The info you need to make better food choices for satisfaction, for health and for the planet
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
How much do food choices matter to you? The purpose of this article is to empower you to make better choices for your health and well-being, as well as that of your family – and for the future of the planet.
Once I understood just how impactful food choices are, I was thrilled, because it meant I could make a difference. Becoming more conscious about your choices is, in fact, the most effective thing you do on a daily basis to live a healthier, happier life whilst making a positive difference in the world.
Changing the world by changing the way we eat
Changing the world by promoting better food choices has become my life’s purpose. By my mid 20’s, I’d already begun to understand that there was something deeply awry with the food and agro industries and lots of confusion around the definition of ‘healthy eating’. Countless articles, documentaries, reports, studies, books, and A LOT of cooking later, I have come to what I can humbly say is a solid understanding of the intricacies of food systems, farming, food manufacturing, health and nutrition as well as their connection with ecosystems and bio-diversity in the context of the climate emergency – and how we can cook and eat our way to a brighter today and future.
It’s all in all a complex picture with lots of variables and factors at play. So it’s no wonder that a lot of people don’t give it as much consideration, as they might like to. We live busy lives with jobs, children and many other priorities and responsibilities. Getting one’s head around the complexity of ‘food’ in a broad sense is something there may not be enough time and energy to do.
The goal with this article, therefore, is to provide you with a distillation of the most essential information. Think of it as an executive summary that you can use (if you think it’s useful) to make better decisions around your food purchasing and eating. The result of following the guidelines as described below holds the promise to increase your health, your food satisfaction, as well as supporting farming communities, re-generative farming practices and fighting the climate emergency.
Your food choices matter!
I think the words of Robert Swan, polar explorer and environmentalist, sums the point I’m trying to make up so perfectly:
All the information you will find in the following is from reliable sources, that is, scientific papers, referenced books, etc. The facts I present to you have nothing to do with my subjective opinion. What matters, in my view, is simply that we, as global citizens, become aware of the impact of our collective choices, and then it’s up to each of us to decide whether one then has a moral obligation to act on the individual level.
You will need to make up your own mind as to how much action you are going to take. Whether you do a little or you do a lot is secondary to the really important thing – that each of us does something – even if that just means not turning the blind eye to the impact of our choices. To be, at the very least, aware.
“Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects with everything else” (Leonardo da Vinci)
Why should you care?
Flavour and satisfaction
I’m starting with flavour and satisfaction, because I’m convinced that on a deeper level, most of us, when it comes to food choices, are driven primarily by these factors. Now the level of satisfaction that we get from food and its relationship with sourcing comes down to the fact that soil health plays a crucial role for the taste as well as nutritional value of food.
Plants grown in healthy soils (click to find out more about soil) health produce more flavour molecules. And it just so happens that those molecules, such as flavonoids and polyphenols, also are the antioxidant and other micronutrients that are so incredibly good for us. You can read much more about this in a fascinating book by Hudson Valley based activist and chef, Dan Barber, in his well researched book, The Third Plate.
Read The Guardian’s review of The Third Plate here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/15/dan-barber-mission-to-change-food-and-farming
Longevity and energy
Making adjustments to our food buying (and eating) habits can have profound effects on our energy levels. When fresh fruit and veg along with whole grains, pulses, seeds and nuts is the foundation of our diet, our gut is happy because it’s getting plenty of fibre, our mind is clearer and more alert, our skin is more radiant, and our energy levels are higher, because we are getting a good balance of slow-release energy via complex carbohydrates, amino acids (proteins), lots of micronutrients, minerals and good fatty acids that are vital for optimal brain and cellular function.
It almost goes without saying that it significantly reduces the risk of deadly life-style illnesses, and is likely to result in far more enjoyable retirement and old age. You can read more about this in the book, The China Study, or watch the documentary based on that book, called Forks Over Knives.
Watch the trailer to Forks Over Knives here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZb-35oV_7E
Your children and their children’s children’s future
The potential implications of global warming for the planet and civilisation can be harrowing to contemplate. Many people now feel a growing sense of urgency — a realisation that we have indeed reached a threshold. We find ourselves facing an immediate, dire ecological emergency that threatens the continuity of civilisation as we know it.
