THE ENVIRONMENTAL CHEMICAL PROBLEM AND WHY TO EAT A PLANT-BASED DIET
We live in a changeable world. This is especially true in the last decades. The development of industry, harnessing various fuels, scientific discoveries, technological advances — all of these have literally transformed our world.
I can remember in the late ’60s when I was in graduate school at Washington State University, I lived in a smaller community outside of town and the only choice for a phone service was a 10-party line. There were no cell phones, computers, tablets — all of which are now prominent in our lives.
Along with these changes are the contributions of chemistry. It was learned how to make incredible new substances that were put to use in various ways. Many of these were marvelous but I wish to point out that these were new chemicals and often cherished because of enhanced qualities compared to natural, similar, material. One example that comes to mind is how often wood was sealed and protected by linseed oil. Then there were the new sealers developed, much more protective, and that lasted a much longer time. There was no longer the need to keep re-oiling wood. You can see why this would be appreciated.
The part of this development that was not really considered is what effect these new substances would have on our environment. Even today, if you inquire about something you are about to use as to its effects on your health, or on the health of the natural world, you will find there is no information available.
Another example of this lack of foresight is the embracing of plastic. As we now know plastic contamination is a serious problem. It is killing off much of the life in the sea, and there are recent reports that even our rain now contains millions of microscopic particles. Could this have been anticipated? I don’t know. If I put myself in the planning room for plastic development I doubt the possibility of microplastic accumulating in our bodies would ever enter my mind.
Nonetheless, this is an issue we have to deal with. Not just plastic but the many chemicals that are now part of our natural environment and have become important factors in the quality of our lives.
In my work as a veterinarian, I think that one of the most important ideas I finally understood is how important these environmental chemicals are in our health. I have come, now, to think that these chemicals accumulating in our bodies is one of the major factors in the development of chronic disease in our animal friends.
To discuss this with you, I would like to go into why my advice is now to change the way we eat and how we feed our animal companions. To put it simply the suggestion I make is to emphasize a plant-based diet.
This idea of feeding a plant-based diet to dogs and cats is often met with incredulity, even ridicule. It seems to be going contrary to nature. If you have the patience let’s go into this and I will explain why this makes sense to me.
PLANT-BASED VS MEAT BASED DIETS
What we have discussed above translates to the problem of these chemicals accumulating in our bodies and affecting our health. The difference in eating or feeding a plant-based diet vs. a primarily meat diet is then the issue of chemical dose.
You cannot avoid exposure to these completely, however, you can reduce the amount coming in by how you eat and this is significant. Understanding how to reduce exposure is best explained by discussing what we call the “food chain” or in the scientific world “bioaccumulation.”
It works like this. The chemicals spread about in our environment are in the air, water, and soil. They often waft away from factories, industrial plants, the burning of coal, etc. They also enter the water from the sewage water from cities, or from factories dumping into rivers. As these chemicals move around with the wind, water movement, transport (exhaust, tire shedding, etc.) they end up where the plants we use for food are growing. It is even legal practice in the US to use sewage sludge from city water treatment plants, this being the most toxic material in the world. It is used as a fertilizer on food crops, to spread it over the soil for the plants to take up.
So it goes like this (the food chain). I will use a very simple example of just one of the chemicals and putting the amount in terms of drops, rather than micrograms or milligrams, so this is easier to understand. Let us say the plant growing in the soil gathers one drop of the chemical as it grows. That is how much it contains.
The steer that is feeding on the plants, eats the plant and takes that drop into his body. It ends up in the tissues and is stored there. Let us say that the steer eats 50 plants during the day. That, then, is an accumulation of 50 drops of the chemical. This goes on day by day.
By day 2, there are 100 drops in the tissues.
By day 3, there are 150 drops.
By day 30, there are 1,500 drops.
After 5 months, there are 7,500 drops.
For sake of this discussion let us say that the steer, when slaughtered has 10,000 drops stored in the tissues — the muscles and organs.
Your dog is now fed that meat, containing these drops. Let us say that the portion of meat fed each day contains 500 drops. Each day your dog accumulates 500 drops.
After a year, stored in his body will be 365 x 500 = 182,500 drops.
Do you now see why this is of concern? In today’s world, there is not just one toxic chemical. Granted not all end up in the environment but many do depending on their chemistry. In the US there are 100,000 chemicals approved for use in our homes, businesses, factories, farms, schools, parks, etc. If you like, you can assume that our government has made sure that these are safe, but unfortunately that is not the case. Reports estimate the percent of these chemicals evaluated for health effects is well below 10%. That means that over 90% of we have no idea what they will do to us. Dogs and cats? Forget it. There are no tests that evaluate how these things will affect them.
Water treatment plants for towns and cities are said to test the water before putting it back into the rivers and lakes. It might vary but what I have read is that they test for 10 chemicals only. Not particularly reassuring.
Even if the chemicals are tested for safety before use, how would that be done? Usually by giving them to an animal — monkey, mouse, rat. Would they have the same sensitivity or reaction to the chemical as a human? A dog? No one knows.
