Tag Archives: Vegan

Is veganism an eating disorder?

comic-characters-1297866_640My friend went vegan and now her hair’s falling out and her period stopped.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read something similar in the comment section of a blog post or a video on youtube. I want to talk about this because it’s a topic that touches on serious mental health issues, but also a sadly mistaken view of the vegan community as a whole. If you know someone who fits that description they may be using veganism to mask an eating disorder.

This is a challenging discussion as there’s very little to be said that can be applied to everyone, and each person can only know the truth about their own motivations for choosing a vegan lifestyle, and not everyone is honest with themselves, which muddies the waters. If you know someone who is vegan and you’re legitimately concerned about their mental health vis-a-vis their diet, you may want to put some extra time into really trying to understand the difference between an eating disorder and being passionate about vegan advocacy & caring deeply about maintaining a vegan lifestyle.

Orthorexia: the vegan eating disorder?

The main eating disorder that I want to discuss is orthorexia nervosa. The reason I’m limiting my discussion to this particular eating disorder is because it offers the most opportunity for confusion, and for people to mistakenly pinpoint vegans as having an eating disorder.

I have a real problem with the official definition of orthorexia.

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no-smoking-907087_640It seems impossible not to include vegans within this definition. No wonder people are confused! I systematically avoid foods that cause irreparable harm to myself, the planet, and trillions of animals – meat, dairy & eggs. And I also almost never eat very sugary things, like candy and chocolate. Does that make me orthorexic? Certainly not – I’m just a vegan who has never had much of a sweet tooth, even when I was a kid. Anyone who systematically avoids cigarettes and cigarette smoke or someone who is lactose intolerant systematically avoiding dairy products doesn’t have mental health problems any more than vegans do.

Veganism can be an attractive lifestyle to young girls and boys with a penchant for eating disorders and who want to be super skinny because it naturally eliminates many of the sources of dietary fat – animal products. A good sign to look for if you’re worried about someone who’s vegan having an eating disorder is the avoidance of ANY fat at all, even healthy fats like those found in avocado and nuts. But be sure that you’re aware of what actually constitutes a healthy fat. If someone is avoiding no oiloils (olive oil, canola oil, coconut oil, etc.) and products made with them (such as potato chips, margarine, etc.), that is not necessarily a warning sign! Plant-based doctors, such as Dr. Esselstyn and Dr. McDougall warn against consuming any oil at all because it clogs arteries and can lead to heart attacks. Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, soybeans & soy products are all healthy whole-food sources of fat.

To omnivores, my diet sounds very restrictive, but in fact I eat bountifully as a vegan, so keep in mind there is a matter of perspective to account for. Having said that, if a person only eats 5 different foods, that’s objectively extreme and a clear warning sign.

Another warning sign, as mentioned at the start of this post, is hair & period loss (on any diet, by the way). Anyone experiencing this should look at the calorie density of their food. If you consistently eat food with low calorie density, then it will be difficult to eat enough calories in any given day and, if your weight falls below a healthy level, then bye-bye hair and period. It’s a natural consequence of being underweight, and an important warning sign.

Another by-product of a failure to consume a sufficient amount of calories is being nutritionally deficient. If you’re worried, get a blood test to find out if you’re getting enough vitamins & minerals.

The Bratman test for orthorexia

I believe that it’s important to look at each individual person within their own context when it comes to figuring out if they might have orthorexia. I’m going to use the Bratman test for orthorexia to show you why. It’s a series of questions to assist in self-diagnosis.

  1. Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?
  2. Do you plan your meals several days ahead?
  3. Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?
  4. Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
  5. Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
  6. Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?
  7. Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods?
  8. Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?
  9. Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?
  10. Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily?

“Yes to 4 or 5 of the above questions means it is time to relax more about food. Yes to all of them means a full-blown obsession with eating healthy food.” (source).

