Toward a Greener Diet

It’s getting to be that time of year again — Food Day is right around the corner! As I wrote last year, Food Day (officially October 24th) is a celebration of and opportunity to advocate for sustainable, health-promoting, and fair food policies. And for the second time, I’m spearheading the festivities on my university’s campus next week. This year the theme of the national Food Day campaign is “Toward a Greener Diet.” I wanted to take this blog post to share what a greener diet means to me, because I truly think this needs to be the foundation of the rebuilding of the food system.

A greener diet is a diet that is more plant-based and less animal-based.

A greener diet is healthier.

Because most of our livestock are routinely fed antibiotics that are promoting the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

Because the unsanitary living conditions of the animals and the fault-ridden food inspection process enable such pathogens to travel from the farm to our plates.

Because the people who develop the least chronic disease and live the longest, healthiest lives are the ones who eat the most minimally processed, plant-based foods.

A greener diet is kinder.

Because whether or not you believe eating animal products is inherently morally wrong (I actually don’t, for the record), there is no excuse for the undeniably cruel way most livestock are treated by the factory farm system.

A greener diet is more sustainable.

Because animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Because one gram of protein from beef takes 18 gallons of water to produce while one gram of protein from beans takes 3 gallons of water to produce.

Because we could feed millions more people at lower cost if the land used to grow food for livestock were used to grow food for humans.

Because animal agriculture produces more toxic waste than we have room to dispose of safely.

Because if the world continues to consume animal products at the current and projected rates, we will soon run out of land and resources on which to raise the animals.

Because even pastured-raised animal products are unsustainable, even if they are more natural.

Because avoiding animal products is by far the single most effective action you can take to mitigate climate change.

I’ve transitioned over time to a completely plant-based diet for all of these reasons. I started to eat fewer and fewer animal products when I learned how much better a plant-based diet is for one’s health. I stopped eating meat entirely when I could no longer escape the truth about the way livestock are treated. I completely stopped eating fish, eggs, and dairy as well when I could no longer justify the unmeasurable destruction animal agriculture causes to the climate, ecosystems, and natural resources.

I’m certainly not demanding that you all become vegan tomorrow, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you take this upcoming Food Day as an opportunity to open yourself up to the idea of making some “greener” changes in the way you eat. It’s all about the simple goal of aligning our actions with our values — simple, but clearly not easy.

A Plant Strong Declaration Part II

You probably don’t remember, but my second post ever on this blog almost a year and a half ago detailed my commitment to minimizing the amount of animal products in my diet, completely eliminating terrestrial meat (poultry, beef, lamb, pork) but still eating small amounts of dairy, eggs, and fish on a regular basis. This has been very easy for me, thanks to the excellent dining services at my university and the open-mindedness of my family. I have been able to maintain a diet that is based mainly on grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. That being said, I’ve never really gone out of my way to avoid relatively healthy food items containing a bit of dairy and eggs if there wasn’t a vegan option, and I would default to fish if there wasn’t a healthy vegetarian option, like most of the meals I ate in France this past summer (man, do they eat a lot of cheese, butter, and eggs over there). I won’t go into detail here about why I came to that conclusion back in May 2014; you can go back and read it if you’re interested.

Recently though, I have begun to feel like even this amount of animal product consumption doesn’t align with my values, partly because even farms that produce pasture-raised meat and dairy are not better for the environment, from my point of view, because they actually use more resources and produce more greenhouse gases per ounce of food produced than inhumane factory farms. As for fish, at the current levels of world seafood consumption, we as a society are unintentionally depleting the oceans and destroying marine ecosystems for a food that is not necessary for our survival or health. Even if I don’t have reason to believe that the world has to give up animal products entirely to ensure the sustainability of the food system, the amount of meat and dairy consumed per person that would be sustainable (maybe a couple of ounces per week) is so small that I want to move as much money as possible out of that industry and into plant-based food, starting with me. The other thing that appeals to me about a completely plant-based diet is that most of the weight gain-promoting foods that I tend to crave have dairy or eggs in them (i.e. baked goods and desserts), so I would naturally eat less of those foods and be less worried about gaining weight (although I do acknowledge that I should be a lot less concerned with my weight than I am, but I am far from immune to body image problems). Of course, there are wonderfully decadent plant-based desserts out there, but it does make dessert even more special and rare.

So from here on out, I’m going 99% plant-based. That means that for all intents and purposes I will tell people that I’m a vegan, but I’m not necessarily never going to eat an animal product again. For starters I don’t plan to avoid honey, which some vegans do, but from what I know about honey production it doesn’t conflict with my values — if you have information to the contrary, please comment on this post. But I also feel that it’s not necessary or desirable to miss out on certain traditional dishes, especially for Jewish holidays, that contain animal products, like the chicken broth in the matzo ball soup at Passover, or the bagels and lox to break the fast on Yom Kippur. But those occasions occur a handful times per year, which is probably, to be honest, the level of worldwide animal product consumption I envision ideally if we really want to stabilize and reverse climate change and truly nourish the growing world population in a sustainable way.

I want to add a caveat: I know that it is far easier for me to make this transition than it is for most, and I am under no grand illusions that the public can make this sudden switch to a whole foods, plant-based diet. I am fortunate enough to have means, an education, an educated family and peer group, and particularly convenient access to fresh produce and satisfying and nutritious vegan meals, all of which have encouraged me gradually toward this decision. I also happen to really love vegetables and vegan food, if it’s cooked well and has enough variety.

I know that I cannot expect most to see the food system from my point of view, and certainly not right away. I am not only committing to (99%) veganism here in this post, but also to never try to make someone feel guilty about the way they eat. But I will continue to write about the injustices and abuses I learn about, and I will certainly answer honestly when someone asks me why I eat the way I do, in the hopes that more people will realize that the conventions of the food system as it is now conflict with their values. I can only hope that through my own and others’ advocacy that the cultural paradigm shift towards a less processed, more plant-based diet will gradually continue in the years to come.