Meat, Poultry, Fish, Eggs, and Dairy
It was fall of 2009. I was sitting in a restaurant by the Black Sea, gazing at the sun-bleached tops of ever-rolling waves and waiting for Mikhail, a long-term student of Konstantin’s. Almost every time Dr. Buteyko escaped the busy city of Moscow to dock in Crimea, this local man had hung out with him, absorbing precious knowledge.
I was not surprised that Mikhail was late. Crimea’s provincial charm comes with its own time zone of slow time. During this afternoon, waiters were leisurely floating around, carrying trays of traditional Ukrainian appetizers: boiled beef tongue, marinated herring, and, of course, salo—thin slices of raw pork fat. Salo is a delicacy present in almost any Ukrainian home. It can be eaten with eggs, similar to bacon, or on a piece of dark rye bread with butter, or with a glass of vodka. If you ask a Ukrainian man to name one type of food he would take to fly to the moon, undoubtedly, he would say, “Salo.”
Finally, Mikhail arrived: a fit man in his seventies with rosy baby cheeks and clear eyes. After many years of applying the Buteyko Method, Mikhail became an expert but kept the enthusiasm of a neophyte. He told me that the gift he received from Dr. Buteyko was not only his strong health but some extraordinary abilities as well. Similar to Himalayan yogis, he became able to endure prolonged exposure to extreme cold, wearing almost nothing. As a result of breath retention, his body gained the ability to generate heat, or “inner fire,” as it was described in a Tibetan tradition.
“What would you like to eat?” A young man with splotchy red patches on his face, wearing a white apron interrupted our conversation flow.
I was longing for something sweet and asked for dumplings filled with cherries.
“Decent choice!” Mikhail exclaimed. “When I first met with Konstantin, he told me to avoid eating animal products for at least six months. I am still following his advice.”
He ordered a traditional salad with boiled beets, onions and sauerkraut, dressed in sunflower oil.
“No meat!” Unyieldingly, he stated to the waiter, who raised his eyebrows in disapproval and silently glided off.
After lunch, I went back to my Crimean “home away from home,” the Buteyko residence. When I opened the gate, I found Ludmila Buteyko sitting outside on a long swing entwined by vines strewn with massive bunches of grapes. She was staring at a cloud swimming through the sky.
“Sometimes I see Konstantin’s face,” she shared, “and communicate with him.”
I sat next to my mentor and asked, “Is it true that Konstantin did not eat any meat?”
Ludmila pulled a grape from the vine and bit into it as she glanced down at its sparkling color of fresh blood. “Yes!” she answered gently with confidence. “Why would he eat something which brings you closer to a disease?”
She put the rest of the grape in her mouth, and chewing unhurriedly, she rolled her eyes up again.
“There was one exception,” Ludmila added. “Once in a while, he would eat a piece of salo. He believed that salo contained valuable nutrients naturally unavailable in plant food.”
“Obviously, he was a Ukrainian man!” I exclaimed.
“That’s for sure,” she laughed.
Meat, fish, and poultry usually decrease Positive Maximum Pause, especially if eaten in substantial quantities. This happens, I believe, because physiologically, animal flesh is not an utterly intrinsic food for human beings. The structure of our teeth, jaw and digestive system indicates that naturally we are herbivores or frugivores like monkeys who survive on fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Of course, we can digest meat, and factually, we are omnivores, but it does not remove the point that our diet should be predominantly plant-based. In short, if you aspire to breathe easy, eat vegan.
Nonetheless, a purely vegan diet is also not completely natural; it is an invention of our modern civilization. Primates supplement their regular leafy diet with insects and have occasionally been caught consuming birds and lizards. Even a cow, often proclaimed “holy,” is not an exception from the sin of eating flesh. Grazing on a grassy pasture, all herbivores eat untreated, unwashed plants containing insect parts, eggs, and larvae. Deer don’t wash every blade of grass they consume with warm water. When people try to go back to basics imitating herbivores by consuming “their food” but disinfecting it “our way,” it often results in a deficiency of vitamin B12, found only in animal-based food. I believe this is one of the reasons why vegans often dream of hamburgers and chicken nuggets. I’d like to think that this is also why Dr. Buteyko supplemented his plant-based diet with salo.
