In the last year and a half, two things happened to that made me understand calories better. The first was that I started doing cardio workouts and monitoring the calorie counts on the machines.

A half-hour of jogging burns about 300 calories. (The machine estimates a bit more, but I’ve heard these things tend to add about 15%-20% over the true amount) Then with a bit of time on a machine called “Jacob’s Ladder”, I can usually add another 100.

On my best day of cardio ever, I got to 500 calories. I was exhausted and sweaty, but it still felt good. 500 calories! I thought that was pretty awesome.

The second thing that happened was that I started following author Carrie Rubin on Twitter. She frequently discusses health/nutrition issues, and specifically menu-labeling. I never thought about it until I read what she has written, and after that I started paying attention to calorie counts on restaurant menus and food labels.

What I saw was horrifying. There’s no other word for it. For example, the typical plain bagel with cream cheese at most restaurants seems to be about 450 calories.

Before working out using calorie counts, I had no frame of reference to tell me whether that was good or bad. But now, I can roughly translate the number on the menu to how hard I have to exercise to burn that any calories. And the results aren’t pretty: I have to do my maximum cardio workout just to negate the calories from one bagel.

Once you see things in these terms, you take a whole different attitude towards food. When you see a delicious thing that contains 1000s of calories, you don’t think: “Yum! I want that.” You think: “My god, I’m already tired from all the running that’s going to require.”

Many food sellers are, naturally, reluctant to do menu-labeling, precisely because they know that people will see those calorie counts and change their purchase decisions accordingly. The good news is that they are–or at least, will be–required to do so.

(My fear is that restaurants will raise prices to make up for it. This leads to an even bigger problem: The fact the healthy food is also more expensive. It already seems like only the middle-class and above can afford to eat healthy, and the poor are stuck eating junk food because it’s cheaper.)

But menu-labeling is only half of the battle. The other half is for the consumer to be able to translate the calorie counts on those menus into something meaningful—specifically, the amount of effort it costs to burn those calories later on.

Longtime readers know that I really admire actress and director Natalie Portman. One reason is that she is a committed non-meat-eater, as am I. So when she wrote that Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals turned her from being vegetarian to “a vegan activist”, I had to read it.

First of all, the book made me very glad to be vegetarian. The conditions Foer describes at slaughterhouses are appalling. He documents it thoroughly, and it is tough to read even if you have never eaten meat. It is probably worse if you have. It was more viscerally disturbing than Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and that book was famously effective in introducing reforms in the meat industry. (Of course, it was a fictionalization.)

The section on the breeding of meat animals was especially good. I first became aware of this practice when I was a kid and my parents bought pet chickens. We would let them roam around our big country yard and collect the eggs when possible. Flocks of chickens are really fun to watch. They move almost as a unit, and if one gets distracted and breaks off from the group, she will panic and run back. They are funny.

Anyway, our chickens all started as normal chicks, but some grew up to be so large they couldn’t even move. These were the “meat chickens”, bred to grow big quickly and be killed. We had no idea of this when we got them, of course. My parents did their best, but these birds were sickly and died well before the rest. So, I can vouch for Foer’s point that it’s not enough to have “free range” animals, if those animals are already intrinsically unhealthy as a result of being bred for slaughter.

You might dismiss Foer (and me) as wimpy bleeding-heart types who are too idealistic to understand the cold reality that the suffering of animals is necessary to feed people. “We can’t waste time worrying about stupid animals when we need to eat”, you object.

Ok, but there is more bad news for you in Eating Animals: the conditions under which the animals are slaughtered is not just bad for the animals, it’s also disturbingly unsanitary and results in unhealthy meat. Foer suggests that many so-called “24 hour bugs” that people pick up are actually the result of eating bad meat. So, even if you don’t care about animal welfare, you might consider that the meat industry may not be doing a bang-up job on human welfare either. (Some good news: I recently heard that scientists are developing synthetic meat, which can be made without killing animals. If that works out, it could solve all these problems. But it’s a long way off.)

As far as turning vegan: the book definitely does leave you feeling sickened by the whole farming industry. The conditions of dairy cows and egg chickens is really not much better than those bred for meat. I suspect that humanely farmed dairy and egg products might not be so bad–or at least, they might not be as bad in theory, provided they are healthy animals, and not the mutant breeds. But again, Foer notes that just having a label like “free range” or “no cage” is almost meaningless–many of these animals still suffer horribly.

Another phenomenon Foer documents well is the hostile reaction he often gets from people who eat meat when they learn he doesn’t. People seem to feel that vegetarians and vegans are judging them just by existing. It makes people defensive.

(Actually, people are sensitive about dietary advice of any kind. Look at the reaction to the First Lady’s nutrition programs.)

While Foer himself definitely comes down on the side of pure vegetarianism, he does give supporters of meat produced by small family farms (as opposed to “factory farms”) a fair chance to argue for their position. I do wonder about some of his assertions concerning practices at the factory farms. If things are truly as bad as he suggests, I can’t understand how people are not dying by the thousands daily from contaminated meat.

Foer is a very good writer and–in the early chapters especially–quite witty. There are several turns of phrase that made me laugh aloud. His knack for humor disappears in the later chapters that deal with the gory details of slaughter, but it helps to ease the reader in to some very depressing stuff.

I highly recommend this book. Parts of it are sickening to read, but I think it’s always better to know the truth than remain ignorant. If you have the stomach for Eating Animals, I predict you will no longer be able to stomach eating animals.

I have a pet peeve: people complaining about food having “chemicals” in it.  Three of my co-workers have done this in the past few weeks.  I can’t really blame them, though–some foods are actually advertised as being “chemical-free”.  I wonder how that works.

See, everything is composed of chemicals. So having them in your food is not inherently good or bad. It really boils down to what the chemicals are, and how they interact with the chemicals naturally occurring in the human body.

Then I read about this lady named Vani Hari, who calls herself the “Food Babe“, and who has been blogging about the pernicious influence of chemicals in food.  She’s even succeeded in getting stores and restaurants to pull some from their shelves.

But there’s been a backlash against her–people saying she has no scientific basis for her claims.  She responds by saying these people are shills for the powerful food chemical industry.

What I know from skimming her blog is that she seems to equate ‘processed” with “bad for you”.  While it’s true that there are probably preservatives and such that are used in some foods that do have harmful effects, I also don’t think you can just say “oh, that food is processed! It’s not good.” Cooking food is processing it, and that’s been a major development in human evolution.

I think there are a lot of things wrong with some of the commonly-available foods, and some of Hari’s advice is good.  (Avoiding McDonald’s, for example–their food is dreadful.) But I think some of the other stuff she says is built more on irrational fears of “chemicals’ than on concrete issues.