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In Conversation With Nivi Jaswal On Plant Based Foods - Part 2

Nirmala Garimella

This is Part 2 of my conversation with Nivi Jaswal. Link to part 1 is here


Nivi Jaswal is the Founder and President of Virsa Foundation where she brings together professionals that blend diverse specialties in areas such as Anthropology, Psychology, Animal Rights, Social Work, Lifestyle Medicine, Health Coaching, Filmmaking, Creative Problem Solving et al to design and deliver Climate Conscious Plant Powered Community projects, with a focus on addressing Chronic Illness, encouraging Emotional Wellbeing, Immune Resiliency and ultimately, fostering enhanced Creative & Artistic Expression – amongst Women of Color in Underserved Communities. 

 I spoke to her recently on her journey to the world of wellness and nutrition with a focus on plant based diets

What exactly is plant-based eating? Is it backed by science?

Plant-based eating is not at novel idea. It has been known and actively practiced in most parts of the pre-industrial world and are key to longevity secrets in parts of ancient indigenous foodways in Asia, Africa, Americas, and the Mediterranean, most notably in the Indian subcontinent. In Hindi / Sanskrit, the terminology used for a whole food plant-based approach is “shākahār”, literally meaning plants and food. This is nothing but pure vegetarianism which is different from the “lacto-vegetarianism” currently practiced in South Asia and elsewhere. 

In fact, the “whole food plant-based” approach is backed not just by science but also by spiritual philosophy, making it compelling to explore for beyond reasons of just physical health but also, emotional, and spiritual well-being. In my humble perspective, which I shared comprehensively in a detailed video presentation, Vedic philosophy, and scriptures, especially the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 17 verses 8-10) are filled with guiding principles for a Satvik life and foods that nurture those Gunas (values, predispositions).    

Since the 1960s, pioneers of Lifestyle Medicine in the United States – disappointed with the pharmaceutical and surgical leanings of Western Medicine in the treatment of chronic illness – have been searching for answers in modalities, medicine traditions and research papers from the East.

In the early years of his career, one such pioneer - Dr. T Colin Campbell, a nutrition science researcher at Cornell was working on a project with malnourished children. He chanced upon the work of Indian researchers in Hyderabad, India2 who demonstrated correlation between dairy protein and cancer. Having replicated this experiment in his own lab, Campbell began to question the role of animal protein in the human diet and its links to the promotion of diseases such as cancer. Now 88 years old, he has devoted his life to plant-based research and publishing important books such as The China Study, Whole, including creation of the world’s first Plant Based Nutrition Certificate in partnership with eCornell. Like Campbell, the life and work of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., cardio thoracic surgeon at Cleveland Clinic, are captured beautifully in a documentary I highly recommend – Forks over Knives (2011). Dr. Esselstyn Jr., ran a clinical trial on palliative cardiology patients and was able to demonstrate selective reversal of atherosclerosis (arterial blockages) on a “low fat whole food plant-based oil-free” diet.  His book “How to prevent and reverse heart disease” is a must-read and what’s more, half of the book has simple and delicious recipes contributed by his wife, Anne Crile Esselstyn.

Dr. Neal Barnard, Founder and President of Physicians Committee for Lifestyle Medicine, and several other physicians, researchers, grassroots leaders such as Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Cyrus Khambatta of Mastering Diabetes coaching program, Dr. Will Bulciewicz of Fiber Fueled Diet, Dr. John McDougall of The Starch Solution, Dr. Michael Greger of Nutrition Facts and How Not To Die, Michele Simons, JD of Eat Drink Politics, Victoria Moran of Main Street Vegan, and more are mentioned in key must-watch documentaries such as Cowspiracy, What the Health, A Prayer for Compassion and Plant Pure Nation.

Thousands of plant-based physicians in North America and elsewhere in the world have since followed suit. The establishment of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, of which I am a professional member, is evidence of the success this approach to diet has offered to these healthcare providers – often, first personally and then professionally through their practice. In my podcast conversations with health care providers, many of whom are Board Certified in Lifestyle Medicine, there are exciting personal transformation stories and narratives of how they’re now bringing this knowledge to the communities they serve, feeling empowered to be able to truly heal their patients and not just push pills and surgeries!

