What me and my body learned from 324 days of isolation veganism—including blood tests

Does veganism make you anaemic? Boost your testosterone? Make you B12 deficient? Lower your cholesterol?

It’s been almost a year since I decided to give veganism a try, so last week I bought myself a late Christmas present: a battery of blood tests covering 58 different biomarkers. Not everyone’s idea of fun, but, as a self-confessed data freak, definitely one of mine.

If you’ve ever been curious about what veganism does to an otherwise healthy 38 year old male with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, then, boy, are you in for a treat!

Step One: Finding dietary deficiencies

For the two weeks leading up to my blood tests, I also tracked my diet using a web app called Cronometer. It’s got a huge database of different foodstuffs—yes, including maca powder and pea protein—and you can create your own recipes. As easy as it is to use, however, I really can’t be bothered to do it for more than two weeks.

This is what I learned about my current vegan diet.

Don’t be shy to add protein

Without the meat-eaters carnal reflex, vegans can get distracted by the delicious rainbow of vegetables and end up eating less protein than they need. This was something a perspicacious friend noticed after my diet swerved to consist of nothing but incredible curries from Meera Sodha’s Fresh India.

In response to the data, I’m now drinking the odd protein smoothie for breakfast, particularly on days when I do press ups and kettlebell swings. Depending on the exact recipe, that gives me at least 45g of protein before I’ve even started the day.

Tofu and tempeh, beans and lentils are other popular vegan sources of protein and easily added to any recipe that’s otherwise missing that particular macronutrient. Other easy tweaks include exchanging white rice for British quinoa and preparing a 100g bowl of nuts and seeds to graze on through the day.

It’s worth noting that these vegan sources of protein cost 2-5p per gram of protein, a similar range as meat proteins (beef mince costs 2p/g; chicken breast 3p/g; beef steak 5p/g). Tempeh can cost a little more—my source is 7p per gram—but it’s delicious so I’m happy with that.

I have also dabbled with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and even defatted peanut flour—both much tastier than they sound and both excellent value for money at only 1p per gram of protein.

Eat these superfoods every day

One very cool thing about Cronometer is that it gives you a breakdown of where you’re getting your various nutrients from. That means you can easily discover your own personal superfoods: those foods that you should eat every day to make sure you’re getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals without having to resort to supplements.

For me, tahina is a superfood. It’s high in Omega-6, iron, saturated fats, vitamin B1, calcium, selenium, manganese and zinc, as well as protein. Plus it’s easy to hide in a meal or spread on toast or tortillas.

Flax, chia and hemp seeds are also superfoods for me. They’re high in Omega-3, vitamin K, manganese, zinc, selenium, magnesium, iron, vitamin B1, as well as protein. I can mix 15-20g of each into my morning oats or into a protein smoothie. Seeds are also a big part of my Bread of Life recipe.

A colourful daily salad is also a superfood, made up of vitamin-rich yellow, red and green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, okra). However: a daily salad is also a bit of a faff. If it’s too much of a faff (and recently I confess it has been) then I can downgrade this to an emergency carrot, which makes sure I get enough vitamin A so that I can see in the dark.

Another red flag in my Cronometer data is calcium. On only one day in the past fortnight have I managed to hit 100 percent of my recommended daily allowance. That was Pancake Day because I used a fortified oat milk to fuel my flipping overdose. I really should be eating green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and okra every day. Or, when I’m thrill-seeking, dried figs.

Dr Greger’s savoury blend of ten different spices is also worth a mention in the superfoods column. One teaspoon offers a neat little dose of B vitamins, vitamin K and zinc—and will bring the zing to any lifeless snack.

Finally: nuts. A wee bowl of mixed nuts is fabulous for B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc and the full spread of amino acids. Brazil nuts deserve a special shout out for giving me all the selenium I could ever dream of, as well as a dose of that easily-overlooked calcium.

Vitamin supplements

As a vegan, the Cronometer data confirmed that I must supplement with Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Simple as that. I also take a daily multivitamin, which covers all bases, just in case.

More interestingly, I have also been taking a creatine supplement of about 3-5g per day. Creatine is an amino acid found only in meat muscle and is great for intense exercise and building testosterone.

Step Two: What does the blood say?

Now comes the part you’ve all been waiting for: the results of those 58 blood tests.

Drum roll, please… Ta-dah!

No diabetes, no gout!

