Our food choices matter. Sometimes, after considering all the different dimensions, I’m left feeling like all I should eat is celery (organic, locally grown, cared for by a loving gardener, of course). At that point, I usually say, “screw it!” and stress eat on some combination of chocolate and nut butter.
My intent with this post is not to push anyone to that point, but I do want to survey the many ways in which our food choices impact ourselves and the wider world. For the less patient, I can summarize: listen to Michael Pollan and, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
To summarize for easy reference, please see the below chart of my own classification of food classes across different dimensions of concern.
There is a lot to consider when it comes to food: how healthy is it, how does it impact the environment, and are there any ethical concerns? Besides that, there are also the practical considerations of how much does it cost, how easy is it to obtain, and how it tastes.
How Healthy Is It?
I think we all intuitively understand that Cocoa Puffs, donuts, cheesecake, and hot-fudge infused ice cream are not healthful. Beyond that, though, it is sometimes less clear. I’ve read much on this, and I’ve personally experienced a variety of different dietary approaches: low-fat (remember tubs full of “healthy” trans-fats?), low/no refined sugar (of both the Splenda-substitute variety and other approaches), Atkins, paleo, oatmeal cookie and vanilla cake icing (that’s what happens when you give a 10 year old control over his food budget, Mom!), vegetarian, and vegan, to name a few.
The health impact of food is not just a matter of a few pounds and your figure. Many of the most prevalent diseases, that decrease our quality of life, are related to our food choices. Also, many of these health issues disproportionately affect those that are already the most vulnerable in our society, and so there is this further imperative to encourage the availability and affordability of healthy foods.
The guidance that seems to me to have the strongest evidence behind it, that makes intuitive sense to me, and with which I’ve found the most personal success, comes from Melissa and Dallas Hartwig in It Starts with Food and from Michael Pollan in Omnivore’s Dilemma. They advise you to stay closer to whole foods (vs. refined / processed products). They also advocate a sizable portion of plant foods (i.e., fruits and veggies) in your diet.
When it comes to animal products, the concept of “you are what you eat eats,” from the Hartwigs has stuck with me. The quality of meat (and eggs, and dairy) matters in your health, and it’s worth it to eat these animal products less, in order to eat higher quality.
How Does it Impact the Environment?
This is another area that can make your head spin. There’s water usage (divided up into whether it falls from the sky or has to be otherwise pumped and processed), energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions, fertilizer and chemical runoff / pollution, and land use questions (e.g., how much “native” habitat do we have to clear out in order to produce it). I went down a couple of proverbial rabbit holes reading about this, and I probably would have finished this post a week ago had it not been for this aspect.
The energy and greenhouse aspect is much more complicated than you might expect at first glance, because it includes not just the food production, but also the transport, processing, and storage / refrigeration. To really understand the energy impact, you have to interrogate your grocer — where was this grown? Is it in season there; did they use a hot house? Did the animals pasture graze or eat trucked-in feed? Where it was processed, do they use coal-fired electric plants? Was it brought here by truck, or was it floated downstream on a raft of naturally occurring driftwood?
In general, plants beat out animal products: mostly because animals need to eat a lot of plant products as they grow and produce, and so environmental failings at the plant level multiply forward to the animals. This is definitely, “in general,” though, as there are some plant products that take a lot of water and energy, especially if grown off-season.
Beef is also a particularly bad offender when compared against poultry products and even pork. It is multiple times less efficient at converting calories and protein from feed to the final product. Also, cows burp and fart a lot, and I hope that future historians will key in on this when they write the story of the civilizational collapse that follows dramatic climate change (blame the cow farts!).
Seafood also poses environmental concerns from the overfishing, destruction of habitat, and unintentional bycatch.
Are There Any Ethical Concerns?
About 5 years ago, I read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, and I was introduced to Jeremy Bentham’s quote regarding animals: “The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” I have not eaten mammal since that day (except for the Gyro Mixup Incident of 2018, but that was unintentional, and I’ve given myself a pass), and I’ve tried to take steps to address my other animal product consumption.
