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Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing the Planet - Part 1

Transcript for the following video on changing our diet to save our planet:

Hello. My name is Dr Aryan Tavakkoli. I work as a consultant physician in the area of respiratory medicine. I also have a keen interest in our environment, in particular, how our dietary choices affect our environment. Because believe it or not, our diet is a major cause of global warming and intricately linked to many of the environmental crises facing our planet today – such as climate change, melting of the polar ice caps, tropical deforestation, scarcity of fresh water, increasing pollution of our remaining freshwater supplies, world hunger and more…

And ironically, it has been the very production of our food, that has been the main culprit in causing many of the environmental crises we are seeing today – something I will be talking about in some detail in a moment.

Many of us are becoming more aware of our environment and what we can do to protect it – but are we really aware which activities in our personal lives create the biggest carbon footprint? Is it the car we drive? Is it the source of electricity we use? The waste we recycle or don’t recycle? Or could it be our diet?

Well – today, we are going to look at our diet. We are going to look at how our food is produced and what is involved in its production, in terms of land use, water use and energy use. We’re going to look at some figures from respected international authorities such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and NASA, and we’re going to see exactly how our diet affects our lives and the life of our planet, including its potential survival or destruction.

And I’m going to start by asking what you think may be the difference between these two burgers?

Because you see, there is a world of difference between them – and I will return to this at the end of the talk when things should be much clearer…

You see the effects of our diet go much further than our personal wellbeing.

Most of us already know that our dietary choices affect our health but many of us are not aware of the direct impact of our dietary choices on our immediate ecology and environment, and even fewer are aware of the global changes caused by our dietary choices.

Later on I’m going to cover some problems with current animal farming methods, and finally I’m going to finish  with some interesting myths about our diet.

Let’s start with health.

We know that many medical conditions are affected by our diet, most notably heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well as many others.

In 2003, the WHO published a paper entitled ‘Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of chronic diseases’.

According to this paper, dietary factors account for approx 30% cancers in industrialised countries, with diet being 2nd only to tobacco as a potentially preventable cause of cancer. 30% is a pretty high figure for a preventable cause of cancer.

Our diet, in particular the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables we consume, and the amount of animal fats in the form of meat and dairy products that we consume, is clearly important in the aetiology of many diseases. And through many published studies we have now moved towards an understanding that an increased intake of fresh fruit and vegetables is good for our health, whilst a high intake of  red meat and saturated animal fats increases the risk of developing certain cancers and diseases such as heart disease etc. There is a close link between meat consumption and colon cancer. There is also now an established link between meat consumption and cancers of the breast, lung, prostate and pancreas, amongst others.

And what has happened is that there has been a great change in our diet on a global level since the second half of the 20th century, whereby what was once a largely plant-based diet has been replaced fairly swiftly by a diet which is high in fat, energy-dense , and with a substantial content of animal-based foods.

This has been noted by the WHO, who say that a low intake of fruit and vegetables is estimated to cause about 31% of heart disease, 11% of stroke worldwide and 19% of gastrointestinal cancer. Overall, nearly 3 million deaths every year are attributable to low fruit and vegetable intake.”

The WHO also says that established scientific evidence suggests there are major health benefits in…. moving from saturated animal fats to unsaturated vegetable oil-based fats.

So , if this is the case – what sort of diet is the ideal diet for the human body? One way to answer this question is to look at the area of comparative anatomy. Comparative anatomy is based on the simple principle that biological form usually defines function.

If we examine the gastro-intestinal system of a carnivorous animal, we see that the entire gastro-intestinal system is geared towards the rapid breakdown, absorption and excretion of the meat that they eat. The colon of a carnivorous animal is simple, short and smooth. The small intestine is usually 3-6 x the body length. But in humans, the gastro-intestinal system is very different – our colon is long and sacculated, we have reams and reams of small intestine: many times our body length. This is not the gastrointestinal system of a carnivore – this gut is best suited to the digestion of grains and fibrous plant materials. When we eat flesh, the meat stays in our colon for hours, sometimes days on end, essentially rotting and forming carcinogens, which later predispose us to the development of bowel cancer etc.

Carnivores’ teeth are pointed and sharp, their mouth opening compared to their head size is large, their jaw motion is shearing – they have minimal side-to-side motion of the lower jaw, they tend to swallow their food whole with minimal chewing.

