Predators Aren’t the Top of the Food Chain, Their Parasites Are!

Lots of peo­ple tell me that human beings are sup­posed to be preda­tors and carnivores—that we’re sup­posed to be the top of the food chain! This makes human beings sound real­ly impor­tant and spe­cial, doesn’t it? There’s only one small prob­lem with this idea. The apex preda­tor of an ecosys­tem (i.e., a preda­tor that has no preda­tors of its own) is not real­ly at the top of its food chain. The crea­tures at the very tip­py top of the food chain are the par­a­sites that feed on the apex preda­tor. Here’s a link to an arti­cle that describes the pro­to­zoa, worms, and mites that were found in the drop­pings of wild lions in Tan­za­nia. These par­a­sites are the sort of crea­tures I think of when some­one men­tions the top of the food chain! Not so glam­orous, is it?

The idea that human beings should be at the top of the food chain and there­fore should or must kill and eat oth­er ani­mals to main­tain some sort of spe­cial sta­tus sounds to me like a weird and dan­ger­ous form of nar­cis­sism. It asserts that we are spe­cial and enti­tled to spe­cial priv­i­leges, but it bases that exalt­ed sta­tus on prim­i­tive ani­mal­is­tic behav­iors, not on the abil­i­ties and accom­plish­ments that are unique to our species. We’re the only known species in the uni­verse with whom it is even the­o­ret­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble to hold an intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion. We’re the only ones who can con­tem­plate and delib­er­ate­ly shape our own des­tiny. Those unique­ly human gifts make us spe­cial, even if we eat the low-fat plant-based foods that are good for our health instead of the fat­ty, meaty foods that are the major cause of death and dis­abil­i­ty in the Unit­ed States.

The Cause of the Breast Cancer Epidemic

Octo­ber is Breast Can­cer Aware­ness Month, and we’re inun­dat­ed with pink rib­bons, urg­ing us to be “aware” of breast can­cer and encour­ag­ing women to get mam­mo­grams. Per­son­al­ly, I didn’t need to be made aware of breast can­cer. It dev­as­tat­ed my fam­i­ly about 40 years ago, when my father’s eldest sis­ter, who was more like a moth­er to him, died of it after a long and hor­ri­ble ill­ness. About 10 years lat­er, anoth­er of his sis­ters began her long and painful strug­gle against the dis­ease that even­tu­al­ly claimed her life. Recent­ly, some of my friends have under­gone mas­tec­tomies. It would hard for me to be more aware that breast can­cer exists.

What infu­ri­ates me is that the attempts to raise “aware­ness” of breast can­cer sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly fail to tell women the sin­gle most impor­tant thing they can do to reduce their risk of dying of breast can­cer: cor­rect their diet. Instead, it urges them to do some­thing that might have lit­tle or no effect on their sur­vival: get an annu­al mam­mo­gram. It would be as if the efforts to edu­cate the pub­lic about lung can­cer all failed to men­tion cig­a­rettes but instead just urged every­one in the pop­u­la­tion to get an annu­al chest x-ray.

By the mid 20th cen­tu­ry, Euro­pean and U.S.-trained doc­tors who were prac­tic­ing in Africa and Asia real­ized that breast can­cer is rare to prac­ti­cal­ly nonex­is­tent in pop­u­la­tions that eat a low-fat, plant-based diet. By the end of the 20th cen­tu­ry, epi­demi­ol­o­gists knew that breast can­cer mor­tal­i­ty is strong­ly linked to the amount of ani­mal pro­tein that a pop­u­la­tion con­sumes. The more ani­mal pro­tein a pop­u­la­tion eats, the more like­ly its women are to die of breast can­cer. Veg­eta­bles had the oppo­site effect. The more veg­eta­bles a pop­u­la­tion eats, the less like­ly their women are to die of breast can­cer.

The data on breast can­cer mor­tal­i­ty boil down to a sim­ple les­son: if women ate low-fat plant foods instead of a fat­ty, ani­mal-based diet (includ­ing meat, milk, fish and eggs), they could dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce their risk of dying of breast cancer–and colon can­cer, and heart dis­ease, and dia­betes, and autoim­mune dis­ease, etc. etc. etc. They’d even reduce their risk of get­ting vari­cose veins! Even if a woman already has can­cer, a switch to a low-fat, plant-based diet might improve her chances of sur­vival.

Instead of being giv­en advice that will actu­al­ly pre­vent breast can­cer, women in the Unit­ed States are urged to get a rou­tine annu­al mam­mo­gram. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, mam­mo­grams do absolute­ly noth­ing to pre­vent breast can­cer, and they may do lit­tle or noth­ing to keep most women from dying of breast can­cer. Worse yet, rou­tine mam­mog­ra­phy may lead to unnec­es­sary sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures in women who don’t have can­cer.

The deci­sion of who should under­go mam­mog­ra­phy and when they should under­go it is com­pli­cat­ed. The next time you hear some­one urg­ing all women of a cer­tain age to have annu­al screen­ing mam­mo­grams, con­sid­er the fol­low­ing:

  • Mam­mog­ra­phy involves expos­ing the breast to x-rays and thus might actu­al­ly cause some can­cers. The x-rays could pose a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem for young women and women with a genet­ic pre­dis­po­si­tion to breast can­cer.
  • The breast is typ­i­cal­ly squashed flat while the mam­mo­gram is being tak­en. Not only does this com­pres­sion hurt, it could break up a pre­can­cer­ous lesion, turn­ing it into a dead­ly inva­sive can­cer.
  • Mam­mog­ra­phy is less use­ful for find­ing can­cers in the breasts of pre­menopausal women because their breast tis­sue is denser.
  • By the time a can­cer is large enough to be seen by mam­mog­ra­phy, it may already have spread.
  • Mam­mo­grams often cause false alarms by bring­ing atten­tion to harm­less benign lesions, as well as to can­cer­ous tumors that would have gone away by them­selves if left untreat­ed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the woman has to under­go the pain and expense and risk of a sur­gi­cal biop­sy to find out whether the lesion is benign or not, and she’ll nev­er know whether her body’s immune sys­tem would have destroyed a tumor before it caused any prob­lems.

