Saturday, June 9, 2012

The ancients and the "plant-based diet" debate

Forks over Knives is a thought-provoking independent movie released last year which chronicles the analysis and life's work of two American doctors, Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, and their conclusion that a whole-food plant-based diet is best for health.  The movie also argues that such a diet can reverse the deleterious effects caused by the "standard American diet" (which is sometimes called the "Western diet," and is probably better referred to as the "modern [as opposed to traditional] post-industrial diet" since it long ago began spreading around the world).

The film's subject matter is highly pertinent to the topics and issues discussed in this blog, although the connection may not seem so obvious at first.  Most importantly, the film illustrates the dangers of simply relying on the "status quo" conventional wisdom, and the importance of conducting good analysis or "due diligence," especially in areas on which a lot is riding (human health and diet being one of them, clearly). 

The doctors at the center of the film were not afraid to follow the evidence to conclusions that went against their initial "gaps and biases" (as one of them explains towards the end of the film).  The film also touches on the fact that following the evidence -- particularly when it points to conclusions that are different from the dominant paradigm -- can have professional consequences and lead to marginalization, vehement opposition, and even ridicule.  

The history of science is replete with examples of this opposition, including the modern era right up to today (the doctors in the movie have certainly experienced it, and examples of opposition and ridicule in other scientific disciplines have been discussed in this blog previously, such as in this post about continental-drift theory originator Alfred Wegener and this post about the work of Nobel Laureate Professor Dan Schectman).

Secondly, the subject of diet and human health is certainly one that concerned the ancients, including those who were renowned for their concern with matters esoteric -- matters that are quite central to the subject matter of this blog and of the Mathisen Corollary book as well.  

We have already seen that Plutarch (who is really the author of the earliest extant full discourse on the Osiris-Isis-Set-Horus narrative) discussed the fact that the Egyptian priesthood abstained from wearing garments made from wool or other products of animal skin or hair, and in the same passage he explains that the same priests abstain from eating the flesh of animals as well (he even mentions the opinion of some that they abstain from eating salt because it could contain the remains of many minute creatures, but dismisses this idea as ridiculous, although it is always worth noting what these ancient initiates to the mystery schools -- as Plutarch was -- mention and dismiss as ridiculous, because sometimes they deliberately drop hints while denying they are doing so, in order to conceal their full message -- sort of like saying something with a "wink" of the eye to deny it while slyly leaving it open as a possibility).

Long before the time of Plutarch (AD 46 - AD 120), the sage Pythagoras was said to have abstained from the eating of animal flesh (and, interestingly enough, to abstain from wearing garments made of wool or other animal products), and his followers were said to do the same.  One passage which reveals this Pythagorean tradition of a vegetable diet (and linen or flax-based garments) is preserved in the biographical writings of L. Flavius Philostratus (AD 172 - AD 250), who begins his Life of Apollonius by saying:
The votaries of Pythagoras of Samos have this story to tell of him, that he was not an Ionian at all, but that, once on a time in Troy, he had been Euphorbus, and that he had come to life after death, but had died as the songs of Homer relate. And they say that he declined to wear apparel made from dead animal products and, to guard his purity, abstained from all flesh diet, and from the offering of animals in sacrifice. For that he would not stain the altars with blood; nay, rather the honey-cake and frankincense and the hymn of praise, these they say were the offerings made to the Gods by this man, who realized that they welcome such tribute more than they do the hecatombs and the knife laid upon the sacrificial basket. 
The historian Herodotus (484 BC - 425 BC), who lived after Pythagoras, mentions briefly the practice of abstaining from meat among some peoples of the world, particularly the Atlantians mentioned in Histories 4.186, who take their name not from Atlantis but from their location near the "Mountain called Atlas" according to Herodotus, and of whom "it is said that they neither eat anything that has life nor have any dreams."  

After describing them, Herodotus also goes on to describe some nomads who also live in North Africa and who "do not taste at all of the flesh of cows, for the same reason as the Egyptians also abstain from it, nor do they keep swine. Moreover the women of the Kyrenians too think it not right to eat cows' flesh, because of the Egyptian Isis, and they even keep fasts and celebrate festivals for her; and the women of Barca, in addition from cows' flesh, do not taste of swine either" (4.186).  The mention of the Egyptians and Isis is undoubtedly important, as it connects to the priests of Isis in the later passage of Plutarch, as well as to the tradition of the earlier Pythagoras, who is traditionally held to have spent significant time among the priesthood in Egypt.  

