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Sermons: “The Diet Debate

John Corrado: If your health awareness menu includes the "finding du jour," you must feel like a yo-yo. Just think of the fluctuating wisdom about nutrition. Red meat, once "good for you," is now a villain. Milk, once as unimpeachable as motherhood, is now at least a villainette. If you drink wine, make sure it's white…oops, change that to red. "Decaf" was better than coffee until recently, when the providers of wisdom became unsure of that. They also flip-flopped on bacon, which, like a romance in a Harlequin novel, went from good to bad to good again. Ditto in the butter to margarine dialectic. Then there's the consumption of alcohol, which went from "don't" to "one drink is better than either none or more than one." We went from counting calories to counting carbohydrates to counting fat grams. Even the composition of the "basic food groups" has been changed. What is a person to make of all this?

Richard Gilbert: I made the mistake of reading John Robbins' Diet for a New America, becoming known as the "Vegetarian Bible." Robbins is an heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune but, believing the dairy industry exploits animals, he has made animal rights his life-long crusade. I use the word "mistake" because Robbins created a cognitive dissonance in me that sharply challenged the life-style of over half a century. Read it at your own risk.

Helena P. Chapin: I became a vegan after reading Robbins' book. In the foreword Joanna Macy suggests that if Americans woke up one day and found meat and poultry and dairy products unappealing, not only would our health be dramatically impacted, but world hunger, deforestation, water supplies, fossil fuel energy and our guilt about cruelty to other species would benefit as well.

It was as if there was nothing else to do…by changing the way I ate I could actually make a daily statement and [make a difference about] some very vital issues while improving my health! Being a vegan has become an integral part of my religious life. I believe Dr. Michael Klaper when he says:

Everything in life makes a difference, just as everything we eat becomes a part of us and shapes who we are. Food produced non-violently will make a gentler, healthier world for us and for all the creatures who share our planet. It is be­coming clear that gentleness—toward one's self, toward one's family and neighbors, and toward our Mother Earth and all her inhabitants—is essential for true health, as well as for planetary survival.

Damage caused to the environment by meat eating is overwhelming. Here are just a few of Alan Durning's findings for the Worldwatch Institute:

  • Nearly 40% of the world's grain and 70% of U.S. grain are [is] fed to livestock.
  • It takes the equivalent of 50 gallons of gasoline to produce the red meat and poultry eaten by the typical American each year—and twice that much to process, package, transport, sell, store and cook it.
  • Because of the acreage used for animal feed, pasture and range, 70% of public land in the western U.S. is severely degraded and 10% has been turned into desert. For each pound of red meat, poultry, eggs and milk, farm fields lose five pounds of prime topsoil.
  • Animal waste and feed fertilizers contaminate rivers, lakes and streams; and cattle emit a third of a pound of methane for every pound of beef they yield, contributing to global warming.

World hunger and malnutrition—40,000 children die daily—are even more convincing evidence for eating lower on the food chain. Dr. Walden Bello of the Institute for Food and Development Policy states:

The fact is that there is enough food in the world for everyone. But strategically, much of the world's food and land resources are tied up in producing beef and other live­stockfood for the well-offwhile millions of children and adults suf­fer from malnutrition and starvation.

If environmental damage, cruelty to animals and world hunger aren't enough, consider the health of our own bodies. We are natural herbivores, with no claws and no sharp front teeth for tearing meat. We have flat molar teeth and can move our jaws forward and backward or side to side for grinding. Our intestinal tract is 12 times our body length (not the 3-times-the-body-length which allows decaying meat to pass out quickly). Our stomach acid is 20 times weaker than that of a meat eater. Robbins lists "dis­eases and conditions that can be commonly prevented, consistently improved, and/or sometimes cured by a low-fat diet free from animal products: strokes, heart disease, osteoporosis, prostate cancer, breast cancer, hypertension, salmonellosis, hypoglycemia, peptic ulcers, obesity, diabetes, hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, asthma, constipation, gallstones, and irritable bowel syndrome."

Finally, this issue of food choice is relevant to every one of our Unitarian Universalist (UU) Principles. Come join me at the vegan tables!

Frederick E. Gillis: Ultimately, we probably will need to find ways to live on less meat. We will need to find more earth-friendly ways of growing food. But to think that if one gives up eating meat and foregoes using other animal products one will save the world from environmental catastrophe is a simplistic solution to an amazingly complex problem.

