How did a man so convinced of the need for meat that he once cooked sausages to go with a delicious lentil pie cooked by his girlfriend at the time in an effort to embrace Meatless Mondays?
With the release of the documentary Game Changers I’ve had a lot of questions asked on the topic of veganism and plant based eating. If you haven’t seen it, Game Changers promotes veganism by showcasing athletes who have adopted it as a lifestyle. The film also argues that eating any animal products will lead to negative consequences for your health.
Not so long ago veganism was on the fringes, so the fact this film was produced by James Cameron shows how far it has moved out of the shadows and towards the mainstream. In fact it rides the crest of a huge wave of change in how plant based eating is now viewed.
In 2015, I finished my career in Special Forces and veganism wasn’t even remotely in my conscience, and I certainly had never considered it as a lifestyle choice.
Having grown up on a farm in the country hunting and fishing, eating meat was inexplicably linked with being strong and fit. But when I left the military, for many reasons, I started to question the beliefs I held on certain things. This included my diet, which I started to look at not only from a health and performance perspective but also from an ethical one.
This eventually led to me following a vegan diet for nearly 2 years, before turning away from it in favour of eating mostly, but not exclusively, plant based foods. Consuming far less animal produce and choosing local farms that employ regenerative and sustainable farming methods as the source.
This article is my best attempt to answer the questions I’ve been asked about my thoughts on veganism and the way I eat now. I warn you now it is not a quick read!
My Journey To The Other Side
How did a man — once so convinced of the need for meat, in an effort to embrace Meatless Mondays, cook sausages to go with a delicious lentil pie made by his girlfriend at the time — go vegan?!
Going from not being able to eat even one meal without meat to a vegan is quite a jump. But it happened. And it happened for two main reasons, neither of which were to do with health at the time.
1. Factory Farming
I grew up on a small dairy farm in the country and all of the meat we ate either came from our own animals or the local butcher.
As I grew up and moved away from home I paid far less attention to the animal products I was eating. Sitting stark in my memory are days at university consuming huge amounts of cheap eggs and chicken breasts as I got heavily into weight training.
Below is a trailer for Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me 2: Holy Chicken, which exposes the cruelty in mass chicken farming.
In the back of my mind I knew that the animals ending up on my plate probably weren’t enjoying the best lives. But I didn’t really consider this past superficial thoughts which were quickly discarded.
Fast forward to my days in the military and I was eating in a way that was best described as paleo-ish. Still heavy on animal produce but generally from organic grass-fed sources. But I still wasn’t really paying great attention to where my food was coming from.
That is until a few years ago when I actually stopped and watched one of those videos filmed undercover in a factory farm. The ones shared around social media that everyone clicks off after a few seconds because of the harrowing scenes.
The ones we quickly put out of our minds because it forces us to consider an uncomfortable truth:
The majority of animal products we consume today come from an industry steeped in misery and suffering.
This is not intended to make anyone feel guilty, it is simply a fact. Factory farming is an inevitable consequence of the scale of demand for meat, fish and dairy. And, as Yuval Noah Harari, best-selling author of Sapiens, puts it:
“The fate of animals in such industrial installations has become one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time, certainly in terms of the numbers involved. These days, most big animals live on industrial farms.
It concerns the majority of Earth’s large creatures: tens of billions of sentient beings, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, but which live and die on an industrial production line.
The scientific study of animals …has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that farm animals are sentient beings, with intricate social relations and sophisticated psychological patterns. They may not be as intelligent as us, but they certainly know pain, fear and loneliness. They too can suffer…”
And along with the suffering of animals the suffering of the planet was something else starting to play on my mind. After some time of wrestling with cognitive dissonance I began eating less animal products and choosing carefully where they came from.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person’s beliefs clashes with new evidence.
This got me to the point where I was eating a roughly 80% plant based diet. Surprisingly to me at the time, this led to positive revelations around my health and fitness. Something which I will delve into later on.
So why the move to completely removing all animal products and becoming vegan? It comes down to speciesism which is a complicated topic in itself but is a form of discrimination based on species membership.