I don’t want to blind you with data, so here’s a very brief summary of what the blood told me:

  1. I’ve been ill recently: my immune system was stressed.
  2. I have a thyroid autoimmune disease. Nice to know that the NHS hasn’t been gaslighting me all these years.
  3. Otherwise: all good! That is to say: the remaining 56 biomarkers were all within the normal range.

It turns out that, after almost a year of veganism, I have a healthy liver and kidneys, healthy levels of inflammation, protein and vitamin D. My cholesterol profile is ‘excellent’ and I don’t have diabetes or gout. My homones, including testosterone, are also completely fine.

Side story: Normal testosterone reference levels are different between the UK and the US. Apparently, testosterone has been falling in men for decades and, rather than untangle the environmental factors that may be behind this—stress, noise, pollution, antibiotics—medical scientists have instead been revising down their definition of ‘normal’. This is called shifting baseline syndrome and is also the reason why, as generation cedes to generation, we have been gradually downgrading our expectation of the number of songbirds in our garden. For example.

However: the doctor who interpreted the tests for me did mention that my B12 levels were on the low side. He recommended that I take a further test to check for any underlying problems, such as pernicious anaemia, which is fairly common in patients with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.

Then, when I shared my results on a semi-reputable Hashimoto’s internet forum, someone stepped in to tell me that my iron levels were also pretty low for a man. Apparently, people with autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s can have trouble absorbing nutrients like B12 and iron. All the more reason to stuff down that kale.

Step Three: What about my day-to-day feels?

It’s all very well analysing dietary and blood data, but what about my day-to-day feels?

Obviously, the past year has been WEIRD. Pandemic isolation was one of the main logistical reasons why I was able to make the leap to veganism in the first place, but the accompanying onslaught of weirdness is also a confounding factor when trying to decide whether I’ve felt stronger in mind and body since changing my diet.

Bearing that in mind, in short, I don’t think I feel any different. I don’t feel awful, but nor do I feel superhuman. And I think I’m still just as much of a hypochondriac as I was before—you can imagine my delight when I saw that the blood tests supported my assertion that I’ve been feeling run down over the past few months.

One thing that has definitely been a huge improvement since going vegan is how much more fun I’m having in the kitchen. As I mentioned earlier, the gift of recipe book Fresh India pretty much changed my eating life. I’ve also really got into baking bread, including tortillas and naans. Veganism has helped me enjoy making an effort—even when that effort is waiting three weeks for kimchi that would last only a weekend.

However, I’m not the only person in the world who has, over the past year, been forced to familiarise themselves with the interior life of hearth and home. If it wasn’t for my whimsical experiment with isolation veganism, would I perhaps be writing to you today about the wonders of knitting? We will never know. But it’s lunchtime now and I’ve got a loaf in the oven—bon appétit!

BREAKING NEWS

I have decided to experiment with a dietary change even more radical than eating more kale. Yesterday, I bought and ate 90g of Dorset lamb liver. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: yuck. Also: that’s not vegan. Both excellent observations.

The problem is that there are no wholefood vegan sources of B12. All vegans can do is eat supplements, either in pill-form or in fortified processed food. Even then, I’d need to eat 31 teaspoons of B12-enriched yeast flakes or an entire jar of Marmite to match what I’d get from one serving of liver.

Lamb liver is extraordinarily high in B12 and iron. According to Cronometer, that one portion of lamb liver gave me 2,868 percent of my daily allowance of B12, as well as 93 percent of my iron. Take that, poor absorption!

B12 with a side of iron: lamb liver, kale and spinach with a lemon dressing—the vitamin C helps with iron absorption, apparently

After reading Spoon-Fed, epidemiologist Tim Spector’s most recent book, I am prepared to at least entertain the idea that eating meat might be better for my body than eating pills.

Side note: I’m pretty sure that eating meat will be worse for the environment, but I am slightly comforted by the thought that the lambs lived very locally and that no one else will eat the liver anyway. Maybe?

B12 is water-soluble and the body doesn’t store much in reserve, which means that I need to get enough B12 in my diet every single day. My liver-vegan experiment will run for the next two months and I intend to eat one portion of lamb liver every week, split over three meals, take high strength B vitamin supplements every day, and continue to add a teaspoon of B12-enriched yeast flakes to my food.

At the beginning of May, I’ll test my levels of B12 and iron again and see what, if anything, has changed.

