Are you confused by all the contradictory dietary advice out there?
Should you go low fat or low carb? Vegan or paleo? Ketogenic? Mediterranean? Pescatarian?
The truth is, it’s extremely difficult to prove that there’s one universal diet that’s superior to all others, certainly in terms of its effects on health and peak performance.
One thing is clear, we shouldn’t be eating the prevailing low quality Western diet, which is high in refined sugar, processed and red meat and saturated fat. This pattern of eating has resulted in 2 billion people being overweight or obese, and has fuelled the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer (1,2).
In reality, many people will derive significant health benefits if they stick to a few simple, evidence based food principles.
However, if we really want to answer the question of “what should we eat?” then we must also consider planetary health, as this is inextricably linked to our own health and survival.
And when we take the planet into consideration, the answer is very clear: we should eat a plant-based diet.
This is the conclusion of a number large-scale, mainstream scientific studies (3,4,5), including the recently published literature review by the EAT-Lancet Commission (1).
So why is a plant-based diet best for the planet?
To answer this we need to look at our current system of food production, which we now understand to be the single largest contributor to environmental degradation.
Food systems account for up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions(1,3,5). However, climate change is only part of the story. Food systems drive a range of serious environmental issues that now threaten human health and survival, including biodiversity loss, eutrophication and depletion of fresh water supplies.
Food production is the largest cause of global land-use change, with 40% of terrestrial land used for crops and grazing. This has resulted in massive biodiversity loss, to the extent that we are witnessing the Earth’s 6th Mass Extinction Event. Species are being lost 100-1000 times faster than the natural background rate. 80% of extinction threats to birds and mammals are due to agriculture (1).
The impact of humans and our agriculture is now so great that it has drastically altered the make-up of global biomass (the total weight of living matter in a given area).
Humans comprise just 0.01% of Earth’s total biomass, but our impact is disproportionately large; 96% of all mammals are either humans (36%) or our livestock (60%) – mainly cattle and pigs. Only 4% of mammals are wild. 70% of all birds on the planet are farmed poultry. Only 30% are wild (6).
Food production is responsible for 78% of eutrophication (1,5). This refers to the excessive application of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers, which are washed off into streams and rivers, causing algal blooms and hypoxic conditions in freshwater and marine ecosystems, which results in widespread coastal “dead zones,” devoid of aquatic life.
In areas where fish still exist, 60% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully fished, and 30% are overfished. Catches by global marine fisheries have been declining since 1996 (1).
The overall negative impacts of our food systems are very clear, but we still need to eat. So what we really want to know is: which food products are ecologically sustainable, and which are harmful.
To answer this, Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek performed the largest study to date of the impacts of agriculture on the environment, and their results were published in Science in 2018 (5).
They undertook a global analysis of data from 38,700 farms in 119 countries, looking at 40 food products, in terms of their effects on five key environmental indicators: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, acidification, eutrophication and freshwater withdrawals.
They found that even the most sustainable animal products exceed the average impacts of plant protein. As a result, if we were to switch to a plant based diet, it would reduce land use by 76%, greenhouse gas emissions by 49%, acidification by 50%, eutrophication by 49% and freshwater use by 19%.
In countries such as the UK, Australia and the USA, where meat consumption is 3 times the global average, the effects would be even greater.
The authors concluded that moving from a meat-based to plant-based diet has “transformative potential” and that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way we can reduce our ecological impact.
But what exactly should we eat? What does a diet that is both healthy and ecologically sustainable look like?
This key question was finally addressed by EAT-Lancet Commission (a joint project by the Norway based NGO EAT and the Lancet Medical Journal), which undertook an extensive literature review and published its results earlier this year (1).
They came up with a universal healthy reference diet, or Planetary Diet, which is predominantly plant-based, provides 2500 kcal per day, and consists largely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils. It specifies a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and no or low amounts of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains and starchy vegetables.
In practice, the Planetary Diet is similar to a Mediterranean or Okinawan Diet, which for many Europeans represents quite a shift in the way they eat. It would involve a 77% reduction in red meat consumption (by allowing only 1 beef burger per week), 15 times more intake of nuts and seeds, 2 servings of fish per week, 1-2 eggs per week, and 1 glass of milk per day (or 250g of full fat milk products).
So, having read this, are you now going to adopt the Planetary Diet, or perhaps go completely vegan? Maybe not…
Behavioural change is notoriously difficult. Even if there was widespread acceptance of the problems associated with our current level of consumption of animal products, awareness of an issue is no guarantee that people will adopt a more sensible path, as most health practitioners will attest.
