In my last post I talked about the reality of the seafood industry, and the ultimate conclusion that There Is No Such Thing As Sustainable Seafood. After reading the post, a reader commented that it seemed as though no food was safe from the ill fate of a damning article.
It is true that if you follow health and wellness websites on the internet, you can find an article blasting just about every single food known to man. Some are warranted (those writing against animal products from an ecological, health, and animal rights perspective) and others, I would argue, are much more misguided (“Gluten: Cause of All Health Problems Today!”).
However the comment held a lot of truth. The reader expressed an all-too-common frustration these days that it seemed impossible to know what is safe to eat anymore! You hear great things about seafood for your health, so to hear about the environmental catastrophe that it causes is disheartening!
Is no food safe?
While any food that has its origins in the industrial food system likely has at least one blemish on its record, there are places to start and rules to follow for safe, clean, healthy eating. So in the interest of a more positive discussion this week, let’s talk about foods you can (and should!) eat with pride.
By a mile, the safest foods you can possibly eat are foods you’ve grown yourself, in your own backyard. In no other setting can you have the level of control that you do in your own backyard. Don’t like supporting foods grown with pesticides and artificial fertilizers? Don’t buy them or spray your plants!
Don’t want to exploit animals? Grow fruits and vegetables without the help of horses to till your garden!
Don’t want to exploit migrant farmworkers? Pick your own produce!
Yes, the least controversial place on planet Earth to eat from is your own garden. If you have any — and I mean ANY — space on which you could place a garden, do so. (If you don’t check out public gardens in your area and apply for a plot!).
Growing your own food is close to printing money, and it will be the freshest, best tasting, and possibly most nutritious food you’ll ever eat!
The next least controversial (and most safe) location to purchase food is from a local farm. There are two main ways to do this: farmers markets and joining a CSA (community supported agriculture).
Chances are you have been to a farmers market in your life so I won’t go into too much detail. The benefit here is you can select the items you want and talk to the actual people who grew them. The food is fresher, in season, and generally more nutritious. Most farmers markets are organic (though not all!). You can always ask the farmer how the food was grown.
A CSA may be less familiar to you. In this model, you pledge a certain amount of money to a farm (along with other members) at the beginning of the growing season, usually in early Spring. The farmer uses this money to purchase the items necessary to grow food, and every week during the growing season, you pick up a box overflowing with whatever is ripe!
The positives here are for the farmer. You support the farm no matter what happens (if tragedy strikes and crops are ruined, they already have your money). This also means you may get surprises — things you didn’t plan on and don’t even know what they are! For some this is the big drawback — no choice. But for others it can be a truly rewarding culinary adventure! Just how do you prepare kohlrabi…
Finally, most pickup locations are at farmers markets or community centers, so it is a nice way to connect not only with the farmers that grew your food but the fellow consumers who are supporting your farm!
The Grocery Store: Part 1
Beyond growing your own food or supporting farmers nearby that do, your next option is to venture into the supermarket. This option is decidedly varied, running the gamut from an organic food coop to your local chain or big box store.
I won’t go into detail on the difference between these stores, but merely will point out that the safest products in the grocery store are whole plant foods — this means the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
These items are the least processed, which means the least chance for contamination. They are also the least controversial, since they generally don’t exploit animals to reach your store. There are still issues of pesticides on conventional produce and migrant farmworkers rights to muddy the waters, but without a doubt these products are still safer than the alternative. Which leads me to…
The Grocery Store: Part 2
The least safe items for purchase are processed foods and animal products. These are the most likely to support some for of exploitation, be that of the animal or the farmworker. They are without question the most likely to be detrimental to your health. And their ecological footprint is embarrassing at best.
Steer clear of these foods if you want to avoid the shame of supporting a dirty industry!
Restaurants and Fast Food
I’ll just quickly mention these final two eating options, as they are more and more increasing in popularity. As restaurants are businesses, and businesses exist to maximize the bottom line, chances are really good that the ingredients being used in these establishments were the cheapest source, meaning the lowest quality. This is by no means true across the board, and if you can find a farm to table restaurant that sources local organic foods, go for it.
