I’m on a quest to live the greenest life possible, and I’m going to start with food. I’d like to know if there is an optimal diet for both good health and green living? The problem is in my research, there is so much conflicting information. I’ve seen people promote plant-based diets while others dismiss them as deficient. I’m bombarded with information about veganism, vegetarianism, the paleo diet, keto, and every other trendy diet. It seems like for every article showing the benefits of one diet, there’s another discussing the dangers. How can a person get through all the noise and focus on what the evidence says? What is the greenest and cleanest way to eat?
Dietary guidelines frequently change, but I believe there are two ways to know how to eat right: look to our past and evaluate which nutrients we need. I’m not a dietitian, so I’m no expert, but based on what I’ve read a healthy diet should consist primarily of fruits and vegetables, some whole grains, healthy fats and healthy sources of protein. This is pretty consistent with what our ancestors ate. The diets were primarily plant-based with some unprocessed meat and dairy products. Foods that are processed, refined grains, fried foods and those high in sugar and saturated fats should be avoided. Of course, all of this probably seems like common sense. We’ve known for a long time that vegetables are good for us and junk food is not. But trying to eat a diet that’s both good for health and the planet becomes much trickier when we get into plant-based vs omnivorous discussions. And there’s a lot of disagreement about whether or not meat and dairy products are good for us.
If our ancestors ate meat and dairy products, why can’t we? A part of the problem is the ethics of factory farming and how we process meat and dairy. It’s a far cry from what our ancestors ate. Nowadays, meat and dairy is highly processed and has been linked to a number of diseases including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Conversely, a number of studies show a lower rate for these diseases of those who eat primarily plant-based diets. However, I’m not convinced a rigid diet of only plants and no animal products is optimal or realistic.
There are a lot of reasons a person could go vegan or vegetarian and there are plenty of benefits to cutting out meat and dairy. In fact, I have a number of friends who practice veganism or vegetarianism, and I wholeheartedly support their decision to do so. However, I’m striving to live not only a healthy, eco-friendly life, but a natural one as well. The issue with veganism for me is the need to supplement, particularly with B12 vitamins. A person choosing to cut out animal products can also risk deficiency of other nutrients if they don’t carefully follow a healthy, regimented meal plan. Likewise, it seems unnatural to me to give up on good sources of nutrition and rely on supplements when there are plenty of nutrient-dense animal products like salmon, liver, eggs, shellfish, etc. Our ancestors did not need supplements to survive. Surely there’s a happy medium that includes a diet of mostly plants with very few ethically-sourced animal products. Many of those in the green living community would disagree with me, but I advocate for eating less meat and dairy as opposed to cutting it out altogether. For one, it’s more realistic to expect people to cut back than to give up. You’re less likely to run the risk of being deficient of certain nutrients. And from a biological stand point, it’s more natural to include small amounts of animal products in you diet as our species has done for millennia.
So what nutrients do we need and what are the best sources for them? Can we get most of our nutrition from a primarily plant-based diet? According to NutrientsReview and Health.com these are the essential vitamins and minerals we need and the best sources to find them:
Vitamin A (retinol) – liver, fish oil, cheese, milk, egg yolk, leafy vegetables
Vitamin B1 (thiamin) – dried yeast, pine nuts, soybeans
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) – beef liver, fortified cereals, leafy green vegetables
Vitamin B3 (niacin) – wheat, buckwheat, millet, peanuts, spirulina, bread, peaches, meat
Vitamin B5 (panthotenic acid) – leafy green vegetables, grains, eggs, seafood
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxin) – sweet potatoes, grains, avocado, bananas, pistachios, liver
Vitamin B7 (biotin) – almonds, seeds, walnuts, strawberries, mushrooms, broccoli, avocado
Vitamin B9 (folic acid, folate) – grains, leafy greens, beets, liver, avocado, asparagus, artichokes
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) – animal foods, meat, and eggs
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) – most vegetables and fruits
Vitamin E (tocopherol) – sweet potatoes, seeds, kiwi, dark leafy vegetables, sardines, salmon
Vitamin K (naphthoquinones) – dark leafy vegetables, pine nuts, tuna, vegetable oil
