Eat More Plants to Save People and the Planet

08 Jun Eat More Plants to Save People and the Planet

For the first time ever, the mayor of Kelowna, Colin Basran, proclaimed May 19th to 26th Vegan Awareness Week.

Local businesses & restaurants offered discounts and in celebration of compassionate eating and sustainable living, the week wrapped up with Vegfest, a lively celebration of food, vendors, and speakers, held at Immaculata High School.

I first learned about the veggie love-in while attending a spin class at my gym. Headset on, toned legs turning, the barely-panting instructor called out to the sweating ladies trying to keep up,  “Anyone have special plans for the weekend?”

One young woman hollered back, “Vegfest! It’s going to be awesome!”

It was an impressive display of enthusiasm from a 20-something year-old who could have shouted she was heading to the Club.

“How many of you are vegans?” the instructor asked. In a class of about 20, two hands shot up. They fit the demographics perfectly.

According to a study by Dalhousie University, about 9.4 percent of the Canadian population are vegetarian, with 850,000 of them vegan. The majority are women, under the age of 35. They’re likely to raise their kids that way, which means numbers will continue to grow. Our fine province and Ontario have the highest proportion of vegetarians, while the prairies and Atlantic Canada are more likely to ask, “Where’s the beef?”

Health Canada is cheering all the way. After twelve years of encouraging us to eat a rainbow of foods, this past January the government served up a new Food Guide. Praised by health care professionals and scientists alike, the new guide includes forward thinking recommendations like mindful eating. It also clearly suggests we look to plants to fill our plates.

If you picture your dinner dish, half of it should be fruits and vegetables, one-quarter complex (not processed) carbohydrates, the final quarter high-quality protein sources, preferably plant-based. That means things like nuts, beans, tofu, and legumes.

The guidelines are in keeping with what experts around the world recently concluded in the Eat-Lancet report: for our own health and that of the planet, we need to eat less saturated fat and processed foods while increasing our intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and healthy grains.

If you’re wondering when broccoli became king, it’s probably no coincidence that the vegetarian lifestyle attracts younger people and they tend to rule social media. Celebrities like Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus are vegans. According to BBC.com, #vegan has more than 61 million posts on Instagram. What was once considered a fringe movement is becoming more mainstream.

While vegetarians exclude meat, poultry, and fish from their diets, they do eat animal products, like cheese and eggs. Vegans take things a step further by eliminating all animal products from their diet. Ethical vegans apply that principle to their entire lifestyle. No leather handbags sling from their arms; no animal-tested mascara coats their lashes.

The health benefits of a mostly plant-based diet are clear. Fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants which help guard against cancer. Healthy body weights are easier to maintain. Consuming large quantities of plant-based nutrition results in lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease as well as type 2 diabetes.

That said, anytime we exclude certain foods we increase our risk of nutrition deficiency. According to Tristaca Curley, a nationally-recognized, Kelowna-based Registered Dietitian, vegans have to work extra hard to take in enough protein. This is because the amino acid profile of plant protein is considered to be lower nutritional quality than animal protein.

“Contrary to what social media may tell you,” she says, “wheatgrass is not a good source of protein.” Beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as soy or textured vegetable proteins must therefore be consumed several times a day.

Curley advises incorporating foods like fortified plant milks, tofu, almonds, tempeh and kale to replace Vitamin D and calcium, found in the highest quantities in fatty fish and dairy products. Getting enough Iron, Vitamin B12 and Omega 3 can also be challenging. Supplementation may be needed. If you’re considering a vegan lifestyle, it is best to consult a Registered Dietician, like Curley, who can help with the careful menu planning required to guard against deficiencies.

While I am all for worshiping at the altar of the vegetable, I need to come clean. One of my favorite foods is a heavily salted, juicy steak, medium rare. When I was pregnant with our daughter, I used to joke I could take down a cow, I craved meat so much. I struggle with low iron, what can I say?

Before any vegans send me hate mail, I have never taken down any live animals. I also understand in order to meet the global population’s food demand and still protect the environment, we need to decarbonize the food chain, which includes less animal products and more plant-based proteins. That’s why my family strives to eat vegetarian at least a few times a week.

Turns out you were right, mom. We need to eat our veggies.

This post originally ran in the Kelowna Daily Courier.