But most restaurants will choose the cheapest ingredients possible, meaning red label seafood, factory farmed animals and animal products, and conventional produce. You are most likely to consume the least healthy meals in these settings, adding to the reasons to avoid them. Not to mention the added cost.
I am not saying you can’t ever eat out, I am merely saying that on the food safety continuum, these places rank low.
So there you have it
From your own garden to farmers markets and CSAs, all the way down to your local McDonald’s, where you buy your food matters. If you want to avoid animal suffering, worker exploitation, health detriments, and ecological catastrophes, eat as much as you can from the first two categories. Then supplement whatever is left with whole plant foods from the grocery store!
Happy (safe) eating!
I’ll admit it. I will come clean. For years as a vegetarian, I still ate seafood. I was one of those people.
It was actually kind of amazing how many people fished for that when I told them I was vegetarian (see what I did there).
I’d say, “Oh no thanks, I’m a vegetarian,” to which they’d reply, “Oh ok, you still eat fish right?”
Of course I’d fess up. My best answer was “I still eat seafood from time to time, but it’s only like once a month.” And that was the honest truth. But I was still eating it!
It’s funny how many “vegetarians” there are that still eat fish and other seafood. For some reason we don’t seem to count it as “meat,” and I think it might have something to do with the fact that it is the only animal we eat on a large scale that is actually captured in the wild.
Everyone knows animal agriculture is terrible.
But we give a free pass to fish because, hey, they got to live their natural life.
Unfortunately, this “natural life” in the oceans is incredibly compromised. We are taking out more fish and other seafood than is naturally regenerated by the ecosystem. This is, by definition, unsustainable.
It’d be like if you made $2,000 a month and had some savings, then rented an apartment for $2,500 a month. That is unsustainable. You don’t even have to like math to know that eventually you will run out of money.
If we don’t drastically reduce our seafood consumption worldwide, we will run out of fish.
I know that’s hard to fathom, but scientists now actually have a date for when this will happen at our current rate of extraction (about 2050). By this year, there will be no viable populations of consumable sea life left.
Just Choose Sustainably Caught?
I used to justify my seafood consumption by “only choosing seafood from sustainably managed fisheries.” It’s true — you can download an app that tells you which types of seafood are “sustainable” and which are not.
Yet this always felt inauthentic to me as well. In our same money scenario, that would be like if someone challenged you on your finances and you pointed out that you make your cell phone payment every month of $100. Sure there is an area of your finances that are under control, but if the whole system is unsustainable, then you making your cell phone payment actually doesn’t mean much. The system will still collapse in time.
Just like 2050 for seafood.
Let’s look at some facts:
- For every 10 top predators in the ocean alive 55 years ago (sharks, tuna, swordfish), just 1 remains today. We’ve wiped out 90%!
- 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die every year entangled in fishing nets!
- Sharks kill 12 people per year; humans kill 11,417 sharks per hour.
- Sea turtles and albatross species are endangered in large part due to fishing operations
- For every 1 lb of shrimp caught, 26 lbs of bycatch is thrown overboard
- Farmed shrimp is likely worse. Mangrove forests are destroyed for the farms, which are farmed to depletion in 2-3 years, and what is left behind is an uninhabitable cesspool
- The U.S. fishing industry alone kills 6 billion animals a year (SOURCE)
- Farmed fish are not a better choice; the waste they produce stifles local rivers and watersheds. They are fed unnatural diets that include ground up fish, corn, and chicken feces, and crammed in tiny tanks where disease rates are high. Farmed salmon are grey and have to be dyed pink and a fishy smell is added. Nutritionally they are inferior and even more contaminated
- Seafood bioaccumulates environmental toxins, not just mercury, but PCB’s, dioxins, arsenic, xenoestrogens, toxic waste, and many more (SOURCE). Our oceans are incredibly dirty and these pollutants make their way into the flesh of the fish we eat.
- The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 90% of ALL fish have already been fished out. This is not a sustainable system. (For more information, check out this INFOGRAPHIC)
But what about omega-3s?