I answered yes to 1,2,3,5,7,8,10. That’s a shocking 7 out of 10! And yes to 4 or 5 means that I’m supposed to “relax more about food”? Why on God’s green earth should I “relax” about food when animal agriculture is literally destroying the planet and human health? For each question to which I answered yes, I’m going to explain why, so that you know how I can feel so certain about not having orthorexia myself, and so you can see why new, more pointed, questions are needed to test for this eating disorder.

brainstorming-413156_6401. Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet? YES. Not only am I  a vegan who prepares virtually all the meals in my household, but I also love to cook, and am always searching for new and interesting ways to substitute for things like cream (my latest discovery is onion cream, which I now use in pasta dishes). In addition, I have 2 blogs which both focus on veganism. The other one is specifically about healthy meal planning in accordance with Dr. Greger’s recommended daily dozen. I also have a large garden, and I devote time to thinking about what I can grow that will offer the most nutritional yield for my hard work, and will also be the most cost- and space-efficient. When I’m harvesting, I like to think about meals that I can make with the food I’m gathering. This all comes back to veganism, and so, yes, I’m sure I spend far more than 3 hours each day thinking about my ‘diet’.

2. Do you plan your meals several days ahead? YES. We go grocery shopping once a week. I go with a prepared list of what I need for the week’s meals. I like trying new things, so I don’t just buy the same things every week, which means I need to plan meals and prepare a list in advance or I’ll never remember everything I need. 

horizontal-1155878_6403. Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it? YES. Though I really enjoy cooking and love love love good food, I always start by finding something that is nutritious. If I go to a dinner party and the extent of the effort that the hosts went to to accommodate me was to cut up a few raw vegetables, well, then, that’s what I’m eating even though I’m certainly not going to get all that much pleasure out of it. It’s definitely a bummer when that happens, but I won’t compromise my health & principles just because someone doesn’t know how to use Google. But, to be fair, it’s not just about nutrition for me. I’m an ethical vegan as well, so I guess I can sort of give this a semi-yes. I’ve always made sure that I maintained healthy eating habits, and not fallen into a rut of eating lots of fatty or sugary foods. In that sense, even before I was vegan, my first priority was health & nutrition.

5. Have you become stricter with yourself lately? YES. It’s very recently that I found out that refined oil is as bad for your body as animal products, so I’ve been working to eliminate oil from my diet. I use aquafaba to replace oil in hummus and pesto and salad dressings, etc. I don’t like water-sauteed onions, though, so if anyone has suggestions for me about that, I’d be happy to hear them. 

7. Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods? Uh. Hello. Cheese. Bacon. I even had to give up my favorite dish detergent because it has whey in it.

gossip-1385797_6408. Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends? YES. I don’t let it prevent me from going where I’m invited, but I think some people don’t invite me over for dinner because it’s scary for them to try to cook vegan. When it definitely distances me from people is when they behave like asses and make fun of me, or ignorantly declare total disapproval of my ‘sissy’ ethics, ‘sickly’ diet, and ‘high-horse’ lifestyle. Yeah, whatever. Sometimes I cry a little, but then I get over it. It’s their problem, not mine. And, no matter how rude people have been, I’ve never regretted my decision to be vegan for a single second.

10. Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily? YES. Of course I feel at peace and in control of myself when I healthily. Not only am I living my ethics, but I know I’m doing as much to be in control of my own future health, well-being and healthcare costs as I know how to do, which is a good feeling. And that’s NORMAL! 

While orthorexia is as serious as any other eating disorder, and there are some orthorexic vegans out there who do need the people in their lives to lovingly and compassionately try to get them help, most vegans are not orthorexic. They are individuals who have opened their eyes to the truth of the damage that is caused by consuming animal products – the damage to the planet, to the animals, and to our own bodies, and they are acting completely rationally in the face of that information. I would argue MORE rationally than people who flatly refuse to consider veganism.

If a vegan is orthorexic, they can recover from their eating disorder while still being vegan. Here is a good discussion of that possibility.

Lastly, mainstream media sometimes uses the idea of orthorexia to try to scare people out of becoming vegan (I’m looking at you, BBC). It’s utterly ridiculous, and it needs to stop because they are doing actual harm. Don’t be afraid to:

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Is a vegan diet less sustainable than an omnivorous diet?

