Food: the challenge of balancing health, ethics, and cost

For awhile now, I’ve been meaning to learn more about nutrition and health in general. In the past few days, I’ve made a start on it… but it turns out to be really hard to sort these issues out, especially if you’re (1) concerned about eating ethically (2) a starving artist like me.

On the ethics vs. health front: a lot of vegans claim vegan diets are the healthiest, but this looks like a case of motivated reasoning. I don’t doubt that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is a good thing, but it seems unlikely that you’re better off without eating any meat. The health and nutrition related sections of Wikipedia’s article on veganism make it appear that at the very least, it’s very tricky to make a vegan diet as healthy as a non-vegan diet.

Using the “look who’s going against their biases” rule of thumb: Sam Harris has said that he can’t ethically justify eating meat, but does so for health reasons. He says that he found he felt much better after quitting a vegan diet he had been on for six years. By contrast, I’ve never heard anyone say that they have no ethical problems eating at least some animal products, but have decided to totally eliminate them for health reasons.

So for awhile, I was vegetarian in the sense that I was eating eggs and dairy but no meat. Then I read this article by Julia Galef arguing that eggs production kills more animals that red meat. So that went out the window. Currently, I’m not ruling out anything absolutely but making milk my main protein source.

Speaking of milk, let’s talk about cost vs. health. I just had an e-mail conversation with an old physiology prof where she recommended, among other things, drinking organic milk. But organic milk is expensive. In this case, I don’t mind, because there’s a whole foods a couple blocks from my place, the cheaper grocery store is much farther away, and gallon jugs of milk are heavy. But for the moment the cost is keeping me from buying all my groceries at Whole Foods.

It might be easier to go with the more expensive option if it were clear it that it’s healthier, but it’s actually fairly difficult to figure out. As I once said, “figuring out the truth of any moderately difficult question, even when there are people out there somewhere who know the answer, is a labor-intensive exercise.” The common-sense belief that spinach is healthier than hot dogs can lead you astray.

In the case of organic food, the organic fad is at least one-half irrational nonsense. It seems pretty clear that GMOs are harmless. Pesticides less so, especially in animal products because toxins tend to get concentrated the higher up the food chain you go. If Whole Foods weren’t so close by, it would be unclear to me what I should do re: organic milk.

There’s very little I’m sure of here (except that Whole Foods is close to my place, Gary Taubes apparently makes some pretty big screw-ups, and apparently counting calories is the best way to actually loose weight). But there’s a lot of advice I’ve gotten that I won’t even mention here because I’m even less sure of it.

This was kind of implicit in the veganism discussion, but I’m not worried about weight so much as I am about a diet that will keep me healthy long-term. While being relatively ethical and not costing too much money. That’s what I’m having trouble figuring out. Any health buffs, who’ve actually looked at this stuff scientifically, want to help me out?

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