How an actuary learned that plant-based, whole foods are better for the climate and
Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.
Jane Goodall—conservationist, anthropologist and primate expert—is concerned, as I am, for our planet. Referring to the buildup of greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere, the loss of biodiversity, rainforest destruction and conflicts over resources, she emphasizes the need for personal action: “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall all be saved.”1
I have been studying, writing and speaking about climate change for more than a decade. In this editorial, I will share some of the insights I have gleaned from this work in an attempt to illustrate the urgency and interconnectedness of the climate change crisis with other global issues. Then, by detailing my own experiences—specifically with regard to my attempts to align my dietary choices with my social and political values—I hope to do the following:
- Make the case against the standard American diet (SAD), which is common in the United States and Canada, as well as in other countries.
- Highlight the need for individual responsibility to take action against the global climate crisis.
Ultimately, my hope is to increase the levels of understanding, caring and helping that can bring our planet back to a more stable climate, with increased well-being for humans and non-humans alike.
Personal Response to Climate Change
Like many people, I first responded to climate change by looking at how our household used energy and then by implementing strategies to reduce the energy we used. Many of those changes to reduce our energy use—such as turning off lights when leaving a room or hallway, turning down the heat and putting on an extra layer of clothing, buying only those things that we really needed, favoring used items over new, and biking and walking for short trips—were remarkably easy to adopt in our home.
I also had the opportunity to join the International Actuarial Association’s Task Force, which was considering whether it would be useful to develop an Actuaries Climate Index (ACI). The goals of the Index would be twofold:
- To educate and inform the public and policymakers about climate change.
- To highlight actuarial skills in nontraditional areas.
The ACI was launched in November 2016, through the collaboration of the American Academy of Actuaries (the Academy), the Canadian Institute of Actuaries (CIA), the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) and the Society of Actuaries (SOA).
As our team worked with the climate scientists at Solterra Solutions, we learned more about climate change—and I became even more concerned. It was clear to me that, while the ACI would raise awareness and provide insights into climate change, it would not impact public policy, which is what was really needed. Similarly, our household’s efforts to reduce our carbon footprint were not being replicated in the numbers needed to tackle the scope of the problem, and a more societal response was needed.
As I watched the United Nations climate negotiations, three things become clear to me:
- While many countries have come to the table to negotiate an agreement, the amount of ambition put forth by all the nations is not enough to prevent catastrophic warming.
- Time is running out for our planet.
- This is not the time to give up. Indeed, we must redouble our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions used by our own households, and to help build the political will for government action.
During the Christmas holidays of 2014, I watched the documentaries Forks Over Knives and Cowspiracy. The premise of Forks Over Knives is that many chronic diseases in our society are caused by the SAD, and can be prevented and even reversed by eating whole, vegan foods. The title Forks Over Knives is based on the use of forks (i.e., eating choices) rather than knives (scalpels used in heart surgery). Cowspiracy is about how animal agriculture is destructive in its impacts, and is a large user of land, energy and resources. The conspiracy part of the title refers to the fact that environmental organizations had been largely silent in highlighting the impacts of animal agriculture to their members. Feeding grain to animals in large quantities while people starve is not right. There are more than 800 million malnourished people,2 and nearly one-third of the population is overweight or obese.3 Cattle ranching enterprises now occupy nearly 75 percent of the deforested areas of Amazonia.4 Many people in developed nations have chronic diseases due to poor dietary habits that are now considered the norm.
Assessing My Values
I began to consider how eating animal products was not in line with my values, as I want everyone on this planet to get enough food to eat, and I don’t support the destruction of the rain forest and the creation of ocean dead zones because of our voracious appetites for meat. These documentaries made a lot of sense to me and inspired me to learn more. Switching to more plant-based diets has been singled out as an important strategy5 to mitigate climate change because it would use less land and energy for growing food. Using less land for growing food would allow that land to revert to natural vegetation, which would store carbon, thereby mitigating climate change and preserving biodiversity. Using less energy for growing food also mitigates climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I was also fascinated by the body’s ability to reverse chronic illnesses through good nutrition, and it seemed to me like a good opportunity to help people regain their health while making our food system both more equitable and efficient, with a much lower carbon footprint.
