The vegan diet is getting more and more attention these days, and it is important to understand what it is and what it implies. It is a diet based solely on plants, that can be excellent for both health and the environment, according to Jean-Pierre Kiekens, a food policy expert, former university lecturer and founder of Café Nutrimania in Montreal. Here is Eatizz’ interview with him.
What danger can a bad diet be?
What we eat has tremendous impacts on our health, and this is something that is still vastly neglected. We now know that the majority of diseases and causes of premature death, such as type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and many cancers, are related to unhealthy eating and lifestyle. Nowadays, these are the leading causes of disease and premature death in countries like Canada and the United States.
The prevalence of these diseases has escalated over the past 30 years and have disastrous effects in terms of mortality, impaired aging, and in economic terms as well, since these diseases are extremely costly in terms of health care expenditures and public finances. The good news is that many of these diseases can effectively be prevented though healthy food and lifestyle. It is estimated that 80% of these so-called chronic diseases can be prevented with healthy diet lifestyle. This is huge.
How is it that there is an obesity problem in North America?
Obesity is directly linked to today’s eating habits and lifestyle. There are too many fast food restaurants, dairy products, meats, highly processed foods, added sugars, excess salt, unhealthy oils, additives and too few healthy foods such as vegetables and legumes. Obesity is of course correlated with the food-related diseases which lead to premature death. In the United States, very recent data indicate a life expectancy decline because of the high prevalence of these diseases.
It is absurd! One of the wealthiest countries in the world sees its life expectancy decline!
But it is the new reality that we face, and Canada will probably be following this unfortunate trend if nothing is changed.
Are there areas on earth that should serve as example in terms of food diet?
There are regions known as Blue Zones, such as the Okinawa peninsula in Japan, Ikaria island in Greece, or the Loma Linda community in California. Their population has a far longer life expectancy than the rest of the world, we’re talking at least 10 years over. The study of these areas is very interesting as it highlights the main factors contributing to the scarcity of diseases and the longer life expectancy. A common feature of these regions is a diet typically based on unprocessed or very little processed foods, that are mostly plant-based. This is, according to many studies, a key to preventing diseases and optimizing our health. In these blue zones, food habits are plant-based but don’t exclude animal products, yet their share in the daily food intake is very limited. Contrary to what can sometimes be thought, it’s not that difficult to be vegan, there are high-performing athletes who prove that one can be healthy but also reach a high-performance level while adopting a vegan diet.
How can our food choices affect the environment?
The impacts of food on the environment are substantial, yet they are typically neglected, even though there is some hype around aspects such as eco-friendly packaging. What we rarely talk about is the impacts food itself has on the environment. These impacts are substantial, especially considering the ever growing world population, currently estimated at 7.4 billion people. Animal products, even organic, are by far the foods that affect the environment the most negatively.
It takes between 3 to 10 calories of plant-based food to produce 1 animal calorie with 10 calories to produce a calorie of beef. It is extremely inefficient. Enormous agricultural areas, amounts of water, of fertilizers, of energy, are needed to produce feed for livestock, such as soy and corn, which are now mostly genetically modified and grown with toxic herbicides such as Monsanto’s glyphosate. Animal food industries also generate massive and unnecessary animal cruelty, which we can reduce through plant-based foods.
« Organic beef, even produced from natural pastures, isn’t a solution either, as it requires enormous amounts of land and it generates substantial greenhouse gases. »
In my opinion, agriculture should focus on producing nutritious plant-based foods directly aimed at human consumption. An example of such foods is legumes, such as beans, lentils and chickpeas, that provide excellent proteins and fibre for healthy nutrition and also benefit the soil through their capabilities to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. These are among the plants that require the fewest resources to be cultivated.
So how to add more plants into our meals?
Bringing more plants into one’s diet is easier than you think. For instance, for breakfast, instead of eating eggs and bacon, you can have an oatmeal with nuts and fruits, or prepare yourself a green smoothie, with ingredients such as spinach, kale or avocado. For other meals, you can simply make vegan versions of popular dishes such as burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, pasta, etc. There are many recipes available in vegan cookbooks and on food blogs. What’s a little more challenging is finding plant-based meals in restaurants, which typically focus on animal proteins and use lots of eggs and dairy products. Café Nutrimania‘s experience, and that of other vegan restaurants, proves it’s possible to offer delicious plant-based meals that are healthy and have minimal impacts on our environment. In my opinion, this is the direction all agri-food industries should be heading to.
To learn more about Eatizz: visit facebook.com/eatizz/
To find out more about Café Nutrimania: visit nutri-mania.com/
To find out more articles and videos about Jean-Pierre Kiekens’ work, visit: thefoodofthefuture.com or follow him on Twitter: @rethinking_food