This is certainly true for plant-based dietary change, probably because for many societies, eating animal products is the traditional, dominant eating pattern. A rejection of meat represents a rejection of social norms. It’s also important to appreciate that food confers much more than nutritional needs. It’s a source of pleasure, personal identity and economic status. In many developing countries eating meat is aspirational and symbolic of wealth. For some people, meat is associated with masculinity.
This is borne out by studies of public perceptions surrounding food impacts and dietary change, which suggest that there can be scepticism of the scientific evidence, resistance to the concept of reducing meat intake, and that non-food related behaviour change is deemed more acceptable (7).
However, eventually a threshold is usually reached, beyond which our resistance to change is overpowered by the realisation of the gravity of a situation, accompanied by a sense of urgency; such as when a patient receives a diagnosis of a life-threatening condition and finally feels compelled to make radical lifestyle changes. Perhaps as a society we are approaching that point with environmental degradation and non-communicable diseases.
Recently it feels as if the tide may be turning, with the global support for Greta Thunberg and the climate strikes, the Extinction Rebellion protests, and the increasing cultural acceptability of plant-based eating.
Make no mistake, we have very little time left to limit climate change to a survivable level and prevent further irreversible biodiversity loss. We urgently need to make transformative changes if we hope to do this, and there is no doubt that a global shift towards healthy, plant-based diets represents a very powerful tool.
If you still need some convincing, or are finding it difficult to make the leap to a more plant-based lifestyle, here are a few tips and suggestions:
First, watch the movie “Cowspiracy” (you can find it on Netflix).
Start experimenting with plant-based eating. There are now tonnes of resources out there (even confirmed omnivorous chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver are jumping on the bandwagon). The key is to find a tribe that suits you.
Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet. 2019 2019/02/02/;393(10170):447-92.
Afshin A, Sur PJ, Fay KA, Cornaby L, Ferrara G, Salama JS, et al. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. The Lancet. 2019;393(10184):1958-72.
Aleksandrowicz L, Green R, Joy EJM, Smith P, Haines A. The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PLOS ONE. 2016;11(11):e0165797.
Clark M, Tilman D. Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters. 2017 2017/06/01;12(6):064016.
Poore J, Nemecek T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science. 2018;360(6392):987.
Bar-On YM, Phillips R, Milo R. The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018;115(25):6506.
Macdiarmid JI, Douglas F, Campbell J. Eating like there’s no tomorrow: Public awareness of the environmental impact of food and reluctance to eat less meat as part of a sustainable diet. Appetite. 2016 2016/01/01/;96:487-93.
If the tofu based chocolate mousse doesn’t do it for you, try this avocado based version. Most people seem to credit Laura Coxeter as the inspiration for this recipe and I would certainly agree. I first saw her when she appeared on River Cottage a few years ago and made a raw chocolate ganache tart. This is just a simplified version.
2 large ripe avocados
Coconut oil – 50g
Cacao (or cocoa) powder – 70g
Maple syrup (or honey) – 2 tablespoons
Pecans (or almonds or walnuts or just use a mixture!) – 1/2 cup
Dates – 1/2 cup
If you’re making the biscuity base, place the nuts and dates in a blender and blend until finely chopped
Scrape out the mixture and put aside
Gently heat the coconut oil in a pan so it melts. Allow to cool.
Now place the avocados, coconut oil, maple syrup and cocoa powder in the blender
Blend until smooth. This may take a few minutes.
Place a large spoonful of the base mixture at the bottom of a glass (or bowl) and press it down firmly
Add a few spoonfuls of the mousse mixture on top
If you wish, you can add a third layer of berry compote – just heat a few handfuls of frozen berries in a pan until soft and mushy
Repeat steps 6-8 for the remaining 3 portions
Place the 4 glasses in the fridge for an hour or two and then serve
A rich, nutty, chocolate mousse. There are other takes on the plant-based chocolate mousse but this one is a favourite, and uses silken tofu as the secret ingredient. Don’t let this put you off! (but check out this recipe for avocado chocolate mousse as well)
Silken tofu – 300g (drained)
Smooth nut butter – 100g
Maple Syrup – 1 tablespoon (substitution – honey)
Dark Chocolate – 100g (melted)
Chia seeds – 1 tablespoon (optional)
Fine sea salt – pinch
Mixed frozen berries – 1 cup
Honey – 1 tablespoon (optional)
Place the tofu, nut butter, maple syrup, melted dark chocolate, chia seeds and salt in a food processor and blend until smooth
Spoon the mousse into individual bowls, cups or glasses (spatula also required)
For the compote, heat the frozen berries (+/- honey) gently in a saucepan
Stir gently to prevent sticking
Allow to cool
Place a few spoonfuls of compote on top of the mousse
Leave in the fridge for a couple of hours before eating
This is a great plant-based alternative to the usual go-to option of eggs on toast for breakfast or lunch. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of scrambled or poached eggs, just not all the time. We also need to get over our preconceptions about tofu – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it provides an extremely useful source of healthy protein, and is very tasty when cooked properly, especially with an asian style sauce. Stir-frying tofu works well; marinading and baking it is even better.
