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What—if anything—do your food choices say about you?

Is veganism possible for everyone?

The vegan versus omnivore argument is often  high on emotions and irritation and low on evidence and facts. Vegans walk in locked and loaded with arguments about ethics (or the lack thereof), sustainability, and environmental hazards that come with animal agriculture, while omnivores pose the “but where do you get your protein?” and “how will you build muscle mass?” questions. Tension fills the air as the two sides speculate about whether or not vegetarianism was the main diet throughout human history.


This can often be a superiority competition disguised as rational debate. Does choosing a specific diet make anyone a better person? In recent conversations with nutritionist Erin Burch and Ashker’s operations manager Tim Gavigan, the topics are veganism and its relationship to sustainability, classism, privilege, and more. Because the two interviews took widely diverging directions, they are presented separately.


Erin Burch: Nutrition and health

Burch is a registered and certified dietitian nutritionist with a private practice in Western New York. She integrates “science-based nutrition with medical care and lifestyle,” and “specializes in weight management, pediatric nutrition, pre/postnatal nutrition, cardiovascular health, general wellness, and meal planning.” 



Erin, what should people know about veganism?

1) There are strong opinions both for and against veganism. People need to find what works for them, taking ethical, religious, and health goals into account. 


2) Whether you’re following a vegan diet or not, your diet should still consist of high quality plant proteins, healthy fats, and quality carbohydrates, mostly from fruits and vegetables.


3) Switching to a vegan diet can often result in a diet based on processed meat substitutes, processed carbohydrates, refined oils, and sugar. These should be limited on all diets.


4) Research has shown that benefits of eating a vegan diet include weight management, better heart health, reduced risk for metabolic syndrome, and high antioxidant intake.


5) Protein and vitamin supplements are usually necessary to insure someone is meeting his or her nutrition needs.  If you are currently following a vegan diet, or are looking to switch to a vegan diet, please seek the help of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) familiar with veganism, to ensure you are meeting your nutrient needs.


What's better for the environmenta vegan or meat-eating diet?

Research shows that eating a lot of meat puts pressure on the planet due to increased water use, more climate change, and more energy inputs. But meat is not the only food that causes an increase in greenhouse gases. Rice has one of the largest carbon footprints of plants, due to its production of methane.


Eating sustainably raised, clean, high-quality meats is ideal. I try to purchase as much locally-grown and organic meat as possible. This allows me to speak to the farmer to learn about animal welfare as well as sustainability practices.  


What are some health risks associated with veganism? Have you seen any patterns with your clients? 

A vegan diet may result in protein/amino acid deficiency.  It may also result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.  As a result, many complain of fatigue and weakness due to deficiency of vitamins and minerals most common in meat and seafood.


I’ve seen patients who follow a vegan diet actually gain weight. This is due to a diet of mostly carbohydrates and unhealthy fats—in the form of sugar, chemicals, and processed food. Instead of eating naturally-occurring, plant-based protein foods such as nuts, seeds, quinoa, oats, or beans, they replace their protein with fake meat substitutes. I also have many patients that develop GI upset due to the high intake of soy, sugar, and beans.


And there is no doubt eating more fruits and vegetables and plant-based protein is a huge benefit to the vegan diet. Unfortunately, a lack of protein and healthy fats and an increase in processed carbs and refined oils can make it a very unhealthy diet to follow.


Overall, I’m a huge fan of high-quality animal protein. You can be healthy and well-balanced without eating loads and loads of meats and/or other animal products.


What are some common myths or misconceptions about veganism?

Veganism may not be the healthiest diet for everyone and can actually be very unhealthy. While I support all of my patients' choices when it comes to following a specific diet, I also want them be well-educated, using evidence-based research.


I encouraged all my patients to listen to their bodies and follow a balanced, well-rounded diet limiting processed foods, no matter if they follow a vegan diet or not.


Tim Gavigan: Economics, privilege, and the planet

Tim Gavigan received his BA in Cultural Anthropology and Ethno-Medicinal Sciences. He is also the founder of WNY Permaculture, an organization identifying resource recognition in growing and having relationships with native plants. Gavigan is an omnivore who has tried both a vegan and vegetarian diet.



Tim, what do you think people should know about veganism?

If you’re coming from being an omnivore or a carnivore specifically, understand how to get the same nutrition that you got from the previous diet from the new diet. For example, during my own delving into veganism, especially for the first couple of weeks, I had a change in energy levels and I had a change in my input versus output. I needed to make sure that I was making a fair and equal exchange—where are my omegas coming from, where are my B vitamins coming from, and how am I balancing that?


People need to understand that you personally have to be responsible and conscious of your eating habits as far as receiving nutrients, and the other part of that is a price plan. The way that our food system is set up now, for the most part, meat is very heavily subsidized even over the cheapest of crops. That being the case, veganism is going to increase how much money you’re generally spending. The only way to combat that increase of money is to either put the time into it to grow your own food, or take most of your cash throughout the month and buy bulk ingredients and prepare your own meals. At some point, the question that we’re balancing is “How much of my life do I want to be actively engaged in my eating or do I just want convenience at a higher price.”


Is a vegan diet more affordable?

If you want a lower price point, your personal involvement has to increase in some sort of ratio to that. It does kind of incentivize one to say “well, tomatoes aren’t hard to grow,” or “well there are oak trees everywhere.” These other resources in nature might be not only readily available, but completely free. Veganism could lead one to spending less at the grocery store. However, it needs to be balanced with whatever you’re not spending in money, you’re spending in time and energy.


Is veganism sustainable in a capitalistic society?

