Until not long ago, those who choose a plant-based diet were considered mostly snobs, boring people, or, conversely, extravagant individuals substantially unable to fully enjoy the pleasures of the table.
Today, the picture of the situation has definitely changed.
International scientific studies, conducted over the past years, both in Europe and in the United States, confirm that poor nutrition is the main cause of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, high blood pressure, which have become the norm and not the exception in the Western world.
An excess of animal fat and sugars, an abuse of industrial food, combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, are the main causes of these illnesses.
Foods, such as meat, once a symbol of opulence achieved (especially in Europe post-war) are now also under indictment by the World Health Organization that urges consumers to a very moderate consumption.
We live in an age of paradoxes and fears. On the one hand, the food, on several fronts, is the business of the new millennium, on the other hand, in the same rich Western world, it is the first cause of death.
The factors of such inconsistency can be multiple and also depend on the different points of view to approach the topic.
For the food industry, for example, it is much more comfortable to escape the problem, as long as possible. So, many of the big food companies continue to produce foods rich in harmful fats, sugars and refined flours, meat and poultry rich in antibiotics. Artificial food that the companies produce at low cost but which has a high return in economic terms.
In addition to this, there is still too little awareness on the part of the consumers, in some cases unaware of what lies in what they eat, in others, disinterested about the topic.
An Oxford University study published in “PNAS” reveals that if all the world were to adopt a strictly vegan diet would save 8.1 million premature deaths by 2050, but even a minor change that limits the consumption of red meat to about 300 grams per week would avoid more than 5 million.
The researchers also calculated the savings in economic terms that would be obtained and developed four different scenarios: one of ‘business as usual’ where you keep the current trends in terms of diet; one in which the meat is limited to 300 grams per week, increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables; one strictly vegetarian and one vegan.
The greatest gain in terms of lives saved, mostly for minor cardiovascular diseases but also for cancers and obesity-related diseases, would be precisely the vegan diet, followed by a vegetarian (7.4 million deaths spared). These two also would allow the greatest benefits in terms of reducing emissions, by 63% for the vegetarian diet and 70% for the vegan, while the ‘moderately carnivorous’ would reduce by 30%. The economic benefits for health systems should be from 700 to one million dollars a year.
This suggests that choosing a plant based diet not only affects our health but involves the entire ecosystem.
Choosing a plant based diet implies a wide selection much more complex than simply eating fruits and vegetables. It means becoming aware that the food makes a difference, from various points of view and that much of what is sold as a healthy food is not. It means to broaden our horizons, expanding our own knowledge on food and everything revolves around it. It means to become aware of our consumer choices. It means to become an actor of the food chain and not a mere spectator.
The big supermarket chains sell natural and organic foods with good value for money. Often, however, the excessive choice confuses consumers. In addition, a product sold as “natural”, organic or vegetarian can contain harmful ingredients. So, how to choose? At a time when the consumer is kept at a distance from the food and how it is produced, the only way to choose well is to read the labels. Knowledge makes a difference and makes people free to choose. Food labels should be read carefully, just as you would for instructions of any technological product (phone, tablet, refrigerator, washing machine, TV). If you are used to shopping at the supermarket in a hurry, without devoting the time necessary that, usually, we all find to buy a pair of shoes or a cell phone, probably this advice may seem unnecessarily tedious. In truth, once used, it will be normal to read the labels before buying. Your health and your wallet will benefit, as well as the quality of your food.
One of the most common mistakes is to trust what appears on the front of the product packaging. On the contrary, the whole truth about the ingredients contained in the products we buy is written in the back of the pack.
If, for example, you’re looking for palm oil free cookies (the ubiquitous, most used vegetable oil in the world, rich in saturated fats, In Italy, no longer used by almost all the most authoritative companies) do not trust the first written that appears on the box and that indicates the absence of this oil (very cheap , for this, used by the food industry). Often, in the list of ingredients, it is replaced with margarine or canola oil (also these very unhealthy alternatives).