Rumours circulating on the Hashimoto’s forums indicate that this all-guns-blazing intervention might raise my B12 and iron to the point where I can drop the liver and return to a normal vegan diet. We shall see.

~

If you’re curious, I got the Ultimate Performance blood test from Medichecks. It’s usually £200, but often discounted. I got mine for £180, including an appointment with a nurse to take the blood.

Veganaury: Two flash-in-the-pan breads

The Bread for Life that I shared a while ago is still my daily loaf, but here are two very entertaining breads that can be made in a few minutes using your hob.

1. Proper corn tortillas (with thanks to L.H.)

For this recipe you will need:

  • Masa harina (maize flour)
  • Warm water
  • Cling film or greaseproof paper
  • Chopping board or similar flat, bigger-than-tortilla-sized, weighty object
  • Rolling pin or similar rolling object—I use a measuring beaker
  • Frying pan
  • Optional: salt or other spices

Instructions:

  1. Get your frying pan ready on your hob: you want it nice and hot.
  2. Mix the masa harina with warm water in proportions of 4:3—i.e two cups of flour to one and a half cups of warm water. This recipe is so quick that it hardly matters if you make too much or too little. Chuck in your salt or other spices if you’re going down that road.
  3. Use your hands to mush the mixture into a doughy ball. Split the big dough ball into mini balls.
  4. Tear off two sheets of cling film. Lay one down flat on the counter top and put your first mini dough ball in the middle. Lay the other sheet of cling film over the top. You can also use greaseproof paper, but it’s slightly more sticky so I find I have to be extra careful on stage 6.
  5. Flatten your mini dough ball into a circular disc shape using a chopping board and your body weight. You can also use a tortilla press, but who has one of those? To get the tortilla really thin you can gently roll it out using a rolling pin or similar—but be careful because the masa harina is really fragile.
  6. Carefully peel off the top layer of cling film. Flip the tortilla over and use gravity to gently unpeel the tortilla from the other layer of cling film. If you use greaseproof paper, you can actually cook the exposed side of the tortilla while the second piece of paper still attached—it’s easier to peel off after the tortilla is cooked a little.
  7. Lay the tortilla onto the hot frying pan. Cook for 30 seconds and then carefully flip to the other side for another 30 seconds. Keep on flipping until the tortilla is cooked through. It should be soft enough to roll without falling apart. You’ll get the hang of it.

2. Vegan naan bread

I stole this recipe from Loving It Vegan. Naan bread takes a bit longer than tortilla because the dough needs to rise. I leave it for an hour in an airing cupboard. For that authentic naan flavour, I also add nigella seeds while the bread is cooking on the hob.

Thought for Food #1: Making an effort

Making an effort with simple flapjacks, sweetened and bound with dates and banana

If I’ve learned one thing about eating vegan in the past six months, it’s that I need to make more of an effort if I’m not going to die—not of malnutrition, but of boredom. I’ve often thought of this as a bad thing, but it’s actually an extremely good thing. (When I can be arsed.)

Non-veganism made me lazy. Any ragtag collection of roasted vegetables could go from gross to gourmet in the time it takes to grate half a pound of Davidstow. Strip out the dairy, however, and the vegan remains are revealed for what they truly are: hastily thrown together and technically edible plants flavour-masked with lashings of chilli sauce.

The only response, short of depressing vegan junk food, is to improve my cooking combinations, by practising flavoursome recipes. This is mildly profound: I’ve always been happy putting time into cooking for others, but now I have to acknowledge that me, myself and I are worth cooking well for.

So I bought a cookbook: Dirty Vegan by former professional skateboarder Matt Pritchard. (Two series of Dirty Vegan are also available on BBC iPlayer)

One of the issues with veganism is the paucity of fatty treat foods. The human brain loves two kinds of foods above all else: fats and carbs.

Thousands of years of human ingenuity have created dairy fats prepared and packaged into delightful forms for our brains: cream, cheese and cream cheese, to name but three. Vegan fats are manifestly not. Things are improving—step forward Naturli vegan block, the affordably tasty butter-killer—but there is a long way to go.

The temptation for vegans, then, is to depend on carbs. But, because there’s only so much bread that you can eat, sugar starts to creep into the diet. More raisins, prunes and dates; bananas, apples and berries; biscuits are a temptation for the first time in years. Sugar creep is the only reason I’ve ever wondered whether my vegan diet is any healthier for me than my old dairy diet.