References to one particular study on diet and land use requirements keep popping up around the web, from various blogs and news organizations.

rude-151093_640Most of them have been quick to jump on this study because it seems to offer them an opportunity to thumb their noses and blow raspberries at the vegan community, for example, “Sorry vegans: Sticking to a meat-free, dairy-free diet is NOT as good for the planet as you might think”. Many of them start with some kind of elbow to the rib, something about how we like to think we’re better than everybody else or some such nonsense. Some are more respectful.

What all of them have in common is a serious lack of understanding of the specific point made by the authors, and even the authors themselves seem to miss the forest for the trees. I’ll explain.

First, here’s a link to the specious article under discussion: Peters et al. 2016. It’s licensed under the CC attribution license and available for everyone to read for free (yay!).

salad-1570673_640The key measure under investigation was the carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land – basically, the annual per capita land requirements vs. amount of land available for food production when that food is in keeping with different diets. More simply, how many people can be fed with the amount of land that we have? The authors look at various levels of omnivorous diets, lacto-ovo and lacto-vegetarian, and vegan, as well as 2 variants of current consumption.

They begin with 2 fundamental assumptions: there is a relationship between diet and sustainability, specifically, “dietary change is essential for meeting future human food needs”. Agreed. Second: “sparing land from conversion to agriculture may be important for protecting biodiversity”, so it’s vitally important to understand how dietary patterns impact land use. So far, so good.

cows-1029077_640The authors caution against simplistic thinking because, though animal agriculture is the most land-intensive, the largest fraction of land it uses is for foraging and grazing, often on non-arable land – land that can’t be used to grow any crops for human consumption, though grasses and other ‘weeds’ will grow which the animals eat. So, as they point out, eliminating animal agriculture does not necessarily mean turning all its land over to cultivation.

So, I can definitely see where they’re coming from. It’s a logical argument. If we want to make the most of our land for food production purposes, then we need to use it for what it’s good for. Attempting to make non-arable land supportive of crops causes environmental devastation (just look at the Aral Sea crisis). And it’s clear from the numbers in Peters et al. (2016) that the most efficient use of land for food would include using non-arable land for animal agriculture.

There are 2 implicit assumptions the authors are making which are simply untrue. First, that there is such a thing as an omnivorous diet that is healthy. Nope. Not only is the ingestion of animal products devastating to human health, but the killing and handling of dead animals causes psychological disorders in the people who do that kind of work, and passes unknown numbers of diseases on to anyone who handles raw meat, producers & consumers alike.

Second, that the most efficient diet in terms of land use is the most sustainable diet. Efficiency does not equal sustainability, and animal agriculture is far too devastating to the environment to be considered as part of the future of a sustainable food supply. The following information and more is available on the Cowspiracy website’s fact sheet.

  • ocean dead zones, water pollution, & habitat destruction are largely driven by animal agricultureclean-1223168_640
  • livestock and their byproducts account for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • animal agriculture is the leading driver of desertification
  • the U.S. could feed 800 million people with just the grain that is currently fed to livestock (that’s more than double the current U.S. population and slightly more than the total number of starving people in the world, according to United Nations World Food Program statistics)
  • more than 80% of the world’s starving children live in countries who export their grain to feed livestock, which are then consumed by people in wealthier countries – an absolute crime against humanity

What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t actually matter what the most efficient use of land is, because any animal agriculture at all does more harm than good and, if we turn over all the currently arable land to cultivation for human consumption, we could easily feed the global population with room to grow, and if we eventually do outgrow it, we can still work with what we’ve got and use our technology to find better solutions like vertical farming.

Something I often hear vegans say, and see in vegan blog posts is that we don’t need to consume animals and their products to be healthy and happy, but we can make a much stronger statement than that – because it’s true – consuming animals and their products at the rate we currently do is not only antithetical to human health & happiness, but even to our survival as a species.

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Leaving the Land of Nod: a vegan perspective on the Garden of Eden

How do you feel about knowledge?

