“Our planetary problems are perilous and profound. The U.S. is the most prosperous nation on Earth, yet we have never been more unhealthy. The standard American diet isn’t just making us sick. And it isn’t just inefficient — it’s outdated tech.”
I initially went vegan — oh the dreaded five letter word! — for fairly selfish reasons. Subsisting on a steady rotation of cheeseburgers, fries and pizza for the better part of my life, I found myself at 39 a fat, out-of-shape couch potato hurdling into middle age, depressed and unenthusiastic about my life. Barely able to ascend a simple flight of stairs without a break, it took a health scare on the eve of my 40th birthday to realize not only that I needed to change, but that I wanted to change.
I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Pain works that way. My metamorphosis began with the adoption of a plant-based diet — if you know me, a most unlikely decision that quite ironically changed my life trajectory forever.
By eating nothing but plants close to their natural state, I lost weight quickly and responsibly. My skin cleared up. My mental acuity sharpened. My sleep improved and my mood elevated. After abusing myself with drugs, alcohol and horrible diet and lifestyle choices for decades, it was quite a pleasant shock to find my vitality and enthusiasm for life so rapidly restored. A wholesale transformation of body, mind and spirit that led to a question. A question that soon became an obsession:
what am I truly capable of?
To test my limits I ventured into the world or ultra-endurance triathlon, and within 3 years accomplished athletic feats I could have never previously dreamed possible, including top finishes at the Ultraman World Championships and becoming the first person to complete EPIC5: five ironman-distance triathlons on five Hawaiian Islands in under a week.
Even more unexpected was the media attention that followed, including profiles on CNN and being named one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World” by Men’s Fitness. In 2012 I chronicled my experience in Finding Ultra — a bestselling memoir that laid the foundation to embrace who I am today — a wellness advocate determined to help people live healthier, more sustainable lives.
I could have never imagined (let alone planned) the life I currently lead. The Universe is funny that way. But I digress.
Anecdotally, and without reservation, I submit that these accomplishments were achieved not in spite of, but as a direct result of putting animal products in the rear view. No beef, no chicken, no pork, no fish, no milk, no cheese, no eggs. Just plants.
But life isn’t static. As my journey evolves, I have become increasingly more interested in issues beyond my waistline and the world of elite athletic performance. Issues that affect us all — like disease prevention, environmental conservation, world hunger, and the accountability we all shoulder to be more responsible stewards of this precious spinning globe we share with billions of other people and animals.
Health begins with what we put on our plate. But that’s just first base. True wellness is far more comprehensive — extending beyond our personal physical well-being to the collective, sustainable vitality of all living beings and the places they call home.
So here are my top 10 reasons why going plant-based is the best way to live healthier and more responsibly so we — and future generations — can together thrive.
1. It prevents (and can reverse) chronic disease.
America is obsessed with weight loss, but we’re the sickest society on the planet. As we speak, one out of every 3 people will die of heart disease — America’s #1 killer. 70% of Americans are obese or overweight. And by 2030, a full 50% of all adult Americans are predicted to be diabetic or pre-diabetic. Amazingly, 75% of all U.S. health care costs are attributed to lifestyle illnesses. The standard American diet (“SAD”) used to be just that — sad and American. But now it’s our leading export. Shipped overseas like it’s the next installment of The Avengers, our home-grown fast food lifestyle is creating an epidemic of food borne illness in the developing world unprecedented in the history of humankind. The great irony? The solution has been staring us in the face all along. Adopting a whole food plant-based diet is the one nutritional regimen that has been scientifically proven to prevent and even reverse these modern day plagues.
2. It conserves water.
You might be surprised to learn that more than half of all water consumed in the U.S. is used for animal agriculture. In fact, the meat and dairy industry uses a full third of the entire planet’s fresh water. Based on a global average of water consumption for beef production, it takes about 460 gallons of water to produce just one quarter pound hamburger. And dairy isn’t much better, requiring 1,000 gallons of water to produce just one gallon of milk. This is not only wasteful and inefficient, it is emblematic of a broken system of food production that is simply unsustainable.
3. It cuts greenhouse gas emissions
When it comes to global climate change, we tend to focus on the impact of fossil fuel use and hot-button issues like fracking. Rightly so. But the under-addressed elephant in the room is animal agriculture, which is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions — more than the exhaust from all transportation combined. If every American dropped just one serving of chicken from their diet per week, it would save the same amount of CO2 emissions as removing 500,000 cars from the road. In fact, a plant-based diet can cut your carbon footprint by a full 50%.
4. It conserves land.
Livestock covers 45% of the Earth’s total land, and nearly half of the contiguous U.S. is devoted to animal agriculture. One and a half acres of land can produce 375 pounds of meat, or 37,000 pounds of plant food. In other words, a meat eater requires 18 times the amount of land necessary to feed someone eating plant-based. Do the math.
5. It helps prevent species extinction.
Animal agriculture is also a leading cause of species extinction. More than a hundred animal and insect species are lost every day from rampant rainforest destruction (see #8 below) — a crucial, irreparable blow to the biodiversity essential to maintaining our planet’s healthy ecology.
6. It reduces waste pollution.
Every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the U.S. In fact, a farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 41,000 people. Seriously.
7. It helps prevent marine life destruction.
As many as 40% (63 billion pounds) of fish caught globally every year are thrown out, and some scientists say we could see fish-less oceans by 2048. Moreover, the waste runoff from animal agriculture leads to ocean dead zones — massive algal blooms so oxygen deprived that no animal life can survive.
8. It slows deforestation.
Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction. In fact, one to two acres of rain forest are cleared every minute for grazing and growing feed for livestock. The impact is a cancer on our planet’s precious lungs, responsible for pumping our atmosphere with the oxygen we simply cannot survive without.
9. It helps alleviate world hunger.
We are currently growing enough food to feed 10 billion people, and the U.S. alone could feed 800 million people with the grain that livestock eat. Hunger isn’t a scarcity issue, it’s an allocation and distribution issue.
10. It boosts athletic performance.
I truly believe that eating plant-based is a secret weapon for maximizing athletic performance, primarily because it optimizes immune system functionality and significantly expedites physiological recovery from exercise induced stress. For the non-athletic, maximizing athletic recovery is the holy grail of actualizing performance potential. If I could do what I’ve done athletically on nothing but plants in my mid and late 40’s, imagine your own untapped capabilities.
Our planetary problems are perilous and profound. The U.S. is the most prosperous nation on Earth, yet we have never been more unhealthy. The standard American diet isn’t just making us sick. And it isn’t just inefficient.
It’s outdated tech.
It’s time for a food system reboot. The good news is that version 2.0 is a pretty elementary, albeit profound, upgrade.
Adopting a plant-based, or at least plant-centric approach to your plate is the single most powerful and positively impactful choice you can make as a conscious, compassionate consumer. A choice that will help prevent and reverse disease; reduce your carbon footprint; and preserve the planet for our children and animal friends alike.
I would go so far as to call it the ultimate planetary life hack.
[For some factual basis in support of the above, explore Cowspiracy.com and watch this environmental documentary I helped produce.]