by Anita Cheung
In terms of finding the ideal balanced diet as well as considering all production factors that affect the planet, it can sometimes be confusing as to what the perfect balance is or should be. On the one hand, we are all looking to maintain a balanced diet as much as we can and as part of a busy lifestyle, this in itself offers many challenges. On the other hand, the production and distribution of food around the world (transportation) are factors that use a lot of energy and the world’s resources. So as conscious adults who care about the planet, is a plant-based diet the way forward or does this just present different challenges?
In the first instance, a plant-based diet offers many benefits to not only the body, but also to the planet. Plant-based foods are packed with phytochemicals. including the powerful antioxidants which are found in fruit and vegetables. Phytochemicals are vital to the body as they aid the function of the immune system, help regulate hormones and reduce inflammation, protect cells and DNA from damage that may lead to cancer and reduce inflammation. Foods high in phytochemicals include broccoli, berries, soy nuts, spinach, pears, brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, whole grains & cereals and beans. Antioxidants prevent or reduce the damage caused by oxidation and a diet high in antioxidants may reduce the risk of many diseases. Some foods that are rich in antioxidants are goji berries, kale, blueberries, strawberries, dark chocolate, carrots, potatoes, artichokes, avocados, squash and pumpkin.
The health benefits of a vegan versus a non-vegan are weight-loss, a lower rate of heart disease, reduction of arthritic pain, a lower chance of getting some types of cancer (such as colon cancer), better skin, higher levels of antioxidant carotenoids, total omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of saturated fatty acids. A vegan diet is also richer in certain nutrients such as fibre, potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamins A, C, E and vegans have better scores on depression tests. Due to the lower level of sugar in blood levels, it can also help prevent type 2 diabetes.
However, the question arises as to whether a vegan - or someone who has chosen a plant-based diet - can actually obtain the full quota of vitamins, minerals, fats, protein and carbohydrates without the presence of meat, fish, eggs, cheese or other dairy products in the diet. Certainly, in observing vegan friends, it would appear that the diet is not complete, but is this really so?
The reality is that a plant-based diet can offer all of the required nutrients for our body in fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals, pulses, rice, nuts and seeds except for Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin that is solely present in animal products and is required to maintain the health of the body’s blood and nerves. Therefore, the only option available to those who have chosen a plant-based diet is to select foods such as plant milks, soya products and some breakfast cereals that have been fortified with B12 or to take a B12 supplement. In fact, deficiency in Vitamin B12 is higher amongst vegans and symptoms present as a sore and red tongue, mouth ulcers, pins and needles, disturbed vision, constipation, weakness, loss of appetite, fatigue, depression, a pale yellow tinge to the skin and irritability. Depression can also be caused by a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, but omega-3 fatty acids can be found in the plant-based options of flax, walnuts, flaxseed oil, soybean, tofu and chia seeds. Anaemia is also quite high in vegans as a result of a low folic and folate (Vitamin B9) intake. Vitamin B9 is needed to synthesise certain amino acids, make DNA, RNA and red blood cells. It can be found in liver, yeast, sunflower seeds, seafood, beans, fresh fruits, and fruit juices, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, asparagus, avocados and legumes.
In terms of health, it is obvious to see that a plant-based diet offers some attractive benefits so long as one can get past giving up favourite meals consisting of meat, cheese, dairy products or fish! However, the other subject that is becoming increasingly important - in terms of one’s personal carbon footprint - is production methods, transportation and the impact on the local environment. Many vegans claim that a plant-based diet is better for the planet in terms of production methods, using less energy, planet resources and emitting less carbon dioxide emissions. However, is this actually true?
Perhaps one of the most obvious weaknesses when considering diet and the local environment is the fact that so many products are exported around the world and we have become accustomed to a ‘global’ supermarket. For example, I always expect to see bananas in the local supermarket, but I have never lived in a country that produces bananas. Personally, I love going to the supermarket and being able to buy mangos, coconuts and exotic fruits from South America whilst knowing that these items had to be shipped a long way in order to satisfy my craving for tropical fruit. As with bananas, I have never lived in a country that produces these, so every time I choose to buy these products, I am contributing to my own carbon footprint. However, let’s return to the subject of the impact on the environment of both meat and fish based products and plant-based products. Possibly I only have space to dip my toes into this extensive subject and if this is the case, it shall be covered briefly here and examined in more detail in a separate post.
In the first place, a lot of land is used either for grazing or growing food for farm animals. In fact, just over one quarter of the Earth’s surface is used for these purposes. So land is used to graze animals and to grow their food and those animals end up on the table for humans. One argument in favour of a plant-based diet is that the food grown on that expansion of land could be used to feed people and actually it requires less land to grow food directly for humans than to feed animals. Furthermore, if everyone ate a plant-based diet, then 75% less farmland would be required than what is currently used. That’s an area equivalent to the combined territories of Europe, China, Australia and the USA.
Another controversial topic that many are aware of is the fact that deforestation often takes place to provide land for cattle to graze in order to satisfy the market demand for meat. At the same time as destroying precious trees, which help control the levels of carbon dioxide as well as providing oxygen for the planet, the usage of machinery and transportation methods to other countries releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The negative impact of industrial meat production is well known as this is a subject that is frequently reported about in the media, however, the question has to be asked as to whether production methods for plant-based foods are more environmentally-friendly. And although I have posed the question here, I think that this subject will be best addressed in a separate post where all angles of this modern dilemma can be examined.
So whether one chooses a plant-based diet or a meat-based diet, we are all part of what is happening to our planet. Not only are we striving to attain a balanced diet incorporated into a healthy lifestyle, but we also are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of our food choices upon the environment, climate and the planet. There is no doubt that this subject is intricate and fraught with many complications such as those who also have to deal with food allergies, deficiencies and intolerances and are therefore limited as to what they can consume.
As I consider the enormity of this subject, my mind goes back to life a few centuries ago when there were less people on the planet, more food options available and obviously, no processed food. The decisions and choices that we now face didn’t even exist back then and part of me wonders what life would have been like in that time. In any case, here at Lovejoy’s, vegan options can be enjoyed in the Burn Yo Face Hot Sauce and Lovejoy’s Bloody Mary Mix. So whilst I ponder the issues of our modern world in comparison with the past, I think that I shall make myself a little Bloody Mary to be enjoyed on the balcony. Whatever options are chosen for your breakfast, lunch and dinner today… Bon appetit!