Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sustainable Food for a Sustainable Vision

After returning home from Haiti last week, I decided to take on the challenge to intentionally exclude all animal products (dairy, eggs, meat, fish...) in my daily dietary intake (including packaged and prepared foods made with these ingredients). The result of this: my dietary intake will only contain plant-foods (technical word: vegan or whole plant-based). I have been a lacto-ovo-vegetarian (consuming dairy and egg products, but not eating any meat, poultry, or fish) for about 10 years, so in reality this isn't much of a dietary change for me. 

In the past, the terms vegan and vegetarian have often been given a bad name from the media or from those who have tried the lifestyle and have had poor health problems because of it. The lifestyle, however, is becoming more popular around the globe as individuals are becoming more educated about both the environmental and health benefits surrounding the lifestyle. Plant-based eating is a lifestyle that requires a shift in paradigm to the way you view food groups. In school and throughout society (at least in America), we are taught that protein comes from animals and calcium comes from dairy products. A vegan/ vegetarian, however, will identify protein sources a bit differently. Protein comes from beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and a variety of different vegetables. Calcium comes from foods like kale, bok choy, broccoli, okra, beans, almonds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, oranges, and calcium fortified juice/ plant-based milks. Like any life event or new lifestyle patterns, the change in the way you eat requires adjustment and a bit of careful, focused attention. 

Changing the way you eat is like buying a new car. Before you invest in the new vehicle, you might shop around, do your research,  ask questions, and then maybe try out a few different styles before investing. Being educated helps make you an informed consumer. The same is true with a change in dietary intake. Being educated about a change in the way you eat will give you more satisfying results! 

Meat eater or non-meat eater, I strongly believe that every human could use some education about nutrition. No matter how you choose to eat, you may be lacking in vital nutrients and food groups that result in undesirable health conditions. The key to healthy and balanced eating is learning about the 3 big macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins), monitoring your portion sizes, and eating whole foods (consuming a food closest to its most natural state). 

So let's move on to more plant-based eating. 

Happy produce in Haiti! :) 

Why have I decided to attempt an all plant-based lifestyle?

I will highlight some of my main points for the change in my lifestyle. If you want to dive deeper into the subject, I have provided a variety of resources for more information.

1.  There are many health advantages to following a plant-based diet. Lower rates of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, lower rates of hypertension, decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, and decreased risk of certain kinds of cancer. These all may be attributed to the fact that plant foods contain fiber and phytochemicals that are not found in animal products. A diet rich in plant foods, regardless of animal consumption, may increase your overall health.

A few resources about the health benefits of a plant-based diet:

1. Position paper on vegetarians from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

2. The Academy's Evidence Analysis
3. Cholesterol, Blood Pressure, Body weight of vegetarians
4. Nutritional update for Physicians: Plant-based Diets
5. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2
6. Plant-based Eating for optimal Health

At the Market in Haiti buying produce! 

2. There are many environmental implications with high consumption and demand for animal products. This topic can get pretty deep and debatable at different levels, but the bigger picture is that we could have more quality resources (food, water, energy, land) if animal products weren't in such high demand. Environmental groups have indicated that many of the world's nonrenewable resources (such as water) are being depleted. The rain forests (like the Amazon) are being cleared for animal production and growing animal feed. Dead zones are now being created in the oceans. Wildlife are becoming extinct. There has been rapid shifts in climate change (which can result in undesirable conditions for food production) and pollution from the Co2, methane... etc. There has been an increase in zoonotic diseases (transmission of diseases/infections between humans and animals. Like the avian influenza, E.Coli, parasites). Factory farms are now a huge problem in America and other developing countries.

A simple change of focus from meat being the center of a meal to a meal centered around beans, legumes  nuts, seeds, grains and produce could actually provide major environmental and global public health impacts. The food market follows the demand of the consumers.

Mark Bittman: What's wrong with what we eat (environment and food connection):

Birke Baehr's (11 years old) perspective on the Food System:

Resources about the environmental issues: 
1. The University of Minnesota: research about producing animals for food and environmental impacts
2. Why we need to redesign our food system
3. The Human Society's position on a plant-based diet
4. The FAO's LIVESTOCK'S LONG SHADOW: environmental issues and options
5. Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health
6. Beef has a higher water footprint greater than vegetables and grains
7. Vegan's carbon footprint estimated to be 41.7% lower than non-vegetarians
8. October 2012 Trend report for meat consumption: Meat Production and Consumption
11. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic's Hunger and Environmental Nutrition
12. Environmental Working Group: Everyone has something to say about meat...
13. Sustainable Diets by the FAO 2010 
14. Overfishing: a threat to marine biodiversity
15. UN Urges a global shift in diet
16. The oxymoron of the sustainable animals products
17. A perspective on the future of our world
18. Environment and Public Health concerns for raising animals with potential exposures of various infectious diseases, viruses, parasites, and contaminants
19. Food is Power: things you may not know about the foods you eat

A few suggested readings and documentaries:

1. Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition 
2. Stuffed and Starved
3. Comfortably Unaware: What we choose to eat is killing us and our planet 
4. Forks over knives (documentary)
5. Inspirational TedTalks

