Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Right Diet

Right Diet. Eat a healthy diet of the right amount of calories, of foods that are produced fairly and do not cause systematic suffering to ourselves, to others, to farmed animals or other living creatures, or to the Earth itself.

Choosing the right diet will help to improve the health of individuals, human society, and the Earth. The obesity epidemic and related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers; a significant portion of climate change; the eutrophication of rivers and oceans; the concentration of the food industry among a small cadre of exploitative corporations, in turn leading to the abuse of workers and farm animals—these are all connected by one thing: our consumer diet.We need to move to a diet that is in balance with the Earth, rather than one that is selfdestructive.

To do this, we need to follow some simple advice. First: eat the right amount of calories. Obesity is fundamentally caused by consuming more calories than you expend. Reducing total calorie intake can improve your quality of life and extend your lifespan. Moreover, a nutritious, lower-calorie diet will reduce your ecological impact even if you live more years. Let’s consider two average men’s diets. One lowers consumption markedly, from 2,600 calories to 1,800. The other continues eating the U.S. standard recommended 2,600-calorie-per-day diet. (This assumes a relatively sedentary lifestyle for both; a particularly active person would want to adjust upwards a bit.)

The thinner man can live to be 81 years old on the calories consumed by the larger one by age 65. Moreover, by following this diet the thinner man’s odds of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and other overnutrition-related diseases will all go down significantly. For a bit more on this, check out this New York Times article on Calorie Restriction. For a lot more on this, read John Robbins' book Healthy at 100.

Second, to make this lower-calorie diet work, the food has to be healthy. This means cutting out the processed foods and refined sugars and grains of the typical consumer’s diet, and instead leaning toward a mostly vegetarian diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and (if interested) the occasional animal product. The benefits of switching to a more natural diet aren’t just health-related; processed foods are more energy-intensive and rely heavily on disposable packaging.

If animal products are part of your diet, be sure to consume these sparingly, as the ecological resources needed to produce these are much greater than plants. (One example: eating 320 calories of stir-fried vegetables and rice—about half a kilogram of food—produces just 0.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Getting the same calories from a 0.2-kilogram (6-ounce) steak produces 4.4 kilograms of CO2, over 20 times more.)

Also, when choosing animal products, try to ensure that your milk, butter, eggs, and meat don’t come from factory farms, which are polluting, typically exploit the workers and animals, and degrade the nutritional value of these foods. And when possible purchase all of your foods from local farmers or organic fair-trade sources.

While making these changes won’t come without a determined effort (especially in the toxic food environment of the United States), they will improve your health, reduce your impact on the Earth, and help shift food production toward sustainability by strengthening organic enterprises, reducing the ecological impact of agriculture, helping to provide workers fair wages, and reducing corporate control of food resources while returning it to local farmers and responsible businesses.

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008 issue.

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