Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Should Danes Eat Like Greeks?, or, Is Dietary Universalism Rational?

There exists in modern thought a strong tide of universalism, an attitude that there is or should be one way of life that is best for all people everywhere on Earth.  I believe this belief in universalism has its roots in Christianity, a religion that maintains that everyone should have one universal faith.

In recent years, the Mediterranean diet has been the favored nutritional regime.  Everyone should eat like a person who lives around the Mediterranean ocean.

Vegans also tend to promote the idea that everyone, everywhere, can and should eat a diet free of animal flesh, eggs, and milk.  

Is this logical or realistic?  Can we really expect people in Nordic nations to eat like Greeks?

Macrobiotic principles include eating locally produced foods in proportions determined by their natural availability.  Locally produced foods are adapted to the local climate, and impart their qualities to the people who consume them.  Bananas may be good for people in the tropics, but not for people in Canada.  Northern people need more warming (yang) foods, while southern people need more cooling (yin) foods.  Nature meets the needs because only more yang plants (e.g. oats, cranberries, cabbage, blueberries, hazelnuts) and animals (e.g. salmon, cod, reindeer) can thrive in northern regions, while more yin plants (e.g. coconuts, mangos, spinach, corn) and animals (e.g. catfish) abound in hot tropical regions. Moreover, northern regions produce more edible fauna than edible flora. 

People in Nordic nations can't locally produce many of the components of a Mediterranean diet, and Nature puts a limit on their production of plant foods. In addition, Nordic people very likely are genetically adapted in some way to the diet naturally produced in the north, since they have descended from people who lived in the north for as long as 300,000 years (Neanderthals).

Bere and Brug note:

So, to eat a Mediterranean or vegan diet, Norwegians would have to largely or completely abandon foods they can produce locally–wild game, pasture-fed animal products, and wild and farmed fish–and rely on foods they can't produce themselves.

 Bere and Brug suggest some guidelines for developing healthy and environmentally-friendly regional diets (you can substitute any other region for "Nordic countries"):
Using these criteria, they identify the following components of a healthy Nordic diet:

1. Native Berries
2.  Cabbage (in all its forms, e.g. cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, radish, rutabaga, turnip, mustard, etc.)
3.  Native fish and seafoods
4.  Wild game and pasture-fed animals
5.  Rapeseed oil
6.  Oats, barley, and rye

Other groups defining a healthy, locally producible Nordic diet also include carrots, apples and pears among the foods easily grown in Nordic nations.  I would also add honey which Nordic people can use to replace all the sugar they import.

Regarding native berries, Norway already produces enough berries to give every Norwegian two servings daily:
They also already produce 76% of the cabbage they consume:
They apparently could grow more cabbage.

Native fish and seafood is abundant enough that they export 95% of their catch:
By exporting less of their fish, they would reduce their dependence on imported foods.

The Nordic countries have large tracts of land that are not suitable for agriculture but serve well as pastures for both wild and domesticated animals:
Like other cabbage-family plants, rapeseed grows well and production is increasing in Nordic nations:

Currently, Nordic nations consume more wheat than rye, barley or oats, all of which grow better than wheat in the Nordic regions.  Most of the latter three are being fed to animals:

By consuming less grain-fed animal products, Nordic people can increase the amount of land available for growing berries, cabbages, rapeseed, oats, barley, and rye, thus shifting from dependence on imported grains, fruits and vegetables to a more local, sustainable diet:

It is a simple biological reality that it would be impossible for Nordic nations to produce a locally grown Mediterranean or vegan diet.  To subsist on local foods, they must consume animal products.

As Olsen et al. note:

Nordic people who adhere more closely to a healthy Nordic food diet consisting of locally sourced wild fish, cabbages, rye bread, oatmeal, apples and pears, local berries, and root vegetables have a lower annual rate of deaths from all causes compared to those who eat less plant foods and more grain-fed land animal products and saturated fats.[1, 2]

Should Nordic nations exchange food independence for adherence to a foreign Mediterranean diet or vegan morality/ideology? 

I don't think so.  If a people is dependent on foreign imports for food, it is extremely vulnerable to food catastrophe and political manipulations.  Why should any people put themselves at risk of starvation due to naturally or politically-caused crop failures in other nations far, far away?

One size does not fit all, and in my view, human independence and liberty have much higher value than animal interests.  Yes, I am biased in favor of my own species.  Its entirely natural; if our ancestors hadn't favored humanity over other animals, we wouldn't be here today.

It is important to note that favoring one's own kind is not the same as wanting to wantonly exterminate all other kinds.  

According to Confucian scholar Chén Huan-Chang, in the Canon of History there exists the “Announcement About Drunkenness,” in which Chang Shih (1133-1180 A.D.) states:

“For instance, in the use of meats and drinks, there is such a thing as wildly abusing and destroying the creatures of Heaven.  The Buddhists, disliking this, confine themselves to a vegetable diet, while our Confucians only keep away from wild abuse and destruction.”[3]

Let our empathy for animals keep us from wild abuse and destruction of them, without devolving into Pathological Altruism.


1.  Olsen A, Egeberg R, Halkjær J, et al.. Healthy aspects of the Nordic diet are related to lower total mortality. J Nutr. 2011 Apr 1;141(4):639-44. 
2.  Roswall N, Sandin S, Löf M, et al..  Adherence to the healthy Nordic food index and total and cause-specific mortality among Swedish women. Eur J Epidemiol. 2015 Jun;30(6):509-17.
3.  Huang-Chang C.  The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School. Columbia University, Longmans, Green & Company, Agents, 1911. 191.

1 comment:

Jonathan Groot said...

As a Norwegian living in Denmark, this post is interesting. You do realize that the Mediterranean diet as such could be replicated to quite a large extent if abiding by the principles of the Mediterranean diet, rather than the specific foods that are emphasized in the media. The New Nordic Diet is based on the principles of the Mediterranean diet, for example, swapping olive oil for rapeseed oil.

Do you believe a country should be entirely food-independent? Many food products are less climate-friendly when produced in the Nordic countries compared to imports via shipping or trucks. Subsisting on apples from New Zealand is more climate-friendly than eating grass-fed local lamb. Even when considering complete food-independence as the ideal (aka, no imports at all!), you wouldn't have to stray very far from it to provide the Nordic countries with balanced, plant-based diets. Severeal legume varieties grow well in the Scandinavian countries, as do many starchy vegetables. Most nutrients could easily be covered, in which case a few imports hardly sounds like a trade-off to show consideration to other beings!

Why is the potential for some small form of dependence on imports in the future (which surely wouldn't lead to starvation, but could lead to some deficiency) worth abandoning one's compassion for?