Keeping It Simple: Gaian Dietary Norms

Earlier this month, in our June Gaian conversation, a group of us discussed what eating as a Gaian entails. Of course, meat was at the center of the conversation—considering its effects on human health, on workers’ and farmers’ wellbeing, on the suffering of animals, and on Gaia (whether climate change, deforestation, or many forms of air and water pollution).

In fact, we had one new participant, Mike Fremont, a 98-year old who 29 years earlier had been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. However, by radically changing his diet—specifically avoiding all animal products—he beat the odds and is still alive and running marathons and rowing in canoe races.*

But while we discussed many topics—from cutting out meat to eating local—participants acknowledged not coming away much clearer in how to eat in a sustainable, ecocentric way. Partly that’s because it is hard to make clear overarching guidelines—different research and different experts offer conflicting advice. And partly, that’s because we live in a food culture that is so filled with temptation—saturated with billions of dollars of marketing to make it even more so. But also, that’s because this was a conversation—not an effort to set guidelines.

Though some certainly came up: one participant proposed making the time dedicated to food—preparing it, cooking it, and eating it—as long as possible (meaning skip the processed food and prepare it and eat it at a table not on the run). This is the idea behind the Slow Food movement, as another pointed out, a counter to the fast-foodization of our culture and diet—where you can get a full day’s calorie in one unhealthy, unsustainable super-sized meal.

But can there be a straight forward guideline, or mantra, even, that makes it easier day-to-day to shop for, prepare, cook, and eat food? Slow and less processed is valuable, local is good, organic too, as is eating less meat, as well as fewer calories (for many of us). But how do you prioritize these? What do you do when they come into conflict?

In an essay I wrote 11 years ago, I had proposed eating “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.” Admittedly kind of dry.

Fortunately, the following year, food writer Michael Pollan said it much better—in a positive way that gets to the heart of the matter: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

By food, Pollan means things you eat that your grandmother would recognize as food. If there are preservatives, chemicals, additives listed on the label that you do not understand, avoid it if possible.

By not too much, that addresses the obesity epidemic and the food waste element (which NRDC found makes up about 40 percent of the food supply). With two-thirds of American adults overweight and obese (and many other countries catching up to this) this condition is at the heart of many of our health problems—from heart disease and diabetes to several types of cancer. As with food waste, obesity means we’re producing more food than necessary—in this case to keep us fat. Researchers have found that obesity has added an extra 5.4 percent of human biomass to the planet, which means people are eating enough extra food each year to feed an additional 242 million people of healthy weight. (See page 114 for source.)

Keeping calorie intake lower will reduce ecological impacts while extending lives (and freeing up food for those with too little). And as I calculated, if you eat fewer calories, even if you live many years more, overall you’ll have had far less (dietary) impact on Gaia and more time to heal Her.

Caption: As this figure shows, a person eating 1800-calories a day starting at age 30 would be able to live 20 more years (to age 85) than a person eating 2600-calories a day before starting to consume more total calories.
Caption: As this figure shows, a person eating 1800-calories a day starting at age 30 would be able to live 20 more years (to age 85) than a person eating 2600-calories a day before starting to consume more total calories.

But especially when keeping calories fewer, what you consume becomes even more critical. If you drink a 150-calorie soda as part of a 2000-calorie daily intake, that’s 7.5 percent of your calories in one liquid dessert that won’t even satiate your hunger (vs. eating an apple, one third the calories, and would sate your appetite).

Finally, what you should eat should be “mostly plants.” Pollan says this more for health reasons—the data is clear that meat—especially in its factory farmed Frankenstein form—is not good for you. And it’s horrible for the planet. So eat less. Or none. Though if you do want dairy or eggs or meat in your diet, try to get them sourced from sustainable, healthy farmers.

A Food Algorithm

This mantra offers a strong algorithm to follow. Go line by line through it and certain foods get rejected at each stage. Walking through a supermarket and a huge percentage (mostly the central aisles) won’t even qualify as food. Calorie dense foods get pared out in the second round (including alcohol, which is recognizable food, and, yes, made of plants). And much of meats, cheeses, and dairy get cut out in the third. Bringing us to a natural, more veggie-centric diet, making us and Gaia healthier in the process.

It’s the order of that algorithm that’s useful too: even a little McDonald’s burger wouldn’t get through. Too unrecognizable as food (the bun, the condiments, the countless additives). Too calorie-dense, and certainly not mostly plants. But I would say the same thing for an Impossible Burger.
Even if it’s made out of plant protein, it is unrecognizable as food to your grandmother (unless she’s tricked into believing it’s really meat). Is the future we want one in which we engineer our fake meat—using high technology and lots of energy and resources—just so we can enjoy the greasy feeling of eating a burger? Better to simply eat far fewer burgers and get them from a local farmer, and cultivate a love for the delicious, often veggie-heavy cuisines developed by other cultures over millennia. (My family eats a lot of Indian food.)

And that brings up a fourth guideline. Pollan doesn’t include this in his mantra even if it comes up in his book. But it seems natural to include (even at risk of making a simple mantra slightly less so):

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And more local.”

And More Local.

Ideally, if you can, get more of your food locally or, better yet, grow or gather it yourself. Now that is clearly fourth in the hierarchy. BIMBO Bakeries is just six miles from my home, so that’s certainly local. But BIMBO Bakeries doesn’t produce real food. You know BIMBO—even if you’ve never heard this name: it’s a multinational conglomerate that includes brands like Freihoffer’s, Entemann’s, Sara Lee, and Thomas. These companies produce packaged breads and pastries—optimized for shelf-stability—that ideally should not end up in your stomach, no matter how locally they happen to be produced.

But I also grow a tiny bit of food, forage what food I can (mulberries are currently in season on street trees here), and volunteer at a CSA farm just across the Connecticut River. All this probably adds up to no more than 1 percent of my food (if I’m liberally rounding up), so I have a long way to go, but by supporting the CSA, I’m helping in a small way to strengthen the local food economy—and community resilience—of my region.

Of course, there are other elements to factor into one’s eating decisions: can I minimize packaging, can I support a company that is actively working to farm sustainably or even restoratively? Is what I’m eating truly healthy (sugar, after all, is a plant). But following four simple rules—cutting out any unrecognizable “fake foods,” keeping calories constrained, focusing one’s diet on whole vegetable-based foods, and when those criteria are met, trying to get these foods locally—will bring us a long way to healing our bodies, our communities, and our planet. And bring the joy back to eating in the process.

*Thanks, Mike, for permitting me to share your story in this week’s reflection.


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  1. Bart Everson

    Perhaps Pollan should be recognized as an honorary Gaian. I value the simplicity of this algorithm, even in its slightly expanded form. And I’m tempted to expand it further to encompass packaging, which isn’t food precisely but an almost unavoidable fact of life for many Americans. Single-use plastic packaging is surely an offense against Gaia. Of course, local small-scale products may be less likely to be packaged that way.

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