So why, with all these advances in both knowledge and pill technology, are we still told that vegetables are necessary?
Well, part of it has to do with plain old inertia — your grandparents had to eat vegetables to say healthy, and they passed this on to your parents uncritically, and they in turn passed this on to you with equal credulity. You probably aren't even aware of the social prejudices you're carrying with you about vegetables. If someone from Norway told you you needed to eat lutefisk, because it was good for you, you'd probably balk and tell him to go stuff himself. But lutefisk does contain valuable nutrients, like vitamin B12. In parts of Scandanavia, lutefisk consumption is the norm. One can easily imagine Norwegian parents telling their children "Eat your lutefisk. It's good for you," and no one ever questioning whether eating lutefisk is necessary.
But that's not all there is to it. There's a bigger, more sinister force at work here.
You'll notice that the more vile a vegetable is to eat — for example, Brussels sprouts — the greater is the pressure to believe that it's "good for you" and that therefore you "have to eat it." It's as though unpleasantness is assumed to be virtuous in some manner.
This wasn't the first time that enduring unpleasant things has been automatically assumed to be good for you. The practice of self-denial has a long and grotesque history.
Although the practice probably didn't start with them, the most famous early record of such beliefs came with the first Christian monks in the 2nd century C.E.. The monks believed that if you cut yourself off from the "sinful" world, and denied yourself all the pleasures of the flesh, you would become closer to God. Some of them even went as far as to flagellate themselves, believing that the greater their personal suffering, the more points they racked up in the afterlife. Although the population at large didn't follow these monks' practices, the monks were still held up as ideals that others should aspire to.
At the turn of the 20th century, castor oil and mustard plaster were widely believed to be effective cures for many ailments despite an utter lack of credible evidence supporting these claims. The belief in the curative power of castor oil and mustard plaster came not from their track record, but from the simple fact that they were highly unpleasant. If it's bad, it must be good for you. (And, of course, the inverse: If it's good, it must be bad for you. By the time the 20th century was in full swing, public sentiment against alcohol had become so strong that a Consitutional amendment had banned it outright.)
And what do we have today? Recreational drugs are almost universally illegal. The pursuit of romance is called sexual harrassment or stalking, and prostitution is called even worse. No pain, no gain. Feel the burn. Sugar Blues was a #1 bestseller, and "Killer Salt" has been the cover story of Time magazine. As soon as the slightest bit of bad health news about trans fats hit the street, health nannies instantly jumped up and screamed "I told you so!" about Oreos and French fries. Sugary soft drinks were blamed for the obesity epidemic, and when diet soft drinks were offered as an alternative they received even more vitriol than sugared soft drinks did. (Why? Was it because artificial sweeteners were suspected of causing health problems? That was the excuse, but the real reason was that diet soft drinks were like "cheating." Soft drinks are enjoyable, so the weight gain that accompanies them is "punishment" for the "sin" of enjoying yourself, and diet soft drinks offered an end-run around this punishment.)
And, right up there with all the other old saws about the alleged virtues of self-denial and ascetism, we still have: "Vegetables are good for you."
You might not even be aware of how strong this cultural bias has become ingrained in you. Here, let me make:
There are places in the world where eating insects is the norm. In fact, over a thousand species of insects are eaten, in four-fifths of the countries in the world. (c.f. Insects could be the key to meeting food needs of growing global population in The Guardian.) Insects, being basically protein sources, contain an array of essential amino acids similar to those in other animals, and without a sufficient protein intake you can run into health problems.
Let's say you were brought up in a place where eating beetles was the norm. Your family eats beetles. Your friends eat beetles. But you've tried beetles, and you don't like them. You find their crunchy texture and gooey interior disgusting, no matter how they're cooked. So, you don't eat them.
Now, your friends and family are pretty upset about this. You have to eat special beetle-free meals, prepared separately from the beetle-rich meals that all your friends and family eat. You can't enjoy the same restaurants they do. On special occasions with a communal meal as the centerpiece, the very fact that you're not eating what everyone else is sets you apart and drives a wedge between you and your friends and family. They worry about your ability to make new friends or win the heart of a spouse with your "childish, picky eating." Over and over again, they implore you to "eat your beetles, they're good for you."
What should the rest of us do?
(A) Support your decision to buck the social pressure and be yourself; or
(B) Tell you to suck it up and eat your beetles, and stop being such a picky eater.
When faced with other life choices that don't endanger others, few of us would deny each other the right to be who we are. When faced with the prospect of having to eat insects, most of us living in countries like the U.S. would be appalled, and would stand up for their right to not eat beetles, and to stop being pressured into doing so.
The pressure to eat beetles, in this example, is purely cultural. What I want you to see is, so is the pressure to eat vegetables in the western world.
If you haven't yet read Why I Am Not a Vegetarian, by Dr. William T. Jarvis, you should. Dr. Jarvis is a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, an organization whose moral stance on diet has always been one of strict vegetarianism. His article serves as a steamy exposé of the seamy side of vegetarian propaganda.
Basically, the alleged health advantage of a vegetarian diet isn't the real reason that many (if not most) vegetarians got that way. The thing that drew these otherwise sane individuals into a sordid lifestyle of meat denouncement and vegetable hype were two moral arguments: (1) The doctrine of self-denial I've already described above, and (2) The conviction that it's wrong to kill animals for food. The former moral conviction led the Seventh-Day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg to engineer Corn Flakes as a cure for masturbation (!). The latter moral conviction has resulted in organizations like PETA who bombard us with mental images of cute fluffy bunnies and kitties being raised in cramped, squalid factory farms and then ruthlessly murdered for their flesh.
There may turn out to be something to the second moral conviction. There may even be a few limited circumstances where the first moral conviction has some merit. But the point is, the alleged health benefits of a vegetarian diet are a smokescreen for the vegetarians' real agenda. Having a vegetarian argue that vegetables are good for you is like having an elected Republican congressman argue that Republicans are good for you — it's nothing more than a sales pitch, and you should check every alleged fact out for yourself before believing them.
One site I've found that seeks to separate vegetarian hype from reality is beyondveg.com. It's true that most of the articles on that site do operate under the assumption that vegetables are something that one can enjoy eating (yicch). The site's main purpose is to dispel the myths surrounding an exclusively vegetarian diet. However, as some of those dispelled myths embrace the allegedly miraculous properties of vegetables, it's an appropriate site to visit if you're interested in cutting through the vegetarian agenda and seeing the cold facts.
Next chapter: Proof That Vegetables Are Evil
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