Eating like a Mongol: A Nutritional Perspective
The Great White Lake is a mesmerizing destination, showcasing breathtaking views of an alpine lake that lies at the heart of the region. The panoramic scenery is a delightful blend of volcanic craters, jagged peaks, meandering river valleys, and verdant rolling hills. Our hosts, Batbold and Jargaa, were incredibly hospitable, treating us to a delectable Mongolian feast called Makh. This classic dish features tender chunks of boiled sheep cuts, including bones, fat, and meat, paired with some delicious potatoes.
Mongolian cuisine is renowned for its emphasis on survival over taste, resulting in hearty yet somewhat bland meals centered around boiled mutton bones, fat, and various organs. While the introduction of wheat, rice, and potatoes has added some variety, many rural Mongols continue to subsist on a diet of animal protein and fat due to the harsh climate and the traditional nomadic lifestyle.
The Mongolian meat is 100% organic, with animals being grass-fed and free from antibiotics and hormones. With little industry outside the capital, the air, water, and earth are clean, making these some of the most natural animal proteins available. But the question remains, is this diet healthy?
I recently became vegan after being influenced by powerful documentaries like ‘Forks Over Knives’ and ‘What the Health.’ These movies presented a strong case that most “Western” illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, are caused by the consumption of animal products and processed foods. The film’s solution was clear: if we want to live healthy, we should switch to a plant-based diet, which is essentially veganism.
Comparing Mongolia’s lifespan to Laos, a developing country with a rice-based diet and significantly higher vegetable consumption per capita, both Mongolian men and women live longer. This simple analysis raises a red flag, suggesting that the consumption of animal-based foods may not be the sole contributor to Western illnesses.
As I contemplate the merits of a plant-based diet, Jargaa, our host lady, hands me a wet rag to wipe the animal fat from my fingers. Mongols often eat with their bare hands, and I washed my meal down with some Airag or fermented mare’s milk, a sour Mongolian beer-like beverage clocking in at around 2%-3% alcohol. It’s interesting to note that in Mongolia, even the booze is derived from beasts.
I’m not a huge fan of mutton, and I plan to stick with my version of a predominantly plant-based diet. However, based on the crude statistics, I wonder if the documentary films and the science they rely upon should distinguish between the consumption of animal-based foods with the consumption of processed foods.