It involves treating members of one species as morally more important than members of other species even when their interests are equivalent.
American social psychologist Melanie Joy has written perhaps the most well known book on the topic: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.
Carnism is a subset of speciesism about the belief systems and psychology of meat eating. It is an invisible system of beliefs in both the social, psychological, and physical sense.
For example, in the physical sense, an estimated 10 billion land animals are slaughtered for their meat every year in the U.S., yet most of the animals are never seen—they are kept in confined animal feeding operations, invisible to the public and off limits to the media.
You can consider speciesism as playing a role in inspiring or justifying cruelty in the forms of factory farming, the use of animals for entertainment such as in bullfighting and rodeos, the taking of animals’ fur and skin, and experimentation on animals.
In the end I concluded that giving up animal products entirely was the one way to reduce my impact on the suffering of both animals and the planet. So in the space of 2 years I went from bacon and eggs to beans and tofu.
But, in recent months, I moved back to what I suppose you call a flexitarian model. For me that means mostly plant based combined with some well sourced animal produce.
Veganism: Not So Black and White
Essentially I became a vegan for the animals and the planet, but just as asking questions had brought me to that lifestyle, so in turn it I found myself changing course from it.
Life & Death
Veganism gets around a whole bunch of ethical grey areas, and if you care about what you put in your mouth, is probably the most black and white way to approach the whole meat thing.
The vegan philosophy is, at its heart, quite often about reducing suffering. By not eating animals, you — by definition — reduce suffering. But is it that simple?
Matthew Evans, farms in southern Tasmania and has been on all sides of the debate and what he’s found is that the animal world isn’t isolated from the world of plants:
“Let’s start with peas. Collydean (not its real name, but a real farm) is a 2700ha mixed farm in northern Tasmania. They grow …a lot of peas: about 400 tonnes a season. And to protect the peas, they have some wildlife fences, but also have to shoot a lot of animals.
They routinely kill about 800-1000 possums and 500 wallabies every year, along with a few ducks. So, more than 1500 animals die each year to grow about 75ha of peas for our freezers.
Which means that every time we eat peas, farmers have controlled the “pest” species on our behalf, and animals have died in our name. The number of animals that die to produce vegan food is astonishing. Consider wheat, a common crop in Australia.
Thanks to monocultures, mice plagues and our modern farming systems, a hell of a lot of small animals die to produce wheat. On average, 1 billion mice are poisoned every year in Western Australia alone.
Let’s look at birds. Over a five-year period up to 2013, rice farmers in NSW killed nearly 200,000 native ducks to protect their fields. That’s right, to grow rice.
That’s in addition to the animals indirectly affected, such as those that once thrived in the waterways drained by such a heavily irrigated crop on a dry continent.
That’s how farming works. To grow something, other things are affected. Sometimes it’s an animal, sometimes it’s a lot of animals. When humans grow and process food, any food, other things die — and often we eat them.
According to Scientific American, each of us eats about 0.5-1kg of flies, maggots and other bugs a year, hidden in the chocolate we eat, the grains we consume, the peanut butter we spread on toast.
Every human activity has an effect on other living things.
We kill animals when we drive.
We kill animals when we fly or transport goods by plane.
We kill when we build railway tracks, when we farm grain, grow apples and mine sand.
We alter ecosystems when we put up new housing developments, build bicycle factories and ship lentils.
We push native animals out of their environments all the time, with the resultant pain and suffering you’d expect.
Perhaps, for those not interested in eating meat, or who choose not to eat meat, it’s about context. All the creatures killed in the raising of crops — the rodents, the insects, the birds — are just collateral damage.
This line of thinking is based on the fact that meat eaters ‘choose’ a victim, so this is different to an animal dying as a result of random chance. But a death is a death. Suffering is suffering, regardless of whether a human was involved, directly or not. All impacts of our actions need to be considered.”
Coffee, Avocados & Mark Boyle
When I first became a vegan something I didn’t consider was where my animal free products were coming from.