The same attention should be paid for the “Sugar free” products. In truth, sugar is hidden under other names: fructose, lactose, sucrose, maltose, glucose, dextrose.
The ingredients must be listed in descending order of quantity. Read carefully the instructions for use and storage. Attention to the expiration date. The words “best before …” indicates the date of preferred consumption (or minimum durability date) until which the foodstuff retains its specific properties when properly stored conditions. The words “use by …” indicates the deadline within which the product must be consumed.
Much of what we buy is sophisticated food. Too sweet or too salty foods are addictive, they do not feed and flatten the palate that becomes unable to recognize the true taste of food. The goodness of a recipe does not consist in the amount of the ingredients with which it is prepared but in the quality of the same.
If you are looking for a box of cereal for breakfast and you read that the first (or second) ingredient is sugar, then palm oil (or canola) is best to left on the shelf this product rich in sugars, fats and poor in those carbohydrates and complex sugars, present, on the contrary, in whole grains.
What to put on the shopping cart is easier than you think, being careful little tricks.
Choose foods rich in fiber, contained in legumes, whole grains, seasonal vegetables, fresh or dried fruit.
Choose extra virgin olive oil. The butter lovers can choose a good quality, preferably organic.
Choose organic free range eggs on the ground. They are also sold in supermarkets, but if you could go directly from a farmer and establish a relationship of trust with him, you will be sure to choose healthy eggs from so-called “happy chickens.” In both cases, check the labels (expiration date but also of egg laying).
Choose homemade cookies/biscuits, cakes and desserts. Industrial products are rich in refined sugars and flours, saturated fats, preservatives. You will find organic, natural desserts in health food stores and large supermarkets, although their cost is still high.
Choose fresh organic milk and get used to alternate with plant based drinks.
Avoid sugary drinks.
Prefer organic food free of chemical pesticides.
Going to the grocery store is (or would be desirable to become) a nice break that improves mood and well-being, especially in view of the delicious dishes that we prepare with the products purchased.
Choose the food shops, where the seller can suggest what is best for you, it would be desirable. It is also true that in modern life this is not always possible, especially in large cities. In this case, the supermarket is the place to be preferred. The important thing is to buy as little as possible artifacts, usually sold by small companies which rather than spending money on advertising, prefer to make quality products.
The local market is the place par excellence where, in a fair value for money, you will find fruits and vegetables (including organic) and much more.
Organic workshops are a fantastic place of perdition. You will find excellent alternatives to create delicious dishes with natural taste.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE:
I grew up in a family that has always loved the simple food. My mother, an excellent cook, has always favored natural cuisine with the vegetables cultivated by my father.
In the 70 and 80, the natural cuisine was not so well known and my mother was already at the forefront. When she saw me reluctant in front of a steak, instead of insisting, she proposed alternatives such as fresh eggs, legumes or fish (living in Sicily, it is one of the main dishes).
The shift toward a plant-based diet has taken place consciously and has improved the quality of life of all my family. Growing up, the scientific studies I read on nutrition and health and the conferences which I attended have reinforced my choice.
In this context, the Italian cuisine is certainly a great ally. The Italian cuisine is part of the Mediterranean diet that UNESCO declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It has in its culinary heritage a wealth of food, including many dishes based on vegetables, legumes and cereals, so it is not difficult to replace (or reduce) the animal protein.
I believe that the awareness with which we face certain choices (such as, for example, to renew themselves through what we eat) are the basis for living the food change in the most positive way.
Today, we can no longer pretend not to know how much certain food choices have important implications for our health and well-being of the planet (which, consequently, is still ours). Scientific studies (and not the fads) leave no room for doubt about the close relationship between food and health.
This does not mean that food should become an obsession, or that you have to homologate, for example, to these suggestions. What works for one, may not work for others.
We could then evaluate everything from another perspective. The taste, despite what you may believe, is the real unknown in our diet today. The artificial flavors, sugars, excess salt, have anesthetized our palate.
One of the finest achievements would be to regain the lost taste, “clean up” the palate by the artifacts of the modern food to really fully enjoy the pleasure of the table.