Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Musing on Food, Protein and Vegetarianism

My journey into the complex and fascinating business of agriculture started a little more than four years ago when I took on a role of Enterprise Architect with a multinational Agribusiness company. Learning about the “business” is critical for EA’s, given the role we play in bridging the IT-business divide. One could argue many of us – even urbane city dwellers - are not too far removed from food, and the business of getting food to the table. While my day job primarily focuses on Business Processes and services enabled by Technology, I try and keep abreast of the business of food. A recent book by Dr. Garth Davis’s “Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession with Meat Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It” caught my attention.
In the nearly two decades that I have spent living in the west - in North America and Europe - as a vegetarian, I have been fascinated by the westerners’ penchant for protein in their diets. This has defined modern food habits and the central role meat and meat based entrée play in our daily lives. I am often asked by colleagues and friends about my protein intake and where vegetarians get this “much needed” nutrient. Rather than getting into a debate on my dietary preference, I downplay my vegetarianism or just deflect the questions. I realized that Dr. Davis’s book, although intended for a meat-eating audience, also offers tips that vegetarians can use to explain the benefits of their dietary preferences.
The well-researched book written in a folksy narrative style addresses some of the very same topics I had been observing, and reflecting on, much of it empirically. In the book, Dr. Davis takes us through a journey of his discovery and research on diet, after his flailing health acts as a call-to-action. Chapter after chapter, he refers to data and research to emphasize why excess protein (and meat) consumption by humans is neither necessary nor beneficial to the health and sustenance. He starts by explaining the major fallacy of modern medicine and how he “had come to view human body as a kind of expensive, unreliable car – something that was always breaking down and needing to be repaired. I was totally focused on treating disease – prevention hadn’t really entered my mind as a possibility.” 
I read the book with much interest; however, I am left shaking my head on whether it will make a dent in meat-centric diets that the western readers are used to. I am willing to bet that most, if not all Americans reading the book aren’t going to share the same epiphany as Dr. Davis, or the enthusiasm to convert to vegetarianism. Just a few reasons why:
  • Food is an acquired taste. One grows up eating comfort food at home and school and with family and friends. Preferences and attitudes towards food, taste and diet that one acquires at an early age are hard to change. For instance, even after having lived in the west for most of my adult life, I still find a plate of rice or rotis and lentil soup (Dhal), the Indian staple I grew-up on to be my comfort-food. Likewise, an American growing up on Burger-and-fries or pepperoni-Pizza is not going to easily acquire a taste for lentil-soup and rice or other vegetarian foods.
  • Western penchant for meat is exported as a subculture. In their quest to ‘globalize,’ newly affluent Chinese and Indian middle-class is taking to meat and poultry like duck to water. This trend is not likely to reverse anytime soon; and is likely to amplify as the next generation that is growing up on a diet of meat is going to look to it as comfort food.
  • Don’t under-estimate the power of food industry resistant to change. An entire multi-billion dollar industry thrives on converting grains, corn and soyabeans into cattle and poultry that in turn are slaughtered and processed into burgers and meat. This industry is likely to work hard to ensure status-quo, and continue to dictate consumer tastes in meat.
  • Doctor heal-thyself – in the first few chapters of the book, the author makes a point of emphasizing how modern medicine is focused more on cure, and less on prevention; and how diet receives minimal attention in modern medicine.  It would take scores of western doctors like Dr. Davis to have an epiphany, and a change in mindset, before they get to a point where they can prescribe a change to the rest of us.
Bottomline: Views and habits, especially when it comes to food are going to be especially hard to change. But for those looking to firm up their views on Protein in our diets, this book is a good reference

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