nothing more than a sales pitch, and you should check every alleged fact out for yourself before believing them.
One site I've found that seeks to separate vegetarian hype from reality is beyondveg.com. It's true that most of the articles on that site do operate under the assumption that vegetables are something that one can enjoy eating (yicch). The site's main purpose is to dispel the myths surrounding an exclusively vegetarian diet. However, as some of those dispelled myths embrace the allegedly miraculous properties of vegetables, it's an appropriate site to visit if you're interested in cutting through the vegetarian agenda and seeing the cold facts.
Next chapter: Proof That Vegetables Are Evil