When we started experimenting with whole, plant-based foods, I was neither obese nor diabetic, but I did have borderline high cholesterol levels. My husband had high cholesterol and was put on a low-dose medication. He was told to watch his diet and not eat too much meat. I asked my husband to watch Forks Over Knives with me, which he did. I started cooking more whole-food, plant-based meals, and asked my family if they would be willing to adopt a whole-food vegan diet for Lent. My daughter said she would eat the vegan meals I cooked, but she reserved the right to eat cheese at other meals. My husband was also in agreement, but he reserved the right to go out and get fish and chips occasionally.
The experiment was successful. My husband started eating oatmeal regularly, and he thinks that doing so really helped with his cholesterol levels and with his weight loss. He feels more energetic and better when he eats whole, vegan foods. I wasn’t looking to lose weight, but I did and now I weigh what I weighed when I was in my 20s. My cholesterol levels are no longer in the “borderline high” zone, and the extra energy I feel is much appreciated! I have a heightened awareness of chronic diseases in my friends and family and, when appropriate, I share what has worked for me. I find that when I eat a standard American meal, I can feel the difference. It is more difficult to digest and, therefore, leaves me with less energy.
What Is the Standard American Diet?
The SAD began after WWII,6 as people in the United States started eating more meat and fewer fruits and vegetables. The SAD is not optimal, despite the fact that many developing nations are adopting it as their wealth increases. It includes a great deal of dairy products, eggs, fish and meat (about 200 pounds of meat consumption per person per year).
I have learned that there are many issues with animal agriculture, including the risk of food poisoning, high cholesterol, IGF-1 (a carcinogen found in meat), bioaccumulation of toxic pollutants, saturated and trans-fats, and the amount of grains fed to livestock while people in need are malnourished. The production of beef uses approximately 10 times the resources of alternate livestock categories, such as poultry and pork. Alternate livestock categories use about the same amount of water, and from two to six times the resources of plant-based foods.7 The intensity of resource use for animal agriculture is an important factor in climate change both due to the direct emissions from the production and use of energy and chemical fertilizers, and from the conversion of land from forests (which are a carbon sink) to pasture or cropland.
A plant-based, whole foods diet is one where health-promoting foods are eaten, and foods that have been proven to lead to disease are avoided. One analogy that I like is that food is a package deal: Animal protein comes in a package with saturated fat, cholesterol and no fiber, while plant protein comes in a package with no cholesterol, very little fat, fiber and phytonutrients (chemical compounds found in plants that are beneficial to human health).
If you are considering the change to a plant-based, whole foods diet, here is what I have learned:
- Cholesterol and saturated fats, which are predominantly found in animal products, have a negative impact on health.
- In contrast, fiber and phytonutrients, which are solely found in plant foods, are good for health. About 97 percent of the U.S. population does not get enough fiber. It’s clear that any replacement of animal products with unrefined plant products will increase the amount of fiber a person eats—improving health by aiding digestion, relieving constipation and helping to unclog blood vessels.8
- The consumption of fish and animal products is associated with higher levels of inflammation, which can be a source of debilitation. Eating fish, whether farmed or wild-caught, is also problematic due to toxins such as methylmercury.9
- There is too much sugar in the SAD. Sugar is a leading cause of obesity and a factor in the development of diabetes, which is reaching epidemic proportions. Calories in sugar displace nutrition that could be received through more healthful dietary choices. Artificial sweeteners make a poor substitute because they have been shown10 to not help people lose weight, so other strategies are likely needed.
- Too much salt, which is typical in the SAD and contributes to high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for heart disease.
A whole foods, plant-based diet goes a bit further than a vegan diet (which also excludes animal products) because whole plant foods are chosen over processed plant foods. To illustrate, unpeeled baked or boiled potatoes are chosen over french fries, beets are eaten as a vegetable rather than in the form of beet sugar; and whole-grain breads, baked without preservatives, are chosen over mass-produced white bread. Fat is obtained from nuts and seeds—that is, whole foods rather than from oil, which is a refined product. Sweetness comes from eating fruit, rather than from processed sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Herbs and spices are chosen over adding lots of salt. The diet is rich in fiber and phytonutrients, which are important for health. It should be noted that a whole foods, plant-based diet is a radical shift from the SAD. But with this radical shift in eating comes a radical shift in positive health outcomes and resource use.