The solution is the same: make an effort. I can’t slop a quart of cream into a bowl with oats and nuts as a dairy treat. Instead, I need to spend an hour making a tray of ‘no-sugar’ vegan flapjacks or maltloaf. And that’s a good thing. It’s good for me, it’s good for the planet and—this is the kicker for me—it’s good for other people.

You see, not many other humans would put up with a daily diet consisting of roasted vegetables (no matter how much cheese) and a bowl of cream. If I want to delight my friends, then I need to become the sort of person who puts time and effort into making tasty, satisfying and healthy food. And preparing food for others has to begin in the workshop, preparing food for myself.

Last weekend I made a full Bristolian breakfast for a friend’s birthday: five guests around the table, some vegan, most not. Scrambled tofu, garlic mushrooms, smokey beans, spinach, toast and mimosas. That it was vegan was irrelevant; it was nutritious and delicious.

Well worth the effort.

Making an effort with breakfast: garlic mushrooms and scrambled tofu—labelled by my collaborator as ‘a triumph’. Recipes by Dirty Vegan (since this photograph, I’ve also made his smokey baked beans and they’re banging)

Vegan update: Ahead of the curve?

Cycle touring as a vegan is, well, tricky. I didn’t have the heart to ask Debbie for a salad sandwich, for example. I’ll go out of my way to eat vegan when I’m in charge of the food, but there are times when the most gracious thing to do is to eat a bit of cheese—particularly as my reasons for veganism are more straightforward (and selfish) than ethical.

Quite simply: I have the sense that, as a species, we’re moving inexorably towards a meat-free future and I reckon that it’s better to be ahead of the curve than behind.

So, during lockdown, I wanted to know whether I could hack a plant-based meal plan (the answer is yes, quite comfortably). Eating vegan makes me more resilient to the future. That’s reassuring.

But when will this meat-free future arrive? Well, it’s already creeping up on us: this Bloomberg article reports how meat production has declined for the second consecutive year for the first time in recorded history.

That’s good news for the planet (and for human survival) so we might as well get ahead of the curve, right?

Isolation Veganism

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been eating what I’m calling an eggy vegan diet: vegan plus eggs. (On the eggs: not many, and none in the past week.)

Why am I doing this? Mainly because there has never been a better time to make radical changes to my sturdiest habits — and that definitely includes my diet.

Contrary to appearances, this post is less about veganism and more about habit making and breaking, using as an example a fundamental part of our daily lives that a lot people believe is almost impossible to change: diet.

The story begins with fragility and its opposite: antifragility.

We are all antifragile

Extreme constraints like those we face in lockdown are often seen as negatives, but without anything holding us in we’d be nothing more than puddles of carbon and water.

Constraints aren’t just fundamental to our existence; they’re the only reason we have anything worth living for: the arts, crafts, science and even play.

In golf, players have to get a little white ball into a marginally bigger hole 410 yards away. That’s the game. But skill only comes into the picture when we add the limiting constraint: the players have to move the ball with a metal stick. Without this constraint, Tiger Woods isn’t worth $640 million.

Constraints ostensibly make things harder, but in so doing make things possible.

This guiding principle explains why humans are, to borrow the neologism of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, antifragile. Fragile objects shatter when mishandled. Robust objects are impervious to mishandling. But antifragile objects actually improve with mishandling.

It’s a wild concept, but true nevertheless: press ups only make you stronger by first breaking down your muscle fibres. At school, understanding begins with confusion.

Similarly, if we adopt an antifragile mindset, the rough treatment we’re suffering under Covid-19 will make us stronger. A sudden upturning of our nest might be mistaken for a vindictive catastrophe; it is rather a ‘moment of change’.

Isolation as a global ‘moment of change’

‘Moments of change’ are occasions where the circumstances of an individual’s life change considerably within a relatively short time frame.

Remind you of any recent events?

This definition comes from a 2011 report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which summarises the ‘moments of change’ research, analysing these rare opportunities for changing our behaviour, our habits and even our most primal conceptions of who we are.

The NEF study picks out some common moments of change that happen occasionally in most lifetimes: leaving home for the first time, the transition to parenthood, moving house, retirement, energy crises and global recessions.

But I can’t think of a more dramatic moment of change in my lifetime than the Covid-19 pandemic.

Change your environment, change your behaviour

Habits, by definition, are automatic patterns of behaviour: actions we take without really thinking too much. They can be remarkably stubborn and resistant to change — but they’re also tightly bonded to our surroundings.