Food choices play a key part in this matter, as we are rapidly annihilating the most bio-diverse places on Earth, such as rain forests, which get turned into grazing land or soybean plantations to grow feed for livestock. Currently 83% of arable land contributes a mere 18% of food calories globally, because of the feed requirements of the 50 billion animals that raised for meat annually. It is an entirely unsustainable situation. What we need to do – and urgently – is reduce meat (beef in particular) consumption – and we must endeavour to put an end factory farming all-together.
You can get the in-depth info in the report:
More than any other single factor, the reduction of the number of cows raised for food and fattened up with soy and corn is having a devastating effect on the climate. The great news is that it’s pretty simple to do something about: Eat less of it, but better quality.
In 2019, the UK parliament set up the Climate Assembly that was set up to tackle the Climate Emergency. The report highlights four primary areas that relate to individuals: flying, home heating, driving, and meat eating. You can read more about it in a recent BBC article.
Man has hunted and since raised and killed animals for a very long time. It’s deeply ingrained in food cultures and traditions all over the world. Yet, meat used to be held in much higher regard than it is today. It was on celebratory occasion that big pieces of meat or whole animals would be eaten. Most of the time, however, meat and animal ingredients were primarily there for flavour. Grains and pulses were the filler. Think, for example, about the traditional Mediterranean diet. The balance of plants and animal ingredients were always in the plants’ favour as is the case with most traditional diets all over the world.
The dawn of the factory farm
From the 1950’s onwards our relationship with meat started undergoing a rapid and devastating transformation. The hyper industrialisation of agriculture and the advent of factory animal farms that hold thousands and thousands of individuals fattened up on an unnatural diet of soy, corn, hormones and antibiotics, means that meat production has become the single biggest driver of deforestation, pollution and climate change in terms of agriculture – and has contributed to producing public health crisis of epic proportions.
Read more here:
Cows’ burps are making the planet hotter
Cows are by far the biggest contributor of all the livestock animals that humans rear. That’s because cows are ruminants meaning they’ve got four stomachs to be able to digest grass. During the digestive process methane gas is produced, which the cow releases most as burps. Methane is a powerful green house gas (GHG), about twenty times more powerful than CO2, and the GHG from meat production globally is now at 14.8 percent according to a recent UN FAO report.
To put this into perspective that’s more than the entire global transport sector combined (yes, that is all the cars, trains, planes, ships, busses, trains, etc!) Cows are also very hungry and compared with other livestock have a poor ‘Fed Conversion Ratio’. With ten kg of feed (soya beans, for example) will produce about one kg of cow meat (we’ll come back to why cows shouldn’t be eating soy in the first place) whereas chicken, by comparison, 10 kg of feed produces 8 kg of chicken meat.
Our appetite for steak is killing the rainforest
All the feed mass needs an enormous amount of arable land to be grown. In Brazil, for instance, about 90 percent of the rainforest that’s currently being cleared at BIG RED ALERT rates, is being cleared exactly for the purpose of high intensity soya farming – or cattle grazing. We are essentially taking an exorbitant quantity of gross available food and turning it into feed for livestock. The situation is not sustainable by any measure and is driving the accelerating loss of top soil, forests and bio-diversity.
You can read more about the subject in this interview with Philip Fearnside, a biologist who studies the relationship between human activities, such as agriculture, and the protection of tropical forests: https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/how-soybean-boom-threatens-amazon
You are what you eat has eaten
Let’s come back to what happens when animal aren’t fed their natural diet. If a cow, for instance, is fed soya beans instead of grass - a cow’s natural diet - it will produce a disproportionally large amount of Omega 6 and 9 and very little or zero Omega 3. That means the meat from cows eating an unnatural diet is bad news for your cardiovascular health.
On the other hand, when a cow does eats only or mostly grass, it will produce a healthy balance of fatty acids including Omega 3. Remember that the original source of Omega 3 isn’t animal – it’s plant (the green, chlorophyl rich ones, like grass, seaweed, phytoplankton).
The same goes for chickens that, if fed a poor diet of mainly intensively grown soya beans or grains, then the nutritional value and - to be sure - the taste of that bird will be vastly inferior to a bird that has had a varied diet (chickens are omnivores) from healthy soils.