Ah the last vestige of hope for seafood. “But we need to eat it for the omega-3s!”
Plant foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds all contain ALA — an omega-3 fatty acid which your body uses and converts into the other two omega-3 fatty acids — DHA and EPA. Consume these foods daily and you will have no worries whatsoever. Similarly, whole vegetables have omega-3s, and leafy greens are a great example.
Getting enough omega-3 on a plant-based diet is not an issue. If you are still concerned however, you can use an algae-based DHA/EPA supplement that is safer than fish oil as equally effective (SOURCE). The fish don’t actually make omega-3s themselves anyway — they get it from algae! Just cut out the middle man and take an algal supplement instead!
I no longer consume seafood of any kind because I believe there is no such thing as sustainable seafood.
Picking up where we left off last week (How To Replace Meat In Your Diet), let’s talk about how to get rid of the dairy in your diet. But first, let’s talk about why.
Of all three major categories of animal foods (meat, dairy, eggs), dairy might be the most important to cut out. It also happened to be the last thing to go for me.
Why is dairy the first animal product you should remove from your diet? Because dairy is fattening, artery clogging, cancer promoting, inefficient, terrible for the cows and addictive.
- Cheese, milk, yogurt, and ice cream contain lots of fat with zero fiber or antioxidants. They pack on the calories in your meal without adding much if any bulk, meaning your stomach feels no fuller but your waistline gets snugger. (SOURCE)
- Dairy products, especially cheese, are the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet! (SOURCE). Saturated fat raises bad cholesterol, increasing your heart disease risk.
- Cheese is especially high in sodium, raising risk of hypertension and high blood pressure.
- The main milk protein, known as casein, is cancer promoting. (SOURCE & SOURCE)
- Dairy clogs pores (leading to acne) and raises asthma risk (SOURCE & SOURCE)
- To produce a gallon of milk it takes over 1,000 gallons of water! Talk about inefficient!!! (SOURCE)
- Dairy cows are very mistreated, must remain perpetually pregnant, and have their babies taken away usually within 12 hours of birth, a very traumatic experience. (SOURCE)
- The casein in milk breaks down to a peptide called casomorphin, which activates opiod receptors in the brain. In nature, this facilitates mother-child bonding. Nature didn’t intend for the adults of another species to consume this product. These casomorphins, especially concentrated in cheese, are addicting! (SOURCE)
Those are eight fantastic reasons to DITCH THE DAIRY. I’ll add a ninth: cow’s milk has one sole purpose; to turn a baby cow into an adult cow. It’s really good at that. We are not meant to consume it, it serves no purpose, other than to increase our disease risk.
We encounter dairy in five main ways in our diet: milk, yogurt, ice cream, butter, and cheese. Let’s talk about each right now!
This is the easiest. Switch to a plant-based milk! There are so many options and pretty much all are delicious. They have no cholesterol and very little saturated fat, no casein, no cow-cruelty, and, while they taste fantastic, none are actually addictive.
Choices include almond, soy, rice, coconut, hemp, oat, hazelnut, or even quinoa. Try one or try them all!
Boom, same as above. You can use those plant-based milks to make delicious vegan yogurts. Coconut yogurt is my favorite, but almond and soy are good as well. Seriously, try one. Your mind will be BLOWN.
I sound like a broken record…same as above!!! Vegan ice cream is delicious and uses the same plant-based milks as a base. Again coconut milk based ice cream is probably my favorite, but soy is great too, as is almond. Fun fact: my old roommate and I once held a dinner party for friends where we served homemade green tea soy ice cream. We won the award for most hipster evening of 2010.
Check out Earth Balance.
Ah, alas, we’ve come to your beloved cheese. I can hear you now: “don’t make me give it up!!!” I too was like you just a few short years ago. Cheese was the final straw for me, the last thing holding me back from being 100% plant-based. I get it. Cheese is delicious. BUT, it is also terrible for the environment, the animals, and especially your health. There really is nothing that redeems cheese, and when I finally tossed it that’s when I really saw the benefits of a plant-based diet, including weight loss and skin improvements. I don’t miss those 30 pounds or clogged pores.