Think about how hard it would be trying to work down the pub compared to when you’re in the office. You’re the same person — your habits haven’t gone anywhere — but the different environments cue different routines and end up completely changing how you behave.

The opportunities presented by moments of change come about because most of our habits are actually interactions with our immediate physical and social environment.

For most of us, these interactions have been disrupted by self-isolation. The transition from your workplace to working at home is an obvious example of the disruption in environmentally cued behaviour that a lot of us are feeling right now.

But what’s happened to your shopping environment, your eating environment, your exercise environment, your socialising environment? If you’re anything like me, then everything has been thrown up in the air.

All our habitual environments have been shaken up, interrupting the routine behaviours they usually cue.

As NEF put it:

When something interrupts performance of the old behaviour, the need for some degree of conscious direction returns — and once this has happened, the behaviour may be more susceptible to change.

Right now, interruption is happening on a massive scale. Suddenly, we all have to exercise a ‘degree of conscious direction’, perhaps for the first time in many years. The habit discontinuities we’re all facing are opportunities to change our routine behaviour in our relationships, work life, consumer habits, physical fitness and — why not? — diet.

Veganism, dairy and the microbiome

I’ve experimented with vegetarianism before, and for the last five years meat hasn’t been a huge part of my diet (barring one spectacularly ill-fated experiment in 2017), so abstaining from flesh was never going to be an issue.

But then there’s dairy.

Every breakfast for the past three years, I’ve unerringly eaten 250g of high-fat Greek yoghurt, with oats, raisins and nuts. Not, you’ll note, vegan.

A large proportion of meals also came with grated cheese and I’d frequently demolish an afternoon snack of creamy nuts: that’s about 100ml of double cream in a bowl filled with nuts. Not, you’ll note — heck, that’s scarcely edible for most people, let alone vegan.

So going vegan — even eggy vegan — was not going to be easy on my gut.

Lo and behold, my first four days without dairy were peppered with splitting headaches and slothish lethargy. From previous dietary experiments, I’d been expecting this miserable side effect, so I knew how to barrel through.

I like to imagine that these headaches were my dairy-loving bacteria putting up one hell of a fight. On the fifth day, though, they are defeated: starved out of existence and replaced with bacteria that prefer to get their nutrition from celery sticks and tempeh.

This explanation, if not completely upheld by science, is at the very least ‘sciency’, as I explain in this post about quitting sugar. No matter its degree of accuracy, this ‘explanation’ eases me through the temporary fog of headaches and tiredness, out to the other side: eggy veganism.

I have taken this moment of change to try on an alternate personality that’s interested me for a while.

It doesn’t have to go any further than that, of course, but there are intriguing case studies of vegan endurance athletes, the vegan diet is currently ranked as the most nutritious, and there is good scientific evidence that a vegan diet imposes a lighter load on the planet (and no I haven’t had an avocado yet).

But will I want to maintain the diet when lockdown ends?

We don’t want ‘normal’

Historical data from the NEF report suggest that behaviour changes made under pressure don’t tend to last once the crisis is over. Indeed, the hope that everything will go back to normal is why many people are happy to temporarily surrender their usual lifestyles in the first place.

It’s almost certain that I’ll be offered meat or dairy when I return to society — most of my friends and family aren’t vegan and I’m not so wedded to this lifestyle that I’d turn down food if they’re kind enough to cook for me.

But forget other people, after lockdown I myself will be tempted to choose dairy much more frequently than I am now.

Before Covid-19, I went food shopping every couple of days; at the moment, it’s once every 7-10 days. That means I only have to ‘resist’ buying meat or dairy once a week — easy.

My shopping habits feed (pun intended) directly into my eating habits. Change my shopping environment and I change my eating environment: at home I only have eggy vegan choices now.

When society opens back up, will I maintain my new shopping habits? Will my post-lockdown shopping habits, whatever they are, support or undermine my new eggy vegan diet? I don’t know.

But those of us who have used this moment of change to try on an alternate personality — and decide that we want to keep it — must reject the almost irresistible return to normality. We don’t want to abandon our old habits temporarily. We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ any more. We want change.

It’s one thing to build good habits in this ascetic Covid-19 environment; it’s quite another making them robust enough to survive the shock of opening up. But by anticipating the challenge of impending normality — in the way that I anticipated the headaches and lethargy of quitting dairy — we have at least a chance.

