Editor’s note: The following is a submitted opinion piece, one in a series, as part of ‘October is Plantiful,’ a project of 350 Kingston aimed at educating the public about the environmental benefits of plant-based foods. The City of Kingston officially proclaimed “October is Plantiful” at the Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, meeting of Kingston City Council. The agenda for that meeting, including correspondence received by Council from 350 Kingston, is available on the City of Kingston website, and the meeting itself can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel. Mayor Bryan Paterson signed the official “October is Plantiful” Proclamation on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. The first article in this series, Advice on starting your plant-based journey, is available here, and the second article, Learning about plant-based diets, is available here.
The views, opinions, and assertions expressed in this article have not been verified and do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.
“October is PLANTIFUL!”
So proclaimed Kingston City Council in recognizing the contribution of food choices in addressing carbon emissions and climate change. Local environmental organization 350 Kingston has organized a number of events to help people add plants to their diets. Visit 350Kingston.org for details on webinars, recipes, and more! With these articles, Hannah Ascough, PhD candidate at Queen’s University, shares helpful information for those starting down a more plant-based path — this time, answering some of the more commonly asked questions, as well as offering some recommended online resources!
Q: Is it more costly to be a vegan?
A: A lot of people assume that embracing a plant-based diet will cost them a lot more money than sticking with meat. In fact, one study, which surveyed the eating habits of Americans, showed that meat-eaters did not feel a plant-based diet would be a cheaper alternative (The Beet 2020) – a perception that likely comes from the typically higher upfront costs of fruits and vegetables (Pais et al. 2022).
This, however, is a misconception, as plant-based diets typically tend to be cheaper overall than meat-intensive diets. Indeed, many people cite the inexpensiveness of plant-based diets as the reason they became “economic” vegetarians. One study – which surveyed around 25,000 Americans – found that vegetarians report lower food-related expenditures (Lusk and Norwood 2016), while another American study agreed, noting that meat eaters spend $23 more per week than any other type of consumer on food (Pais et al. 2022). In fact, a scoping study which considered not only the upfront cost of different diets but their associated “climate change costs” as well found that in middle-to-high-income countries, vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be approximately 22 to 34 per cent lower in cost than red-meat-intensive diets (Springmann et al. 2021).
Of course, there is always cause for care and nuance when talking about the “cost” of a plant-based diet. While financially, it is overall cheaper to be a vegetarian or vegan, these kinds of diets can seem costly at the beginning, as people need to stock up on new kinds of staples for their pantries. Vegan and vegetarian diets – particularly when they are newly introduced into someone’s life – can also be costly in terms of time. As people relearn what and how to cook, the transition can be slow, and cooking may take more time than usual. Free time is a privilege (Giurge et al. 2020), and time spent on cooking may not be available to everyone in equal parts; thus, if you are a seasoned plant-based eater, make sure you share your “easy” recipes with friends, or take them to the grocery store, and walk them through this transition period.
Q: Someone told me it’s hard on your health to be a vegetarian – is that true?
A: This is a common concern and one that cross-cuts plant-based dieters from all walks of life, whether they are newly minted or seasoned vegetarians. There are no overt/immediate health concerns associated with a dietary shift to a plant-based diet; in fact, some studies cite the health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism, including reduced risk of heart disease and a reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes (Leitzmann 2005).
There are, of course, some minor health risks associated with a poorly balanced plant-based diet. A common mistake most new vegetarians and vegans make when transitioning away from meat-based diets is to neglect proper protein alternatives, such as peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, and nuts. Moreover, without proper protein intake, plant-based diets can cause iron deficiency anemia, which leads to fatigue, dizziness, and shortness of breath, particularly as the iron in meat is more easily absorbed than that found in plants (Harvard Health 2020). This is easily avoided by consuming iron-rich foods like potatoes, leafy greens, legumes, and soy-based products like tempeh (see here for a comprehensive list). Vegans need also be cognizant of their B12 intake, which is found in animal and dairy products, and potentially take B12 supplements or look for B12-fortified foods (Harvard Health 2020).
Q: I think it’s offensive to tell people what to eat!
A: I absolutely agree! “Food colonialism,” or the weaponization of food, captures these long and violent histories of some groups of people exerting control over food in order to dominate, assimilate, and/or destroy the cultures and populations of other groups of people. In Canada, this history is tied up in our legacies of settler colonialism, as the Canadian government and its settler populations have, throughout history, tried to control Indigenous communities’ access to food and food systems (Robin et al. 2021; CBC 2017); restricted or banned access to land needed for food production (Rotz 2017); and limited or banned culturally significant activities associated with Indigenous diets and food systems, while erasing intergenerational knowledge around sustainable food production (Mintz 2019).
Moreover, as I’ve alluded to above, our global food production systems are deeply unequal. Even though plant-based diets are easier on the environment than meat-based ones, the fact remains that much of the plant-based food we eat in Canada is grown in other countries, where members of the population often experience water shortages and food insecurity (FAO 2023), as the food they grow is exported to high-income countries like our own – another legacy of colonialism (Otter 2021).
What sometimes gets missed in conversations about plant-based diets is the idea of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is both a movement and a practice, defined as “the rights of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (La Via Campesina 2021). Food sovereignty reminds us that food is relational; it is tied up in our relationships with our social, cultural, and physical environments. Moreover, food sovereignty movements highlight the ways in which food, including meat, has always been produced and consumed by groups around the world in sustainable and healthy ways, such as the Inuit seal hunt (Aaju et al. 2002; Randhawa 2017).
The decision to go plant-based is not an invitation to police the eating habits of other people. Instead, it is an opportunity to start a new relationship with food – and with that comes the responsibility to think through your own food-related privileges, and engage with ideas like food sovereignty, the right to food, and global food redistribution (UNEP 2021). As is always true in the climate movement, while the individual decisions we make are important, we still need to demand system change – and so going plant-based needs to be a political decision, not just a personal one.
Recipe and website tips
I love this website for its straightforward vegetarian recipes, which are easy to follow and very quick to make. There is a huge selection of recipes, and you can sort based on other dietary restrictions as well. Some of my personal favourites are the beet salad with carrots and quinoa and the lentil baked ziti.
This website is a helpful source of information for active and/or athletic folks who are considering shifting their diet over to one that is predominantly plant-based. The recipes are fairly simple, and the site itself is a trove of knowledge on how to eat properly and healthily. I love their couscous salad and their TVP tacos.
A friend recently introduced me to this site, and I am a huge fan. This website shares fantastic plant-based and vegan recipes with affordable ingredients, that never take long to make. Some of my top recipes include the potato and red lentil soup as well as the creamy vegan harissa pasta.
Hannah Ascough is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University in the Department of Global Development, studying the social dimensions of the climate crisis. She is a lifelong
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