‘How Your Food Choices Will Save the Planet’
The blog tour stops here today for a book that turned out to be not what I expected at all really. When offered Enough. (with a full stop.) for review, I didn’t really look beyond the upside-down cow on the cover. From that, I was expecting a book whose sole mission was to convert me to vegetarianism, or even to go vegan, (not that either of those are bad things). I couldn’t be more wrong. As someone who enjoys eating meat, I know I’d find vegetarianism difficult to get enough variety in my diet. (I have a powerful aversion to cheese and the texture of mushrooms, and don’t like courgettes, aubergines, beetroot and peppers). But, that said, I am always willing to be persuaded to eat more healthily and find out more about the science of nutrition. Over the past few years, I have been fascinated to find out all about our gut microbiome, mainly through the books of Dr Tim Spector (The Diet Myth and Spoon-Fed). I’ve already learned a lot about insulin resistance, fibre, probiotics and many other nutrition topics through these books. I have adjusted my diet a little, but not far enough yet–I need more nudging.
What route would Enough. take?
If I’d stopped to read the tag line on the book’s cover, it would have been obvious. Dr Coburn takes a whole Earth approach to looking at our diet, taking in the impacts of climate change and what we are doing to our environment for food and farming to make the case for eating more healthily and sustainably. Her book is based on applying the findings of the ‘Planetary Health Diet’, (PHD) a key worldwide research programme published in 2019 by EAT-Lancet (find out more here.)
The combination of diet and environmental issues made for a fascinating read. Dr Coburn takes the first couple of chapters to discuss the scale of the health problems with a syndemic of non-communicable diseases (e.g. diabetes, obesity) and the scale of the effects on the environment caused by farming. It goes far, far further than air-freighting asparagus (cf: Mike Berners-Lee here). Half of the habitable land on Earth is used for food production, much of it on cleared land, and a sizeable percentage of that is used to grow animal feed. There is also the issue of cows burping and farting huge amounts of methane, and nitrogen run-off from manure into watercourses. I honestly hadn’t realised the scale of that problem. When you look at the carbon footprint for producing beef – 4x that of pork, 5x that of chicken etc. (a bit less for lamb), you can understand the planetary diet case for eating much less red meat (a small amount once a week is suggested).
Subsequent chapters look at aspects of the different food groups, beginning with carbs and added sugars. I was shocked to discover that we grow more sugar cane than wheat and rice combined worldwide. I was also personally disappointed to find that the PHD plan recommends just one small portion of potatoes per week – we should get most of our carbs from wholegrains – be they pasta, rice or bread. I’ve always preferred spuds over pasta and rice – I love a baked or boiled new potato (skins on) and yes, goose-fat roasties are the bestest of all (not that I’d eat the latter more than once a fortnight max anyway). I have no problem with wholegrain bread, rice and pasta, already eating some.
In the chapter on fats and oils, Dr Coburn actually explains what amino acids do, pointing out there are some essential ones that we have evolved to not synthesise that are needed in our diets – hence that recommendation for oily fish to get your omega 3 intake up (walnuts are naturally high in omega 3 too). Obviously a Mediterranean emphasis on oils comes to the fore here too. Interestingly, on an oily fish aside, fish poo in fish farms can release more methane than cows unless aerated.
In the chapter on animal sourced protein, she doesn’t argue for the cessation of livestock farming, you can’t grow crops on a rocky hillside suited only for sheep and goats. Nutritionally she recognises that animal protein is the only complete source containing all the amino acids and many macronutrients essential for our diet. The PHD however wants us to eat less of it, especially less red meat and processed meat (sausages, bacon etc), seeing the red and processed meat as an occasional treat. This is hard for a meat-lover, but I’m trying not to overdo it, buying better quality and animal welfare products too.
Throughout each chapter, the primary focus is on the environmental impact of each food type, then the nutritional and health follow through. There is a logical progression that if you produce a better food more sustainably, that it’ll be better for you in every regard and the planet too. After all the science Dr Coburn gives a chapter of advice on how to put the basics of the PHD into your eating, giving good ideas for easy swaps. The tables of food types and serving sizes etc for the PHD are appended in a series of tables for those that want to explore further. She does caution that medical advice should be taken before making major changes to one’s diet to ensure you get all the vitamins and minerals that you need etc.
Dr Coburn (left) has a lot of information to get into this book, especially regarding the environment and farming methods. A small quibble is that this sometimes results in side topics cropping up in the food type chapters where you wouldn’t necessarily expect them – such as looking at biodiversity, ranging from the extinction event that did for dinosaurs through to the dangers facing the Cavendish banana, and then digressing further to discuss beauty in nature. I wasn’t expecting these topics in the chapter on fats and oils. Although these digressions from the headline topic were good to read, they didn’t add to the specific discussion on fats and oils. Likewise she discusses water quality in the chapter on fruit and vegetables. Maybe chapters could have alternated between the food groups and the environment to make the structure slightly less disjointed?
There is certainly ‘enough’ in Enough. to convince even confirmed meat-lovers like me that adding more plant-based whole foods into my diet and reducing animal-based foods is a very good move. While I’ve learned much about nutrition from Spector, by adding environmental factors in the mix, Coburn hangs another carrot on the stick to encourage healthy eating. This is needed and laudable, but potentially costly; I’d like to read more about the economics of food production vs nutrition too, but that’s another book. Enough. gives food for thought, a more holistic approach to health and diet with some fascinating insights and figures that I will continue to think about, and plan to put at least some of the PHD recommendations into practice.
Source: Review copy – thank you. Dr Cassandra Coburn, Enough. (Gaia Octopus, 2021) Trade paperback, 288 pages (incl appendices, index).
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