Smug as

So, the big question: how did I replace my heaped bowl of yoghurt every morning? The answer, quite simply: I didn’t — I couldn’t. What in the plant kingdom could possibly imitate animal fats? Genetically, I don’t think it’s possible.

(And, no, the answer is not ‘oat crème fraîche’. Vegetables oils are exactly that: oily. They slimily slither over the tongue and cling to a clammy palate. Dairy fats are, in contrast, fatty. They somehow sink to the bottom of the stomach, leaving a feeling of satiety and a clean taste in the mouth. Mine at least.)

The answer was to cut the Gordian Knot, remove ‘breakfast’ entirely and replace it with something even better than breakfast.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve started my day with a 30g pea and rice protein shake, which I drink while cracking on with work. The green mush is much easier to digest than a big bowl of dairy and keeps me alert throughout my new-found, vegan-inspired morning work regimen.

Smug as fuck.

We’ve. Got. Time.

It’s worth saying that habit change isn’t the same for all people, in all environments and for all behaviours.

I personally find going ‘cold turkey’ has been the best approach for changing diet and has served me well when cutting out sugar and caffeine. I didn’t want to gradually phase out dairy: it would’ve been too hard for me to resist binging. The downside is that I knew I’d have four days of headaches.

But going from zero to a sixty with press ups or running is the quickest way to fail. Run a marathon tomorrow and I’ll be injured for a month. If I’m injured, I can’t build a habit. Far better to start slow and build than to rush for the line and fall.

As well as physical limitations, there are mental limitations.

It doesn’t make sense to force myself to do yoga if I’m not enjoying it. That’s why my daily yoga habit is simply to do as much yoga as I feel like. At the beginning, nearly five months ago, that was five minutes before bed. Now it’s around 20 minutes, twice a day.

My goal is not the accomplishment of some landmark. My goal is to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Cold turkey is one approach and a slow-build while only doing as much as I enjoy is another. For both, I find this mantra helpful: don’t miss twice.

Whichever approach you find most helpful, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past four weeks it’s to slow down and take each day as it comes. We’ve. Got. Time.

Over to us

Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. Sure — super glue also works, but kintsugi is a reminder that we can choose to see the beauty in broken things.

Our work habits are broken. Good. Our social habits are broken. Good. Our shopping habits are broken. Good. We’ve probably got another 18 months of on-and-off lockdown. What are we going to do with this fracture in our habits? Are we fragile, are we going to shatter? Or are we antifragile, are we going to fill the cracks with gold?

My eggy vegan diet isn’t nearly as smug as it sounds. After two weeks, I still get faint bouts of acid reflux and I’ve had to shelve the peanut butter. I’ve read some stuff about ‘alkalising’ my food, but until I’ve had a chance to read more studies, I’m dubious.

This is still a journey of exploration for me. Yesterday I discovered one of the great secrets of vegan cooking: miso paste — in fact, sauces in general. The hand blender has become my closest ally.

I know some of you are plant-based: if you are vegan (or close enough), then I’d love to hear what you’ve learned so far. Honestly. Please drop me an email.

Whatever you think about veganism, I hope I’ve convinced you that isolation is a rare opportunity to get inside your own head, have a rummage around, learn some cool stuff and change for the better — or at least for the more interesting.

It’s over to us now.

tl;dr: Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered (NYT) How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world

tl;dr is internet speak for ‘too long; didn’t read’. It’s probably my favourite semi-colon-based acronym.

I am a huge supporter of thoroughly researched articles, but sometimes you don’t have time to wade through pages of text – no matter how beautifully laid out.

So this post takes the gargantuan Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered: How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world by Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart (NYT, April 30, 2019) and boils its 3,300 vital words down to less than 1,000.

You’re welcome.


Does what I eat have an effect on climate change?

Yes. Food is responsible for about one-quarter of greenhouse gases we generate.

How exactly does food contribute to global warming?

  1. Deforestation, to make room for farms and livestock, releases huge amounts of carbon.
  2. When cows, sheep and goats digest their food, they burp up methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
  3. Animal manure and rice paddies are also big methane sources.
  4. Fossil fuels used in the industry.

Which foods have the largest impact?

Meat and dairy, particularly from cows.

Emissions from livestock account for roughly the same as all forms of transportation – including aeroplanes.

Is there a simple food choice I can make that would reduce my climate footprint?

  • Eat less beef, lamb and cheese.
  • Substitute with pork, chicken, eggs and molluscs.
  • Replace with beans, pulses, grains and soy.

