You’ve heard of keto, paleo, and low-carb diets. The “planetary health diet” is one with staying power, with a dual goal of bettering human health and reducing environmental harm.
Developed by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, this flexitarian diet prioritizes plants while limiting the intake of animal-based foods and processed products.
Although many people turn to vegetarian or vegan diets for ethical reasons, there’s increasing awareness around the benefits of those approaches when it comes to the planet’s health.
In fact, avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Science that purports to be one of the most comprehensive analyses of the damage farming does to the planet.
The study’s authors found that while meat and dairy provide 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein in a typical diet, they also use 83 percent of the world’s farmland and produce 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Beef results in up to 105 kilograms of greenhouse gases per 100 grams of protein, while tofu produces less than 3.5 kilograms.
Vancouver’s Sherry Strong, founder and CEO of Return to Food and a self-described food philosopher, says that she follows a plant-based diet but will have small amounts of certain animal products from clean sources under ethical conditions. She didn’t always eat this way.
“I grew up as a processed-food omnivore in what I call the culinary equivalent of a gastronomic black hole made up of lots of processed food and badly cooked meat and vegetables,” Strong tells the Straight. “I don’t think it is humane to eat animals in concentration camps, and I don’t think it is healthy to eat animals eating an unnatural diet. You eat what you eat eats, and most animals are fed unnatural diets and lots of fear.
“Compassion aside, I have come to see that what’s good for the planet is good for people, and what is good for people is good for the planet, without exception,” says Strong, a chef and nutritionist. “Factory farming is toxic to the planet and to us humans.”
Strong says that self-compassion is an important element when it comes to making the transition from an omnivorous diet to one with few or no animal products, a switch that can be challenging for people who are accustomed to processed food and who have developed “emotional dependencies” on them. There isn’t a single correct way to eat, she says, adding that biodiversity relies on people eating SLOW: seasonal, local, organic, and whole.
“Eating this way will not only go a long way to human health but a sustainable planet providing food for many generations to come,” Strong says.
Sarah Kim is the founder of OwnGrown, which provides vegan workshops, catering, cooking coaching, and personal-chef services. She’s vegetarian; she cooks and bakes vegan at home and occasionally has eggs or cheese when she eats out.
“Growing up, I used to pretend I was allergic to vegetables ’cause I disliked them,” Kim tells the Straight. “I was raised by a single working mom, and even though she loved to cook, she wouldn’t have the time or energy, and so we ate a lot of processed foods.
“I didn’t learn to cook with whole-food ingredients until I moved in with friends who were vegan 18 years ago,” she adds. “I learned so much about vegan cooking and baking from them and kept with it. I never learned to cook meat growing up and wasn’t eating much of it by my early 20s, so following a vegan diet seemed a good path for me. Plus, learning and researching animal welfare and environmental and health benefits made me decide to eliminate animal products as much as possible.”
Kim is passionate about teaching people how to cook and bake using strictly plant-based ingredients. As coordinator of Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks (a group of community organizations that promote food security in neighbourhoods throughout the city), she realizes that because of monetary, geographical, cultural, or other reasons, not everyone can shift to a vegan diet.
“I love trying out new recipes and making things from scratch, like vegan sausage, ribs, and cheese, and showing people that it’s not as hard as it may seem and tastes delicious,” Kim says. “My work in food security has allowed me to understand that there are so many factors that determine how and why people eat or don’t eat what they do.
“I prefer to put my energy into supporting folks who are interested in learning more about a vegan diet over shaming folks who eat animal products,” she says. “I think it’s important to listen to your body’s needs and not be ashamed by what you eat and the means you have to access food. Our society needs to do more to endorse this.”