The philosophical and nutritional impact of food on violence. Madagascar and Omega-3 fatty acids

[This essay is also published by CRI and is on their website under the title, ‘The biology of vegetarianism’. You can also follow the lively discussion under ‘Comments’]

It is often said of sausages, that if people knew how they were made, most wouldn’t eat them. In the carefree period of my days as an avenging vegetarian vigilante; I put to good use a variation of this argument to implore my meat eating friends to change. My unfettered zeal was not beyond resorting to liberal mention (in inappropriate settings) of the methods of slaughter in abattoirs; an exercise that would shock folk, one way or another, into distaste. It was a different matter that I hadn’t been to any either; the intention was to frighten with a horrific picture of violence that would then interrupt acculturated eating patterns. With the mellow tempering that comes with years, I have long realized the futility and the possible crudity of my ways. Yet, I am unapologetically glad to say they did bear some fruition and that I was able to convert a couple along the way.

Because of the inherent violence in slaying animals that don’t have a choice in either resisting the assault or protesting it; vegetarianism is commonly linked to and laced with ethics. Talk of animal slaughter (for any reason, let alone the exquisitely base reason of cuisine), provokes mental images of violence, bloodletting and gore. Despite the effort of some quarters, who have undertaken to make the exercise more ‘humane’; the imagery of slaughter has altered little. The rising global movement towards vegetarianism owes (in so small part), a debt to its origins in the discomfort with the ethics of violence. In the context of civilization as an exercise to domesticate our base instincts; this is a welcome turn on the road to betterment.

The ethics of food has been finely articulated in the world of letters by many; but, three people, to my mind, have especially influenced the discussion. Peter Singer who brought animal rights to the table in the seventies with a seminal work on the subject titled, Animal Liberation; David Foster Wallace with a cult essay, ‘Consider the Lobster’ and Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee in innumerable writings and interviews but notably so in, ‘Disgrace’. In recent years two other books have been received with much favor – Jonathan Safranfoer’s eponymously titled, ‘Eating animals’, and Temple Grandin’s “Animals in translation’, on animal behavior and on humane restraining and transport systems.

I don’t often read a book or watch a film that has animals in it. Most such ventures put their audience through the predictable loop of great sadness to get to the happy place – an immensely avoidable experience in wrenching anxiety. Yet, some years back I watched a lovely animation film, ‘Madagascar’ that told the tale of four friends – a lion, a zebra, a hippo and a giraffe, born New Yorkers and raised in the confines of the Central Park Zoo. Marty, the zebra, wakes up on his birthday to a primal longing for ‘home’. In a misadventure, that all but he are wise to, the loyal friends set out to Africa to discover their roots. All is well until Alex (the lion and his best friend), gets hungry and can’t find anything to eat. The Manhattan-ite with the splendid mane was reared on aesthetically shaped platters of ‘food’ and had never known the experience of the hunt. The desperation of hunger in the jungles of Africa stirs his inner hunter and suddenly Marty’s stripes (the zebra) start seeming like the delicate axial cuts of meat that was once his urbane diet. But ‘that’ was an unknown innocuous thing the keeper called, ‘food’, and ‘this’ was Marty! In shame, despair, and with a destroyed sense of self, Alex runs away to hide from his best friend. After some twists and turns, a happy resolution is found and the story ends well. Madagascar is a masterful depiction of the moral conflict of a carnivore. Using the argument of innocence rather than judgment, it incited debate over meat-eating and steered reason away from morality and towards process. It explored by example how; to meat eaters, meat was simply food sanitized off violence and stocked as just another packaged product on the shelf. When confronted with the violence of meat, most people are jolted out of their safe zones; enough even at times, to retract from and disown their eating habits. Tastefully served platters, sanitized packaging, and the lack of mainstream debate on farming and slaughter, spare omnivores from having to confront the ethics and allows them to fall back on the comfort of familiar habit.

