Plant-based diets are rapidly gaining popularity as the purported health and environmental benefits resonate with more and more of us. While some regard vegetarians and vegans as members of religious sects, others see them as easily seduced by the latest fad diets. And while there may be elements of truth on both sides, a growing body of evidence suggests that there is validity to adopting a plant-based diet . . . but don't forget to save room for ice cream and chocolate; they may not be as unhealthy or taboo as you might think (more on that later!) We want to emphasise that the conversation around nutrition, the environment, animal welfare and socio-economic status is a rather complicated and personal one, so let's begin with the basics.
what is a plant-based diet?
In spite of its different iterations, plant-based diets are based primarily on foods derived from plants, such as vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits. Whilst plants can provide the foundations of a healthy, lower risk diet, this doesn't preclude varying amounts of animal products, such as meats, fish, dairy and eggs from being integrated supplementally. It also doesn't preclude sweets, bread, pasta and rice; foods that are commonly viewed as universally and unequivocally unhealthy.
According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), 53.5% of Americans are obese (17% children/adolescents and 36.5% adults) and 9.4% are diabetic (33.9% have prediabetes). Lifestyle and diets drive these conditions.
NOT ALL Plant-based diets ARE CREATED EQUALLY
In the West, advocating for and practicing a plant-based diet can be quite a challenge. Our carnivorous culture is so entrenched that 'healthy' diets require large sources of protein at every meal. Some of those who follow 'Meatless Monday' dip their toes in the sea of vegetarianism, but often do so without adequate comprehension of the nutritional differences between whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and refined carbohydrates and dairy. The conversation is further complicated by lifestyle variations and individual biology, but more on that later!
Meatless Mondays can grow into 'Weekday Vegetarianism,' a phrase popularised by founder of Tree Hugger, Graham Hill, during his TED Talk, "Why I'm a weekday vegetarian." Aware of the challenges of abstaining from meat, Hill offers a solution: eat a plant-based diet during the week and indulge at the weekend. His pragmatic approach provides people with an achievable goal that doesn't disqualify burgers and steaks forever. He jokes, "Imagine your last hamburger!" The reasons he cites for making this shift consider our health and longevity, as well as the ethical and environmental consequences of consuming meat. At the time of Hill's talk, in 2010, 10 billion animals were raised for slaughter in US factory farm conditions.
the price of life
According to the Humane Society of the United States, this figure dropped to 4.6 billion in 2016, but "these data do not include the slaughter of fish, crustaceans, rabbits, and other farmed animals for whom the USDA does not provide information, or on the slaughter of animals who are not farmed, such as equines. The USDA estimates that up to 2 million rabbits were slaughtered in 2001 in the United States." Additionally, these figures do not reference the numbers of animals living in factory farm conditions who aren't raised for slaughter, but are likely slaughtered anyway when their value expires: dairy cows and chickens. Hill makes a good point: these factory farmed animals live in conditions that we would never consider for our own dogs, cats and other pets. Out of sight, out of mind . . .
While the number of animals raised for consumption has decreased in the US, Humane Society International estimates that more than 77 billion animals worldwide were raised for meat, eggs and milk in 2013 alone. In the EU, 8.3 billion were raised for human consumption, which equates to approximately 16/EU citizen per year. The UK and France account for more than one billion each.
Globally, North America consumes the highest amount of meat, dairy and fish, followed by the EU, which is responsible for 16% of the world's meat consumption. China is the highest meat producer in the world, followed by the EU and then the USA.
These are the facts and figures, and rather than proselytising about how we think you should live and eat, we instead ask that you consider what the information means to you in relation to your daily habits and practices.
SUSTAINABILITY OF ANIMAL product CONSUMPTION
For some people, moving towards 'Meatless Monday' is one step away from our Western, carnivorous culture. It can offer individuals an achievable goal as a mile marker towards more conscientious consumerism. But, not all vegetarian diets can necessarily be considered healthy for everyone. Vegetarian diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugars don't offer the same benefits as diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables. And, enjoying a Meatless Monday, or another day of vegetarianism, is not the same as veganism. Consuming any animal product, whether or not that includes eggs, milk or honey, raises the same ethical and environmental considerations as raising animals for slaughter.
We use a large amount of land to support the global agriculture industry, and it raises concerns about what constitutes 'too much.' In a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 26% of the world's terrestrial space is used for grazing, of which 20-70% is considered degraded land. The total land for feed crop cultivation accounts for 33% of arable land.
. . . that's an awful lot of land that is being used to support more animal products than we need, at a rate that could irrevocably threaten biodiversity, and may leave a legacy to our children of an unsustainable future.