The Double Food Pyramid by Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition is a nice visual representation of food sustainability. The pyramid displays the amount of environmental impact with recommended dietary consumptions. If we eat more of the foods on the lower base of the pyramid (mainly fruits, vegetables, nuts/beans/ legumes, and whole grains, we actually have less of an impact on the environment. The site also has a few interactive tools to see the impact your food choices have on the environment.

check out the carbon footprint of different food choices:

3. You can still obtain an ample supply of nutrients (calories, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals) from plant-based foods.  The well-educated and all-encompassing vegetarian/ vegan can have a very diverse dietary intake. Any diet, meat or no meat, requires planning. You could be following a animal-based diet and be missing out on key nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium.....  Or you could be getting too much of some nutrients that are diminishing the affects of others (ex. too much salt creating a depletion of calcium in the body). So regardless of the dietary patterns you decide to follow, getting nutritional education can be vital for your health. 

A few resources for those interested in vegan, vegetarian or even plant-based lifestyles:

A few animals roaming and eating off the land in Haiti. 

 4. My professional factors for the decision of going plant-based. 

First, being a dietitian that serves in one of the poorest countries of the world, I figured it was one of the most sustainable, environmentally impactful, and stimulating activities I could do to really challenge myself in one of the largest, fast-food developed countries in the world. My experience in Haiti has taught me a lot about being creative with my food resources and making things from scratch. It has taught me that not everyone in the world has access to the same resources we have so readily available to us in the United States. Animal products, at large, are not cheap nor affordable for many populations around the world. So realistically, finding sustainable food practices might mean looking lower on the food chain to find suitable dietary needs to feed a starving world.

Second, I want to expose people, all over the world, to an alternative lifestyle compared to the typical "Westernized" and/or "higher class" way of eating. I want to show people that it is possible to be healthy and eat delicious food without having a major impact on the environment. As a nutrition professional and future public health professional, I believe it is my responsibility to consider not only the nutrition of the foods that humans put into their body, but also the safety of the foods and the impacts the food system has on the future food supply, the environment, and all living species. Environmental researchers suggest that our food system and they way we currently produce food is not sustainable. The food system is more environmentally straining than transportation or any other industry (see all my links above).

Third, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 870 MILLION people in the world are hungry with about 98% of these people living in the developing countries. WFP reports that the climate change, which is a result of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, could put an additional 24 MILLION children into the "hunger" category.  Globally, it is estimated that livestock production accounts for over 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions ( In addition to this, the way the world currently produces animal food for human consumption is completely insufficient. We grow more plant food to feed the number of animals we raise for food than we grow for human consumption. The United states, alone, uses about 70% of grain production for animal feed. These animals eventually become consumed by humans. It is estimated that 80% of all the agricultural land is used for livestock (animal production) and for grain to feed them (Check out the Facts from One Green Planet). Let's just be real here. If the world was to consume resources like Americans, we would need 4 more planets for the entire human population! (Check it out here). The unfortunate part is that the trend of the animal based foods is growing around the world, especially as people increase in their income and countries become more developed (Meat Production).

 Just imagine how many thousands of pounds of plant food, globally, could be produced for human consumption if we placed more priority on plant-based diets. We could feed more people, have less environmental impacts, and the world will be a lot healthier because of this shift in the food system.  

5. The Power of Plants! There are so many plant foods out there that have been able to withstand some pretty harsh environmental conditions-- I just don't think we can underestimate the power of plants!! There are so many parts of plants that we can actually eat. Let's take a look at a squash--not only is the squash a good source of carbohydrates, fiber, and beta-carotene, but it can also be a great source of protein, fat, fiber, iron, copper, zinc, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium.... How do you ask? The seeds in the middle of the squash provide an excellent source of plant-proteins, fats, vitamins, and mineral. The whole produce itself has some great nutritional aspects!
Hello, Squash. 

So basically, if my long term goal is to be a dietitian that can help communities establish a sustainable food system using resources available to them, then I really have to look at food through a whole new set of lenses.

Modifying the way I eat to reflect a vision of sustainability.

 The questions that drove my decisions were: what food practices are sustainable to feed the world, what kinds of foods might many populations in the world not have access to, and how can I be creative with limited, but nutritiously dense foods to make edible and nutritional meals. Being vegan is giving me tools to change the way myself and communities think about foods and how to use food components.

A dish made of beets, carrots, and white sweet potatoes 
This is a traditional soup the Haitians used to make. A "lost treasure" of Haitian cuisine.

Furthermore, I am finding that the western diet--quick, fast, and convenient-- has had incredible impacts on developing countries--Haiti included.  The influence of the Western diet and food-aid has been far more impactful than I think many people want to admit. I can't stand a drive into Port-au-Prince where all I see are stores filled with bottle pop, corn flakes, condensed milk, overly salted seasoning packets, bags of chips, and bottles of oil (which I would assume is for frying foods).

Fast-food (aka street food) in Haiti. 

A lot of imported food items.  

Bottle pop and juices are loaded with sugar. 

packaged chips, cookies, crackers with high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugars.
Now this is where the real, nutritious goods are at! 