Take avocados, a food that has inexplicably grown in popularity along with the rising tide of plant based eating. In Mexico, where they are colloquially referred to as “green gold”, the avocado can get you killed. Production of the fruit is concentrated in the state of Michoacán and much of it is controlled by the Caballeros Templarios drug cartel – making farmers and landowners give up a percentage of their income, enforcing a tax on fruit sold and land owned, and even murdering those who don’t play ball.
All this has resulted in the term “blood guacamole“.
And what about coffee? After all, who doesn’t enjoy an americano along with their avo on sourdough?
Coffee is the world’s second most tradable commodity after oil, and is now a multibillion dollar global industry and growing. This has had a knock-on effect on the environment, with monoculture and sun grown coffee now the norm. And given that most coffee growing regions are also home to some of the most delicate ecosystems on earth, the potential for serious damage is great.
Deforestation trends are serious throughout the coffee producing lands of Latin America whose tropical forests are critical ecologically for purposes of protection of atmospheric dynamics, water quality, wildlife species, as well as economically.
Fair trade shade grown coffee is your best bet for reducing the impact of your flat white.
So basically if you truly want to do the least damage possible to animals and the planet you need to be only eating what you can grow in your garden where you can oversee everything. Or move to a commune.
Both of which are possible if you decided that the issue was so important to you that you would do everything in your power to live this way.
The closest I’ve seen to this is the story of Mark Boyle, the author of The Way Home: Tales From A Life Without Technology.
In the summer of 2016 Mark hand-built a straw bale home on a half-wild smallholding in County Galway, Ireland, and began a new life without modern technology.
As part of this journey, through necessity Mark began hunting and fishing after years spent being both a vegan and ardent animal rights activist:
“In the bloody, mucky, sweaty reality of living in direct relationship with a particular place, I’ve learned that while death is an essential and beautiful part of life, industrial-scale cruelty isn’t; and that while veganism is an urban myth – industrial food and goods are wiping out life en masse, regardless of whether they contain animal products – the protection of the natural world and its breathtaking creatures is more important than ever.”
Permaculture – The Smiling Tree Farm Model
This continual cycle of questioning my choices and their impact eventually led me to permaculture as a model for producing food. Permanent agriculture is the design of agricultural ecosystems that are sustainable and self-sufficient.
Permaculture combines three key elements:
1. An ethical framework
2. An understanding of how nature works.
3. And a design aspect.
The approach creates productive systems that are non-polluting and healthy and can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature.
Smiling Tree Farm is a 70-acre holding in the rolling hills of south Shropshire that produces nutrient-rich food from native and rare-breed animals using organic, permaculture and holistic farm management practices.
At the heart of what they do is the belief that good food can only come from contented, healthy animals raised compassionately on land that is managed regeneratively to provide a diverse and natural diet.
In their own words:
“Our commitment to permaculture is evidenced by our careful design of the farm and choice of activities; our dedication of a fair share of land to wild, natural zones; our adoption of organic practices, which make the whole farm flora and fauna friendly; our perennial forest garden; our harvesting of rainwater and solar energy; and by our use and reuse of materials or farming by-products, such as the use of sheep’s fleeces for mulching.
We certainly practise organic, permaculture and holistic farming methods. However, we strive to go ‘beyond organic’ by looking beyond the basic requirements to obtain certification.
With careful consideration of the specific conditions, soils and climate of the farm, we mindfully choose our breeds and farming methods to ensure that our activities are sustainable and regenerative.
We aim to keep our animals healthy naturally and to produce nutrient-rich food from a closed-loop, carbon-neutral, local, seasonal, antibiotic and medication-free system. We also produce all our own power and harvest over 80% of our water needs.”
Having spent a fair amount of time reading around the subject, and even visiting a farm practicing permaculture I believe that it makes the most sense as a model for producing farmed food.
Now, I understand that for most people many barriers stand in the way of sourcing food from places like Smiling Tree Farm. And in all honesty is this how I eat all of the time? No, not by a long shot.