Olive oil – 1 tablespoon
1 small red or brown onion -finely diced
1 small cauliflower – chopped into small floret
1 red capsicum – diced
2 handfuls of kale – roughly chopped
225g block of extra-firm tofu – roughly chopped into walnut size pieces
Garlic – 2 cloves
Fresh ginger – 1 inch block – grated
Tamari or soy sauce- 1 tablespoon
1 carrot – shredded
Fresh coriander – 1 handful – roughly chopped
First drain the tofu, wrap it in kitchen roll and place between two plates or small chopping boards. Now place a weight on top to help compress the water out. Allow 30 minutes for this if possible.
Get a large frying pan or wok and cook the onion in the olive oil for a few minutes
Now add the cauliflower, red capsicum and kale and stir fry for 5 minutes or so (try not to overcook the veggies)
Then add the garlic, tofu, tamari and ginger, and cook for another few minutes
Finally stir through the shredded carrot and coriander
Stollen is a rich, stodgy, fruit bread, laced with spices and marzipan, traditionally baked at Christmas-time in Germany. This version is very loosely adapted from a Bake Off recipe, but with significantly less caster sugar and uses extra virgin olive oil instead of butter.
(Makes 2 Stollen)
Dried instant yeast – 1½ teaspoons
Caster sugar – 1½ teaspoons
Plain flour – 200g
Strong malted flour – 300g
Salt – 1½ teaspoons
Extra virgin olive oil – 75g
Milk (any sort) – 300mls
Currants – 100g
Raisins – 100g
Dried cranberries – 50g
Dried apricots – 50g
Ground all spice – ¼ teaspoon
Cinnamon – ¼ teaspoon
Nutmeg – ¼ teaspoon
Ground star anise – 1 pinch
Ground cloves – 1 pinch
Ground green cardamom pod seeds – 1 pinch
Marzipan – 200g
Icing sugar – 2 teaspoons
Place the yeast, sugar, flour, salt, olive oil and milk together in a large bowl
Mix and knead for about 5 minutes
Now mix the dried fruit and spices together in a large bowl and then add the dough
Continue to mix and knead until the fruit and spices are integrated and the dough is nice and supple
Cover and leave to rise in a warm place for about 1-2 hours, until the dough has roughly doubled in size
Then take your dough and divide into two equal portions
Take one portion and roll it out into a rectangular shape approximately 20cm x 40cm
Now take the half the marzipan (100g), and roll this out as well, so that it is also rectangular but slightly shorter; about 20cm x 35cm
Place the rolled out marzipan on top of the rolled out dough, matching the 20cm sides
Now roll up the dough/marzipan mix in the direction of the longest side to make a fairly compact log
Repeat steps 7-10 with the remaining dough and marzipan
Place the logs on a baking tray, cover and allow to rise in a warm area for another 45-60 mins
Preheat your oven to 160°C
Bake the stollen logs in the oven for approximately 1 hour (check they don’t burn)
Once cooked, remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool
When the stollen is cool, brush the top and sides with olive oil and dust with icing sugar
Leave until completely cool before cutting and eating
If you haven’t been wild camping before, knowing what to pack can be a bit daunting.
As a starting point, I’ve written down the kit I take for 1-3 night wild camping trips in spring, summer and autumn in the UK. I’ll save a discussion about winter camping for another time.
Everyone will give you slightly different advice, and it takes a few trips to establish your own personal system, likes and dislikes.
I would suggest trying to stick to a few key principles:
Go light to go fast:
Take enough gear to be safe and warm, but otherwise focus on going as light as possible – you’ll be thankful when you’re still looking for your elusive camp spot after 8 hours on the hill.
Approach with the right mindset:
Part of the adventure of wild camping is to rough it a bit; you’ll get a lot more out of the experience if you accept that you’re going to have a couple of nights of suboptimal sleep, no hot showers and too many dehydrated noodles and cereal bars.