How much would changing my diet actually help?

People on a meat-heavy diet could shrink their food-related footprint by at least 33% by becoming vegetarian.

If the average American replaced a third of the beef he or she eats with pork, poultry or legumes, his or her food-related emissions would fall by around 13%.

Dietary changes are often one of the quickest ways to lighten your impact on the planet.

I’m just one person! Can I really make a difference all by myself?

Yes.


Why does meat have such a big climate impact?

It takes more land, energy and water to produce 1kg of animal protein than it does to produce 1kg of plant protein.

Bacteria in cow and sheep stomachs create methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that is released through burps and flatulence.

Does it matter how the cows are raised?

Yes. If the Amazon is being cut down, that’s really bad.

What about grass-fed beef?

The jury’s out.

What about chicken?

Chicken usually produces far fewer emissions than beef and a bit fewer than pork.

Should humans stop eating meat altogether?

Not necessarily.

What about ‘fake meat’?

The jury’s still out. Looks promising, though.

Are there other ways meat could become more climate-friendly?

Yes, and there’s a lot of room for further improvement.


What kinds of seafood should I eat?

  • Wild fish: anchovies, sardines, herring, tuna, pollock, cod, haddock.
  • Mollusks: clams, oysters and scallops.

Warning: wild shrimp and lobster can have a larger climate impact than chicken or pork.

Huge caveat: most fisheries are being fished at their maximum sustainable level, while others are being overexploited.

Is farmed seafood a good long-term plan?

Depends. With tight environmental regulation (e.g. Norway), farmed fish can have relatively low impact. But that’s not what’s happening everywhere (e.g. Southeast Asia, China).

How do I know whether a farmed fish is good or bad?

It’s tough. There is a lot of variation from farm to farm.

So what’s the single best choice I can make about seafood?

  • Eat more mollusks.
  • Check your fish is certified sustainable.

[That’s two choices, ed.]


How much impact do milk and cheese have on climate change?

Milk (including yoghurt, and cottage or cream cheese) typically has a smaller climate footprint than chicken, eggs or pork per kilo.

Many other types of cheese (Cheddar, mozzarella) can have a significantly bigger footprint than chicken or pork, since it typically takes about 10 kilos of milk to make one kilo of cheese.

Wait – cheese might be worse than chicken?

Depends on the cheese, but yes.

Are some kinds of milk better than others? I pay a lot more for organic milk.

The jury’s still out.

Which nondairy milk is best?

Almond, rice, oat and soy milk all have a smaller greenhouse gas footprint than cow’s.


So are you saying I should become a vegan?

A vegan diet does have the smallest climate footprint around.

I don’t like vegan food. What should I eat?

Look again at your definition of ‘vegan food’.

I don’t think I can go completely vegan. What else can I try?

  • Eat less meat and dairy, and more protein-rich plants like beans, legumes, nuts and grains.
  • Go vegetarian: no meat, poultry and fish, but dairy and eggs are allowed.
  • Go pescatarian: add seafood to a vegetarian diet.
  • Partly replace meat and dairy with plants.
  • Replace beef and lamb with other meat.

Is organic produce really better than conventionally grown produce?

Jury’s out, in terms of climate impact.

Should I worry about whether my produce is local and seasonal?

Transportation is only about 6% of food’s total climate footprint, so don’t over worry. Avoid produce that’s perishable and needs to be flown between distant places.


Is food waste a big part of the climate change problem?

Yes.

How can I reduce my food waste?

  • Plan your meals.
  • Don’t order more food than you can eat at restaurants.
  • Use a freezer.
  • Ignore ‘sell by’ dates.

Should I be composting?

Ideally, yes – it cuts methane emissions.

Should I use paper or plastic bags?

Don’t freak out. Packaging makes up only about 5% of global food-related emissions.

Does recycling really do anything?

It can help, though it’s not as effective as reducing waste in the first place.

Why aren’t there labels in the grocery store explaining the carbon footprint of different foods?

It’d take a fair bit of effort.


Takeaways

  1. Beef, lamb and cheese tend to do the most climate damage. Pork, chicken and eggs are in the middle. Plants of all kinds typically have the lowest impact.
  2. What you eat matters a lot more than whether it’s local or organic, or what kind of bag you use to carry it home.
  3. Small shifts help too. Eat less meat and more plants, or switch from beef to chicken.
  4. Waste less.