The once-a-year cheat

For Meatless Monday, learn about one man’s decision to go vegetarian. This is the third installment of a three-part series. Read the first installment here and second installment here.

By Mark Donahue
I used to permit myself a cheat meat meal once a year, but I gave that up in 2010 after tasting my father-in-law's BBQ ribs, which I used to love. That evening they nearly made me wretch right there on the pool deck.

My in-laws still can't believe I did it, though they've accepted it a little more as the years have passed. They like to imply that I'm whipped or something. I can only ask the straight men among them if they could've resisted a chick in leg warmers feeding them delicious food. And since then, my wife Erika has gone from a pretty good vegan cook to one who puts pro-quality offerings on the table every single meal. It's even become one of our little dreams to start our own restaurant in this lacking local market.

We've been joined in all this by our two children, Ella and Archer, three and two, respectively. We finally have more mouths to help finish the leftovers, which there always were so much of when it was just two of us. The vegetarian diet my kids eat (they get some dairy and eggs) has so blown away any preconceived notions I had about a non-meat childhood it isn't even funny. Both are smart, healthy, extremely energetic and big, particularly Arch, who has exceeded all percentiles for growth. He's the new Mountain Man.

All I can say is that I royally lucked out in becoming a vegetarian by meeting my wife. It was all given to me. But I hope this doesn't dissuade anyone considering giving up meat from another angle, for health or ethics first, as a single person, divorced, etc. It took time, but I did come to understand the real reasons one should do it, and I've embraced my diet as part of my identity. I've even considered going all the way to vegan.

I highly recommend it from a health standpoint, an environmental-impact standpoint and a kindness-to-animals standpoint. For me, it's become about being a good person to all living things and the earth itself. I don't claim to be a great environmental evangelist, but it just seems right. I hope you would consider it too.  

Food compounds slow cancer metastasis

More than 40 plant-based compounds can turn on genes that slow the spread of cancer, according to a first-of-its-kind study by a Washington State University researcher. Gary Meadows, WSU professor and associate dean for graduate education and scholarship in the College of Pharmacy, said he is encouraged by his findings because the spread of cancer is most often what makes the disease fatal. Moreover, says Meadows, diet, nutrients and plant-based chemicals appear to be opening many avenues of attack.

"We're always looking for a magic bullet," he said in a statement. "Well, there are lots of magic bullets out there in what we eat and associated with our lifestyle. We just need to take advantage of those. And they can work together."

Meadows started the study, recently published online in the journal Cancer and Metastasis Reviews, with some simple logic: Most research focuses on the prevention of cancer or the treatment of the original cancer tumor. But, it's usually the cancer's spread to nearby organs that kills you. So rather than attack the tumor, said Meadows, control its spread, or metastasis.

He focused in particular on genes that suppress metastasis. As search engine terms go, it took him down many a wormhole in the PubMed research database, as the concept of nutrients and metastasis suppressor genes is rarely identified by journals. It's even an afterthought of some of the researchers who find the genes.

"People for the most part did not set out in their research goals to study metastasis suppressor genes," says Meadows. "It was just a gene that was among many other genes that they had looked at in their study."

But Meadows took the studies and looked to see when metastasis suppressor genes were on or off, even if original authors didn't make the connection. In the end, he documented dozens of substances affecting the metastasis suppressor genes of numerous cancers.

He saw substances like amino acids, vitamin D, ethanol, ginseng extract, the tomato carotenoid lycopene, the turmeric component curcumin, pomegranate juice, fish oil and others affecting gene expression in breast, colorectal, prostate, skin, lung and other cancers. Typically, the substances acted epigenetically, which is to say they turned metastasis suppressor genes on or off.

"So these epigenetic mechanisms are influenced by what you eat," he says. "That may also be related to how the metastasis suppressor genes are being regulated. That's a very new area of research that has largely not been very well explored in terms of diet and nutrition." Meadows says his study reinforces two concepts.

