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The Limits of Eating Well

Did I ever tell you the story of how I became a vegetarian? It involves my mom, a piano tuner and trade magazines from the meat industry.

So, my mom is a very eccentric and creative person. When I grew up, mom was always taking classes on strange and eclectic topics, like rebirth, macramé, reiki and vegetarianism. Although I was reluctant at first, I eventually found my way through the pile of books she had accumulated on those topics. Yes, my mom is also a book hoarder (which is the nicest thing you can hoard, in my opinion).

I had more or less decided to become a vegetarian for a few months when a piano tuner came to our house. For some reason, I started chatting with the guy about vegetarianism. He told me he was also a vegetarian (what a coincidence) and that I should read the book “Diet for a New America”- by John Robbins. “It’s a bomb.”

I got the book at the library and went through it, mostly in the bathtub, where I used to do most of my reading (I inherited a few eccentric tendencies myself). I was shocked by what I read! How could such a story be true?

I happened to be enrolled in a music program at a school that also offered agricultural studies. So they had a pretty substantial library filled with trade magazines. I spent days in the library browsing through those magazines, thinking at first that John Robbins probably exaggerated some of his claims. But now, here it was, in front of me, evil in plain sight, right in the articles and ads in the journals used by the perpetrators themselves.

All of it was true.

The rampant diseases. The overuse of antibiotics. The animals crammed into small spaces. The forced molting of hens. The mutilation. The industry’s attempt to change the public’s perception that meat is bad for health. The manipulation.

And they didn’t even try to hide it! These were actual trade magazines read by farmers and published by farmers, but accessible to anyone willing to read them. And every single fact in the book by John Robbins checked out.

At that point, I became a militant vegetarian! I knew this was going to change the world. I knew this had the power to change society. I knew there would be some serious changes.

But I was wrong.

Not only was I too optimistic about people’s ability to accept facts and change accordingly, but I was also too optimistic about what the diet could do.

When I got into raw foods, my belief that diet was the answer to everything was only reinforced. And that belief also turned out to be wrong.

24 years later, I’m a bit wiser about it all. I realized that diet is not going to solve 100% of our health and environmental problems. It might only solve 80%! Which is quite good, but I was hoping for 99%.

We know that animal agriculture is responsible for at least 18% (some sources say up to 51%) of all greenhouse gas emissions. To put this in perspective, that’s more than the entire transportation sector. So the whole world becoming vegan would have more of an impact on the future of our planet than every car being converted immediately to an electric drive-train powered by renewable energy.

And we know that more than 90% of type 2 diabetes, 80% of cardiovascular disease, 70% of stroke and 70% of colon cancer and entirely preventable by not smoking, a change in diet, and moderate alcohol consumption.( I do think that those numbers are a bit low. At least 90% of cardiovascular disease, if not more, can be prevented by a radical change in diet. But perhaps only 80% can be prevented by a more moderate approach.

But even with conservative numbers, we know that many more health problems can be prevented and even reversed by simple changes in diet and lifestyle.

It’s Not the Answer to Everything

Even though there’s nothing quite as powerful as what a healthy plant-based diet can do for our health, it’s still somewhat disappointing to realize that it’s not the answer to everything.

Let’s say that eating the healthiest diet you can eat, which would be sheer perfection: you take in almost nothing that could be harmful and you make no exception for any reason. You exercise the perfect amount for you. You meditate, avoid smoking, breathe pure air and manage your stress well.

What would be the results? Perhaps you could avoid 80 or even 90% of any chronic or non-chronic illness. Who knows, maybe even 95%.

But the truth is that it’s never going to be 100%. And most people are not going to be 100% perfect. So with that in mind, we can probably safely say that diet and lifestyle accounts for most but not all of our health outcomes.

Whatever the number is, I suspect is somewhere around 20% or 30% of all health problems that have nothing to do with diet and exercise. Maybe if you’re pushing for perfection, you could get it down to 10%.

No matter what we do, there’s still going to be a nagging number of health problems that we cannot directly prevent with our actions.

And that’s disconcerting for idealists like us.

When I was 18 and was getting into vegetarianism and raw foods, I was excited about the idea that this could be the answer to everything. And I’m still excited by the idea that it’s the best solution we’ve got to most of our problems.

But I’ve also accepted that there are some limits, and that’s okay. However, I see many people stuck in the paradigm that diet and exercise are the ultimate solution to everything, and suffering unnecessarily as a result.

Health seekers themselves feel desperation when they are struggling with a particular health issue and think that they must somehow have done something or failed to do something to bring this about. This often leads them down a dangerous path of unproven therapies and unnecessary diet experiments.

To make the matter worse, the alternative health community itself seems to hold their peers to unrealistic standards. Some will go as far as to claim that if someone has gray hair – a normal feature of aging – it’s a sign of parasites or heavy metal poisoning. Usually, these people have a $2000 hair analysis test to sell you, and will recommend a protocol of unproven supplements that will, of course, do nothing about your hair color.

Recently, a few well-known vegan YouTube content creators have published videos where they openly discuss their struggle with depression. This led to some nasty responses where other channels claimed that this was a proof that the vegan diet doesn’t work, failing to mention of course that most people with depression do not eat a vegan diet.

All of this nonsense is counterproductive and unnecessary. It’s out of touch with reality, creates unrealistic expectations and leads to more failures than successes.

The human body is an incredibly complex organism, and dysfunctions in it can come from many sources. In the modern world, most of our health problems come from our unhealthy lifestyle, but this wasn’t always the case.

In many pre-industrial cultures that lived in perfect harmony with nature, life expectancy was very low. Now we’ve got the assets of modernity to help us live longer, as well as an environment that often leads us to leave unhealthy lives. If aware of that, we can be ahead of the game and live longer than any other people ever lived on earth.

However, we also have to be aware that there are some limitations to what diet and exercise can do. Some cancers, many viral infections, and many rare diseases, not to mention depression and mental health in general, has very little to do with our diet (although diet can certainly help).

When I go back at my early enthusiasm for vegetarianism, I realized that John Robbins and the other authors I read never claimed that this was the answer to everything. That was my interpretation, the words I made those books say, what I wanted to believe. However, a plant-based diet is only the answer to most of our health and environmental problems, which is still pretty damn impressive!

What do you think?


Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.