Death and Diet
Food is now the number one killer in the world, if we look at the underlying causes of the causes. I did that this morning, after years of researching and writing about food. Here’s what I found out.
It’s no surprise to anyone anymore that economics-driven enterprises worldwide have sold our long-term health for short-term gains. From a ravaged environment and a decimated biome, to toxic Franken-foods and economic injustices of all kinds, it is hard not to see human beings as wildly short-sighted, insofar as so many of our largest acts are self-destructive.
There is a silver lining.
Of all of these things, one of them is fully within our own control, as individuals, regardless of external threats to our wellbeing, in the form of massive companies and disingenuous (corrupt) governments. It is that which we put in our mouths, to eat: food.
Somehow, not enough of us understand adequately just how much what we eat impacts every aspect of our lives dramatically.
Food, as a complex ecosystem of distinct yet co-dependent nutrients, interacting with one another and our bodies to create either a climate of health or sickness, is the single most influential element — more than our own genetics; more than environmental factors, barring tragedies — in our own survival.
There is nothing hyperbolic about that statement. The foods we eat determine, by and large, whether or not we will die — and how — faster than we would have, if we had made different choices.
Often, the difference between these two sets of choices is drastic. Not only can we live longer on a healthy diet, we can die less painfully, too, thereby saving our families from the additional pain of witnessing and managing our dying, which can both bring emotional and economic ruin to those who survive us.
Thankfully, there is a fast-growing body of scientific research and emergent knowledge around how our food choices impact every major cause of death. I’ve written about nutritional health for years, and because of this — because I am knowledgeable about the startling impacts of our food choices — I see foods quite differently from the average person, who simply goes to the grocery store to buy whatever tastes good, is on sale, or that they think is healthy, because of what their governments and/or advertisers tell them to think.
And frankly, all too often, they are in complicity with one another.
How I see food is simple: there is that which makes me stronger, and that which weakens me. Within each camp, there are countless choices — an infinite playground. Only one of these environments is healthy. And so, my choices are clear, because I wish to live and thrive.
Much as tobacco was “outed” for the killer it is years ago, after claiming countless lives through misleading — and often criminal — behaviors, resulting in its eventual regulation only after enough public outcry pressured such moves, food is a far, far bigger killer, because unlike smoking, everyone must eat.
It remains impossible in one article, or book, to help people to understand just how fatal their food choices can be. That’s because one meal doesn’t make or break a life, or even manifest visible change. Food, when bad choices are repeated enough times, is a silent killer.
So I decided to write today’s piece with just one goal in mind: to be as blunt as possible about how food choices cause countless deaths, “out there in the real world”; and which food choices are among the biggest contributors to our health or sickness.
If you look at the numbers under the numbers — the ones that are hard to find — the statistics are startling, and worth sharing.
Because everyone who stands to profit from this — and there are many — wants to mislead you about their motives — how profitable their products are for them, and how bad they are for you — they conspire to make it next to impossible to know the truth. Major food companies hire legions of marketers and lobbyists, buy crooked medical professionals, and cherry-pick or bury data, all to make you believe whatever will make them the most money. This includes insinuating their foods into the national dialogue, by coopting “politicians for sale” to lead an unsuspecting public to conclusions that are as wrong as they are harmful.
The constellation of co-conspirators is vast, and includes farmers, food scientists, food and beverage companies, restaurants (fast and slow), marketers, agricultural businesses, chemical companies, investors, retailers, transportation businesses, advertisers, regulators, media, clothiers, insurance companies and retailers, drug companies, doctors, authors, lifestyle and fitness companies, and the government itself, who makes the most money of all, through taxation and kickbacks.
In just one illustration of this relationship, the chart below shows the revolving door policy between Monsanto — the world’s largest agrochemical and biotech company — and the USDA, whose actual job is to develop agricultural economies, but which everyday Americans believes is there to protect them. It is the USDA that creates the food pyramid that most of us mistakenly believe reflects a healthy attitude toward food, and which, in fact, exists for no reason other than to maximize the sale and consumption of increasing amounts of income-generating product.
