We started the Green Heroes blog last fall by writing about local gardeners who are able to grow much of their own food. I discovered during our conversations that both families are vegetarian, and it made me wonder whether this was the right choice for the rest of us too.
Recent news has given us plenty of reasons to reconsider meat. E. coli-tainted beef from Edmonton-based XL Foods sickened two hundred people across North America in 2012, leading to the recall of over 1800 products and the dumping of over 1.3 million pounds of beef into landfills. While few recalls are this massive, there is a steady stream of smaller ones issued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Those involving products that contain meat can be found “unsound, unwholesome or otherwise unfit for human consumption” because the manufacturer processed diseased animals into food products.
While the health consequences of eating meat contaminated by bacteria such as E.coli, Salmonella and Listeria are direct, visible and severe, eating animal products has other, longer-term health effects. The results of a study published earlier this year in the scientific journal Cell Metabolism found that people who ate a diet rich in animal proteins during middle age had the same increased cancer risk as smokers and were four times more likely to die of cancer. The study also found that this effect disappeared in participants for whom the main protein source was plants.
Certainly this makes the case for veganism, in which all animal products are avoided and the only foods consumed are fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.
North Saanich resident Marcus Redivo adopted a vegan lifestyle after suffering a heart attack in his 50s. Weighing in at over 200 pounds for some years, he had already starting making changes and had reduced his weight to 175 pounds when the attack occurred. Marcus left the hospital with a heart stent to keep a vital coronary artery open and prescriptions in hand for five different medications. It was understood that he would need to take most of them for life.
For the first six months post-surgery, Marcus read about good health and nutrition, hoping to find a way to maintain the proper weight and blood pressure without medication. Giving up milk was the first breakthrough. His weight plummeted to 150 pounds, and thereafter Marcus continued to reduce to 135 pounds with therapeutic fasting. His blood pressure quickly re-adjusted to a healthy level.
When he began eating again Marcus avoided all animal products, and his weight and blood pressure both stabilized at much healthier levels without any need for medication. Seven years later, Marcus is a trim-looking 160-pounder with a much younger man’s blood pressure reading of 120/80. He maintains a vegan diet, not missing meat one bit, although enjoying some fine cheese on occasion.
For Marcus, the results tell the story. When he sees people whose health, vitality and good looks are gone, he wonders how much better their lives could have been with a different lifestyle.
Although good health is a factor often cited for a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, it is not the primary one for everyone. The book “Diet for a New America” is what motivated Salt Spring resident Jean Gelwicks, who has been eating mainly vegetarian for about 25 years. Author John Robbins (of the Baskin Robbins family) documents the impact of three aspects of our animal protein based diets in North America: human health, factory farming, and animal welfare. For Jean, learning about the negative consequences of agricultural meat production on the environment made a lasting impact on her personal choices.
According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, 18 per cent of greenhouse gases are caused by livestock production. If one includes the subsequent processing, storage, transport and disposal of food products, then nearly 40 per cent is more accurate, making agriculture the biggest contributor to climate change. Because of this, eating less or no meat is by far the easiest thing we can do as individuals to make a difference in global warming.
Another issue that brings many people to a meatless lifestyle is cruelty to livestock. Canadians were shocked last month by videos of dairy cattle being beaten and abused at a large milking operation in B.C. Sadly, these events are nothing compared to the horrific acts documented in the book “Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, And Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry.” Excerpts from this book made it impossible for me to eat meat without thinking about needless animal suffering brought about by those we trust to do better.
Regardless of what brings people to adopt a plant-based diet, many of us struggle to make it mainstream. It’s easy to give up bacon and sausage for breakfast or to have a vegetarian sandwich for lunch. But dinner is where the rubber meets the road. For those of us taught to cook with meat as the centerpiece and vegetables as the “sides,” we need to re-think the plate.
An easy way to start this summer is to make main dish salads, including quinoa, rice, orzo, or various beans. New innovative salad recipes can be found from grocery store web sites to the Food Network. And restaurants are introducing more vegetarian dishes with newly introduced ingredients like quinoa.
What if you do crave meat from time to time? Many of the mainly vegetarian eaters I know enjoy seafood or an occasional meat meal. Eating local lamb or chicken does not do the environmental damage that grain-fed beef from a far-away feedlot does. And so far, I have every reason to believe that our Salt Spring animals raised for meat are enjoying their time outdoors, and treated humanely before and during their end-of-life at the abattoir.
I have learned from listening to others that we all start at a different place in our transitions to different lifestyles. Whether it’s Meatless Mondays or a New Year’s resolution to become a vegetarian isn’t the most important thing — what is important is that we start to think about our food buying, cooking and eating in the context of our own health, that of our planet, and the animals we share it with.
3 Ways Improving Your Diet Can Protect The Planet (short read)
Meat the Truth (documentary film on YouTube)
Diet for a New America (video in which John Robbins tells his story)
Slaughterhouse (non-fiction book documenting meat-packing practices in the US)