However, I try and keep what I believe is right when I cast my three votes (meals) a day. Depending on where I am and what is going on, this can sometimes fall short, but each time I cast my vote I remember that our food choices directly support the farming methods and the industry that put the food on our plate. They influence not only our own health and wellbeing but that of the farm animals and the planet too.
The Health Side Of The Equation
In many ways this can be as complex as the environmental, social and political aspects of becoming a vegan. But, as I alluded to earlier, I did not become a vegan for health reasons.
In fact, when I began on the path to reduce my intake of animal products for ethical reasons, I actually wondered how badly it would impact my athletic performance.
What I discovered was that as I increased the amount of meals made from plant based whole foods, my performance increased along with it. Not only was I recovering better from workouts but my energy levels were far better in general.
Not only was I recovering better from workouts but my energy levels were far better in general.
This peaked when I was roughly 80% plant based, and during the time that I was vegan I can’t say that it improved any further. During the time I was vegan I was fit and healthy but that doesn’t mean the same will apply to everyone.
Also, I invested time to procure, prepare and cook high quality, plant-based meals. Substituting meat for prepackaged vegan junk food is not a healthy substitution. More and more commonly supermarket shelves are stocked with vegan foodstuffs of what amount to less nutrient dense versions of their counterparts that contain animal products.
The Best Diet For Humans
What is the best diet for us?
Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science proposes that the reason we don’t have an answer is because this is the wrong question. The reason being that it assumes the best diet only depends on the food and not on the person eating it.
But what if differences in our genetics, lifestyle and gut microbiome cause us to respond differently to our food? And what if these differences are why some diets work for some people and not for others?
Segal and his team conducted a study as part of a longer-term initiative called the Personalized Nutrition Project, which integrates tools from biology and computer science and is unique in its focus on the microbiome, and gut bacteria which are increasingly understood as playing a key role in health in disease (thanks in part to studies like these).
The study found that although there were some trends, there were many people who didn’t fit the pattern. In fact the team found huge differences among different people who consumed identical meals.
The takeaway message from the study indicates that we are all individuals and in an ideal world personalised eating choices are more likely to help people stay healthy.
As Jason Koop, Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning, noted:
“In my coaching practice, I work with athletes who are vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous. I have no inherent preference. I simply want to see healthy athletes with good relationships with food, who then can perform at their best.
I have seen athletes who eat meat perform better by adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet, and I have seen vegans and vegetarians who get better when they incorporate animal products into their routine. I have also seen the opposite. Omnivores have gotten worse by becoming plant based and vegan athletes I work with have gotten worse by incorporating animal products into what they eat. All of these scenarios happen no matter how meticulous and thoughtful the process was.
There is no consistent correlation between reasonable omnivorous, vegetarian or vegan diets and performance that can be universally applied to all endurance athletes.”
That last sentence may as well replace “applied to all endurance athletes” with “applied to all people.”This is why it is vital to spend some time self-experimenting and find out what works best for you.
As we have just seen, we are all different and have our own requirements, but there are some broad rules which will benefit us all. And I do believe that one of these is increasing the amount of plant based whole foods in our diet.
In recent years the Western diet has seen a big increase in the sheer quantity of animal produce that we consume. And in contrast the percentage of calories coming from fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and seeds has dropped.
If there is one thing that every major health organisation agrees on it’s that we are not eating enough fruit and vegetables.
People are now consuming more foods high in energy, fats, free sugars or salt/sodium, and many do not eat enough fruit, vegetables and dietary fibre such as whole grains.World Health Organisation
Reduced fruit and vegetable consumption is linked to poor health and increased risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Evidence continues to mount that a plant-based diet—rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help reduce the risk of health concerns, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.
By containing what are referred to as phytochemicals (plant compounds) such as health-boosting polyphenols, plant stanols and sterols, omega-3 fatty acids, phytoestrogens and sulfuric compounds, plants work together to help keep major chronic diseases at bay.