If you approach the trip with this mindset, you’ll be less likely to pack unnecessary gear which will only weigh you down. I can assure you that when you get back your evening meal will taste fantastic, and you’ll sleep like a log!
Allow yourself a luxury item:
Admittedly, if you start to do a lot of wild camping, then the fully spartan, minimalist approach can wear a bit thin. Yes, it’s supposed to be an adventure, but it’s also supposed to be enjoyable, so there’s nothing wrong with taking a luxury item or two to keep morale up. For example, freshly ground coffee, a small cake to share in the evening, hipflask with whisky etc.
So, here’s the basic list:
this is plenty of space for a 2 night camping trip. If you take something bigger you’ll likely fill it with stuff you don’t need. Going for a smaller pack forces you to think about what’s really essential. If absolutely necessary, some items can be covered and strapped to the outside (eg. a rolled up sleeping mat)
in winter or on longer trips you’ll need more gear, so a 60-70 litre pack is more useful
Lightweight 1 man tent
Ideally this should weigh less than 1.5kg. You can shave some weight by buying ultralightweight tent pegs. Aim for a model with a decent vestibule (porch area for storing your rucksack and cooking in if it’s raining), a robust groundsheet and enough height so you can sit up
Full length sleeping mat
Stuff sack – fill with your spare clothes, cover with a fleece and use as a pillow
2-3 season sleeping bag
Lightweight stove and pan – I use a Jetboil all in one system, so there’s no need for a pan
Matches – if the stove lighter fails
Food – dehydrated meals for the number of nights you’re away, oats for breakfast, wraps/ bagels for lunches, plenty of trail mix and cereal bars for snacks (preferably home-made – see here, here and here)
Teas/ coffee/ hot chocolate/ soup – I allow for at least 4 hot drinks per day plus water
Water bottle – for collecting and storing water at camp
Water filtration system – if you’re going wild camping then the assumption is you’re going to have access to water supplies along the way. I always boil my water when at camp, and use a filter to make water safe when en route, unless I’m sure it’s clean
Waterproof jacket and trousers
Primaloft or down jacket for warmth at lunch stops and camp (synthetic insulation is more useful than down in the damp UK climate)
Spare base layer and pants/ thermals for camp
Walking socks plus 1 spare pair
2 plastic bags
Depending on the conditions and terrain, it’s possible your boots and socks will be wet when you get to camp. Take a spare pair of socks to change into and line your boots with plastic bags. You can then walk around camp in your boots without getting your fresh socks wet. Generally your boots will have mostly dried off by the next day. Wring out your wet socks and dry them in your sleeping bag overnight.
Gaiters – invaluable for helping to keep your feet dry
Gloves (consider also taking mitts)
Midge net – essential if camping in the West of Scotland
Multiple dry bags of various sizes for storing spare clothing and your sleeping bag
Map and compass
Headtorch (plus spare batteries or back up headtorch)
Sunscreen, sunglasses and sun hat – if appropriate
Alcohol hand sanitiser gel/ toilet paper/ plastic trowel
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Bin bag – you need to pack out all your waste
Basic first aid kit – dressings, tick remover tool, analgesia etc
Nature deficiency is becoming an increasing problem, inextricably linked to those other facets of modern life: urbanization, prolonged inactivity and addiction to technology.
Since 2007, more than half the world’s population resides in urban areas. Many of us now spend the majority of our time indoors, sitting down, glued to our screens. As a society we are withdrawing from nature and losing our connection with food. The number of children playing outside regularly is diminishing.
Why does this matter?
Well firstly, it’s making us sick.
City living clearly offers many opportunities and advantages, and is not in itself the problem. However, urbanization is often associated with issues such as air pollution, lack of safe green spaces for recreation, and promotion of unhealthy food choices. These problems are linked to the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity and depression.
Likewise, relatively new technologies such as personal computers and smart phones, the internet and social media, as well as offering huge benefits, are associated with adverse health outcomes such as reduced physical activity and obesity, mental health problems (gaming addiction, cyber bullying, depression and suicide) and sleep disruption.
Secondly, as we withdraw from nature, we lose the many health benefits that time outside bestows. Check out this post to learn about some of the ways in which interacting with natural places can improve not only your physical and mental health, but also your cognitive abilities.
But even if you don’t need convincing to spend more time outdoors, the reality is that there can be numerous barriers to getting outside on a regular basis: our work, the weather, family responsibilities, lack of access, maybe even fear.