I’d like to call myself “vegan,” yet I am aware that I am not. Depending on climate and season, I periodically crave animal food. This almost never happens when I am visiting Hawaii or India, but during a chilly winter in the Rocky Mountains, my body occasionally cries for chicken or fish. I don’t fight this. I use a technique that was suggested to me by the manager of Clinica Buteyko, a tall and muscular man who experienced the same problem. “If I have a strong craving for pork chops, “he shared, “I get them and eat as many as I wish but without potatoes or anything else. I relish this feast greatly. When it’s over, I go back to my plant-based diet and stay on it for as long as I can.”
Following his guidance, from time to time I also enjoy oily sardines or yogurt, which enables me to leave sentient beings alone for a month or two until I experience a longing to eat animal-based food again. I found this technique to be effective and often recommend it to my clients.
I also warn them that this approach is successful only if you don’t quickly fall prey to your yearnings. A time of separation with an object of desire is essential for breaking a habit. At the beginning of my breathing practice, I felt skeptical about vegan diet’s positive effect on respiration but decided to give it a chance. At the start of spring, I committed to avoiding eating any meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products until the ground would be covered by snow again. During this phase, I periodically longed for butter, kefir and tuna sandwiches but managed to disregard my feelings, which, after a while, weakened considerably. After eating exclusively vegan for six months, I was impressed with the lightness of my breath and increased energy.
Once I worked with an asthmatic child whose parents rejected the idea of minimizing animal protein. They were convinced that without it being present in some form at every meal, their son would experience developmental issues. At the beginning of Breathing Normalization training, their son made substantial progress, but then, his PMP got stuck. Suspecting that the problem was rooted in his diet, I begged his parents to stop giving him animal protein for at least two weeks. They were not able to do it even for a couple of meals. The boy continued choking on mucus after every food intake; however, thanks to his breathing exercises, his coughing fits eased over time.
Breaking bonds with the foods we love was a phase in an annual circle of rituals in many cultures. Traditions of reducing food intake, avoiding specific foods or semi-fasting exist in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism and other religions. Growing up in Russia, I am most familiar with the Orthodox Christian custom. Various periods of abstinence from meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products take place often in accordance with seasonal changes. The best-known period is Great Lent, forty days or more, during which Orthodox Christians avoid eating any animal-based food. In general, there are roughly 200 days a year when Orthodox Christians are supposed to eat vegan. Living in Russia, I met several people who strictly followed this tradition and was always fascinated by their radiance. Of course, refraining from eating dead flesh and dairy was not the single cause of their healthful look since they did not live “by bread alone.”
To those who are convinced that the vegan diet is not for them, I usually recommend creating one vegan day a week. To their surprise, my clients often find that they and their family members like this break from rich and heavy food and before long, feel ready to move to two or three vegan days a week. As Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Once I asked Dr. Novozhilov for a scientific clarification of Dr. Buteyko’s fondness of veganism. “All animal-based food,” Andrey explained,” requires more energy to digest and, therefore, increases lung ventilation. This can worsen the condition of someone who has asthma or COPD, for example. Limiting consumption of animal protein in any form reduces lung ventilation and improves respiration. It can make a person suffering from breathing difficulties feel significantly better.”
Many people assume that dairy products don’t affect breathing as strongly as animal flesh does; however, based on my experience of pulling my husband, Thomas, out of his asthmatic condition and my work as a breathing coach, it seems that sometimes dairy products affect respiration even more negatively than consuming meat does. Perhaps, that’s why Dr. Buteyko warned asthmatics: “If you eat dairy, expect to have an asthma attack within a half an hour.”