At times, the same person has led part or all of both the USDA and Monsanto — often multiple times. And it’s not just the USDA.
Food is one of the biggest businesses there is, because everyone is a customer.
The Leading Causes of Death
I made a chart just this morning. In it, I tabulated the leading causes of death in the United States, and the number of people who die from each. Next to it, I added a column that assigns — reflecting, to the best of my knowledge, top-tier research — the percentage of each group’s dead that can be traced back to their diet. Meaning, how what they ate killed them. For a few of these, the science isn’t clear, although it has concluded that food choices have a material impact on the death rates. To these, I assigned a modest 10% dietary factor.
In only three of the top ten killer categories, diet is not a cause. In one of these however — nephritis — food can mitigate the severity and speed of nephritic death. But since it doesn’t cause it, I left food’s influence out of it.
What emerges is startling. Approximately one third of all deaths from leading causes in the United States can be traced back to the toxic foods we eat. One third. That translates to 658,000 dead Americans every single year… from food.
An increasing number U.S. scientists is projecting that the death rate from the current pandemic that has sent the world into hiding will roughly equal those who die every year from dietary causes. This statistic is tantamount to saying that the United States experiences a COVID-19-level mortality catastrophe every single year… from food.
If “make good choices” doesn’t cut it for you, perhaps this will. If you eat poorly, you stand a greater chance of dying from that than from anything else. Given how Americans die, one in three of us will do so because of food.
Food causes 45% of all heart disease — the number one killer in the United States. Food causes 30–35% of all cancers — the number two killer, and one that is skyrocketing in lockstep with our waistlines, and likely to overtake heart disease just next year. Food causes 45% of all strokes, and roughly half — 50% — of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Food causes 45% of deaths due to diabetes. And while suicide isn’t caused by food, per se, the emotional climate food creates within our bodies means that people on healthy diets are less likely to kill themselves, because foods regulate their emotional health. Which means, a large portion of suicides may also be attributable, in the end, to what we eat.
I left those out, too.
There is a one in three chance you will die from one of the things listed above, because of the foods that you eat. One in three.
Or, if you eat a health diet, consistently, you’ve knocked 33% of your risk of painful and costly death off the books.
The image below shows just one slice of how this works in the plant world, for cancer.
The bonus? You’ll feel good — really good — every single day that you’re alive and eating well. So, the benefit of doing so is not only in reducing premature and/or painful death; it’s not only in saving your families emotional and economic pain; it’s not only in living as full a life as your genetics and other choices would allow it; it’s also in enjoying every single day that you walk the Earth more.
Or, you can give in to the “fun” and slowly kill yourself.
You know, because that burger is just so tasty, and goes so well with those chips and dips.
Fun fact (sorry, I know I’m digressing, but it’s an important point of input): you’ll never find this, and it took many sources to cobble the data together into a single chart, but beef alone is responsible for one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s due to deforestation, feeding/raising livestock, transportation, methane production, and retail. So if you stopped eating beef altogether (knock yourself out with chicken and pork, if you must), you’d do more good for the planet than you would by taking every single car on Earth off the road.
Chew on that.
What To Do?
The answers are so simple that you’ve read them a thousand times. But we are hard-wired to give in to the feel-good chemicals the body produces short term from flavor explosions. The most draconian version of a healthy diet — one that at times, is how my life looks — goes like this:
- Eat nothing in a package — i.e.: that was engineered, not grown.
- Consume no dairy. We are neither babies nor ruminant animals.
- Eat only plants. They can provide 100% of the nutrients you need.
- The less molested (processed) a food is, the better it is for you, with few exceptions.
- Eat nothing that contains something you couldn’t point out on a tree or in a field.
- Spices aren’t just flavorful; they’re among the healthiest real supplements on Earth.
- Crucifers, legumes, nuts and seeds are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet.
- Be moderate. Allow yourself to break the rules above, once in a while.
