Since arriving in Korea, my diet has shifted too often for comfort. Fresh off the plane, I aimed to maintain the low-carbohydrate diet I pursued in California. But the Korean food environment proved challenging as most restaurants sweat rice and sugar.
At the time, I subscribed to the insulin-carbohydrate hypothesis, angling to eat as much meat, vegetables, and nuts as possible while restricting fruit, grains, and processed food.
The insulin-carbohydrate hypothesis asserts that insulin (a hormone that shuttles nutrients to cells in an effort to lower blood glucose) directly causes fat storage in the body. Therefore, one should restrict carbohydrate intake to reach and maintain a healthy weight. Calories don’t matter as much as the content of those calories.
This approach wasn’t all bad. I maintained a stable bodyweight between 205 and 210 pounds over two years. This is slightly overweight according to BMI, but relatively healthy when looking into the mirror and considering muscle mass. However, restricting carbohydrates often earned me disapproving comments from co-workers in the school cafeteria.
“Ian? Why don’t you eat rice? I’m concerned about your health.”
Moreover, I found myself succumbing to weekly sweet-tooth terrors as I gobbled up ice cream, kimbap (Korean sushi), and candy bars. Captain Fatass was the everpresent boogieman in my closet.
Eight months into Korean life, I softened my stance on carbohydrates. Researchers like Jason Fung presented a more nuanced view of the insulin hypothesis that considers fasting time and total calories consumed. One can store some fat on a low-carb diet. However, since a low-carb diet is almost always a high-fat diet, fat doesn’t require insulin to store.
I also realized that continuing my intermittent fasting routine (skipping breakfast and eating all meals in an 8-hour window) would drop my insulin and allow my body to cycle through fat stores. So I took to rice and fruit. Fruit helped me curb my sweet-tooth while packing fiber and phytonutrients.
I continued this more “balanced” diet for another six months until I stumbled across books and Youtube videos that would change my perspective on my diet yet again.
Absorbing to Youtube videos by fitness buffs like Alpha Destiny and NutritionFacts and listening to audiobooks like Whole, The Blue Zones, and The China Study planted seeds that whispered the health-promoting benefits of a plant-based diet. Studies among populations in rural Mexico, Japanese Okinawa, and Italian Sardinia show a robust elderly population eating a whole-food, plant-based diet. These regions also boast the highest per-capita populations of centenarians.
Some research by Dr. T. Colin Campbell shows that animal protein drives tumor growth in rats. Granted, rat studies deserve discount due to rodents’ disparate physiology from humans. But considering how many rat studies Gary Taubes offered up in Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat in his case against carbohydrates, they feel like fair game. Even more convincing is the massive epidemiological study that Campbell conducted in rural China. His study showed a very clear (though not definitively causal) link between eating more whole, plant-based foods and experiencing fewer adverse health outcomes like heart disease and cancer.
Campbell’s research also forced me to re-consider how I interpret nutritional science. For decades, researchers have taken a reductionist approach to understanding foods’ effects on the body. By reductionist, I mean isolating nutrients and testing its effects on the cellular level. In other words, they try to reduce bodily responses to nutrients to a sum of its parts. This approach is most popular because it’s compatible with the scientific procedures of an experiment.
For example, let’s give 90 mg of vitamin C to some cells and no vitamin C to other cells and see how their responses differ. Scientists would measure differences in cellular responses, and then publish a paper claiming that “vitamin C helps with _________.” News outlets will then tout Vitamin C gummies as the hot health gift of 2019.
But does chewing a vitamin C tablet provide the same health benefits as eating an apple? Is it the vitamin C alone that provides optimal health, or are there other compounds that potentiate our body’s vitamin C response? One researcher suggests the latter. She found the biological response of 100g of apple to be 263 times stronger than the response of 100g of isolated vitamin C. Perhaps food is more than the sum of its nutrients. Perhaps nutrients work in tandem to either potentiate or inhibit bodily effects. Research already shows that nutrients can work together. For example, optimal bone health comes when calcium and magnesium work together. Perhaps we should consider a more “wholistic” view of nutrition, as misspelled and espoused by Campbell.