For one, he has a greater appreciation of the role of natural compounds in helping our bodies slow or stop the spread of cancer. The number of studies connecting nutrients and metastasis suppressor genes by accident suggests a need for more deliberate research into the genes.

"And many of these effects have not been followed up on," he says. "There's likely to be more compounds out there, more constituents, that people haven't even evaluated yet."

Meadows also sees these studies playing an important role in the shift from preventing cancer to living with it and keeping it from spreading.

"We've kind of focused on the cancer for a long time," he says. "More recently we've started to focus on the cancer in its environment. And the environment, your whole body as an environment, is really important in whether or not that cancer will spread."

Making the ultimate compromise

For Meatless Monday, learn about one man’s decision to go vegetarian. This is the second installment of a three-part series. Read the first installment here.

By Mark Donahue
For my wife and I, the start of our domestic life together started there in the basement kitchen of the hipster hovel where she resided. Besides tofu, she also fed me seitan, TVP and tempeh — all kinds of fake meat. But I was a little more resistant to everything else, save potatoes (in a concession to my Irishness). Early on I wrote her a list of the vegetables I wouldn't eat, and she took it as a challenge to convert me on every item.

We also went out to restaurants a lot, hitting all the Chicago standards for vegan dining. It soon became apparent that as great as these places were, they were few in number and in need of reinforcements, this city not being particularly sympathetic to non-meat eaters. Such was my introduction to the Us vs. Them situation my girlfriend found herself in when we left the cozy basement kitchen looking for food.

I felt for her — most acutely when we were on the road or stuck in some remote part of the city. Where I could've easily walked into a McDonald's as a last resort, Erika sometimes had to go hungry till we got back to home base. In the time before smartphones it was hard to find a decent ethnic (read: Thai) option if you didn't know the area.

But I never gave her a hard time about how this sometimes inconvenienced me because I did plenty to inconvenience her in the early days. And she kept making me such incredible food. When we moved in together in the spring of 2004, I was fully under the roof of a vegan, and that's what I ate all the time, save lunch.

Lunch was my last vestige of meat. Particularly the grilled and ham and cheese from Big Herm's across the street from my office in the West Loop. I informed her with guilty, mocking pleasure whenever I ate one of these monstrosities. Erika would shake her head. I would laugh. But it was more a matter of me flaunting my last outlet for dietary bachelorism. I was like a travelling salesman on the road.

This gloating was perhaps too much to bear for her, considering how happy it seemed to make her to make me happy with her cooking. It should be all her, as it was in the rest of our relationship. And I know she was also concerned about my health. Even a 20-something young dude can only take so many greasebombs for the team before he starts to get sick in the many ways food can make you sick.

I heard this concern in her voice and saw it in her eyes. So I said I Do. I Do to vegetarianism. And I was equally happy when she said she'd give up her cancer sticks, the final gate to living fully healthy.

Look for the final installment next Monday!

The unexpected vegetarian

For Meatless Monday, learn about one man’s decision to go vegetarian. This is the first installment of a three-part series.

By Mark Donahue
Why did you become a vegetarian? Once in awhile I get this question, though not as much as I used to, which suits me fine because I’ve always hated answering it. And that’s because I've never just cut to the chase to conserve the effort.

I did it for a girl.

This is 100 percent true. I did it for my wife, who at the time of the pact was my girlfriend — or fiancĂ©e to be precise because it was a wedding pact. Very simple, really: Erika challenged me to stop eating meat after we tied the knot, and I challenged her back to stop smoking. It was a playful, loving bet borne of our mutual concerns for each other's health. We metaphorically shook hands and sealed the deal when we married on June 18, 2005.

I was 28 years old and had been eating meat all my life. Erika was 24 and a vegan since 15 — she'd started smoking around the same age as well. I was not a "meat lover" or "vegetarian hater." My diet was given to me as a child in a meat-and-potatoes Catholic Midwestern home and survived into my young manhood out of habit and laziness. I had no real attachment to it, save maybe the fried chicken and ribs (and white borscht, and Cuban sandwich — okay, enough.)