- Learn to prepare plant foods. There are thousands of recipes you don’t know.
- Foods you prepare — actually prepare; not unbox and heat up — at home are more nutritious than foods others make and sell, unless you take your meals at a top-tier restaurant. That’s because your goal is the health of your family. Theirs is profit. Don’t fool yourself.
If you do these things, chances are, you’ll live, you’ll thrive, and your family will thank you.
I should end this article there. But.
A Dickensian Biome
In just 10,000 years — or 3% of our existence — we have reshaped the planet’s living creatures. More specifically, we have reduced wild animals by 99%, and created a category of food animals that now comprises 67% of all vertebrates alive. For 97% of our history, we farmed no animals, ate little animal protein and were far healthier than we are today.
But because our diets are now so animal-centric, for no good reason, I’m adding some more data points below for those who have no intention of giving up meat, poultry, fish, dairy and/or eggs. At least, if you internalize these food facts, you’ll make healthier choices. Some of this isn’t easy to find; and the Internet is full of contradictory advice.
- A portion of animal protein is 4 oz. Keep to that limit and make everything else you eat during any meal a plant.
- You do not need animal protein to survive, or to thrive. Nearly everything you read contradicts this. It’s simply not true. But: if you are going to eat animals, then what you eat should be raised outdoors, eating and moving how it would in the wild. This is called “pastured” or “pasture-raised” in your supermarket. “Organic” is a bonus, because the designation forbids the use of harmful chemicals that you in turn will consume. But it is not the same thing. No other supermarket name means anything. Natural, all-natural, cage-free, sunny barns, vegetarian diet, free-range… all of it is total marketing BS. Chickens eat bugs, not corn, in the wild; and sometimes mice and frogs, as well. Pigs eat mostly plants, but also worms and insects. Cows eat grasses. And all of them move freely, in the wild. In captivity, however, they are penned in as close as bodies can get, up to 10,000-strong in poultry “battery cages” (illegal in Europe), and fed massive amounts of antibiotics so they don’t die as a result of rampant disease. Moreover, cows’ legs are broken and horns are sheared off, while chickens’ beaks are ground or snapped off — all to prevent them from attacking one another in an attempt to survive. Livestock’s necks are yoked, with the majority of them never taking more than a few steps in their lives, spending it all standing in growing piles of their own feces. And throughout those perfunctory lives, as much corn and ‘waste’ products that include the entrails of relatives as is possible to cram into their mouths — within the 5–7 weeks that most chickens live, or the eighteen months for most cows, before slaughter — the more meat is produced, more quickly, for you to buy, and thus the more profit the companies who run these operations — and everyone else who stands to gain from this scheme — will make. You get it.
- Same with eggs and dairy. Consume only pastured versions, and sparingly. With dairy, grass-fed is an indicator that the cows ate their evolutionary diet, not corn.
- If you must eat animal protein, fish is a far healthier choice than land animals. Within the category, cold-water, fatty fish is far healthier than warm-water fish, because cold generates protective fats that are filled with omega-3 anti-inflamatory acids. Wild is always better than farmed, which more often than not is raised in horrifically toxic environments — most, but not exclusively, in Southeast Asia. Sardines and anchovies are the planet’s healthiest fish: small, fatty, full of bio-available calcium (because you eat the bones), and without heavy metals, because they’re at the bottom of the food chain. Alaskan salmon (Sockeye or Coho) come next, because they are always wild, the Alaskan waters are protected by state constitution, and they are mercury-free. Rainbow trout comes third. Bonus: oysters clean the water, are high in zinc, and are packed with omega-3 fatty acids. There are others. Learn them.
- Avoid shrimp, unless they are wild and from the Gulf of Mexico. 90% of these are from farmed in Asia, and contain PCBs, dioxins, antibiotics from pig feces runoff and other banned chemicals. These are among the dirtiest, most toxic sea creatures anywhere. Ditto farmed salmon of any kind, esp. the most common one: Atlantic. Sorry, salmon lovers. You’ve been duped by advertising, because the overwhelming majority of what restaurants will feed you is Atlantic salmon. I always ask. Alaskan, yes. Atlantic, no f-ing way. These contain cocktails of harmful chemicals like PCBs and POPs, which have been linked to type 2 diabetes and obesity.
