Shifting the Focus to Sustainable Eating

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The British Dietetic Association (BDA) defines a plant-based diet as one which ‘is based
on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits, with few or no animal products.‘ You’ll notice that it does include the mention of animal products, which may surprise some of you. I’ve seen MANY definitions of ‘plant-based’, from newspapers, online articles, various bloggers and influencers – and to be honest, most of the time people seem to claim ‘plant-based’ is synonymous with vegetarianism or veganism. It’s a bit of a grey area, which it why I was delighed to see the BDA endorse what is a pretty inclusive definition, I think you’d agree. They have compiled a fantastic fact-sheet on ‘Vegetarian Diet’s which I’ve linked hereWhat’s interesting to me is the wide range of types of plant-based diets, which I’ve summarised from the fact-sheet for you here:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians – eat dairy foods and eggs but not meat, poultry or seafood.
  • Ovo-vegetarians – include eggs but avoid all otheranimal foods, including dairy.
  • Lacto-vegetarians – eat dairy foods but exclude eggs, meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Vegans – don’t eat any animal products at all, including honey, dairy and eggs.

Further variations of plant-based diets described by the BDA include:

  • Pescetarians – eat fish and/or shellfish.
  • Semi-vegetarians (or flexitarians) – occasionally eat meat or poultry.

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So many labels. And as you can see, so many shades of plant-based GREY. Am I ‘plant-based’? In my opinion, and clearly that of the BDA, yes. Am I vegan? No. Am I vegetarian? No. I have been ‘plant-based’ (referring to BDA definition throughout this article when I use that term) since long before the vegetarian and vegan trend exploded across social media last year. I believe that plants should be the central theme in our diet. I think overall, of all the diets popularised in the media over the last few decades, plant-based eating is the one with the most potential for positive effects on public health, and promotes the most balanced, sustainable approach for human and environmental health. I’ve written about diets and environmental health on my blog last year (check that out here), as it’s a very new but very important issue and one which I’m very conscious of when making my own dietary choices. But with that said, my focus is not on diet labels, for myself or for you. It’s on the sustainability of how we eat. And although I’m not a fan of labels, in this article and for myself, I’m going to stick to the term ‘plant-based’ – but as the BDA defines it. 

Writing this article was inspired by seeing a LOT of #Veganuary posts on social media. Veganuary, if you haven’t heard of it, is a ‘challenge’ of sorts whereby you adopt a vegan diet for the month of January. Similar in a way to other challenges like ‘Dry January’ where you give up alcohol for the first month of the year, or a more recent one, ‘Yoganuary’ where you do yoga everyday for the month.

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The intentions behind all of these challenges are overall good, but particularly for Veganuary, it seems to me that this promotes a pretty extreme change for someone to make overnight, and can easily result in nutritional deficiencies if poorly planned. So, instead, I decided to share my 3 reasons why I am staying ‘plant-based’ (as defined by the BDA) for 2019. I should say to give you context, that I do eat meat, dairy and eggs. I eat meat in moderation and not as the focus in my diet. You’ll see this illustrated below. And the follow up article to this one will be on sustainable diets this coming Friday, as the focus on my blog and Podcast, inspired by this article and one I wrote in November after doing a lot of research in the area as part of my Masters.

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Plant-based eating can be beneficial for human health and that of the environment.

You’ll find a lot of information under this heading in my Sustainable Diets article, but I’ll summarise briefly here. Plant-based diets, because of their basis on plant-derived foods, when well-planned provide us with a wide range of macro- and micro-nutrients – complex carbohydrates, plant protein (and animal protein in moderation/small amounts) and healthy unsaturated fat sources, as well as micro-nutrients (e.g. folic acid from green leafy vegetables, vitamin C from citrus fruits, antioxidants in berries, and many more). Additionally, plant-based diets tend to be high in fibre due to their basis on vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, which is very important for our gut and heart health. They also tend to be lower in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates when properly planned and followed. The degree to which a plant-based diet might not be nutritionally adequate depends on what foods are not consumed. For example, cutting out dairy completely can lead to deficiencies in calcium, iodine and protein, while eliminating all animal foods can lead to vitamin B12 deficiencies. Eliminating fish can lead to omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies. It’s SO important to be aware of these potential issues if you are making an major changes (like eliminating entire food groups!) to your diet. The BDA fact-sheet I’ve linked goes into great detail on them, but it is also worth seeing a dietitian or registered nutritionist to plan the process properly if you are intent on it.

Environmentally, there is a LOT I could say, but I’ll divert you to my article on sustainable diets instead (here). In a nutshell, globally (in both developed and developing countries) we over-consume animal protein (chiefly via meat and dairy). With approximately 2 billion people worldwide overweight (a significant proportion of those are obese) and a further 2 billion malnourished, it’s clear our current food systems can’t support both human and environmental health. And our population isn’t getting any smaller – in fact, it’s projected to hit over 9 billion people by 2050.