I also appreciate environmental arguments for a plant-based diet. Consider cows. It takes 2,500 gallons of water and 12 pounds of grain or grass to produce one pound of beef. It makes sense when I think about it. These animals expend massive amounts of energy just to live – just to grow up and produce meat. The energy loss in raising animals as food is highly inefficient. For example, 12 pounds of white corn is just under 5,000 calories. One pound of beef, on the other hand, 1 pound of beef packs between 1100 and 1500 calories (depending on fat content). For each pound of meat, we lose nearly 3500 calories of food to produce it – food that could re-route to starving populations.
Moreover, one should heed the cow’s contribution to global warming. One cow burps between 70 and 120 kilograms of methane per year. Methane, a flammable hydrocarbon gas, produces climate-warming effects 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide. If humanity could reduce its beef consumption by as little as 20%, the environmental impact would be substantial.
One reason I prefer environmental impact arguments for plant-based nutrition is it leaves open the possibility of partial commitment.
When a vegan activist shoves images of suffering animals into our faces, many undergo a psychological phenomenon known as reactance.
(The suffering of animals for factory-farmed for meat is a serious issue and warrants its own discussion by someone more qualified than myself).
Reactance occurs when one’s beliefs encounter emotionally distressing contradictory evidence. Rather than respond positively and proactively to images of factory farms, many people choose to double-down, ignoring the images and strengthening their resolve to eat meat.
Moreover, ethical and moral arguments leave no room for a partial commitment to plant-based eating. If meat is murder, then one cannot justify a reduction in meat consumption. It’s elimination or bust. “Just a little bit of murder” is still murder.
On the other hand, environmentalists argue for people to reduce their environmental impact, not to eliminate it. We cannot extinguish our environmental impact (aside from perhaps a nuclear-free human extinction). But we are all capable of limiting our footprint. We can reduce harmful activities and still see profound effects without dealing with deprivation.
If people trimmed their beef consumption by 25%, we could save profound amounts of grain and water while reducing carbon emissions by 500 million tons per year. Overall, 18% of greenhouse emissions come from agriculture – the bodily emissions of animals and the clearing of forests to grow animal feed. By choosing to eat less meat, we can put a serious dent in climate change.
One lighthearted effect of this dietary adjustment is the ease in which I consume my school lunches. In my dietary system, I do not restrict animal products entirely. While at home, I prepare plant-based meals exclusively (aside from an occasional beef stock powder as seasoning). At school, I choose flexibility. I prefer the teacher’s self-serve line so I can make choices. For one, I take generous portions of whatever vegetable is present. Next, I notice what meats are available. Is there meat and tofu? Maybe I’ll take some tofu and leave the meat. Is there a meat dish and a fish dish? I would take some of the fish and leave the meat. My system typically entails eating soup (sometimes contains meat), many vegetables, rice, kimchi, and a small portion of meat or fish. That often fills me up.
Moreover, unlike skipping rice, my coworkers never notice when I skip the meat dish. Even when I tell lunch ladies in Korean that I don’t eat much meat, they seem far less confused. Of course, we should eat how we like and not care what anyone thinks. But I would be remiss to ignore the benefits of not having to explain my dietary choices.
I’ve been keeping up this “flexitarian” diet for several months now and I continue to go strong. I continue to maintain a healthy weight (while losing a small amount of fat). Moreover, the conscious addition of more vitamins and minerals gives me more energy than before.
Initially, eating large amounts of beans generated gassy embarrassment. Thank goodness I sleep alone. But as I consume new foods for longer and longer, my digestive system adapts. I suspect it involves gut flora. The bacteria in my intestines trained to break down bean fiber has multiplied and thrived, curtailing my fart attacks.
Someday, when I leave Namak High School and must fend for myself at lunchtime, I may try going fully vegan. But for now, I appreciate this slow transition towards more vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, and seeds. I feel full, healthy, and happy.