But, cheese is the hardest to mimic. Here are a couple options:
Daiya is the best alternative I’ve tried. Used in a recipe, like topping tacos for example, it actually works great!
Tofutti makes a vegan cream cheese (and sour cream for that matter) that are both pretty good!
If you live in Minneapolis, check out The Herbivorous Butcher. In addition to having some killer plant-based “meats,” they also make some mean vegan cheeses. If their fake cheese game is any indication of what’s to come on a large scale, vegan cheeses will seriously be served on platters next to the real deal in a couple years. Their stuff is that good.
Finally, parmesan cheese can be replaced in one of two ways. Go Veggie makes a vegan parm that is shockingly good. And then there’s my favorite: nutritional yeast. Come to love the nutritional yeast. It is a slight addiction for me. It makes everything taste amazing. You can even use it to make “cheesy” sauces for pasta, pizza, and mexican food. It’s bomb.
It’s time to ditch the dairy. You won’t miss it, and your body will be infinitely better off!
“I am quitting veganism. It’s just too hard… I hate being weird. I hate sticking out. I just want to be normal.”
If you know any former vegans or vegetarians, chances are good this is their primary reason for dropping the lifestyle!
But the good news is it is only getting easier and less weird by the day! Millenials are vegan and vegetarian at a much higher rate (some estimate about 20%). Options for eating out are increasing and animal product substitutes taste better and better every year.
If you want real change you have to be willing to be weird. Stick with it. You won’t be weird for too long.
Reach out for support. Email me. Find a meetup.com group in your area for vegans and vegetarians. Don’t quit! Stand up for what you believe in. BE WILLING TO BE WEIRD.
I grew up in the Midwest. The heartland. The flyover states. However you want to call it.
One staple of my Midwestern upbringing was a (false) belief that a meal was not a meal without a big hunk of meat in the center of the plate.
When I first went vegetarian as a college-aged male in 2007, I really didn’t know what I was going to eat! Now, after almost 8 years at this, I have learned a lot. And sometimes the biggest hurdle to eating less (or ideally no) meat is simply figuring out what else to eat!
There are a few schools of thought that we will discuss:
1. Meat substitutes
3. Beans and Lentils (my personal favorite!)
By far the simplest and easiest way to replace the meat in your diet is to switch to meat substitutes, and in 8 years I certainly have eaten my fair share. And there is good news on this front — in just 8 short years they’ve progressed from barely passing to convincingly similar!
If you are used to cold cuts on sandwiches, try Tofurky instead. If you are a chicken-lover, go with Gardein (this stuff is good!). If you have to have burgers, the closest that I have heard is the Beast Burger by Beyond Meat. They apparently even use a blood analogue so convincing it turns off a lot of long-time vegans! Of course, it has more protein than beef with zero cholesterol and far less saturated fat, so it is infinitely better for you. If you can’t find this burger however, there are plenty of other great veggie burger options to choose from.
One note: for both the environment and the animals, these are an infinitely better choice. For health, you’d still be better served going 100% whole-foods plant-based, but to be sure, these substitutes can be incredibly beneficial as you transition away from a meat-centric diet, and are still much better for you than the animal products!
When I went vegetarian I felt like there were two main camps to choose from: those who ate lots of tofu and those who ate lots of beans. We’ll talk about beans in a second, but many vegans and vegetarians rely heavily on soy and wheat-based protein products.
Tempeh is fermented soybeans (sometimes with other grains as well). It has a firmer texture than tofu, and can be marinated to resemble the smokey flavor of bacon, used in stir-fries, and especially can star in some awesome vegan sandwiches!
Seitan is the isolated gluten from wheat. It is also known as “vital wheat gluten.” Obviously if you have Celiac’s this is not a choice. However for the 97% or more of Americans who are not gluten intolerant, it is a great choice, and can mimic chicken or duck in stir-fries (mock duck is seitan), can be used on pizza, and can bulk up soups.
