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