Story and photo gallery by CAMILLE AGLAURE
With so much talk concerning diet in the media, many people find it difficult to know what to eat. What foods are ethically sourced and grown? What foods truly promote human health? What foods support the health of the planet? These are all questions that are fogging up the minds of so many people.
One thing that Thunder Jalili, Ph.D., and a professor of nutrition and integrative physiology, and Anne Pesek Taylor, registered dietitian, at the University of Utah can both agree on is that, generally speaking, a healthier plate is one with more plants and less overly processed foods and added sugar.
Pesek Taylor said in an email interview that balanced nutrition needs to account for individual food preferences, lifestyle factors, and include a variety of food groups so it can be maintained long-term. Pesek Taylor referred to the University of Utah’s Healthy Eating Plate, an adaptation of the government’s MyPlate created in 2011, as a useful guide to good health.
What does this mean for meat and dairy, though?
Studies like the popular health book “The China Study” and documentaries like “What the Health” and “Cowspiracy”detail the harmful effects to humans and the environment that come with the consumption of animal-based foods. Jalili said he believes that the absolute exclusion of animal-based foods is not necessarily vital. However, regarding meat, “a little still means a little,” he said.
Jalili said the maximum recommended intake of red meat is 100 grams per day while the maximum for processed meat is 50 grams. “Once a day is still a lot,” he said, and as far as human health is concerned, many studies indicate that there is, in fact, a decrease in mortality rate among those who maintain a vegan and vegetarian diet. When considering environmental health, there is slightly more to be taken into account when writing out your grocery list.
As more media attention surrounds the question of climate change versus animal agriculture, many organizations and communities are reevaluating the importance of animal-based foods, particularly meat, in a standard, western diet.
“Raising cows is an environmental disaster,” Jalili said. With animal agriculture accounting for 91 percent of rainforest deforestation, according to The World Bank, and more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector, according to the United Nations, Jalili said he believes that it is time for groups of people, like nutritionists, to not focus on health alone, but the bigger picture. “It’s just responsible,” he said.
So, is a universal vegan diet the solution?
In the opinion of Christy Clay, Ph.D., an associate professor at Westminster College who teaches courses on subjects including biology, ecology, and environmental studies, “a homogenous, universal diet is exactly what has caused so many problems in our current food system.”
Clay said she believes that the current food system has created a monster of unequal distribution of foods, the elimination of native crops and variation, and potentially the loss of culture and professions.
“We’re not understanding the limitations and values of local resources,” Clay said, as she explained the harms in seeking mainstream foods that do not naturally occur locally. Clay used the example of quinoa, a grain that grows in the Andes that is now exported to Western countries more than it is provided for locals who have depended on the grain in their diets for centuries. To be truly sustainable and ethical, Clay maintained that “diets should be bio-regional.”
For Clay, the ethical question of which foods to eat is not as simple as drastically lowering our consumption of meat. Rather, “there’s a whole dismantling of a current food system that needs to happen,” Clay said as she painted a picture of just how disrupted our way of eating has become.
So, where do we begin?
Clay suggested that the first action to take is having the conversation about “how broken our food system is.” This consists of poor income for those in the agriculture industry, the cost and precarious nature of leasing land to farmers, a decline in community gardens, and loss of interest in crops that have fallen out of the mainstream.
“What does it look like to say we actually value this profession?” wondered Clay as she additionally suggested encouraging communities to be a space for local gardening. Already, there are a number of organizations working to do just that, including Green Urban Lunch Box, which goes from school to school, educating children on the value of local gardening while furthermore educating local farmers.
Making a difference in your community requires collective action to encourage local agriculture and farming. Clay suggested gardening out of your own backyard. If you live in an apartment complex, ask your landlord or property owner about creating a roof garden. Clay also suggested engaging with other community gardens and protecting land to be used for local farming. Getting back in touch with a farm-to-table way of eating is imperative for a sustainable diet. Rekindling a healthy and community-based relationship with food is the best way for individuals to eat ethically, healthily, and in an environmentally friendly way.