Adding more plants also means you’ll be upping your intake of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Studies continue to stress the value of plant foods in our diets, reminding us not only of the importance of fibre, but also colour. We all know that eating a higher proportion of fruit and vegetables is good for us, but yet many people still fail to eat the recommended daily allowance.
The RDA for fruit and vegetables varies around the globe. The World Health Organisation sets population nutrient goals and recommends intake of a minimum of 400g of fruits and vegetables per day for the prevention of chronic diseases.
In the UK, the 400g was translated into more consumer-friendly guidance and became the now well known five-a-day mantra. But despite the clear health benefits and the prominent media campaigns, still only one in ten children, and less than a third of adults eat the recommended five-a-day, according to the latest government figures.
Worse still, one recent study questioned whether five is enough. The authors highlighted the benefits of eating far more fruits and vegetables – as many as ten portions a day.
Whether the magic number is five, seven or 10, there is one fact that all experts agree on – a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is good for us – and we are not eating nearly enough!
Gut health is one of the major reasons why eating a diet rich in plant based whole foods is highly beneficial for us.
It is only in recent years that microbiologists have made some startling advances in revealing our gut’s innermost secrets. It turns out that there is a complex ecosystem deep within us that is home to a fantastic diversity of life – of which very little belongs to our species.
There are about 100 trillion organisms living in the gut, which means that at our very core we are less than human. In terms of cells, the microbial kind outnumber their human counterparts by about three to one. And in terms of genes, the microbial advantage is more like 300 to one.
The latest thinking presents this vast army of microbes as a vital component in furnishing and maintaining human health.
Not only do the type of bacteria you have affect the critical functions of the body’s digestive and immune systems. They also have the capability of affecting your body’s vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, digestion, vitamin production, immune response, and ability to eliminate toxins, not to mention your overall mental health.
When it comes to what you eat, two factors are very important: fibre and diversity.
If you were to view your microbiome as a garden, fibre would be your fertiliser. Fiber has long been linked to better health, but new research shows how the gut microbiota might play a role in this pattern.
In particular, beneficial microbes feast on fermentable fibers—which can come from various vegetables, whole grains and other foods—that resist digestion by human-made enzymes as they travel down the digestive tract.
These fibers arrive in the large intestine relatively intact, ready to be devoured by our microbial multitudes. Microbes can extract the fiber’s extra energy, nutrients, vitamins and other compounds for us.
Today’s Western diet, however, is exceedingly fiber-poor by historical standards. It contains roughly 15 grams of fiber daily. For most of our early history as hunter-gatherers, we were likely eating close to 10 times that amount of fiber each day.
Foods containing the best fibre types for your microbes – AKA prebiotic foods – include artichokes, leeks, celery, chicory, onions and garlic.
BUT variety is the top priority.
The latest research is showing that it’s not necessarily someone who calls themselves vegetarian who has the most healthy gut – it’s the person who eats more diversity of plants in a week.
A good analogy would be an ecosystem like a rainforest, where you’ve got loads of plants and animals interacting. It’s evolved over tens of thousands of years, then one of the key species, a tree gets cut down and you get ecological collapse.
Meat Is Not The Enemy
I won’t spend long on this but in a nutshell I don’t think animal products should be singled out as something to be avoided.
Meat provides B12, highly absorbable heme iron, all the essential amino acids, zinc, EPA, DHA, vitamin D, and vitamin K2, none of which are found in plant foods.
Plants provide important antioxidants, a wide array of vitamins, minerals & phytonutrients, and fiber.
Can you fill the balance with careful planning and supplements? Yes. But in my opinion an omnivorous diet is simply the best diet for optimal nutrition, hands down.
Where To Go From Here
From my experience veganism it is far from a clear cut topic, and the same could be said for many of the popular diets today. To me there’s no question we should all be eating far less meat. But, giving up meat and dairy is not the simple cure for environmental, animal welfare and human health issues that it is sometimes held up to be.
However, calling for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of factory farming has to be the first step on the path to a better world. The following are a few key points I have taken away from my journey into what appears on my plate.