If we continue down the track that we’re going, neither of them [omnivore and vegan diet] are going to be sustainable. The idea that an agricultural industry, whether growing animals or growing produce, will serve the entire planet, to me, is a pipe dream. In the past fifty years of trying to do so, we’ve done more damage to the planet than we have helped the people of the planet. I would say under late capitalism as it is, we cannot get a sustainable food industry any way you go. Classism has a lot to do with this vegan trend that is popping up right now. You’re going to see high increases in grass-fed, humanely treated animals. You are going to see hemp seeds that are upwards of twenty dollars a pound. So, if you’re going to change your steak into a seed, in that example, how many seeds would you need to make it equivalent to the steak that you would have been eating? There is some level of classism there.


Again, if you take money away from it, like in the previous example, and you put more of your time and energy into something, you could be actually gaining money by feeding yourself properly, because you’re recognizing that food and medicine don’t come directly from a grocery store. They come from outside. There is this wonderful place called nature that instantly provides everything we need if we’re willing to receive it properly. I think there is some inverse relationship between money and time and energy spent on the thing. Capitalism provides us convenience without necessarily having to think of the consequence of that. The overall consequence of convenience is that convenience isn’t a sustainable mindset or mentality for the entire world to have. The entire idea of capitalism is classist in itself, and I don’t think it is a classist system that anyone wants to afford right now.


Does privilege come into play?

[People are] so busy trying to sustain their basic survival needs of food, water, shelter, and some sort of love. That is why [Ashkers] is in an interesting location here. Part of our mission is not going into [the neighborhood] to provide education, but to provide education right here; it is a free and open source to everybody. Classism has a lot to do with access to not only food and other resources, but also the ultimate resource, which is information and education. I think that is exactly what you’re talking about and I agree 100 percent with that. If you don’t know something, you wouldn’t ever look for it.


The idea of an actual sustainable and regenerative agriculture would be: how can you survive without someone giving you something? Are you your own middle man? Can you go directly to the source of understanding where your food, water, shelter, and clothing comes from? That would demand more time from our day and more education and sharing that education. We would have to start looking at things a little bit more differently.


Single moms working full-time jobs, trying to keep their kids off the street, and managing after-school activities often don’t have the time to think about where their food is coming from. They’re more concerned with making sure there is food for their children to eat.


All you can think is “they need food, they are hungry now, and how can I feed them?” I understand that this idea of spending more time to give yourself what you need is inherently at least “accessist,” because many don’t have the ability to do so. That gets into welfare programs and this idea of assistance, which, to a certain extent, should provide education, not just a safety net. We’re getting into the entire politics of what food, food deserts, and fundamental access to resources is even about.


Shifting the conversation, there is the argument that our teeth and digestive systems were built to break down meat. Some argue this isn’t true. What are your thoughts on this?

To a certain extent, the more you do something, the more you’re building your proclivity to do the same thing in the future, which I guess is the basis of evolution in the first place. I’m not sure that I feel one way or the other about it. Looking back at most of human history, we’ve been opportunistic generalists for the most part, saying “Hey, are plants available, then let’s eat the plants. But what if plants are not available, or we can’t get the fats and the necessary proteins that maybe an animal could provide?” Throughout history, however, you do see that about seventy-to-eighty percent of the food was gathered or scavenged rather than hunted. Very few tribes are able to survive just on a carnivorous diet. However, the ones that are purely on a plant-based diet seem to be at the other end of the outlier spectrum. The fact that we have so many teeth is suggestive of an omnivorous diet combined with a plant-based diet, which is where eighty percent of the food is naturally coming from. If the hunters come back with a kill, the animal is appreciated and all of it is used, but it is known that it took a lot to get that bear or that elk, or whatever it may have been. It’s a different kind of intelligence to think “those berries are there every spring, or, when the winter thaws, those are edible.” I think it is both. Looking at the whole spectrum of teeth that we have, we’re looking at a long history where we ate whatever we needed to survive. We were doing a lot more scavenging than we were doing hunting. We were prey animals for most of the dawn of humanity. Out of the tens of thousands of years bone structures were changing, bone was density changing, and the intelligence of different hominids, the best adapted were the ones that came out on top. When humans stick to just one thing, that is when they’re getting themselves into trouble.


We hear about how animal agriculture contributes to an increase in greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But making almond milk is incredibly wasteful, for instance, because of the amount of water used. Which is the lesser of two evils? What’s better for the environment?

Anyone trying to enforce the argument of wholesale being-ness is selling themselves short and maybe hasn’t understood how you would actually integrate and apply that belief system. We need to look at each geographical region and the people therein. What is your best way to adapt and relate to your environment? If you’re living in the high Andes, alpacas are there, and you can still grow quinoa and other grains and produce, then do that. I also understand that having thousands of acres of a wheat/corn monoculture (not common previously in the history of the planet) has a huge body count behind it—just like the body count of Tyson’s chicken factory.


Ultimately, the question comes down to: how much of an energy input are you getting for the energy output? If your input is greater than the output, then you need to rethink the process. This is why I always go to tree crops and tree foods that have grown civilization since the beginning of time. The average chestnut, butternut, hazelnut, or oak tree is going to drop thousands of pounds of nutrient-dense, gluten-free, heart-healthy proteins. Entire cultures would actually migrate from oak tree to oak tree, just like people would follow buffalo herds. They didn’t have to set up monocultural soya fields or cotton fields. I think people need to know what is readily available in their environments and be able to understand how that can be most efficiently utilized.


Sara Ali is a case manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Erie County by day and a journalist by night.


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