A lot of people seem to have all but forgotten what good quality meat from animals that have been treated with respect tastes like. I posit that once you (re) discover what proper meat tastes like, there will be no going back. Again, taste and satisfaction remain the primary drivers of our food choices.
The three key take-aways on eating animals
Change your mindset around meat. Learn how to use less but better quality for flavour rather than filler (check out how to get the most of a whole chicken here)
Find out where to get the proper stuff (animals that’ve had a good diet and been able to express their nature) Get to know your butcher. Find farms online. Or check out our curated list of suppliers who care.
Think of beef as a luxury and when you use it, get it from pasture raised animals that have eaten grass – use proper quality chicken or pork for every day purposes.
Fruit and veg
Seeing asparagus in winter that have come via airplane from Peru to me epitomises a sad, sad trend, which is that UK citizens (and elsewhere) seem to have all but lost the sense of seasonality that was common just a few decades ago. That Peruvian asparagus, or the strawberries, or the peaches obtained out of season means that for every food calorie many, many times more than that has been spent in fossil fuel calories. Add to that the lack of flavour, and it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Fruit and veg is at it’s most delicious and nutritious when it’s ripe and just been picked.
Local vs regional seasonality
I don’t believe fanatism will get us anywhere, so when it comes to seasonality The UK’s peach season is the Italian, French and Spanish peach season. It runs from mid summer into early Autumn. The rest of the year peaches will come from the opposite hemisphere and will have been transported vast distances after being picked when completely unripe. You guessed it; less flavour and ditto nutrition.
From a eco-footprint perspective the difference between flying something versus transportation by ship or lorry it vast. That’s why, personally, I’m not fanatical about everything having to be local in the sense that it comes from the UK. I like olive oil, lemons, oranges, peaches, etc. And there are Spanish and Italian farmers whose livelihoods depend on exporting their produce. What I am thoroughly against, is airfreight.
A very important note on pulses and grains
Why they are so insanely good for us and for the planet as well. Shift to using these food groups for filler and use really good meat and dairy for flavour. It’s how cooking has been done for ages. The Mediterranean diet as well as that of, for instance, Okinawa is defined as so-called ‘Blue Zone Diets’. The peoples on this type of diet live longer and have very low occurrences of the life style illnesses that plague peoples and health care budgets in countries where a typical Western diet is consumed.
You can read more about Blue Zones Diet in this fascinating Medium article:
The three-four key take-aways on eating plants
Make an effort to understand the seasonality of fruit and veg and avoid or keep airfreighted foods to an absolute minimum (check out regional seasonality calendar here: https://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/food/seasonal-food-calendar-71128
Support sustainable farming practices and de-centralisation by using farmers markets and/or buying direct from farms online (check the TBK directory here)
Eat a broad variety of plants including lots of pulses, 100% whole grains, seeds and nuts.
If your not confident cooking with plants in the lead role (or simply want to improve your chops), then start learning the ‘eat like a bear’ Core Principles of Everyday Cookery
Fish and seafood
There’s tends to be a general public understanding that when fish are farmed they are somehow sustainable. This couldn’t be further from the truth - particularly when it comes to salmon. The biggest issue with salmon is the vast quantities of it that’s produced. Why’s that?
Salmon is a predatory fish meaning it has to eat other fish. The fish that salmon are fed are pelagic fish like sardines, herring, mackerel, anchovies, etc. It takes five kg of wild fish to make one kg of farmed salmon. I guess no further explanation is needed so as to why this is not ideal.
Salmon are kept close together in confined sea pens often located close to shore. Because the salmon swim so closely, antibiotics are used prolifically along with pesticides (for sea lice). Residue of both end up in the salmon you are eating.
Each salmon will produce approx. 60 kg of excrement before it reaches slaughter weight. When you have 300,000 fish together that’s a lot of ammonia that ends up on the seafloor where it suffocates other life and renders the seabed a dessert.
Watch: The World’s Most Toxic Fish
Farmed prawns works on the same principle as farmed salmon. That is, they require fish meal from wild caught fish for feed. They are also doused with pesticides and antibiotics. Adding to that, they are produced in far away countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Honduras - so ensuring ethical and environmentally sound practices is not easy.