White sweet potatoes!

Fresh fruit (this is Corsol  in Creole.. soursop in English). 

Shopping at the markets (or famers markets as they are called in America) supports the local agriculture and the local communities! 

. In February, my team purchased fresh oranges from the market to share with kids at a few orphanages we visited. Our short visits might be more impactful than we really think... 

Resources about the Nutrition-transition occurring around the globe:
1. University of North Carolina
2. Harvard
3. Nutrition Transition and Obesity in the Developing World
4. The World Health Organization

BEANS!!! A great source of protein, fiber, iron...... check out: the nutritional value of dry beans.
Don't underestimate the value of the bean.
These are bean plants growing not to far from our location in Haiti! 

Using white sweet potatoes and coconut milk with some fun spices! 

A garden in Haiti! 
Eating a real traditional Haitian meal made of squash, beans, corn, and vegetables.

The plant-based approach to eating falls in line with the traditional eating patterns of many cultural groups around the world. In particular, we will look at the African Heritage Pyramid pictured below. The pyramid is based on plants (fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, roots and tubers). Using native resources in similar patterns to what the early African Decedents originally did, is bound to have long term health benefits on this selective population's health, environment, and sustainability. Here is an article about the African Health through Heritage:

 Oldways  has done interesting work studying groups of people, health problems, and eating patterns to develop food pyramids and programs to fit with traditional ways of eating. It is another way to look at the plant-based lifestyle approach. At the base of every culture's food pyramid is the basic message I am trying to address: EAT MORE PLANT FOODS.

 Oldways Website

My take-home message for you! 

I am not telling you that you have to be vegan or that you have to even be vegetarian for the matter of fact. The kids I work with in Haiti still eat meat and fish, but their diet is based on foods with roots, seeds, leaves..... PLANT FOOD!

 My message is that you start looking at food from a few different lenses. That YOU start to think about your food choices from a health and environmental stance. We live in an "out of sight, out of mind" society where we don't see the impact of our food choice beyond our wallets, restaurants, fast food chains, and grocery stores. 

The health of our planet is important for the health of the people, plants, and animals that inhabit it. 

If you choose to still eat animal products, I suggest you get educated about the animal products you consume. Here is a good resource to start with:

Going plant-based doesn't mean you need to give-up animal products entirely. Plant based means that you switch your way of thinking about food: centering your meals around the PLANT-FOOD rather than the meat/ animal products. Increasing the portion of your plant-foods and using animals products as garnishes or flavor components. If you are running on a budget, eating produce doesn't have to be expensive (eat in season, buy frozen, or even substitute a bag of chips or cookies for a bag of oranges or apples). You might actually find that eating more dried beans, nuts (peanut butter included), and whole grains to be cheaper than buying meat products. Get savvy and educated. 

Here is a list of more Plant-foods to add to your diet (the list extends beyond the scope of the blog and depending on where you live, things might not be available to you). 

1. Vegetables (kale, spinach, cabbage,  collards, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, lettuce, peppers, zuhnni, summer squash, eggplant, beets, brussel sprouts, asparagus....)
2. Starchy Vegetables and Tubers: (sweet potatoes  butternut squash, spaghetti squash.. all kinds of squash, pumpkin, plantains, yams, cassava, yucca root, taro root, rutabaga....)
3. Fruits (pineapple, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, melons, mangos, grapes, apples, bananas, cherries, cranberries, plums, peaches, oranges.... )
4. Whole grains: (bulgur, millet, quinoa, wheat berries, oatmeal, sorghum...)
5. Beans and legumes: (soy beans, black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, lentils, cow peas, split peas....)
6. Tofu, tempeh, seitan
7. Nuts: (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, hazelnuts... many of these can be made into butters or spreads)
8. Alternative milk sources (almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, coconut milk, hemp milk...)
9. Seeds (chia, flax, hemp, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin..)
10. Nutritional yeast! A fortified yeast that has a complete amino acid profile--an excellent source of protein! It gives food a cheesy taste. Use it in sauces, "mock" mac and cheeses, sprinkle on popcorn, mix with tofu for a vegan ricotta... 
11. If you choose to go vegan, be sure to read about Vitamin B12:

mmmmm fresh veggies! 

Try a Meat-less Monday (or tuesday...wednesday..) by incorporating beans, tofu, nuts, whole grains, and/or seeds into your meals for meatless protein. Add more vegetables to your plate to add more color, flavor, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), fiber, and phytonutrients!

Resources for plant-powered cooking:

1. My pinterest page
2. Nom yourself 3. Kris Carr 4. Vegetarian Recipe Club 5. The Post Punk Kitchen 6. Meatless ideas for school lunches
7. Ripe
8. Meatless Monday
9. Plant-powered Kitchen
10. Oh she glows
11. Vegetarian ideas from around the world
12. Vegan Soul Kitchen

I wish you the best of luck on your plant-powered journey!
If you have questions, let me know! 

"Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."- Albert Einstein 


  1. The fish tastes very flavourful, with a lovely crispness to it, which is not over done. Best Food Truck In LA

  2. nice blog...high protein foods are good for health maintenance.