Whether or not you believe that climate change is a direct result of humanity's relationship to the planet, the ways in which our global livestock interact with the climate account for 18% of the world's CO2 emissions, which is more than what is produced by the transportation industry. On top of that, 77 million tonnes of human edible protein supplied to livestock results in only 58 million tonnes of human edible protein supplied by livestock. These numbers don't add up to sustainable.
One of the factors that complicates this issue and often leads to polarising conversations about health and wellness is the need to universalise the 'healthy diet.' Whilst fundamental veganism doesn't work for everyone, consuming animal products at these rates doesn't work for the planet. We have become so far removed from our ancestry of hunting in the truest form, so detached from our bodily awareness, and so devout in what we believe is the best diet for all humans, which brings us to our next dilemma . . .
What is the best diet for humans?
In his TEDx Talk, Eran Segal states that we are asking the wrong question. This question considers only the food, and not the person. Individuals are made up of more than just what they eat, and Segal explains why there is no conclusive, definition of a 'healthy diet' that works for everyone. Whilst nutrition plays a big role in healthy outcomes and responses to food, so do genetics, gut bacteria and lifestyle.
When we think about health, popular culture and even the medical industry consider it in relation to weight loss and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. However, Segal notes that so much of the research don't take into account other contributing factors. This led him to study changes in blood glucose levels after a meal, which is important because high glucose rates promote hunger and weight gain. There are many factors that influence healthy diets, but Segal concluded that glucose levels are very important. For some, higher levels of carbohydrates increased glucose levels, whilst for others, more animal fats increased this response, which challenges many who subscribe to Paleo eating habits. Segal found plenty of trends that confirmed our popularised notions of healthy eating, but what interested him more were the exceptions. These exceptions indicated that trends could not determine the rules; rather the exceptions told a far more provocative story.
For some participants, ice cream spiked their glucose levels, and surprisingly, for others, it didn't. Not only is this contrary to our popular dietary paradigms, it's difficult to wrap our minds around the possibility that consuming ice cream does not result in the same 'unhealthy' outcomes for everyone. If an individual's glucose levels don't increase after consuming ice cream, but she/he continues to be at risk from weight gain and cardiovascular disease, this suggests that perhaps, lifestyle and genetics interact to create a network of health that is far more tangled than we are led to believe.
the myth of the healthy diet
So, because our glucose response levels are entirely personal, we can't jump to the conclusion that ice cream is unequivocally bad and causal of poor health. Our micro biome has a major impact on health and disease. It explains why we all vary in our glucose response, and proves why it's necessary that we consider personalised dietary plans. Following a celebrity's endorsed (and purportedly practiced) diet may work for them her/him, and not for us . . . and now we know why.
Segal offers an affordable, personalised solution: purchase a glucose monitor. You can find a selection at Boots.
changing the paradigm
Whilst we can't and won't make dietary recommendations, we hope that we have inspired you to enact change in the nutritional paradigm concerning what constitutes a healthy diet, and how and why this is achieved. It's far too easy to live with blinkers that prevent us from seeing where our animal products come from. Unless you live and/or work on a farm or ranch, this is a struggle that we all face.
However, we want to emphasise that, with any word or action, there are ethical, social and environmental implications. Many of us are disgusted by the conditions in which animals are raised, and yet, burdened by the financial costs associated with finding organic fruits and vegetables, and sourcing hormone-free animal products. GMO foods and factory-farmed animal products are widely accessible, affordable and subsidised by government. On top of that, our individual glucose responses, lifestyles and genetics play a significant, but less visible role in our health.
fingerprints of health
We hope that this segment has brought more visibility to the constellation of individual health. Whilst dietary 'choices' are frequently connected to coronary heart disease, the relationship between food, income, education, housing and stress-free (relatively speaking) home environments needs deeper consideration. We are here to inform and inspire; not indoctrinate or shame, and we realise that the conversation is deeply personal, complex and evolving.
where there's a wilde, there's a way
At WildeNest, we are committed advocates of animal welfare and follow a flexitarian diet. For the most part, this means that we abstain from any animal product whose origins are unknown. We recognise that we are so far removed from where our food comes from, and how it gets here, that we believe it is important to cultivate an understanding of seasonal foods and recipes, locally-sourced ingredients and animal products (if a part of our diet) that bring no suffering to animals. These goals are lofty and we can't always reach them. Pernicious anaemia runs in our family, and sometimes, we go to dinner parties... the point is, we can't always control what we eat, and we shouldn't shame others for that same reason.