The benefits of a plant-based diet

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Wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, species extinctions – the news can be pretty grim. Instead of giving up and feeling helpless, we each have the power to help the health of the planet and ourselves simultaneously, dietitian Dana Ellis Hunnes says in her new book, Recipe for Survival, what you can do to live a healthier and more eco-friendly life.

Nearly 20 million acres of rainforest are destroyed each year for agriculture, stripping oxygen from the atmosphere and releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen, exacerbating climate change and biodiversity loss, writes Hunnes, also a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. and senior clinical dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

“If people were willing and able to halve their consumption of meat and dairy products, it would have a huge impact. We would probably save a third of the water and land we use, and we could feed more people,” she says. Nearly half of the food humans grow goes to feed animals. According to a 2003 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“When we talk about climate change, we are mainly talking about emissions from cars, emissions from energy,” says Hunnes. “So we rarely hear about the food connection.”

The animal products we eat – meat, dairy, eggs and fish – contribute more to climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, dead zones and global extinction rates than all the cars, planes and ships in the world put together, writes Hunnes. A 2006 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations confirms this claim, and although the data has been reassessed over the years, livestock continues to account for a significant share of total global greenhouse gas emissions. .

A plant-based diet may also be healthier for people than a traditional Western diet, according to decades of research. At the end of the 1990s, a period of 20 years study analyzed people living in 65 rural counties in China, conducted by researchers from Cornell and Oxford universities and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. They found that people on a plant-based diet had significantly lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer than meat and dairy eaters in wealthier regions. This study inspired a 2006 bestseller, The study of China, by one of the study’s lead authors, T. Colin Campbell, and his son.

What about proteins?

For the average American today, 15% of their diet is protein, and about 80% of that protein comes from animals, according to Campbell, a nutritional biochemist and retired Cornell professor. In comparison, in rural China, 10% of people’s diets contain protein, of which only 10% comes from animal sources, which is a key distinction in Campbell’s push towards plant-based diets.

According to Hunnes, people who follow a plant-based diet eat plenty of protein to meet their nutritional needs. the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein is only 0.4 grams per pound of body weight.

“Almost every food, even an apple, contains a tiny bit of protein. As long as you’ve had enough [nutritious] calories in your diet, it’s hard to be protein deficient in a country like the United States,” says Hunnes.

Dairy risks

In rural counties in China where people consumed more dairy products, people had higher rates of cancer in body parts related to the reproductive system — breast, prostate and uterus, Campbell says.

“Nutrients from animal foods increased tumor development while nutrients from plant foods decreased tumor development,” says Campbell. Based on what he and his colleagues saw in their research, Campbell and his family reduced and then stopped their consumption of red meat over three years. They still ate chicken, fish, milk and cheese, but gradually switched to a whole plant-based diet. As difficult as it was to give up cheese, he says, the evidence was irrefutable. “I don’t know of anything else in medicine that can come close to what a plant-based diet can do.”

Plant-based diets are nutrient-dense and low in calories, saturated fat, and trans fat, which can help prevent many nutrition-related chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cerebrovascular accidents. It’s the total diet that really matters — eating no animal foods of any kind and staying away from refined carbs, whether sugar or starch, Campbell insists. At 88, he has written four books since retiring at 67, walks two miles a day and takes no medication. “We have to eat all the food. From a biological perspective, this gives the body the ability to choose which nutrients it wants to use.

Are fish and eggs good?

Although fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein, for the general population, evidence suggests that a whole, plant-based diet “is more effective in preventing and mitigating heart disease than ‘adding fish and fish oil to a non-food diet’. — such a good diet,” writes Hunnes. And she defines this complete diet as high in fiber, monounsaturated fats such as virgin olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil and avocado, and omega-3 fatty acids to herbal base, found in walnuts, chia and flax.

Industrial fishing operations have overexploited some of the world’s fish stocks, she writes. Some 90% of large, sexually mature fish and more than 97% of southern bluefin tuna have been taken from the ocean, Hunnes said. Freshwater fish populations are also declining due to overfishing, climate change and pollution, according to a 2020 report of the Global Fish Migration Foundation.

“I advocate leaving the fish in the ocean. 80-90% of the catch is not the fish they intend to catch,” she says, which means fish, or bycatch, is often wasted, robbing the ocean ecosystem of its diversity. . However, adds Hunnes, for those whose doctors prescribe fish oil to lower their cholesterol, it’s better to eat the actual fish rather than the fish oil.

the industrial egg exploitation involves hens kept in cages with no space to move around; this leads to air pollutants from nitrogen and ammonia and water pollution from chicken manure runoff, she says. Free-range eggs, which come from hens allowed to roam naturally and eat off the ground, produce far less waste and are healthier for people because the hens’ diet is healthier, she says.

Planning is key

Some of these dietary changes involve changes in your daily life or your budget. Patients, for example, sometimes tell Hunnes that they can’t eat the recommended nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. In this case, she points out that it’s possible with a little planning.

Hunnes and her husband each work full time and raise a son, so to save time, they plan their week’s menus, create a grocery list and spend about an hour cutting and cooking vegetables on the weekends. which will be their side dishes all week.

Although she concedes that some people prefer to eat the American diet today, she hopes they will consider replacing some animal foods with plant foods for the benefit of the next generation.

“Find that thing that makes you want to improve your own health, your well-being,” she says. If that’s not enough motivation, “do it for your kids or grandkids who want to have a grandparent and a healthy planet that can support them.”

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