I do not deny our position as apex predator and the natural reality that animals eat other animals. I also do not deny that suffering is sometimes an inherent part of natural predation. However, I do believe that we have an ethical responsibility to our fellow creatures to minimize unnecessary suffering — an obligation that a coyote, for example, does not share. In conjunction with that, I also believe that much of our current food production system fails to sufficiently address those concerns of animal suffering.
I’ve had this discussion with friends and family several times: “what about an animal that was raised on a small farm…or wild even, with ample space, enjoying its animal life right up until the last moment when someone says, ‘hey buddy…look over there’ BAM…painless darkness?” Okay, fine, I don’t really have a problem with that. I have a practical problem in making that distinction when and where I buy my food, so it’s just easier for me to rule it all out.
Why just mammal, Adam? Don’t you care about chickens, turkeys, fish, chocolate covered ants and meal worm salsa? Yes, I do care about chickens, turkeys, and fish: chickens may even have the worst of it vs. mammals. Right now, though, this is a compromise between my ideal and practicalities (it’s hard to live on mostly edamame), and I try to get chicken that I think has been raised more humanely. As for bugs…I think we should eat more of them, as long as we don’t torture them first.
Besides the animals, there are also humans to consider. With products like coffee and chocolate, which often have sources in less developed countries, how are the farmers treated and compensated? I’ve tried to support the Fair Trade label here, but William MacAskill makes an interesting point in Doing Good Better, that fair trade doesn’t benefit impoverished farmers as much as we might think and we would be better off to buy the cheaper coffee and donate the difference to a highly effective charity that addressed the poverty more directly. I’m still pondering that point, though.
Allow me to spoil shrimp for you, now. In Blood & Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, Kevin Bales describes the use of slave or highly underpaid and mistreated laborers in shrimp farming (especially in East Asia). We’ve been able to find USA sourced shrimp that doesn’t have the slavery specter over it, but it’s a little more difficult when eating out.
Other Practical Concerns?
Why don’t we all just eat a perfectly healthy, environmentally and ethically responsible, diet all the time? Well, besides that it’s confusing enough to figure out what that is (as evidenced above), it’s freaking hard!
There’s cost. Thanks to industrial scale and agricultural policy, eating processed junk is often cheaper than eating healthy. And, even as labels like “organic” might indicate some degree of reduced adverse impact (and many do NOT actually), they usually command a higher price premium.
There’s convenience. Eating whole foods and more veggies is great…until you have to peel and cook them. Around an hour into food prep for the week, fast-food burgers start to seem much more appealing. And that’s for a lucky guy like me that lives near many convenient options for purchasing these foods. Your choices are even more limited if you live in a food desert: how far are you willing to travel for zucchini when a KFC is right next door?
How about smell and taste? I haven’t intentionally eaten mammal in 5 years, but I take a deep inhale whenever I smell bacon or a good steak cooking. Junk food is laden with things like salt and sugar that our bodies are wired (through evolution) to crave. This makes them literally addicting.
For example: Boy scout popcorn. Trying to be a charitable fellow, I bought a tin of chocolate and caramel popcorn from the local Scouts. I planned to eat only a little bit, but my willpower failed me completely in this. Even as I wrote this post, I no sooner wrote the word, “popcorn,” than my simpleton animal brain went, “popcorn, yum,” I looked up, saw the tin on the table, and went over to have a few more handfuls before continuing my writing.
What Are We to Do?
Despite all this, I think that there are some concrete things that we can do to make real improvements based on our food choices.
Eat more plants and less refined stuff (especially sugars).
Do a little research into your sources for animal products and be selective: animals raised humanely may also tend to be more healthful through eating a more varied and natural diet.
Support changes to our government policies to reduce subsidies that ultimately distort the market by making things like corn-syrup based products and factory-farmed meats cheaper.