There is not enough evidence even to confirm an overall trend toward global warming much less to justify zeroing in on meat-eating as a major cause. To suggest that as a society we should undertake a shift away from one major traditional food source to another overlooks the possibility that the effects of such a significant change could be even more damaging to the environment.

If we were to become a completely vegetarian culture, we would need even more chemical fertilizers for grain production (or animal waste for organic fertilizer), and more hydrocarbon-producing tractors and harvesting machinery as well.

The methane issue seems absurd. I don't hear anyone arguing that we should fill in our wetlands in the name of reducing greenhouse gases. Yet swamplands and mud­flats produce more methane than cattle (and what about the effect of millions more humans eating beans?!).

Human beings have been carnivorous for millennia. The final verdict on the effect of a moderate meat-eating diet is not in. In fact Inuit peoples have enjoyed good health on an almost exclusively meat diet. Americans have a much longer life expectancy than people in many traditional vegetarian cultures.

Using animals for food is only part of the total situation. The main is­sues are population stabilization and the reduction of our use of hydrocarbons. The moral issue is our overall stewardship of the earth, not making us fit into a single behavioral mold.

Glen Turner: When I was a boy, the centerpiece of any family meal was meat. A good breakfast was bacon and eggs. A breakfast we could afford was cereal, milk and toast. Lunch was sandwiches and soup. A good sandwich was made with leftover pork or beef roast. We often made do with peanut butter and jelly. Suppers were spotty: meatloaves, hot dogs and beans, chicken and dumplings, waffles and bacon, beef stew, fish on Friday. Sunday was the roast: lamb, prime rib, pork, turkey. We liked meat. Vegetables and potatoes were mandatory nutritional supplements. However, corn on the cob we liked drenched in butter and salt. A rich ice cream was often dessert. A glass of milk went with every meal. Boxes of Fanny Farmer candy lay on the antique oak table that I have to this day. My father loved cheese. That came later for me.

My father had his first heart attack at age 55 and took early retirement. Angina pains plagued him until he died in his early 70s. I've been struggling with a reluctant journey toward health…a pilgrimage, if you will. I never wanted my consciousness raised about these issues—I like salt—but that sentiment from a best-loved hymn tugs at my conscience: "Lord of all, grant that we, wholesome grain and pure may be." There's a part of us that in a material and spiritual sense wants to do the right things for both our body and our soul.

In August, 1991, at my wife's insistence, we went a couple of weeks just eating vegetables. Then our holiday in the country was over, and it was back to the city and to a well-balanced diet of beef, lamb, pork, chicken, fish, and cheese. Only, the beef tasted less exciting each time I bit it. Last summer I began reading Robbins' book and gave up beef. In rapid succession went chicken and fish. Then I swore off milk and cheese and eggs. In preparation for a trek in Nepal, I began systematically to eat and exercise with an eye toward being physically and spiritually fit.

My pilgrimage now is concerned with not just my own personal health. In the 7th UU Principle that deals with the interdependent web of life, we learn that the issues run far deeper than individual salvation. I have a wonderful family to enjoy, including a grandson; I'd like to remain a grandfather to him as long as possible. And I sincerely wish the same for you, and for my children and yours.

One person who stops eating meat can't do anything about the number of people starving in the world, but if all Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by only 10%, it would free over twelve mil­lion tons of grain annually for human consumption. That, all by it­self, would be enough to adequately feed every one of the 60 million beings who will starve to death on the planet this year.

Also, by cutting your own intake of meat, dairy products and eggs by 10%, you reduce your chance of a heart attack by 9%. It's up to you how healthy you want to be. The fact is that your choice has social political and economic consequences for you and everyone else in the world.

And what does this have to do with religion? I wonder about the fact that so many of the world’s religions have strict teachings about diet. Yet, I don't think UUs address food or diet in any of the religious education curricula. We teach our children about "safe" sex, about AIDS/HIV, but not about food, not about diet, not about animal rights. Shouldn't we be teaching them about safe foods? About the dangers of alcohol and smoking? I think, at its core, any religion must be concerned with the health of its followers. We could each, in maximizing our own health, create a healthier world for others.

If you do this, do not do it silently. Spread the word (and the recipes).

We did not weave the web of life,
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web
We do to ourselves.
__Chief Seattle

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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