Choline (vitamin Bp) – corn, beans, chickpeas, beets, organ meats, seafood
Calcium – fortified cereals, almond milk, oat milk, sardines, kale, dairy products
Chloride – salt
Chromium – broccoli, grape juice, potatoes, whole-wheat bread
Copper – nuts, seeds, potatoes, tomatoes, oysters
Iodine – salt, seaweed, beans, yogurt, cheese, tuna
Iron – organ meats, clams, potatoes, beans, lentils, spinach
Magnesium – brown rice, peanuts, mackerel, whole wheat bread, spinach
Manganese – raisins, oatmeal, spinach, pineapple, nuts
Molybdenum – grains, nuts, leafy vegetables, milk, cheese, organ meats
Phosphorus – meat, cheese, seeds, sardines, milk
Potassium – bananas, avocado, spinach, citrus fruits, beans, fish
Selenium – nuts, rice, whole-wheat bread, fish, poultry, eggs
Sodium – salt
Zinc – nuts, seeds, whole-wheat bread, oysters, cheese, chicken, seafood
Isoleucine – lamb, chicken, turkey, legumes, seeds
Histidine – beef, chicken, turkey, fish, cheese
Leucine – beef, chicken, turkey, legumes, nuts, seeds
Lysine – beef, pork, chicken, sardines, eggs, beans, peas, nuts
Methionine – beef, pork, fish, cheese, egg whites
Phenylalanine – meat, cheese, beans, lentils, seeds, nuts
Tryptophan – meat, salmon, oysters, cheese, spinach, asparagus, seeds, beans
Threonine – meat, fish, cheese, beans, seeds
Valine – meat, fish, cheese, seeds, nuts
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – flaxseed oil, seeds, walnut oil, walnuts
Linoleic acid – sunflower seeds, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, pecans, sesame oil
This isn’t a complete list. There are more foods that contain these minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and fatty acids, but these are just some common sources. It’s clear from the list that most of the nutrients we need come from vegetables, but some, especially B12, come directly from animal products. And not all foods are alike. Some are abundant in multiple nutrients. According to Healthline and Medical News Today some of the most nutrient-dense foods include salmon, kale, seaweed, garlic, shellfish, potatoes, liver, sardines, blueberries, egg yolks, sweet potatoes, legumes, and dark chocolate. Fortunately for me, I love all of those things and have no trouble incorporating them into my diet.
How you get your food also matters. I usually opt for fresh produce over canned goods, but there’s evidence to support that canned produce still has nutritional value. However, BPA, a chemical used in packaging can be found in trace amounts of canned goods. To limit one’s exposure, fresh produce is best. I plan on buying most of mine from local farmer’s markets anyways, but canned goods have the benefit of lasting longer. The cooking process can also affect food. Naturally, frying vegetables is not as healthy as eating them fresh or raw, but what about cooking, steaming, and boiling? Water-based forms of cooking like poaching, simmering, and boiling can result in loss of certain nutrients, but if the liquid is consumed, much of the nutrition is retained. Fortunately, delicious vegetable stocks can be made and used for soups. Grilling, roasting, baking, and broiling helps improve flavor, but can also result in loss of nutrients, but steaming is one of the best ways to cook vegetables to preserve their nutritional value.
Healthline offers the following tips for reducing nutrient loss while cooking:
- “Use as little water as possible when poaching or boiling.
- Consume the liquid left in the pan after cooking vegetables.
- Add back juices from meat that drip into the pan.
- Don’t peel vegetables until after cooking them. Better yet, don’t peel at all to maximize their fiber and nutrient density.
- Cook vegetables in smaller amounts of water to reduce the loss of vitamin C and B vitamins.
- Try to eat any cooked vegetables within a day or two, as their vitamin C content may continue to decline when the cooked food is exposed to air.
- Cut food after — rather than before — cooking, if possible. When food is cooked whole, less of it is exposed to heat and water.
- Cook vegetables for only a few minutes whenever possible.
- When cooking meat, poultry, and fish, use the shortest cooking time needed for safe consumption.
- Don’t use baking soda when cooking vegetables. Although it helps maintain color, vitamin C will be lost in the alkaline environment produced by baking soda.”
Based on everything I’ve read about good health and the optimal diet, I believe the best way to eat is a diet that consists of mostly vegetables and some fruits and a very small amount of healthy meat and dairy products. I’m not sold on any diet that requires supplementation or might causes nutrient deficiency. That being said, where we buy our foods and how we shop can be morally questionable. Many people choose to go vegan or vegetarian for the sake of animal rights and not necessarily diet. Is it possible to get our meat and dairy products in an ethical way? That’s an entirely different topic which I will discuss in my next blog post. Hope to see you there!