The abstention from eating the meat of cows by the ancient Egyptians alleged by Herodotus is also significant to the possibility of a connection between ancient Egypt and India, just as such a connection appears to be possible between the ancient Egyptians and ancient China (or perhaps a third and now-unknown source informed all these ancient civilizations).

The debate over whether or not to eat meat is also interesting in that the ancient Hebrew Scriptures appear to indicate some kind of connection between eating meat and the global flood.  It has been remarked that Genesis 1:30 appears to prescribe "the green herb for meat" to every living creature (mankind, presumably, included), but that Genesis 9:2-4 appears to alter that diet immediately following the flood to include the possibility of consuming animal products of some sort, although specifically prohibiting the eating of "flesh with the blood thereof, [which is] the life thereof" in verse 4.

It is interesting that the allowing of the eating of flesh for the first time (if that is indeed what is meant to be conveyed by this passage) is associated with the end of the flood.  We have already noted that the lifespans described in the Genesis account begin to drop dramatically in the generations after the flood.  

If human lifetimes really dropped that dramatically, it may have been due to the possibility that most of the radioactive isotopes on earth were the product of a flood catastrophe. It is certainly hard to argue that eating meat caused such a drop in lifespans (if such a drop actually took place).  After all, even the advocates of a plant-based diet do not argue today that those who stop eating meat could live to be "nine hundred sixty and nine years" as Methuselah is said to have done prior to the flood (in Genesis 5:27).

There are those who make the argument that the Genesis 9 passage was never intended to sanction a meat-based diet.  After all, they point out, the eating of flesh with its blood is strictly forbidden, and it is actually impossible to remove all of the blood from flesh, or to say that one can eat flesh without also consuming blood.  They argue that Genesis 9:2-4 gives permission to eat reptile eggs -- the "meat" of reptiles (one could perhaps think of it as "the fruit" of reptiles) arguing that the word translated "moving thing" in 9:3 means "reptile," but not the flesh of reptiles or of any other class of animal.

In light of the above discussion, it is interesting to note that some modern advocates of a plant-based diet argue that some of the problems associated with aging are actually produced by diet.  The Forks over Knives movie certainly contains interviews with patients who, using a completely dietary approach (no drugs) not only reversed serious cardiovascular symptoms but also problems such as arthritis.  

Separately, professional Ironman triathlete and vegan Brendan Brazier says on pages 46-47 of his book Thrive that cooking foods (which is generally mandatory for eating meat, particularly if you are trying to eat "flesh" but not "flesh with the blood thereof, the life thereof") can directly lead to problems associated with aging:
Food cooked at a high temperature can also cause inflammation in the body.  As well as destroying enzymes and converting essential fatty acids into trans fats (a dangerous compound that I discuss in detail in Chapter 5, page 143), high-temperature cooking creates advanced glycation end products, or AGEs.  The body perceives AGEs as invaters and so its immune cells try to break down AGEs by secreting large amounts of inflammatory agents.  If this natural process is called on too often, the result will likely be diseases commonly associated with old age but which actually have more to do with toxins created by high-temperature cooking.  Less elastic skin, arthritis, poorer memory, joint pain, and even heart conditions are often attributable to inflamed tissue.
This debate is interesting on many levels (and it is clearly not just an academic matter, but one with serious consequences for human health).  What is quite amazing, and often not discussed when this topic is examined, is the evidence that the ancients -- and especially the priests of ancient Egypt and those non-Egyptians who appear to have learned some of the secrets of the Egyptian priesthood -- appear to have come down on the side of a plant-based diet many thousands of years before the researchers highlighted in Forks over Knives.

Were the ancient Egyptians right?  Is a plant-based diet best for human health and longevity?  And, if so, how did they know it?  The scientific knowledge of the ancients continues to anticipate the "discoveries" of later millennia -- and it seems to continue to do so right up to the present day.

note: John Anthony West devotes considerable time in his excellent book Serpent in the Sky discussing the apparently advanced medical and health sciences of ancient Egypt -- other important aspects of Serpent in the Sky are discussed in previous posts such as this one and others linked inside that post.