Mad Cow Disease: Is It Time to Go Vegetarian?

February, 2002 Signs of the Times (Volume 129, No. 2) by Raymond O. West, M.D.
If you had been wandering the streets of Seattle recently, you might have noted a whimsical little bus-side advertisement. A mother cow with her eager little calf look out with appealing expressions, face to face with the sidewalk viewer. The bovine mother and her baby calf are saying, "May we suggest a nice veggie-burger?" The ad practically demands that the pedestrian pause and ask, "Do I really eat this: without the fur?"

That's a pertinent query, especially since the slaughter of cows by the millions in not-so-merry old England. Mad cow disease! Is it another reason to become a vegetarian? We must examine this question.

Before we look at answers, however, let's try a 10-second review of "animal-caused" brain diseases. In mad cows it's spongiform encephalopathy. In sheep, it's scrapie. Over in New Guinea, it's called Kuru; that one comes from the declining habit of eating human brain. Creutzfeldt-Jakob (CJ) disease is its name closer to home, and we can't blame cannibalism for this one. The common denominator of all these is a villainous scrap of protein called a prion. Prions demand our attention, for they are malignant aliens skulking silently in some of our animal-based goods.

Now let's hold that thought for a moment and think back to the '40s, when experts forecast nutritional disaster to nonmeat eaters far and wide. Consider how one doctor counseled his anemic friend: "It just makes sense: good common sense: to build up your blood with food that resembles your own blood and muscle. Obviously, that's meat." And the more the better was his dietary recommendation. Was he right? Read on and then decide.

In those days, the nutritional imperative was protein. Proteins for life, for muscle and brawn. Proteins to grow healthy livers and lungs and brains. We were instructed to concentrate on complete proteins, and that required flesh meat: fish and fowl. And of course, byproducts like milk, cheese, and eggs. That's what they told us then, and we listened, all the way to the butcher shop. But subsequently, we learned this: food combinations that include grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds can take care of protein needs very well. Actually, for them it's a piece of cake.

After that it was the wonder of vitamin B12. Our bodies require these ruby-red molecules for healthy blood and brain, so we were adjured to consume flesh along with milk and eggs as the exclusive sources of this nutrient. True enough, strict vegetarians must ensure adequate vitamin B12. But doing so is easy. Many foods are fortified, and if we don't get enough on the menu, for a few pennies we can tote it home from the corner drugstore.

So there you have the imperatives: compelling reasons why we were urged to eat meat. Now, let's reheat the skillet and consider some compelling reasons why we shouldn't.

Why we shouldn't

For beginners, while Americans make up only about 7 percent of the entire world population, they dine on about 1/3 of the total meat supply. And the experts warn that about 6 pounds of plant foods like corn and other grains are required to produce one pound of beef. That's while much of the world's population goes to bed hungry. It's worth considering the next time we bite into a burger. And then, recall that an innocent creature gave up its life that we might consume its muscle and organs to achieve gustatory delection.

But it's much more than creature compassion or food conservation: ever so much more. For flesh eating carries risk! Yes, eating meat can harm your health.

For instance, take cholesterol. Decades of research have virtually slathered us with data that implicates cholesterol with clogging arteries and causing heart attacks. It's comforting to note that cholesterol is never found in a vegetarian diet. Nope, only in creature foods: meat, fish, fowl, and dairy comestibles.

That's one thing, but now consider fat: for when greasy foods are sizzling in the pan, there's danger on the menu. However, let us not condemn all foods that contain fat. Some fat sources are safe. Like vegetable fats. As you might have guessed, animal fats are the culprits. As a rule of thumb, fats that are liquid at room temperature are preferred. If solid, they're suspect. While there are exceptions, solid lard is not one of them. Nor is butter.

There's more, and if anything, it gets even worse. Worse that is if one dreads the "C" word: cancer.

"Hold it now," I hear you exclaim. "Cows get cancer, but they don't cause it. Pigs get tumors, but they don't spread them through bacon at breakfast . . . do they?"