Erika's own reasons for being a vegan are more complex, but they were definitely the product of the times. Like me, she was a music-loving leftist in the '90s, and for many people that meant adopting a non-meat diet, more out of politics than health concerns. By the time I met her in early 2003, that cause-conscious epoch had passed, and many young people we knew had slid back into eating meat, along with a lot of other new bad behaviors.

I was impressed by Erika's continued rigor. She and her good friend Marie had never wavered, even as the mohawks and chain wallets disappeared, and it gave me a glimmer of hope. Hope that young people of our generation could actually stick to a good cause, not just to things like, say, a coke habit.

And she could cook. She cooked like no girl I'd ever met, and I soon became her biggest customer, supplanting the starving hardcore boys and coffeehouse crowds she'd fed before. I'm a very liberal person in support of total equality of the sexes, but something stirred in my blood when this beautiful young woman would put a plate of food before me. Maybe one of my Austrian ancestors in some tiny mountain hamlet had experienced the same thing hundreds of years ago*. Of course, he was probably served mutton, not tofu.

Check back Monday, Aug. 27 for the next installment. 

Eat egg yolks, might as well smoke, researchers say

Newly published research led by Dr. David Spence of Western University, Canada, shows that eating egg yolks accelerates atherosclerosis in a manner similar to smoking cigarettes. Surveying more than 1200 patients, Dr. Spence found regular consumption of egg yolks is about two-thirds as bad as smoking when it comes to increased build-up of carotid plaque, a risk factor for stroke and heart attack. The research is published online in the journal Atherosclerosis.­­­­

Atherosclerosis, also called coronary artery disease, is a disorder of the arteries where plaques, aggravated by cholesterol, form on the inner arterial wall. Plaque rupture is the usual cause of most heart attacks and many strokes. The study looked at data from 1231 men and women, with a mean age of 61.5, who were patients attending vascular prevention clinics at London Health Sciences Centre’s University Hospital. Ultrasound was used to establish a measurement of total plaque area and questionnaires were filled out regarding their lifestyle and medications including pack-years of smoking (number of packs per day of cigarettes times the number of years), and the number of egg yolks consumed per week times the number of years consumed (egg yolk-years).

The researchers found carotid plaque area increased linearly with age after age 40, but increased exponentially with pack-years of smoking and egg yolk-years. In other words, compared to age, both tobacco smoking and egg yolk consumption accelerate atherosclerosis. The study also found those eating three or more yolks a week had significantly more plaque area than those who ate two or fewer yolks per week.

“The mantra ‘eggs can be part of a healthy diet for healthy people’ has confused the issue. It has been known for a long time that a high cholesterol intake increases the risk of cardiovascular events, and egg yolks have a very high cholesterol content. In diabetics, an egg a day increases coronary risk by two to five-fold,” says Dr. Spence, a Professor of Neurology at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and the Director of its Stroke Prevention and Atherosclerosis Research Centre (SPARC) at the Robarts Research Institute. “What we have shown is that with aging, plaque builds up gradually in the arteries of Canadians, and egg yolks make it build up faster – about two-thirds as much as smoking. In the long haul, egg yolks are not okay for most Canadians.”

Dr. Spence adds the effect of egg yolk consumption over time on increasing the amount of plaque in the arteries was independent of sex, cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking, body mass index and diabetes. And while he says more research should be done to take in possible confounders such as exercise and waist circumference, he stresses that regular consumption of egg yolk should be avoided by persons at risk of cardiovascular disease.

Food safety guides for groups most vulnerable to foodborne illness now available

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have partnered to create six booklets with food safety advice for populations that are most susceptible to foodborne illness. The booklets in this “at-risk series” are tailored to help older adults, transplant recipients, pregnant women, and people with cancer, diabetes or HIV/AIDS reduce their risk for foodborne illness. The booklets are downloadable in PDF format at To order booklets for your home, office, or organization, call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET, or email requests to