- Cut out cows altogether. You don’t need them, they wreak havoc the environment, and ounce for ounce, they are the most water-intensive foods on Earth, requiring nearly 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef. Why does that matter? Well, we’ve used up 40% of the world’s available fresh water supply in just two generations. Stop.
- At all costs, avoid processed meats like bacon, cold cuts, and smoked fish. All of these are classified as Group 1 carcinogens. Meaning, they cause cancer.
- Also avoid charring meat, as in on a barbecue. That’s because charred animal flesh also converts chemically, turning non-processed meats also into Group 1 carcinogens.
- All animal products are inflammatory. Plant foods are anti-inflammatory. Chronic inflammation is the precursor to many of the modern dietary diseases that are among the top killers in the US, and elsewhere. Promoting an anti-inflammatory diet — one without animal proteins — is one of the best things you will ever do for your body.
- I’m going to repeat point 2 because it’s so important. You do not need animal protein to survive, or to thrive. My own wife and I argue about this constantly. A rich, varied plant-based diet will deliver everything you need, and countless other nutrients that come with it, without a downside. The exception is vitamin B12, which can be supplied by seaweed (think Japanese), or a supplement, or the occasional — not daily — animal product. Here’s a good, deeper dive into that subject.
Of course, you needn’t commit any of these animal facts to memory if you avoid meat products altogether. But if you do choose to eat them, do so informed. That’s because knowing that where and in what conditions the animal was raised makes the difference between something potentially harmful to you — one that might sicken or kill you — and something more benign, or, in the best circumstances, and with strict consumption limits, healthy.
Some rounded numbers. Nearly 100% shrimp and farmed salmon contain toxic chemicals. Nearly 100% supermarket poultry tests positive for listeria, campylobacter and/or salmonella. (Don’t worry! Adequate cooking kills these things!) Still. Every single processed meat product causes cancer, and leads to chronic inflammation. Every charred meat does, too (but charred vegetables don’t). Each cow conspires not only to deplete our precious water supply and wreak environmental havoc; it will wreak havoc on your insides, too.
The greatest advantage of eating animal products is the need we have for vitamin B12 and DHA, which are critical in promoting healthy neurological function. Other nutrients that are most common in meat aren’t so critical to our health — especially in the climate of a healthy diet; and avoiding them avoids the significant downsides. Moreover, a little goes a long way. There’s not a human alive that needs daily animal product intake to survive or thrive, or “get enough protein”. This last point is the clarion call for meat lovers who see the “need” for 50–75g of daily protein as the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. Just. Stop. Not so. A varied plant-based diet does all of it. Healthy fish and/or eggs, or the rare meat treat, are another. Just don’t do that daily.
What does need to happen is a retraining of our learning — an “un-brainwashing” from what food conglomerates, marketers, lobbyists, the health ecosystem and governments have all conspired to teach us: that we need meat, dairy and eggs to be healthy.
Our ancestors thrived in ways we never have, on near-vegan diets. We know that now, from both archeological sites and from the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes living the same way as our ancestors did, today. Read this piece from New Scientist and this piece from Scientific American, to see what we really ate. Heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, stroke Alzheimer’s and diabetes — the biggest human killers of all — didn’t even exist until we created our modern diet. What did happen is that more children — half of them — died. That’s not because of diet. But if you weren’t one of them, you lived about as long as we do now; and you did so without any decay. Your heart simply stopped one day, when it had beaten as many times as evolution designed it to.
If you want to go down the rabbit hole on my own recent journey back to health (I’d lapsed), read this.
Bottom line? Michael Pollan put it best:
“Eat (real) food, not too much, mostly plants.” He adds, “Probably the first two (three) words are most important.”