I personally believe that it is less natural to eat dairy products compared to meat, fish or poultry. In the wilderness, predators devour their prey, but I have never heard of an animal that sucks milk from another biological species, especially if it is not a baby anymore. Can you imagine a female wolf breastfeeding an adult deer? Absurd! Yet, when it comes to humans, this abnormality does not look bizarre after being carefully camouflaged by packaging, transportation, and marketing. It is easy to imagine a middle-aged man in a business suit drinking a glass of milk in the morning. It is difficult to imagine the same man positioning himself under a cow, elbowing away her newborn calf, placing its mama’s nipple into his mouth and eagerly sucking her milk. Not appealing! If we add to this picture the torture that cows and bulls have to endure in order to supply us with dairy products, this picture instantly turns into a horror story. No, you cannot reveal to your child all the truth about milk… unless you want your kid to become vegan!
Of course, many parents are concerned about the calcium intake of their growing offspring. They believe that without dairy, strong bones and teeth don’t happen. This is not true! Horses often acquire Schwarzenegger’s appearance by eating grass. There are many rich sources of calcium among our leafy friends such as spinach, kale, beans, broccoli, oranges, apricots, kiwis, figs and others. For one thing, ingesting them does not generate a perpetual mucus fountain; it nourishes the body with not only the bone-builder mineral but also with loads of health perks that accompany a diet rich in fresh organic vegetables and fruits. Duh!
Another motive for reluctance to reducing or eliminating dairy products can be cultural. One of my clients who had acute asthma stated that she would not stop drinking several glasses of milk daily because to do so would mean cutting her umbilical cord to her heritage. Karen was American by birth and Norwegian by blood.
“I grew up on dairy products, and they did not cause me any harm!” Karen said firmly.
“Really?” I responded. “Were you a healthy child?”
“Oh no! I struggled with breathing difficulties since my first year of life. Later, my adenoids and tonsils were removed. I had terrible allergies and frequent colds.” She went through the list of standard childhood problems triggered by hyperventilation.
“And are you convinced that nothing was wrong with your diet?” My question was rhetorical. Karen was immovable as a Viking, and there was no way to amend her resolution.
Sennet, a woman who had moved from Normandy, France, to Los-Angeles just a couple of years before I started working with her, also suffered from asthma. It was arduous for her to refrain from eating cheese during her family meals but inconceivable to cast off Camembert de Normandie brought from France by her relatives visiting for holidays. Luckily, she possessed flexibility of mind, a gift enabling her to dissolve any stumbling-stone. Instead of turning her dietary restriction into calamity, Sennet vowed to indulge in cheese during celebratory events only—no cheese during lunch and dinner anymore. Prior to a special gathering, she worked on her breathing, creating a surplus of CO2—enough to lose later. During her feast, she made everybody laugh bantering about herself being love-blind for her old, rotten friend, the stinky Camembert. I credit the reduction of dairy as helping Sennet raise her PMP and eventually become free of breathing problems as well as medication.
For anyone considering becoming increasingly vegan, it’s helpful to know that various types of animal food affect respiration differently. Pork, beef, lamb, milk, and butter typically have the strongest negative impact. Poultry and fish decrease PMP less drastically. Ice cream seems to be the cruelest; raw and sour type of dairy products is more neutral. Eggs don’t disturb breathing much. In fact, eating eggs to supplement the vegan diet often becomes a suitable pick for people working on improving their breathing. Of course, for those who are concerned with ethical issues regarding eating sentient beings, humanely produced non-fertilized eggs become a guilt-free choice.
Having said this, I need to reiterate that an individual impact of food on respiration depends on countless factors coming together at the moment. General rules are not always applicable. Robert, one of the Breathing Normalization Specialists trained by Thomas and myself, swore that once eating a steak increased his PMP. This sounded improbable to me; nevertheless, I had no reasons to doubt Robert’s statement. Perhaps, under some rare circumstances, this is feasible. Life is too complex and too magic to be entrapped in one simple frame.
During the last day of Thomas’ and my visit to Crimea in 2009, Ludmila offered us a farewell dinner. Her neighbor, from the small village where Ludmila’s country home was located, cooked it for us. This robust woman with a friendly, wrinkly face and a colorful headscarf brought us a steaming pot and placed it on Ludmila’s kitchen table.
“Home-grown swine,” she said proudly. “Eat for your health!”