I eat all three of these products from time to time. My favorite is tempeh sandwiches!
Beans and Lentils
This is the camp I most closely identified with! I absolutely love beans and lentils. They have great protein, and incredible fiber. And they are very versatile!
For breakfasts you could try the traditional Costa Rican breakfast called “Gallo Pinto,” which is rice and black beans sauteed up with some onion, peppers, and a special sauce called Salsa Lizano.
Black beans make a great soup, and can star in spicy chili along with pinto and kidney beans. Chickpeas are phenomenal roasted as a snack, are great in Indian dishes, and can even be used to mimic chicken.
Lentils are real heroes of the vegan plate! I have enjoyed them Ecuadorian style, Indian style, and even have used them to replicate a childhood favorite with Sloppy Lentils! They also make a killer soup.
It’s Easy To Eat Without The Meat
There are so many great ways to go meatless! Use one or all three of these strategies as you transition away from an animal-based diet and toward a healthy, eco-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable plant-based diet!
There is one reason that often gets overlooked as to why the vegan and plant-based diet is so effective for weight-loss and chronic disease prevention. It has to do with willpower.
No, vegans do not inherently have more willpower than anyone else. In fact, the dirty little secret is that most healthy people have just as poor willpower as anyone else (but more on that later).
Let’s take a look at a scenario to examine what I mean about willpower.
Imagine two people are at a party: a vegan and an omnivore. At this party, like most, is an abundance of unhealthy options. You have your bowl of potato chips, your potato salad with tons of mayo, your brats and burgers, your cookies and pies. You may also have a tray of cut veggies and bowl of fruit and maybe even a nice salad.
To an omnivore trying to eat healthy, this is a nightmare. There are so many unhealthy options around that no matter how much willpower you have, you will give in. I don’t care who you are — you are grabbing a full plate of this food and probably feeling like junk afterwards.
See, willpower is actually a finite resource.
We only have so much of it. It can be exhausted. You might notice this phenomenon in your own life. Your breakfast and lunch are super healthy, but by the time dinner rolls around you’re too tired to make decisions and you pick up some fast food.
Or to think of it another way, why is it late night snacking that gets people into trouble? You never hear people talk about binging on junk food at 10 a.m.
Willpower is a finite resource. By the end of the day, most of us have used it all up. If we have junk food in the house we will find it. And we will eat it. Period.
Ok but back to the scenario.
For a vegan, the party is actually less troublesome. In fact, very little willpower is used up. When you have multiple reasons for not eating a food (health, environment, animal rights, etc), you don’t have to use any willpower to resist it.
The potato salad, burgers and brats, cookies and pies, are pretty much guaranteed to be made with animal products and thus are not even options. No willpower required.
The potato chips may or may not have animal products, however if health is an additional motivation (i.e. those following a whole-foods plant-based diet), they are also pretty much off limits (though I fully admit chips still get me into trouble from time to time).
That leaves the veggie tray, fruit bowl, and salad. While that doesn’t sound like a ton of options or even like enough food — where one might think it is a bigger problem being vegan — there is actually comfort in the simplicity of the decision.
The simplicity of not having to use willpower (which really just means not having to make a choice) is liberating.
The vegan diet works in part because the reasons to not eat certain foods are multitudinous and extend well beyond the realm of willpower.
So, you want to be healthy???
Add to the list of reasons to not eat unhealthy foods. Here are three great ones:
- Animal agriculture is the number one driver of climate change, land use, deforestation, ocean dead zones, and water use. (SOURCE)
- Industrial agriculture is brutal in its treatment of animals. Ignorance is not bliss for the animals. Watch “Earthlings,” a free documentary on YouTube.
- Animal products increase risk for chronic disease like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke.
There are a million reasons to not eat animal products, and when you start to embrace them, healthier eating becomes your default, no willpower required.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (as many times as I need to): going vegan is the single most important thing you can do to reduce your personal environmental impact.
In honor of Earth Day tomorrow, here are the Top 7 Reasons Why You Should Go Vegan on Earth Day!