You decide. The lines that follow are taken from research published in The American Journal of Epidemiology.1 Here is the quote: "Our findings . . . identify red meat and white meat intake as important dietary risk factors for colon cancer." Or consider another paper, this time one published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Meat consumption was positively associated with mortality because of all causes of death combined (in males) . . . and cancers of the colon (in both males and females combined) and ovary."2

And if you have appetite for more, consider this quote from a publication of the American Chemical Society: "It is rather common knowledge that abundant evidence from other studies confirms the possibility of a causative link between meat use and coronary disease. However, this study is the first major observational study to clearly show this relationship among U.S. subjects."3

So, it isn't cancer alone, but heart disease as well. Note please that these two disease felons are the leading causes of death throughout America.

There we have it. First we were told that we must eat meat for health. Now there are all these reasons why we shouldn't.

Let's move on to mad cow disease.

Those dangerous prions

Until we know more, we can lump all the scrapies and bovine spongiforms together as "prion-caused" in animals. And human spongiform (CJ disease) along with Kuru as "prion-caused" in humans. A key question for veggie and nonveggie alike is this: Can those tiny scraps of protein that we call prions cross the line? Can they jump the divide between animals and humans?

Do we have the answer? Yes, we do . . . and it's Yes, they can.

But it goes even further and gets worse. For instance there's talk of transmission of the prions from one patient to others by way of contaminated instruments in the skilled hands of a brain surgeon. Rumor suggests that this has occurred already.

Prions from the brain of one human to the brains of other patients? How come?

Well, prions can't be killed: because they are not alive in the first place. They can be destroyed (shall we say "cooked") by extreme heating. We are only now learning that the usual sterilization methods don't work.

And what else are we about to learn? Are there prions in those gelatin capsules used to deliver many medicines. Good question!

Any other bad news?

A recent report reveals that animal parts are tossed into certain nutritionals, especially those favored by athletes. So, is it prions from your favorite health-food store?

At least one government agency estimates that 5 percent of the U.S. population are vegetarian, or close thereto. If so, they are all nutritional pals with some notables of the past, like Shakespeare and Shelley. Voltaire, Milton, and Newton preferred a "nonviolent" menu. For as long as a thousand years Buddhism, Jainism, and Trappist monks have stressed fraternalism with our lesser animal friends. And these vegetarians are not all ancients. Consider for example Hank Aaron, Peter Falk, and Henry Heimlich, M.D., along with Paul McCartney.

If you have an appetite for the vegetarian lifestyle and you plan some culinary changes, that's just great, but be cautious. Load the menu with lots of whole grains, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruit. You can't lose on legumes: beans, peas, and lentils. And here's a good general rule: take your food from as close to its original source as possible. "Cracker-barrel nutrition." And just for super-safety you might add in a calcium tablet (Tums are fine), a B12 tablet, and maybe a multi-vitamin with just a twist of iron.

Entrust all these foods to the kitchen of your favorite gourmet cook who is long on imagination and innovation, and stand by for a feast!

Let's eat for health first. The delights and safety of veggie cuisine are almost sure to follow.

Bon appetit!

1P. N. Singh and G. E. Fraser, "Dietary Risk Factors for Colon Cancer in a Low-Risk Population," American Journal of Epidemiology 1998, Vol. 148, 761-774.

2D. H. Snowdon, "Animal Product Consumption and Mortality Because of all Causes Combined, Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, Diabetes and Cancer in Seventh-day Adventists," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1988, Vol. 48, 739-748.

3R. L. Phillips and D. H. Snowdon, "Mortality Among Seventh-day Adventists in Relation to Dietary Habits and Life Style," American Chemical Society Symposium, Series 312, A C S, Washington, D.C., 1986.

¥ Raymond O. West, M.D., writes a column, Health Wise, that is a regular feature in Signs of the Times¨

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