When the lid was taken off, I saw potatoes, onions, herbs, and meat floating together in a jelly-like pond. It looked disgusting! Ludmila served Thomas and me and then placed a little piece of pork on her plate. Being a good Buteyko student, I felt resistant to eat meat but was concerned that it would be impolite to refuse it. I tasted a potato and then pork; both melted in my mouth, creating a remarkably satisfying sensation. What a treat! I noticed that Thomas was enthusiastically wolfing down his portion.
“Meat,” Thomas shared with our teacher, “makes me feel very good. If it feels so good, how can it possibly be so bad for you?” he challenged Ludmila.
“Your body is still confused,” Ludmila said, seemingly detached. “It is longing for something which takes you closer to death instead of life.” Without batting an eyelid, she cut off a piece of pork and put it in her mouth.
After dinner, Thomas and I went for a stroll. Both of us felt torn between Ludmila’s kind offering and her statement about its harm.
“What Ludmila said did not make any sense to me!” Thomas was knocking stones on the beach. He looked at me. His blue eyes encircled by scattered sand-colored hair were full of rage.
“Listen! I am not giving up meat in favor of Buteyko dogma!”
Did I tell you that Thomas was American by birth and Norwegian by blood?
To eat meat or not? To become vegan or at least vegetarian or not? This omnivore’s dilemma has been ceaselessly occupying the minds of people leaning toward conscious and positive choices. Of course, Thomas and I had pondered over it. We knew, for example, that several universities and hospitals conducted research, demonstrating that people following plant-based diets were significantly healthier compared to those who ate conventionally, and therefore, doctors assumed that vegetarians were winners in the race of longevity. So, factually Ludmila was correct: consuming meat takes you closer to disease and thus to death.
But why did she say that Thomas’ body was still confused? Thomas did not feel this way; moreover, he felt that his body knew exactly what it wanted—it was meat! It was not his feeling that was confusing for him; indeed, it was Ludmila’s statement. Thomas and I were desperately trying to decipher the situation but were not able to come up with a satisfying answer.
Now, writing this in 2017, I can see that at that time it was too early for us to comprehend the statement of our guru, since we were still in our first year of breathing practice. Later, it became evident that reduced breathing reduces a desire to eat dead bodies of sentient beings. For a person with a stable morning PMP of 30-40 seconds and higher, it is not an issue to stay on a primarily vegan diet. Over time, it became increasingly more comfortable for Thomas to avoid animal-based foods. He did not become purely vegan or vegetarian, but his meat consumption dropped considerably, and it happened without a sizable effort. Bingo! Ludmila was correct again: over time, his body became less confused (perhaps, as a result of a higher level of oxygenation in his brain resulted by an increased concentration of CO2) and started liking what takes it farther away from death.
But that evening in 2009, we kept walking the shore of the Black Sea, discussing our farewell dinner.
“Why did Ludmila serve us meat? Would you gift venom to a guest?” Thomas was relentless.
“Perhaps she simply wanted to offer us a sensory pleasure and to enjoy it herself,” I offered my version of the event. “She is a human after all!”
It did not seem like Thomas was listening to me. “Who was that Dr. Buteyko, anyway? Was he a walking contradiction, partly truth, and partly fiction?” He quoted Pilgrim, one of his favorite songs. Suddenly Thomas stopped.
“I know!” He switched to his lower tone academic voice. “Small episodic intakes of meat cannot screw up your breathing. Unless your CO2 is at the black line.”
He was referring to Dr. Buteyko’s chart displaying various levels of CO2 in lungs and their effect on health. On the bottom of it, Konstantin placed a black stripe with the word “DEATH” (all in capitals!) exposing the outcome of CO2 sinking to zero.
“Did I tell you that Dr. Buteyko ate salo?” I eyed Thomas; he heard me—I watched a smug smile spread across his face.
We kept strolling. The soft evening light was mixing baby-blue—the color of the sea—with breast-cancer-pink—the color of the sky—into one indivisible shade covering timeless rocks, sand, and water up to a distant horizon.