Basically, we are working in an unknown area.
WHAT DOES THE BODY DO WITH THEM?
A common strategy that people use to deal with this is to emphasize the body’s elimination of toxic material. Herbs, vitamins, supplements of various sorts are given for the purpose. This is a smart idea but only partially adequate.
You have to realize that these chemicals that have been created over the last decades are done for a particular purpose. As said above, they do something that other natural chemicals, already in existence, are not able to do. This is what makes them useful and unique. But understand this — when a new chemical is created IT HAS NEVER EXISTED ON THE EARTH BEFORE. Our bodies have never encountered these and do not have an established way to deal with it. By “established” I mean that over the centuries there is an adaptation to the substances encountered in the natural world. If something not good for us gets in, there are mechanisms for dealing with it. We don’t need to go into a lot of detail, just realize that this “getting rid of” involves some kind of processing of the toxic substance, some alteration of it so it can travel to the kidneys and be peed out.
That there are so many new substances has overwhelmed our ability to deal with them. The best the body can do is store them somewhere — in the body tissues. The concern then is that this storage over time accumulates enough of the chemical that it has health effects, it achieves the level of a drug dose.
In the example above I used one chemical. More accurately, tests of people and animals have shown more like 400 chemicals stored in our bodies. Tests of newborn babies finds, on average, babies are born with over 300 chemicals already in their tissues. Some of these chemicals are also known to interfere with the normal development of the child.
We have gotten ourselves into some deep doo-doo.
Granted you can think I am exaggerating or putting too much importance on this. I will mention, however, that this information has been published in many, many scientific reports. There are even fields of study in this.
In my veterinary experience, one of the questions that is to be considered is why chronic disease in animals, dogs and cats, livestock and others, is steadily increasing. The veterinary profession is now saying that half of dogs will develop cancer in their lives. This is unbelievable is it not? Totally shocking. There has to be an explanation for this.
As I said in the introduction, I have come to the conclusion that this toxic chemical accumulation is a major factor in this. It seems to me common sense that if cancer is increasing in incidence and it has been determined that dogs are eating meat containing carcinogens that this could be why it is happening.
How to deal with this? The best I have come up with is to keep the dose of these chemicals as low as possible. We can use other measures to enhance detoxification, to enhance that ability to deal with these, but keeping the dose low would be very important.
It has been determined in people eating a plant-based diet, they are very low in accumulated chemicals, especially if the plant foods are organic. We are talking a level of a few percents, less than 5-10%, compared to the person eating the usual American diet (SAD = Standard American Diet).
There have not been as many studies of dogs and cats in this regard but some recent ones have shown that the body burden of chemicals in dogs and cats is considerably higher for some substances than it is in human beings. This can be explained from the model of the food chain, that they are at the top of the chain eating primarily the meat of animals containing these materials.
The strategy I come up with is to eat at the low end of the food chain. Eat the plants rather than the animal that has accumulated thousands of them. Fortunately, in regard to feeding dogs, it turns out that they have no problem eating such a diet. A study reported in Nature Journal of the DNA sequencing of dogs DNA compared to wolf DNA tells us that dogs have adapted to the same diet that we can eat — the use of plants and grains without any problem. They have activated the same genes that we use.
There are also other reports of dogs being fed this way, and from puppyhood, and having good health on that diet. Fortunately, it is also our personal experience that many dogs with chronic problems — allergies, itches, ears, digestion, etc. — observably improve when the diet is changed in this direction.
It is not so easy with cats. They are more strict carnivores than dogs. Yet, again, we have found that some cats will readily accept a plant-based diet and also have health improvements. One has to be more careful with cat recipes to make sure they have everything needed but it is very possible to do this. If nothing else, it is not so difficult to reduce the meat content in their food and certainly avoid the most contaminated meats — tuna, salmon, chickens. So many commercial cat foods contain sea fish which are high in mercury. This is a major cause of the common mouth problems cats have with decaying teeth, gum inflammation, bad breath, etc. These are all signs of mercury poisoning.
When I present this topic to people, if it is new to them, a very common response is that they feed “grass fed” or “farm-raised” animals that are not given drugs or hormones. This is a very helpful plan and would reduce some chemical exposure. However, what we are talking about here is not only the chemicals given by livestock farmers, rather what is in the environment. It is important to understand that the environment, as compared to injected materials, is the major source in today’s world.
A brief example of how even these more naturally raised livestock will have chemicals in them is the report of wildlife now being affected. One study of fawns in Montana showed developmental problems, heart defects, and other health issues in them. If this is happening to wildlife, how can we think that grass fed animals are exempted from it?
Enough for now. I hope the explanation is clear enough. As said above, the challenge to our thinking is the realization that our world has changed. To bring up past experience of feeding practices does not address the accelerating chemical accumulation. At this point, it is not getting better so the best we can do is cope with it as intelligently as possible. We can also hope and pray that, as a culture, we will give this attention and change our ways.