Five Years Plus











{April 17, 2010}   Confessions of a Carnivore

At some point in the cancer journey I started to wonder: “Why me”? Is it genetic? Did some medical intervention 20 years ago such as a biopsy or chest x-ray lead to this? Did I somehow cause this through my diet, lifestyle or even my thoughts? While in the throes of cancer treatment, the best advice is probably not to worry about why, but just get on with getting better. However, to give myself the best chance that cancer never comes back after the initial treatments are completed, I believe it is important to understand what may have created it in the first place.

I’ve turned over many stones looking for a cause: from blood, urine and saliva tests to spiritual soul searching. However, it appears that there is not likely to be a single cause; many factors influence the development of cancer.  To this day I never hesitate to incorporate new information which might provide another piece of my unique puzzle. One factor that I can control is my diet and recently the medical establishment has officially acknowledged some links between diet and breast cancer. So how might my diet have contributed to my disease?

I always thought of myself as having a healthy diet. I grew up with an unusual degree of dietary awareness. My mom had a background in health and was always cooking up new healthful concoctions. At first meeting many people assume I am vegetarian because I have that lean yoga teacher look and some know that I lived in an ashram in India for five years. My mother and I discovered vegetarianism together in the late 70s when a friend gave us a copy of the then new Moosewood Cookbook. In college the horrors of dorm food convinced me to give up meat “for good”. I ate pancakes, hummus, tofu, and cheese with plenty of cookies for dessert. I made vegetarian lasagna, homemade yogurt, baked my own bread and learned to grow sprouts. I put soy milk in my coffee. I believed that being a vegetarian was good for both the planet and my health.

One of the first consultations I had after my cancel diagnosis was with a nutritionist. Among other things, she recommended that I watch a DVD called Eating for Optimal Health by her colleague David Getoff. This DVD made sense to me and I committed to following its recommendations which stressed adequate consumption of good quality protein and fats and cutting out sugars. I also began to suspect that vegetarianism might not be as healthy as I had been led to believe. Perhaps the “healthy” high-carb, high-sugar, low-protein vegetarian diet I maintained for 18 years before moving to Upstate New York might have contributed to the growth of cancer in my body.

The word “protein” comes from a Greek root meaning “of first importance”. In his DVD Getoff points out that the quality of proteins and fats that we eat are as important as the quantity. He and many other food scientists believe that we need animal protein to be healthy.[i] When I was vegetarian I didn’t worry much about protein as I had read that there were sufficient amounts in brown rice especially when paired with beans or lentils. While lack of protein in itself has not been directly linked to cancer, the imbalance of high carbohydrates and sugar to low protein in my former vegetarian diet probably played havoc with my body chemistry, weakened my immune system and created perfect conditions for cancer cells to gradually grow into a tumor over the next 15-20 years.

I must confess that by the time of these realizations, my vegetarian days were already five years behind me. A few days after arriving in Upstate New York in 1999, Chuck took me out to a fine dining restaurant. Inhaling the tantalizing aromas from the kitchen, I reminisced about the thick slices of roast beef I had savored as a child. Chuck encouraged me by saying, “you can order a steak if you want one” and I did just that. After awhile I started to cook meat at home, partly in response to the preferences of my step-kids. First I added ground beef to spaghetti sauce and then learned to roast a chicken and broil a steak. Recently to Chuck’s delight and my amazement, I successfully prepared lamb’s liver with bacon and onions. But even with the help of my well-worn cookbook The Grassfed Gourmet, I have had my share of catastrophes attempting to recreate the roast beef of my childhood from the wrong cut of meat.

As I began to embrace the consumption of meat as part of a healthy diet, Chuck and I tracked down sources of locally produced grass fed or pasture raised meat and poultry. This is important to us for humaneecological and health reasons. The way in which animals are raised determines the quality of the protein their meat provides. For example, grass fed meat is naturally leaner and contains much more of the beneficial Omega 3 essential fatty acids than grain fed meat. I’m also motivated to avoid the hormones used to fatten-up “factory bred” animals because of the associated increased risk of tumor growth.

These days I take the time to carefully consider how I can get some high quality protein at every meal, balancing this with fruit at breakfast and plenty of vegetables at lunch and dinner. I eat beef and lamb  provided that it is grass-fed and hormone and antibiotic free. I also enjoy pasture-raised chicken, eggs and most recently, pork. Organic whey powder and certain kinds of fish are my other sources of good quality protein.