imagePic courtesy: @ChirurgeonsAppr

The spectrum of meat-eating as food culture spawns a range of experience with gore. From meat eaters outside the confines of home, to packaged-meat buyers in supermarkets who cook at home, to buyers who buy at butchers and deal with sanitation issues in the process of cooking, to the butchers, to the slaughter house workers and finally, to the farmer who breeds, rears and trades in animal life. One’s positional coordinates in the spectrum determines the degree of gore that one is subjected to. Whilst, from this, no causal inferences can be made to violent behavior; it might not be far off the mark to regard a correlative connect between omnivores and forbearance with violence. Than say, vegetarians. Acclimatization to the taking of life, to the loss of life in violence might be directly related to the degree of involvement with the process of slaughter. It is generally accepted knowledge that vegetarians are prone to non-violence and have a low capacity with and for active aggression. The scientific evidence of that might lie more with their ideological beliefs and from the lack of exposure than to any specific aspect of diet. India’s diverse cultural heritage is unsurprisingly home to ethnic groups (a readily available cohort) who practice a staunch and rigorous vegetarianism as a cornerstone of identity. Prominent amongst them are the Jains, Marwaris, Brahmins, Namboodhiris, Lingayats and Saiva Pillais. Vegetarianism with these groups stems from ahimsa (non-violence) and a quasi-animist belief in the respect for life in any and every form; not just the human. In modern times, not all people born into these ethnicities follow the prescribed lifestyle. But for those that do and for the millions of vegetarian converts around the world, the abhorrence of violence is a common bond. Eating habits of any sort are hard to break out of.  Given that knowledge, should children be allowed to make their own choice with meat eating at an older age? I have seen parents deny children ‘adult’ beverages (read coffee and tea) to young tots. The same people don’t think twice about taking kids to a MacDonald’s or a KFC for a meal. Do the children know that every packaged burger or KFC meal has a ‘Marty’ within? Wouldn’t they want to know?

Aside from philosophy, is diet interlinked with behavior? Research into the impact of diet on mental conditioning and aggression unravels a role for both Omega-3 fatty acids and for the ratio of Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty acids. Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential fatty acids (EFA). [They are also called PUFAs – polyunsaturated fatty acids]. EFAs are fatty acids that we must (why they are called, ‘essential’) incorporate into our diet since our bodies don’t make them in sufficient enough quantity. The research on fats is on-going and the debate goes back and forth on the importance or otherwise of different fatty acids to health and illness. There is accord, however, on the importance of EFAs (especially Omega-3) to the maintenance of cardiac, circulatory and neural equilibrium. Omega-3 (specifically, a type of Omega-3 called DHA) is concentrated in brain cells. Low levels of this fatty acid, in the body, are detrimental to the vitality of cell membranes. Imagine a cell as a circular or a rectangular structure; the cell membrane is its external limiting boundary. The vitality of the cell is obviously dependent on the integrity of the cell membrane. Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA especially) are an important component of cell membranes. Weak cell membranes cause cellular malfunctioning. This ultimately leads to the dysfunction of organs. In the brain, dysfunction manifests as behavioral change, mood disorders, aggression and violence.

image                                                                                         Note: [red arrows: ALA is convertible (but inefficiently) to DHA and EPA in the body]; [dark blues: DHA is the EFA of brain cell membranes. AA competes with DHA for the cell membranes but is toxic to the cell. This is why the ratio of the Omega-6 to Omega-3 is important; the ideal ratio should be 1:1. Modern lifestyle foods that are heavily processed have high Omega –6 counts and skew the balance. The natural food that closely approximates the 1:1 ratio is ghee (1.6:1).

Recent research has affirmed the influence of supplementation of prisoners’ diets (with multivitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids) on violence reduction. More than one-third of study subjects (in two large RCTs with good sample sizes) recorded a marked decrease in violent and aggressive behavior. Based on these findings, the American Psychiatry Association has recommended the addition of 1 gm. of EPA+DHA to the daily dietary intake of individuals with mood, impulse control and psychotic disorders. A more rigorously designed trial, on these same lines but with the addition of blood chemistry and detailed psychometrics is currently under way on more than 1000 prisoners in three UK prisons to confirm definitively the nutritional link to violence.

Biology is an endeavor in optimism. It is the self-flagellating science that constantly looks at and into itself for the whys when human health and function go awry. Finding a biological basis for behavior gives us hope for a fix; holds out promise that we can control and modulate it. This is especially true for conditions with great social import such as violence and aggression. The accessibility of nutritional biology lays it bare to the dual threat of pseudo-science and commerce. Their rush to publish causal inferences makes the process of denying or reaffirming media conclusions harder on the science. Despite these pitfalls, current scientific opinion reiterates the positive psychotropic effect of Omega- 3 fatty acids. And so, for now, correcting our diets (both the vegetarian and the omnivorous) with the additional supplementation of Omega-3 fatty acids is a sensible starting point. As also is Madagascar. As the wise say; ‘the colors might change but the stripes they be the same’; once an evangelist, always an evangelist.

Note: Good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids: For vegetarians – walnuts and flax seed. For omnivores – fish is ‘the’ recommended source.

Recommended reading:

In the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: Omega-3 fatty acids. Evidence basis for treatment and future research in Psychiatry.

In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with coronary heart disease

In Aggressive Behavior: Effects of nutritional supplements on aggression, rule-breaking, and psychopathology among young adult prisoners;jsessionid=666C4EE3FF042BCE364FBCD79798A6C1.d02t02

In the British Journal of Psychiatry: Influence of multivitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behavior of young adult prisoners.

How to choose the right cooking oil.


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