Many stud­ies have failed to show that rou­tine screen­ing mam­mog­ra­phy pro­vides any ben­e­fit in terms of sav­ing lives. As a result, some experts argue that it is a point­less and cru­el waste of med­ical resources to urge all women to have annu­al screen­ing mam­mog­ra­phy. Even the val­ue of rou­tine breast self-exam­i­na­tion has been ques­tioned. Nev­er­the­less, mam­mog­ra­phy could still be valu­able for many indi­vid­ual patients, depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion. The real ques­tion is when and how often and for whom it should be used.

Pho­to by maf04

Host a Screening of Forks Over Knives

If you haven’t seen it already, watch the doc­u­men­tary Forks Over Knives. You can watch it instant­ly on Net­flix if you are a Net­flix sub­scriber. You can also order the DVD at and host your own screen­ing.

The doc­u­men­tary includes this juicy quote from T. Col­in Camp­bell, PhD, who is one of the world’s most promi­nent nutri­tion sci­en­tists:

I know of noth­ing else in med­i­cine that can come close to what a plant-based diet can do. I can say this with a great deal of con­fi­dence, that our nation­al author­i­ties are sim­ply exclud­ing this con­cept of nutri­tion from the debate, in the dis­cus­sion, in order to pro­tect the sta­tus quo. In the­o­ry, if every­one were to adopt this, I real­ly believe that we could cut health­care costs by 70% to 80%.

How to Cook Dried Beans, Lentils, and Peas

It’s easy to get enough pro­tein from a plant-based diet, even if you don’t eat legumes (beans, lentils, and peas). In fact, the Pythagore­ans of ancient Greece thrived on a pure­ly plant-based diet, even though they refused for philo­soph­i­cal rea­sons to eat beans. Nev­er­the­less, beans are cheap, tasty, and nutri­tious and play an impor­tant part in many tra­di­tion­al cuisines. The only prob­lem is that dried beans can be hard to cook. I’ve tried sev­er­al dif­fer­ent meth­ods and have had good luck with all of them.

If you want to use dried beans instead of canned beans, you’re going to have to think ahead and allow time for the beans to soak and cook. I usu­al­ly soak them overnight and then cook them the fol­low­ing day. I often cook a huge pot of beans and then use the cooked beans in var­i­ous recipes over the next few days. For exam­ple, I mash some of the beans with a lit­tle bit of chili pow­der and salt and use them as sand­wich fill­ing. Or I can add chick peas or oth­er beans to a sal­ad.

If you want to cook chick peas, use soft water, such as rain­wa­ter. If you use hard water, the chick peas will nev­er soft­en! We have real­ly hard water, so I use water from a reverse osmo­sis fil­ter when I cook chick peas. I can use reg­u­lar tap water for oth­er kinds of beans.

The first step in cook­ing dried beans is to sort through them to make sure that no peb­bles are hid­ing among the beans. I sim­ply pour them into my hand a few at a time and then toss them into a bowl. For small beans like lentils, I scat­ter them a hand­ful at a time onto a white plate and pick through them before toss­ing them into the bowl. You can cook lentils and peas right away. I soak larg­er beans overnight before cook­ing them.

I use any of sev­er­al meth­ods to cook beans. The tra­di­tion­al method used by the Native Amer­i­cans of New Eng­land was to put the beans and water and maybe some maple syrup in a crock­ery pot and leave it by the fire. The Puri­tans of New Eng­land adopt­ed a sim­i­lar prac­tice because they strict­ly observed the Sab­bath, which meant that they couldn’t work on Sun­days. They real­ized that they could have a hot, cooked meal on Sun­days if they left a pot of beans and a crock­ery of coarse bread dough in a hot brick oven on Sat­ur­day night. The fact that near­ly every­one ate beans on Sun­days is why Boston is called Bean Town.

With the rise of the sug­ar plan­ta­tions in the Caribbean, and the result­ing Tri­an­gle Trade involv­ing Boston, Bosto­ni­ans start­ed using molasses and brown sug­ar to sweet­en their Boston baked beans and their Boston brown bread. This struck me as deeply hyp­o­crit­i­cal. It meant that peo­ple turned a blind eye to human traf­fick­ing and slav­ery but frowned on free peo­ple doing house­hold chores on Sun­days. As Hait­ian-Amer­i­can author Solar Cook­ers Inter­na­tion­al.

In win­ter and dur­ing cloudy weath­er, I use a pres­sure cook­er to cook beans. My Presto® pres­sure cook­er is about 20 years old. Two years ago, I bought it some new gas­kets and a new han­dle for the lid. Pres­sure cook­ers are great! They save time and ener­gy. Here’s a chart that gives the pres­sure cook­er cook­ing times for var­i­ous kinds of beans. Pres­sure cook­ers are par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful for peo­ple who live at high ele­va­tions, such as in the Rocky Moun­tains. That’s because water boils at a low­er tem­per­a­ture if the air pres­sure is low.

Pho­to by WhyKen­Fo­tos