1. Ask More Questions
A simple tactic but something none of us probably do enough, not just around our diets but anything in life.
Questions are the best way to gain deeper insights into why you are doing the things you do. Without questioning the way I was eating I would never have started on a path that ultimately led me to a massive jump up in my health and performance.
It is the simplest and most effective way of learning and by asking fundamental questions you are able to start a process that can lead to tremendous breakthroughs.
Isaac Newton asked, “Why does an apple fall from a tree?”.
Charles Darwin asked, “Why do the Galapagos islands have so many species not found elsewhere?”.
Albert Einstein asked, “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?”.
We do not have to solve the mysteries of the universe but we should nonetheless ask the deep questions about the situations we face because it is the best way to get the information we need to make informed decisions.
It is not always an easy thing to do because we often cling to beliefs and remain certain in our assumptions. But asking questions is perhaps the single most overlooked skill to create breakthroughs in your life.
2. Reconnect With Your Food
In the last 50 years the food production systems in Western countries have followed a trend towards industrialisation. Where we were once 80 percent rural, we are now more than 90 percent urban. We are losing farmers every year, and rural communities are deteriorating socially and economically.
Children are growing up not knowing where their food comes from – not just where it is produced but also how it is produced. Some children are unaware that carrots grow under the ground and tomatoes on plants above ground.
Today, there is just too much disconnection with food, its production, producers and traditional food. We need to find easy, cost effective ways to reconnect and create more meaning in our lives.
This doesn’t mean we all have to move to the country and grow our own food. We can reconnect in a number of ways. Depending on your circumstances you can search your local area for:
Consumer cooperatives and groups
Shops and restaurants using local food
Reconnecting to food, people and the natural environment helps to preserve natural resources and strengthen communities.
3. Learn The Lingo
You can buy animal products with high animal welfare labels in most supermarkets. Look for the more common labels, such as Outdoor Bred, RSPCA Assured, Free Range or best of all Organic. Animal products with these labels has been raised on high welfare farms, almost certainly in the UK.
You can also ask for high welfare at your local butcher, or better shop at your local farmers’ market, find high welfare online, or join a box scheme.
If you’re eating out, ask if the meat is from a high welfare farm.
And beware the power of media.
Red Tractor, has just launched a campaign intended to highlight their labelling scheme as one that is positive for animal welfare but the truth is far from this. For example, animals on Red Tractor certified farms are allowed to be kept permanently indoors on bare concrete slats with no straw or other bedding.
To see a more comprehensive guide to the common labels used take a look at Farms Not Factories Guide to Pork Labelling (pork is used but the information applies to other animal produce).
4. Experiment More
A ‘one size fits all’ solution simply does not exist when it comes to health and fitness.
Yes, there are broad rules and principles which I believe everyone can benefit from, but they must be applied in a specific way. If you attempt to copy exactly what someone else is doing the chances of getting the same results are slim.
Your starting point (level of ‘health’ right now), combined with your personality type, personal circumstances, level of motivation, genetics, etc. will dictate how this process will look. We are all individuals and you should treat your body as such.
I thought for a long time that I had my nutrition nailed down until an ethical dilemma led me down a path which ended with a way of eating I had never previously considered, but which worked much better for me.
5. Perfection Is A Myth
This stuff is VERY nuanced and the answer to the problems we face is not clear or straightforward. I’ve tried to keep it as concise as possible and cover the salient points but even this barely scratches the surface.
As Diana Rodgers, host of The Sustainable Dish Podcast, wrote:
“Are we going to fly ripe apples from New Zealand to England in the winter, or are we going to store England’s apples and eat them in the winter? Counter to what some assume, in the case of apples and England, it actually makes more sense to fly in seasonal apples from New Zealand than to store local apples for the winter. Here’s another question: should we be eating out of season apples to begin with?”
You can easily get lost down the rabbit hole with this topic. But, you don’t have to have the perfect answer to make positive changes. Following a few of the steps above, when you can is arguably a good place to start.
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