 Our teeth, however, are broad and flattened, suitable for grinding; our mouth opening compared to our head size is small; we have good side-to-side jaw action, this is a feature of herbivorous animals; we have to chew our food extensively before swallowing – another feature of herbivorous animals.  In fact, if we compare our anatomy with that of carnivorous, omnivorous and herbivorous animals, we see that in almost every aspect, and these are just a few listed here, humans have developed almost exactly along the same lines as herbivorous animals.

What comparative anatomy tells us is that whilst we eat meat as a matter of habit or desire, actually meat does not constitute a natural diet for humans.

But what of the benefits of eating meat – what of all the protein for example – can we even derive adequate amounts of protein without eating meat? Let’s look at that.

The World Health Organization recommends a protein intake of 10-15% our total energy intake – that equates to roughly 60g protein a day for a man, and roughly 50g protein a day for a woman.

But look at how much meat we’re actually consuming… and this isn’t even the total amount of protein – this is just meat…

According to figures from the World Resources Institute, most of us are consuming far more protein than we need. And these figures are from 1998 – meat consumption has risen since then in most countries. Considering that just one average burger weighs around 100g, we can see how easy it is for us to overconsume protein in the form of meat.

So whilst it is true that vegetarians/vegans may consume less protein than meat-eaters, it is actually very easy to obtain the recommended amount of protein from a plant based diet – whilst ingestion of excess protein is avoided.

There is something else that can be avoided by moving away from an animal-based diet -

Some undesirable diseases are transmitted to humans from animals that we breed for meat: the risk of developing these diseases can be reduced or in some cases prevented, by avoiding consumption of animal flesh. These are some of them:

Salmonella and campylobacter are well known and common causes of food poisoning, sometimes fatal, and the most common vehicle for transmission of these infections to humans is chicken meat. E.coli food poisoning, also sometimes fatal, occurs when ingested meat has been contaminated by the animal’s faecal material. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE, originally arose when meat and bone meal were fed to cows, who are naturally vegetarian animals. BSE causes Creutzfeld Jakob dieases in humans, an incurable degenerative neurological disease. (

Avian flu and swine flu are examples of how respiratory infections in farmed poultry and pigs can be passed on to humans. Current intensive farming methods of these animals results in unhygienic and crowded conditions, where the animals are confined in cramped, dirty sheds or cages, in their thousands, often lying in their own excrement – it’s only logical that this incredibly crowded and unhygienic environment is a paradise for pathogens which spread easily and rapidly amongst the animals – sometimes influenza viruses are transmitted to the farm workers, and from there to the community. The result - a potential influenza pandemic. This is not an over-exaggeration as we have seen recently in the case of swine flu.

A transition to a plant-based diet, however, can minimise and in some cases eradicate the risk of developing these transmissible diseases, whilst providing all the necessary nutrients for optimum health.

There is now a wealth of evidence in the form of clinical trials published in peer-reviewed medical journals, supporting the fact that well-balanced plant-based diets are healthier for humans:

These studies show that:

-vegetarian diets low in fat have been used…to reverse severe coronary artery disease;

-vegetarians tend to have a lower incidence of hypertension than non-vegetarians;

-type 2 DM is much less likely to be a cause of death in vegetarians than non-veg’ns;-

the incidence of lung and colorectal cancer is lower in vegetarians than non-vegetarians;

 -And that some plant proteins may reduce kidney damage compared with a non-vegetarian diet - Add to all of that the results of the massive EPIC trial ( EPIC stands for European Prospective Investigation into Cancer) –the largest ever study conducted on health and diet, which studied half a million people in 10 different countries over 5 years and which confirmed a close link between meat consumption and cancer , and for me, this is pretty convincing evidence that not only do I not need to eat meat in order to have a healthy and nutritious diet, but that on top of that, by choosing a meat - free diet I have a higher likelihood of staying healthy in the long term and avoiding certain cancers and diseases.

This presentation by Aryan Tavakkoli was originally recorded in 2008 and has been given by Aryan many times. The full talk is  available on DVD and online at VegSense. Please see the video for references.


Dr Aryan practices as a Consultant Physician in Respiratory Medicine in the Hutt Valley, New Zealand.  Dr Aryan is also interested in the many-fold and far-reaching effects of our diets, and particularly how our diet affects the environment. She has written and spoken widely about this topic and has presented her talk, Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing Our Planet? in many venues around New Zealand. She has been interviewed about the link between diet and climate change by both local and national radio and newspapers.

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