What constitutes a ‘healthy diet’ has been endlessly debated and the advice on eating changes almost year on year.
With the dangerous rise in non-communicable diseases (such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes) which has occurred over the last fifty or so years – significantly accelerating from the 1980s onwards with increasing industrialised food production – it has never been more important to think about what you eat.
The rise of veganism has brought a sea-change in how many people eat, even for those who haven’t fully given themselves over to a wholly plant-based diet. ‘Veganuary’, which started in 2014, has been a compelling campaign to change people’s diets, urging them to forego any animal-based food. Veganism is increasing in interest – a recent YouGov poll (commissioned by Veganuary) found that 36% of adults thought that it was ‘admirable’, which implies it is something that many people may think about doing, but only the remarkable would pursue.
Healthy diets don’t come from the overconsumption of processed foods and that goes for veganism as much as for any type of diet. The vegan market has opened up a huge door to industrial food producers and out of it has come a raft of ultra-processed foods: vegan ‘cheese’, fake meat and products that are heavy on salt and additives. Have a good hard look at the Impossible Burger which garnered so much attention when it was introduced – its key ingredient is a ‘vat-grown, genetically engineered form of the heme iron’ called Soy leghemoglobin. It’s important to remember that just because it’s vegan, doesn’t make ultra-processed food healthy.
A vegan or ‘plant-based’ diet, as it is often called, eschews meat, dairy, fish and bugs as well (which are eaten in many parts of the world). In terms of eating, there’s a lot to be said for the ethics of not eating meat in a world dominated by the industrial production of animals. However, eating a vegan diet does need some careful consideration, especially in terms of where your protein and fats are coming from and the impact they could be having on the environment.
Soya beans are inarguably healthy in their raw unprocessed form, providing protein, vitamins and fibre. But beyond unprocessed soya beans, it gets more problematic – soya protein isolate is a key ingredient in ultra-processed food and soya milk, even without added sugar, comes with flavouring and stabilisers. Another beloved ingredient of ultra-processed food is palm oil, definitely not something that’s found in your kitchen. It comes with a host of terrible impacts: along with soya and industrialised meat production, it is a key driver of deforestation, particularly in southeast Asia, where it has decimated the habitat of orangutans and other endangered species; further, despite efforts to clean up its image, exploitation of laborers, child labour and outright slavery is embedded in its supply chain.
The question everyone should ask themselves is, ‘where has my food come from and how has it been produced?’ It’s something that, however you eat, you should mind carefully. Has your food been grown in the soil? Has it been sprayed with chemicals or was it organically produced? Has it been grown locally or was it imported? Is the bulk of your diet based around whole foods and plants, rather than being ‘plant-based’, which, let’s be honest, can mean almost anything as long as there’s not livestock products involved? Knowing this makes a big difference to your health and to the planet. There are some basic principles to consider:
Eat close to home as much as possible
For a start, grow your own food if you can – it’s deeply satisfying to pull potatoes out of the ground and though a garden may be demanding it will also feed your well-being as well as your belly.
If you don’t have the time or space to grow your own food, find a local or regional veg producer and buy from them. If you live in a city, there are likely to be community farms and gardens and most of them are likely to be using agroecological practices to grow your food.
If you eat meat, try to source it from a small- or medium-scale producer, butchers or farm shop, rather than heading to the supermarket for an animal that has very likely had a short life, potentially indoors in crowded conditions. Smaller local producers and retailers are much more likely to be able to tell you about the provenance of their livestock, how they were raised, whether they were housed or free-range, how long they lived. This is important to know – as a meat eater, you contribute to the quality of their lives and the impact of that production system.
Cooking is so fundamental to healthy eating. People who cook are shown to be healthier and consume fewer calories. Cooking, and the meal that follows, binds people together, reminding us that we are social beings. But increasingly, we are losing our skills in cooking and as we lose them, we forget what food is. Our palates have been readjusted to enjoy sugar and salt in great quantities and this masks the fantastic diversity of flavours that is available to us and that actually constitutes nutrition. Cooking from scratch may take more time than heating up a ready meal, but it’s well worth for the benefits it provides.
Understand the issues
Find out about the problems with our industrialised food system: take the time to read, watch and listen to what is happening on our planet and how much what and how we eat contributes to the enormous mess we are in. If you love your avocados, make sure you are eating organic and fair-trade, because most avocado production is largely environmentally unsustainable,. Think fish is great for you? It certainly is, but it’s not good for our oceans where many more species than just fish are dying in the nets of industrialised fishing fleets that are also turning the sea floor into a desert. Overfishing is a significant problem – with fish stocks in certain areas, so depleted that they cannot recover.
Our food system sits at the nexus of our biggest problems – climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, so it’s vital we learn about what we need to be doing to fix it.
If you’re looking for ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ in your diet, start with real whole foods produced agroecologically, and, if you eat meat, sustainably raised regenerative livestock. You can be an omnivore that eats grass-fed beef and lamb, or a vegetarian enjoying plain yoghurt or go vegan and veg out on veg – just don’t make your staple diet one of ultra-processed junk food.