Share with us some data and findings on why a plant-based diet is good for the environment? (Please share some links too)

Consider the following facts:

1.     An overwhelming majority of agricultural land - 77% - is used for raising and feeding animals for human consumption. These practices damage the environment, our communities, and increase the risk to public health.

2.     Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in its document “Livestock’s Long Shadow” issued a dire warning across several issues including, livestock’s role in land degradation, contamination of the planet’s nitrogen and carbon cycle, unprecedented wildlife species extinction, pollution and burden of disease.

3.     South Asia, specifically India, hosts 12.5% of the world’s livestock population. Asides from being the world’s largest producer and consumer of dairy, India is also one of the largest exporters of leather and beef (especially, carabeef). Looking at the carbon and water-use footprint of animal-based products, beef has the highest, followed by cheese.  You need to drive 63 miles to produce the same emissions as eating one kilogram of beef. Meat, cheese, and eggs have the highest carbon footprint.

4.     The dairy industry has, for years, come under scrutiny for its carbon footprint. Globally, the sector is responsible for emissions of methane (primarily, cow burps), which is an especially potent greenhouse gas. In the U.S., every gallon of milk consumed results in greenhouse gases equivalent to 17. 6 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. The numbers are so significant—enough to impact consumer choice. To learn more details about dairy’s impact on climate change – Switch4Good is an excellent resource and so is a recently released film called MILKED – White Lies in Dairy Land.

5.     Plant-based diets: A report published in The Lancet in 2019 concluded that a dietary shift toward plant foods and away from animal products is vital for promoting the health of our planet. The report states that projections for the future show that “vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.” A global shift to a plant-based diet could reduce mortality and greenhouse gases caused by food production by 10% and 70%, respectively, by 2050. 

Sailesh Rao, PhD, a systems specialist, and, Founder and Executive Director of Climate Healers, a non-profit dedicated towards healing the Earth's climate performed a Global Sensitivity Analysis (GSA) proving that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, responsible for at least 87% of greenhouse gas emissions annually.  In the executive summary of the paper, Rao proposes that while we’re led to believe that the burning of fossil fuels is currently the leading source of human-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, we need to look at climate change and environmental impact of human activity – especially our food systems - differently. His paper demonstrates that we need to transition to a global plant-based economy first and that blindly eliminating fossil fuel usage first will accelerate the warming of the planet. He clearly illustrates why the scientific community, government institutions, corporations, and news media, who vastly underestimate the role of animal agriculture and focus primarily on reducing fossil fuel use, need to urgently change their priorities to be effective.

In my podcast conversation with author Glen Merzer who wrote the book Food is Climate, he expands upon the case that Rao makes in his position paper. In his inimitable style, Glen makes a compelling case for why we need to end the suicidal atrocity of animal agriculture, if we are to survive. He tears apart the arguments made by Al Gore, Bill Gates, and Paul Hawken that have taken our focus off the true driving cause of the climate emergency.

Many folks contend that meat eating has been part of the ecosystem for centuries. Why not now?

In my brief presentation at the Global VegFest, I present a snapshot of several archetypes that have been instrumental in retroactively shaping our view about “primitive man and his meat-eating behavior”. These are at best tropes increasingly disproven by scientists and researchers, especially armed with an ability to delve into genetic evidence from archeological artefacts, particularly human remains. It is far more likely that primitive humans were predominantly gatherers and that a successful hunt was more of an opportunistic exercise. There is considerable debate – and literature supporting this pop culture myth - around how human intelligence, especially brain size developed due prevalence of meat eating. The reality is that humans do not even have the dental and intestinal equipment to be able to ingest and digest meat.

In her book Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meatscience writer Marta Zaraska does a great job of exposing these claims as myths. All the high-quality amino acid proteins we require are readily available in plants, Zaraska says, listing soy, buckwheat, quinoa, and potatoes as examples.

3Meat and dairy consumption has severely compromised the gut microbiome and gene expression of present-day humans to the point that experiencing obesity and chronic illness is now “normalized”. Much the same way as COVID-19 fatigue creates a ‘resigned acceptance’ of the virus being “here to stay amongst us, just like the common flu”. The fact remains that SARS-CoV-2 is simply one of the milder warnings of the abnormal human-animals interface.


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