Almost 35 years ago, Dr. Denis Burkitt, a surgeon who worked in Africa, wrote:11
Many of the major and commonest diseases in modern Western cultures are universally rare in third-world communities, were uncommon even in the United States until after World War I, yet have comparable prevalence today in both black and white Americans. This finding compels the conclusion that these diseases must be due not to our genetic inheritance but to our lifestyle. This conclusion in turn argues that they must be potentially reversible.
Since that time, more nutrition research has been conducted: “In the light of strikingly consistent observations from many epidemiological studies, there can be little doubt that the habitual consumption of diets high in fruits and vegetables helps to reduce the risk of development of degenerative diseases, including many types of cancers.”12 On the other hand, as other nations adopt the SAD, their incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease is increasing.
Certainly, a whole foods, plant-based diet can be effective for people who want to gain more control over their health. But it is also attractive from an environmental and compassionate perspective, and it reduces the amount of money spent on health care and food.
There are, nonetheless, obstacles to shifting the population away from the SAD and towards adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet. The majority of us, here in North America, continue to find the SAD attractive. Among the forces that urge us to maintain the status quo are:
- The role of the SAD as part of our culture
- The power of advertising to greatly affect consumer choice
- The profitability and convenience of refined and processed foods
- Size and influence of large food corporations
- The lack of training for doctors on nutrition
- The protocols for—and payments to—doctors tend to be geared to treatment, rather than prevention, of chronic illness
- The profitability for pharmaceutical companies selling drugs for chronic conditions
- The addictive nature of processed foods (e.g., sugar, salt, fat)13
- People think that making the shift will be too difficult and not taste good
These are sizable obstacles. However, there are also some forces that have compelled me to move away from the SAD toward a whole foods, plant-based diet. These forces include:
Actuaries for Sustainable
Actuaries for Sustainable Health Care is a new organization of actuaries dedicated to achieving the long-term sustainability of health care financing systems, through the use of whole-food, plant-based nutrition. It has the following founding principles:
- Whole-food, plant-based nutrition is more effective than any other drug, surgical procedure or dietary intervention at reversing a wide range of chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel conditions.
- Any health care financing system or reform proposals for these systems that incentivize prescription drugs, medical procedures and tests over interventions that address the underlying cause of chronic conditions are unsustainable.
- Given that whole-food, plant-based nutrition has no negative side effects and requires no additional cost (everyone needs to eat), all health care financing systems should inform their members of how this approach can reverse and prevent chronic disease.
- Actuaries, given their training and experience with a variety of financial security systems, are ideally suited to develop sustainable solutions for health care financing systems that incentivize health care providers to discuss whole-food, plant-based nutrition with patients.
- The dissemination of knowledge14 and people’s stories through the internet
- The efficacy of a whole foods, plant-based diet in weight loss, feeling more energetic, and in the lowering of risk factors for chronic disease15
- The ability of human taste buds to adapt to a change in diet, finding the new diet palatable16
- The desire to mitigate the suffering from chronic disease in ourselves and in those we care about
- Concern about food toxins—people can significantly reduce their exposure to toxins by eating plants rather than animals, as toxins bioaccumulate in animals
- The intention of governments to address climate change, which will mean less use of fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-derived chemical fertilizers, which will increase the price of animal products much more than the price of plant foods
- Life and health insurance companies using a strategy of promoting wellness to reduce claims and increase customer engagement
- Governments looking at wellness programs and dietary guidelines as a way to prevent disease and potentially mitigate climate change (e.g., China’s new dietary guidelines limit meat consumption to between 31 and 59 pounds per person per year,17 while Canada’s draft Food Guide recommends “regular intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods, especially plant-based sources of protein”18)
- Governments putting a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (France and Mexico have recently introduced these taxes and have seen a decline in sales)19
- The routine measurement of cholesterol levels and the use of diet as a primary management tool for high-cholesterol levels
Populations that rely on subsistence agriculture are particularly vulnerable to climate change, and this can lead to famine, social unrest and migration. The food system is a major user of land and energy resources. The mitigation of climate change requires much less use of fossil fuel energy, allowing land to be used to store carbon through forests and reforestation.