So, here are some tips and suggestions to help us get a regular dose of nature:
1: Work nature into your daily routine
Time is a big issue for most of us, so let’s start simply.
What about sitting outside for 10 minutes at some point during the day. If you have a garden or balcony, can you have your morning cup of coffee outside before you start the day, or when you get home to help you unwind?
Alternatively, is there a park or other public green space near your work where you can go and have lunch, or take a short walk during the day?
Another obvious way to increase both your nature exposure and exercise is to switch from using your car or public transport, to active travel for your daily commute to work.
If that’s not possible, maybe you could try walking or cycling to work one day a week. If it’s too far, can you drive or get public transport part of the way, and walk or cycle the rest? Can you design a route that takes you through a park or other type of green space?
2: Take your exercise outside
Is it possible to take your workout outside occasionally?
Nature provides a great natural gym. You can go to your garden, local park or woodland and do some outdoor high intensity circuit training: pull-ups on tree branches, dead lifts using rocks, farmers carries using logs, jumps onto or between obstacles.
If you’re into running, instead of pounding the pavements or the treadmill, can you find a local trail to explore? If you like swimming, have you ever considered ocean swimming or wild swimming in rivers or lakes?
3: Involve your kids
It’s great to involve your kids in your outside workouts. If they’re young, you can modify the exercises to make it fun for them as well as challenging for you. Try bear crawling, practice your fireman’s lift and see how far you can carry them, do sprinting races, play tag, and devise obstacle courses in the park or garden.
If your kids are older then they can join you on more challenging and time consuming outdoor activities such as bike rides, runs, hill walks, or fishing trips.
4: Try nature based hobbies
If you can develop a passion for immersive outdoor activities such as gardening, bird watching, fishing or conservation volunteering, then nature deficiency is unlikely to be a problem for you ever again. Try experimenting with a few and see what grabs you.
5: Go on a microadventure
This is a great term coined by adventurer Alastair Humphreys. According to his definition, a microadventure is “an adventure that is close to home, cheap, simple, short, and yet very effective.”
To me, it means recreating some of the adventures we had as kids – exploring our local neighbourhood, finding or building shelters, climbing, playing unstructured games and camping.
For a start, why not try spending the night camping in your back garden occasionally? If you’ve got young kids, you can involve them too. They’ll think it’s a great adventure. Or if you need a break from them, and have child minding options, wait until they’re asleep before you set up camp. Spend the night in your tent and head back inside before they get up for breakfast!
Tents, sleeping bags and all the other requisite gear for camping are becoming much more affordable. You don’t need to buy a top of the range, 4 season expedition tent that can withstand Himalayan storms!
What if you don’t have a garden or if you want to explore further afield? Try wild camping…but remember that you can’t just set up camp anywhere. In England and Wales you may need permission from the landowner. Not so in Scotland where the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 applies, giving you the right to roam.
Wherever you go though, it’s important to act responsibly, be as inconspicuous as possible and leave no trace. Pack out all litter, avoid fires, and learn how to take a shit in the woods properly. Seriously – find a suitable spot at least 50m away from water, take a small trowel, and bury your waste in a hole at least 6 inches deep.
Truly explore your local area, on foot, by bike, on or in the water. Try foraging for seasonal wild foods such as wild garlic, elderflowers, mussels and blackberries.
(If you want to pick wild fungi then enlist the help of an expert, otherwise this can end up being an extreme sport – you might as well go base jumping. I’ve seen enthusiasts end up in the Intensive Care Unit on a dialysis machine after eating what they believed was a harmless edible mushroom.)
6: Change your mindset (and your clothes)
It’s become a cliché but “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” (I used to think this quote was from Billy Connolly, however it may actually be attributable to Alfred Wainwright. Or Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Or it’s a Scandinavian saying. Whatever – it’s on the money).
Here in the UK, the weather can be perceived as a significant barrier to getting outside. But we‘re not the only country to have challenging weather conditions. We’ve got some amazing and very accessible natural areas on our doorstep: friendly rolling hills and more challenging mountains, rivers and national parks, miles of coastline and networks of bridleways and country lanes. Modern outdoor clothing is highly effective at keeping us warm and dry in all but the most miserable conditions. And remember how great it feels to come inside after having an outdoor adventure in the cold and wet.
All we need is a change of mindset. The health benefits of nature are on offer whatever the weather, so invest in some decent outdoor gear and rediscover that being outside is an important and normal part of everyday life.