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There is a broad consensus among experts that meat and dairy are the greatest contributors of GHGEs, while fruits, vegetables and plant-based foods such as legumes, pulses and nuts are the lowest (Vieux et al., 2017). Currently, the FAO (2018) estimates that total emissions from global livestock (for meat, eggs and milk) contribute 14.5% of all human-generated GHGEs, with cattle (for beef, milk and other outputs) cited as the animal species responsible for the most emissions. Current food production is estimated to contribute 20-30% of human GHGEs, and is also the leading cause of biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and land use (FAO, 2016). So, it’s pretty clear that cutting down on our animal protein intake and consuming it within as opposed to in excess recommended amounts is worthwhile for our health and that of our beautiful planet. That’s my ‘why‘ for reducing my own consumption of meat and dairy, and it’s a simple but powerful motivation.

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Being plant-based makes me more creative with and excited about food. 

I took on a vegetarian week challenge last year (article on that here) and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. So much so that it turned into a more or less vegetarian two months! It made me really get creative with my recipe ideas, and ever since I have kept my breakfasts and lunches meat-free and most vegetarian (exception being big social occasions or if I have eggs on the weekend!). My breakfasts have always been meat-free but I did swap my protein powder from a whey to a vegan pea protein and much prefer it. I have also kept the swap of dairy milk to soy or oat, but I continue to eat natural Greek yoghurt, and I appreciate it every time I do. Keeping my lunches meat-free meant I had to both come up with and try new recipes, and source plant protein alternatives, which remains a lot of fun! I have MANY of these recipes stored on my blog – check under the ‘Meal Prep‘ section here.

Bottom line is this – a plant-based diet made me more creative, and it re-ignited my love of cooking too. It also made me try a LOT of new foods, and I’m very grateful for that! I also made an effort to check out food bloggers I hadn’t found previously, but who were sharing fantastic vegetarian recipe content. All in all, it showed me that plant-based eating is totally delicious, and I can easily create a meal for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks without basing any aspect of it around meat. My friend Catherine Downey (she is a dietitian based on Northern Ireland and is @the.sporty.dietitian) and I wrote a blog post about fibre and simple plant-based swaps to well-known meals to help you guys get a little bit more flexible with your diet last year – have a read here!

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Food is more than fuel – it is a source of nourishment and central to community. 

Finally, I think being brutally honest a big reason I haven’t fully given up meat yet is that I do think it does, to a degree, make me a little bit unsociable. To give you context, I currently live with my lovely big family (6 of us in total, I’m the eldest) and most nights of the week we cook from scratch and eat together. When I’m not home late from college, work or the library (also true for my working parents and siblings who work/in college) I join the dinner table, and we eat, tease other, catch up on the day, and rant if we need to. It’s one of the nicest things about my family and us all living at home, and I really do think it’s lost in many families in modern society, particularly as technology grabs and shortens the attention span of children at increasingly young ages. Food is a key part of culture within and between countries, and it is a beautiful thing that brings friends and family together – look at Christmas dinner, or Thanksgiving as prime examples. When I did my vegetarian challenge, I was cooking a separate dinner to my family a few nights of the week, and I really missed the meal together. So for me, eating meat at dinner 4-5 nights per week is part and parcel of enjoying a meal with my family, and appreciating the cooking effort that I, my parents or siblings have gone to to feed the 6 of us that night. It’s really important, and more valuable than I can describe, and personally, not worth ditching for the purpose of fully eliminating meat. Those are my values, and they may not reflect yours, but I stand by them. I probably have lean red meat once a week (my Mom’s bolognaise is AMAZING), and white meat (chicken or turkey) 2-3 times per week.

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Now, I will likely move for work this summer. Will I eat less meat then? In truth probably. Will I give it up entirely? Not as a rule, but I will say I don’t particularly crave it or miss it when I don’t have it. I do love fish, and can’t see myself giving that up. I’m not a big cheese person, and I enjoy eggs, but not to the extent that I would see them as essential in my weekly shop. So in the future, I will likely be eating less animal products than I do now (which is not to excess currently, I would add, and that’s a really important point to make – more on that in Friday’s post). But until then, I’m eating according to my values – the important of family, my own health and that of the environment. I don’t judge anyone else’s choices, and I don’t expect anyone to judge mine.

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I hope this post resonates with you guys, especially if you have maybe felt the pressure (for want of a better word) to ‘go vegan’ or vegetarian, or ‘meat-free’ this year. My take home message is the following:

  • Plant-based diets (BDA definition in mind!), when properly planned and adhered to, can be an awesome healthy eating pattern for both your health and that of the environment
  • Your personal values are very important to both identify and be aware of, and your life (eating patterns included) should reflect those
  • Your diet should not be changed or modelled by the bloggers or influencers you follow – they are doing what works for them, and their life is not yours.
  • If you do want to make a dietary change, big or small, it’s very worthwhile seeking the advice of a registered dietitian or accredited nutritionist, to discuss potential nutritional pitfalls (especially if you plan to eliminate whole food groups) that may adversely affect your health if not addressed

I would love your thoughts on this post guys – leave a comment, send me an email or pop me a DM on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook – I’m @theirishbalance!

Ciara 🙂 x


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