It’s generally a good thing, right? Important, a worthy pursuit, advances civilization, and all that jazz? Yes, of course.

creation-47473_640That’s why I never really got the Bible story about Adam & Eve & the Garden of Eden. They were cast out of the garden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. I couldn’t quite connect with the idea that knowledge was somehow a bad thing. I’m apparently not the only one because I’ve seen interpretations of this story saying that the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge had the power to fill man with the desire for both good and evil. But I don’t buy that interpretation. It doesn’t seem to be what was intended by the story, which speaks only of the knowledge of good and evil.

Now that I have a different perspective on the eating habits of humanity, it suddenly dawned on me to look at this story with new eyes, and I found that I have, for the first time, an answer to this riddle that works for me.

Humankind is the only species that, as far as we know, has knowledge of good and evil; in other words – we’re the only non-innocent animal in an ethical sense, meaning that we make decisions based on a thought process including the weighing of our actions against a moral backdrop rather than simply following instinct with no ethical culpability, as the other creatures on this earth.

We’re also the only species to consistently subsist on a diet that is neither natural nor healthy for us because we have the technology to go against nature. Here’s something interesting which, to me, shows that the ethic of veganism is part of our consciousness no matter how deep our culture is trying to bury it: in the Garden of Eden – the perfect paradise – animals simply exist side-by-side with man – they are not used for food or labor. But then, after being cast out of paradise, the first two “jobs” that humans engaged in (according to this story, anyway) were plant and animal agriculture. The sons of Adam & Eve were a shepherd and a farmer.

donkey-534906_640So, as we lost the innocence that goes along with ignorance, our entire relationship with the animal kingdom changed. It was no longer one of harmony, but became one of subjugation when we lost our paradise. That says to me that we have always known, in our heart of hearts, even 3500 years ago when the stories in Genesis were first written, that our relationship with the other animals with whom we share this planet is just not right. It represents a deviation from our original purpose.

book-2869_640Another word about knowledge: you’ve heard the expression “ignorance is bliss”, I’m sure. It’s easy enough to see why this is a truism, especially in this context. But what about “a little learning is a dangerous thing” (Alexander Pope)? Well, just look at us! The path we’re on is clearly destructive to ourselves, to other species, and to the planet as a whole. We’re ruining everything (I know that might sound hyperbolic, but it’s literally true) with our “knowledge” because we don’t have enough of it – you can never have enough of it. Once you’ve entered that rabbit-hole, there’s no coming out. We now have the duty of constantly trying to gain knowledge and understanding because the more we have, the less dangerous our knowledge becomes.

Simple example:

Common knowledge: protein is an essential macronutrient.

Not common knowledge: if we get our protein mostly from animal products, we’re doing ourselves more harm than good.

Not common knowledge: we can get plenty of protein from eating plants (after all, that’s where most other animals get it from).

I do have a caveat – it’s only true based on the assumption that, as humanity advances, we will also continue to grow spiritually & ethically – that personal qualities like empathy and detachment will be cultivated and will continue to spread. I see this in the vegan movement, and I used the two specific examples of empathy and detachment because they are both key qualities of successful (meaning long-term) ethical vegans. These are people who have expanded their circle of empathy, a prerequisite for compassion, as wide as they can. It’s more than that, though – developing the quality of detachment is necessary to let go of all the animal products that our society tells us we should fear being without. I assure you, there was a day when I was afraid to let go of cheese. I expressed that feeling in the following way: “I could never give up cheese!” Sound familiar? It seems silly to me now, because I don’t eat cheese and I don’t feel a sense of deprivation, but it’s normal for people to be afraid of that feeling. And it’s only after letting go that you can come to realize that your life and your food are just as interesting as they ever were. Getting to that point, though, requires detachment. While we still have the fear of letting go, we hold ourselves back from being standard-bearers of the advancement of society, and from participating in a meaningful way in literally saving the planet.

Expand your circle of empathy;

Detach yourself from what’s holding you back;

& Go Vegan. It’s worth it.

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** A note about the title, for those who are curious. I chose the “Land of Nod” for its double entendre. By leaving the land of nod I mean both waking up to the truth, and leaving exile to regain paradise.