Ever since that first steak of my adult life, I’ve become more and more of a meat-lover. Quite honestly, I enjoy the look of incredulity as the people who assume I’m a vegetarian watch me bite into the pink flesh of my medium-rare filet mignon. There are limits though. While Chuck relishes sausage and organ-meats, I am a little squeamish in that regard. It may stem from the childhood trauma of finding the beef tongue sandwich my mother had packed in my school lunchbox. But I continue to discover new dimensions to my love of meat, including “wild-crafted” venison ribs and a whole-goat feast. I am grateful to these animals and hope to be worthy of the gift of life and nutrition that they provide.

Check out the venison link for the full story


[i] See for example, Sally Fallon’s discussion of protein in her cookbook Nourishing Traditions.

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Deb Kenn says:

Okay, I must admit having an initial reaction which was purely emotional and angry at feeling condemned for being someone who doesn’t eat meat. There are many ways for carnivores to condemn those who don’t eat meat and there’s many ways for vegetarians to condemn people who eat meat. I initially was sucked into that downward spiral of judgment and arrogance.

Now that my intellect has balanced the emotional reaction, I’d like to comment on the difference between opinion and fact. I respect your opinions, Gyata, and I very much respect your journey toward trying to figure out what caused the cancer. But when buttressed by reference to “food scientists” and experts, you lost me at the allegation that being a vegetarian may have caused cancer or even that we need animal protein to be healthy. I’m sure there are as many (if not more) “food scientists” who believe we do not need animal protein to be healthy, in fact some experts believe it makes us unhealthy (even “healthy” meat). Perhaps years of eating meat before becoming a vegetarian leads people to get cancer or other disease. Perhaps eating an unhealthy vegetarian diet leads to disease. WHO KNOWS!!! Conjecture leads to misinformation and misinformation leads to diviseness. Choices around eating meat or not rarely have to do with health. Once those emotional choices are made, there’s always a cadre of experts willing to back up our choices.

I understand totally the need to figure out the “why” of disease. I can relate to wanting it to be something we have control over so we can control the disease not returning. I love your blog, Gyata, your journey of self-reflection and self-awareness. The easiest path for me would have been not to respond or react in this public way. But, I want to be able to keep reading your blog; I usually get a lot out of it and learn greatly. In putting this response out there, it will help be stay engaged.



Art kilgour says:

Really like this post Gyata. Not sure your caution at the outset about the complexity of cancer matches the “blame” you place on your long-term veggie diet. Aren’t there cultures with mainly veg diets that are low-cancer? In any case I enjoyed your argument. And the beef tongue sandwiches? LOL! thank goodness that fad of mums was short-lived. Mine all went straight to trash!



Laura says:

This was interesting and thought provoking Gyata.



Chuck says:

Gyata,
I think it’s courageous of you to share your experience, especially when it touches a nerve in some readers as this post apparently has. Diet is a very personal choice and I’m glad you’ve shared your choices and the reasons for them. The links between poor diet and disease are very well established. Poor diet causes and/or contributes to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and yes – cancer. I do not see you blaming vegetarianism per se, but rather pointing out that your specific high-sugar diet, maintained over a long period of time, “probably” contributed to tumor formation. While this is necessarily speculative, it is in fact your take on the matter, and very thought provoking. Isn’t that what a blog is for?

I have personally had many different diets over the years. During the early ’90’s I taught myself Macrobiotic cooking and ate a strictly Macrobiotic diet. Since then I’ve been vegan, vegetarian and a “raw fooder” for various significant periods of time. I’m currently eating meat. I’ve found that each diet has had a profound effect upon my health (e.g. I lost 50 pounds eating Macrobiotic and never felt better in my life) my mood and my energy level. My reading of this post leads me to believe that you are advocating a diet with low sugar and a balance weighted towards high-quality protein and fat. I also hear you saying that if you’re going to eat meat, it’s going to be the best kind in healthy, humane and ecological terms. There are deep emotional, political, economic, ecological and other concerns with respect to the dietary choices made by the billions of us that share this planet. It’s not reasonable to expect your blog to even attempt to capture all these dimensions, and even if you did there would be passionate debate on all sides of each question. What I applaud is your willingness to share your authentic experience and state your views and the reasoning behind them.



Hayley says:

I really like this post, Gyata. I think it’s very thoughtful. I know many vegetarians and vegans who refuse to even think about the health benefits of meat-eating. I remember how you were vegetarian when you first came to live with us. Thank you for adapting your cooking to suit our diets! I guess I didn’t realize at the time that it may have been a strange and/or hard thing for you to do. It’s funny, people always assume I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t have the “lean yoga teacher” look. Have you ever heard of the blood type diet? I’m A- and it told me that I should have a strict vegetarian diet, like that will ever happen! However, I am going to commit myself to eating organic and ethically raised meat that I will buy from the Ithaca Farmer’s Market.



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