I am now convinced that a shift to a whole foods, plant-based diet would help immensely to mitigate climate change, improve human health20 and enhance food security. The transition to healthier eating patterns will have a profoundly positive impact on health care costs, and is key to the long-term sustainability of health care systems.
Changing one’s diet is not an easy choice to make. It involves engaging with the people with whom you eat, and a commitment to eating different foods—or the same foods, prepared differently. It is a process of trial and error to find foods you enjoy, and it requires an open mind to try new foods and to establish new cooking and eating patterns. The journey of changing to a whole foods, plant-based diet has many rewards. I invite you to consider how you might want to change some of your eating patterns to help save the planet and improve your health. Your understanding, caring and help is needed!
- 1. Jane Goodall Institute. 1999. Jane Goodall: 40 Years at Gombe. New York: Abrams Books. ↩
- 2. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 2017. State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. ↩
- 3. Murray, Christopher J.L., and Marie Ng. “Nearly One-third of the World’s Population Is Obese or Overweight, New Data Show.” Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. http://www.healthdata.org/news-release/nearly-one-third-world’s-population-obese-or-overweight-new-data-show. ↩
- 4. Margulis, Sergio. 2004. Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. World Bank Working Paper No. 22. ↩
- 5. Hawken, Paul (ed). 2017. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin Books. ↩
- 6. Popkin, Barry M. 2011. “Agricultural Policies, Food and Public Health.” EMBO Reports 12 (1): 11–18. ↩
- 7. Eshel, Gidon, Alon Shepon, Tamar Makov and Ron Milo. 2014. “Land, Irrigation Water, Greenhouse Gas, and Reactive Nitrogen Burdens of Meat, Eggs and Dairy Production in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (33). ↩
- 8. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet.” Healthy Lifestyle: Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983. ↩
- 9. Oken, E. A.L. Choi, M.R. Karagas, K. Marien, C.M. Rheinberger, R. Schoeny, E., Sunderland, and S. Korrick. 2012. “Which Fish Should I Eat? Perspectives Influencing Fish Consumption Choices.” Environmental Health Perspectives 120 (6): 790–798. ↩
- 10. Porikos, K.P., G. Booth, and T.B. Van Itallie. 1977. “Effect of Covert Nutritive Dilution on the Spontaneous Food Intake of Obese Individuals: A Pilot Study.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 30 (10): 1638–1644. ↩
- 11. Birkitt, Dennis Parsons. 1982. South African Medical Journal. ↩
- 12. Astley, S.B., R.M. Elliott, D.B. Archer, and S. Southon. 2004. “Evidence That Dietary Supplementation With Carotenoids and Ctenoid-rich Foods Modulates the DNA Arodamage: Repair Balance in Human Lymphocytes.” British Journal of Nutrition 91 (1): 63–72. ↩
- 13. Cheren, Mark, Mary Foushi, Ester Helga Gudmundsdotter, Colleen Hillock, Marty Lerner, Michael Prager, et al. 2009. “Physical Craving and Food Addiction.” The Food Addiction Institute. ↩
- 14. See www.actuariesforsustainablehealthcare.org/resources for a list of plant-based, whole-food diet resources. ↩
- 15. Tuso, Phillip J., Mohamed H. Ismail, Benjamin P. Ha, and Carole Bartolotto. 2013. “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-based Diets.” The Permanente Journal 17 (2): 61–66. ↩
- 16. Greger, Michael. 2013. “Changing Our Taste Buds,“ Video. ↩
- 17. “China’s Plan to Cut Meat Consumption by 50 Percent Cheered by Climate Campaigners.” 2016. The Guardian. June 20. ↩
- 18. “Summary of Guiding Principles and Recommendations.” 2017. Government of Canada. April 5. https://www.foodguideconsultation.ca/guiding-principles-summary. ↩
- 19. “Stopping Slurping.” 2015. The Economist. November 28. ↩
- 20. Capon, Anthony G., and Chris Rissel. 2010. “Chronic Disease and Climate Change: Understanding Co-benefits and Their Policy Implications. New South Wales Public Health Bulletin 21 (5-6): 109–113. ↩