 

A Fresh Start

snowdrop-147871_1280It’s been a long time since I’ve published a new blog post. More than 2.5 years, in fact! During that time, I’ve done loads of research and learning, all of which has led me back to one particular change that anyone and everyone can make in order to substantially reduce your carbon footprint as well as your personal contributions to environmental degradation & species extinction, while significantly improving your odds against nearly all of the leading causes of death. It’s an idea whose time has come. And, when you realize the incredible extent of the ramifications of this issue, you begin to see that it presents just as much of a social justice issue as equality of the sexes and eliminating racism.

So, I’ve decided not only to start posting again (now that I finally have some time on my hands!), but also to make a change in the trajectory. The foundation remains very much focused on sustainability, but I will begin to hone in on this one change that has the largest impact on the earth and all its inhabitants – including us humans.

Last October (2015), I went from being pescetarian to vegan – in other words, I adopted a completely plant-based lifestyle. The motivations for making this change are many, and part of what I want to do here is to share them, for those who are not yet aware of the health and environmental benefits. For many people, even if you’re already convinced that it’s the right thing to do, actually making the shift can be an overwhelming proposition, so I also aim to share my experiences, the challenges I face living in a community in which veganism is almost unheard of, what I learn as I go, and anything that might be helpful in transitioning towards the vegan lifestyle. I also welcome questions, concerns, and requests.

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The “Natural Flavors” Obfuscation

Did you know that MSG and aspartame can be labeled as “natural flavors”? Did you know that they are also the leading causes of central nervous system damage in the United States? They are both neurological toxins called excitotoxins, which essentially cause an extreme level of activity in certain brain cells, causing the cells to become exhausted and then die. The hypothalamus and the temporal lobes are specifically targeted. They control behavior, sleep cycle, emotion, immunity, and onset of puberty, among other things. They are essentially drugs, and damage your brain as such. Really look at the image to the right. This is what happens to brain cells within 2 hours of consumption of MSG.

brain-954821_640The reason they’re in a massive percentage of our food supply is because our food production system, very simply put, makes food that tastes of cardboard without a lot of help from additives like MSG and aspartame. They also ‘excite’ your taste buds along with your brain cells, and are addictive. The more of them you eat, the more you crave them. That’s another reason why they’re in so much processed food. The companies making these products want you to want them. Despite what it sounds like, this isn’t some sort of conspiracy theory. This is run-away laissez-faire capitalism gone mad (with the dubious exception of subsidization, of course).

mmm…gelatin

“Natural flavors” create two more problems for people who want to be more healthy and/or take a sociopolitical stand by taking control of their diet. One is that many of these “natural flavors” are manufactured using a process that begins with soy protein, sugar, glucose, starch, or a fatty acid. These are often derived from genetically modified crops, such as soy, corn, rapeseed, potatoes and sugar beets. The other problem is for vegetarians and vegans – there are many additives that are allowed in supposedly vegetarian and vegan food, which are derived from animals and insects. I like to take garlic supplements, but I recently discovered that the ones I’ve been taking use pig-derived gelatin. So, I’m back to raw organic garlic until I can find an alternative. It’s a veritable minefield out there. But knowledge is power, and as we gain knowledge, we can make changes one at a time.

All those years, I thought spices looked like this. Silly me!

All those years, I thought spices looked like this. Silly me!

The most important thing for you to know is how to recognize these dangerous ingredients, so that you can avoid buying products that contain them. MSG goes by many names. This is an incomplete list:

Glutamic acid, glutamate, monopotassium glutamate, calcium glutamate, calcium caseinate, sodium caseinate, gelatin, anything “hydrolyzed,” soy protein, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, textured protein, whey protein, whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, yeast extract, yeast food, yeast nutrient, autolyzed yeast, caramelized yeast, vegetable extract, plant protein extract, oat flour, malt extract, malt flavoring, bouillon, broth, stock, natural flavoring, natural beef or chicken flavoring, seasoning, spices, carrageenan, enzymes.