Read the Marine Stewardships guide on prawns: Pondering Prawns
The Big Five
In the UK about 80 percent of demand for fish and seafood is constituted by the so-called BIG FIVE. These include tuns, salmon, cod, haddock and prawns. That’s really sad, seeing as many other types of fish are being caught around the British isles. What ends up happening, because of our narrow selection of species to go on the plate, fishermen end up discarding unwanted species – because there is little or no market for them. We went to Peterhead in Scotland, where most of the UK’s catch is landed. Here we heard first hand the frustration the fishermen have because they are forced to discard perfectly good fish.
Read a short article from The Marine Conservation Society that sums up the actions recommended by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall in his Big Fish Fight initiative.
Pellagic fish vs. Apex Predators
Pellagic fish are the oily ones that swim in big shoals. They include species like herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, etc. The great thing about pelagic fish is that they are at the bottom of the food chain, meaning they do not accumulate toxins the same way an apex predator like a big tuna will (because they will eat thousands of fish that each of small quantities of toxins, which then end up accumulating in the tuna. From a health and sustainability point of view it therefore makes a lot of sense to shift our fish consumption to these types of fish. I’m not saying don’t ever eat salmon, but I would like to paraphrase Dan Barber from his TED talk How I Fell in Love with a Fish: “you can have sustainable salmon, but not an all you can eat sustainable salmon buffet”. The same goes for any other ingredient, such as, avocado.
What the whole TED talk by Dan Barber about fish and sustainability here:
Community based fishing vs. factory ships
Today, most fishing is done by enormous factory ships with trawls that can fit four jumbo jets. These big ships are owned by purely profit seeking corporations that are making big catches now at the expense of dwindling future catches. In his book, Shifting Base Lines, marine biologist, Daniel Pauly, explains how our ‘base line’, that is, our perception of what a fully thriving eco-system looks like, has shifted with each generation.
We have, by now, removed 90 percent of apex predators like sharks, salmon and tuna from the oceans, which is having devastating knock on effects. When, at the same time, all the profits from fishing goes into the pockets of a few shareholders in Big Food, it’s clear that there is a massive issue here. Fish is the last wild animal that man is hunting. As a wild resource, the profits and benefits should be evenly distributed between community based fishing operations with small boats that are much gentler to the marine environment than massive factory ships.
The three key take-aways on eating fish
Eat a broad variety of fish (particularly the pelagic species) and seafood.
Support sustainable fishing and fishing communities by buying direct with services, such as Sole Share (check the TBK directory for more suppliers who care here)
Use The Good Fish Guide to find the most sustainable species and look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MCS) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) labels.
I find it curious how some vegetarians I meet don’t pay too much attention to the origin of the dairy products they buy and eat. That’s because, when it comes to animal welfare, the dairy industry is in fact on of the worst. Dairy cows that are industrially reared are completely robbed of their ability to express their mammalian nature. They are reduced to objects where input (soy or corn) becomes output in the form of milk. These animals are kept alive in dire circumstances for up to eight years before they are completely worn down. I don’t see how this can be morally justified and I also personally wouldn’t want to eat anything that comes from cows that have been treated like this. Stress, poor diet and antibiotics residue makes for inferior taste as well as nutrition. Just as with meat: you are what you eat has eaten.
The three key take-aways on eating dairy
Think grass fed! Grass fed means better animal welfare, better taste, better nutrition.
Eat less but better quality.
Cut out the middle-man and buy direct from farms (get ideas from our sourcing directory)
STOP. THEN START
At its most fundamental level what I would urge everyone to do is to STOP thinking of yourself as a passive consumer and START being and actively engaged citizen, that is, one who is aware of one’s power to affect change via making better choices.
Every time you buy something - and in particular food - you are effectively voting for the world as you want it to be.
Now what you’ve got to ask yourself is: how do you want it to be?! The choice is indeed yours to make, because together we really can change the world by changing the way we eat and get healthier and happier in the process.
So, do we carry on with the status quo, or take action? It matters. Don’t let the Big Food and Big Agro win! The massive corporates currently running the show are effectively exchanging short-term profits at the expense of public health and environmental sustainability. They care about profit. They do not care about your health nor the planet.