For a long time I thought that the term “spices” in ingredients lists was to protect trade secrets, so the company doesn’t have to give away it’s special mixture of dried/dehydrated chives, oregano and parsley. As it turns out, it’s so they don’t have to write MSG on the label, since it’s gotten so much well-deserved bad press.

Aspartame may be a little easier to recognize, as it has fewer names. They include Equal, NutraSweet, NatraTaste, Canderel, Spoonful, and Equal-Measure. Similar artificial sweeteners that should also be avoided are acesulfame K, cyclamate, isomalt, saccharin, sucralose (brand name Splenda), alitame, neohesperidine, salt of aspartame-acesulfame, maltitol, lactitol, sorbitol, mannitol and glycerol.

greens-266560_640Here’s the thing. It’s really a lot easier to think about this in a positive way. In other words, don’t think about what to avoid. Think about what to include. For example, organic honey, actual real maple syrup, and organic raw sugar are fine in moderate quantities. Cook at home using fresh ingredients, and add flavor to your food with real herbs and spices. It’s that simple.

Why Meat is Not Sustainable

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” ~ Albert Einstein.

There are many reasons people decide to go pescatarian, vegetarian or vegan, often having something to do with health or cruelty to animals. Legitimate reasons, to be sure, but they’re not what pushed me over the fence. It was realizing how grossly unsustainable it is to raise livestock for human consumption, especially with the number of people currently living on earth and the current practices that are employed by the vast majority of cattle farmers.

Cattle are definitely the worst offenders. Producing 1 kg of beef (a/b 2.2 lbs) emits greenhouse gases that equal about 34.6 kg (76.3 lbs) worth of global warming potential. Think of every cow as an extra car on the road driving about 7,800 miles per year. There are approximately 1.4 billion cattle in the world, 25-30% of which are dairy cows.

That’s a hell of a contribution to global warming, and that doesn’t include the other forms of environmental damage that result, like deforestation for the purpose of creating pastures. That also doesn’t include the contributions from other livestock, like sheep, goats, and pigs. The more you reduce the amount of meat and dairy in your diet,  the more you will reduce your personal carbon footprint.

Grapes to the rescue?

We need to work out other ways to reduce the impact of livestock on the environment, and more widely implement those we have. Grape marc is a by-product of wine-making. It’s the parts of the grape left over after pressing out the juice. It’s high in both dietary fat and tannins, both of which reduce the amount of methane a cow produces. When a study was done in Australia, it was found that feeding marc to dairy cows reduced their methane output by 20%. There were other benefits, too, such as reducing the concentration of saturated fatty acids, and increasing linoleic acid which is known to fight cancer, heart disease and arthritis. All that needs to be done for this to work is to create a supply chain between vintners and cattle farmers. It would at least be a start.

It’s also possible to use the manure from the cows to produce electricity, as pointed out by erisa1602 in a comment on my composting post. It strikes me that, as a society, we really need to work on interdisciplinarianism, cross-pollination of ideas, and plain old working together to create better solutions.

Full disclosure

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I am not a vegetarian. I’m actually a pescatarian, though I don’t eat seafood as often as I’d like and I’ve reduced my dairy intake to almost nil these days, almost by accident. One of the things you can do to decrease your meat consumption is to replace some of it with seafood, which doesn’t have as devastating an effect on the environment, if you choose responsibly. The Blue Ocean Institute has a fantastic resource to help you make sustainable seafood choices, while warning you of fish that may contain levels of mercury or PCBs.

It comes down to simple choices, every day, that can make very real differences – instead of making meat lasagna, make eggplant lasagna. Have a bbq with veggie burgers and veggie hot dogs. They’re way better for you anyway, and if you get the right brands they taste really good. There are also serious health benefits to lessening or eliminating meat consumption. I highly recommend looking into the China Study.

It’s hard to change your habits and your lifestyle patterns, but it’s so vital to the future of us all that we each try our best to contribute as little as possible to global warming. For most of us, that does mean we have to make changes. We can no longer afford to think, or eat, selfishly. It’s not sustainable.

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