The state of the world, as it is, has forced us all to make a lot of sacrifices – And to most people’s credit, we’ve done a stellar job of it. We’ve practiced social distancing, we’ve adjusted our work, exercise and consumption habits… we really do deserve a pat on the back. But, there’s one more thing that I want to ask all of my readers to do: move to a plant-based diet.
Before you write me off as an evangelist, let me say this: I’m not a vegan. I’ve tried my hand at vegetarianism at various stages throughout my life (sometimes for years), but I never succeeded at giving up on that bacon or resisting a massive Christmas feast of gammon, lamb and dairy-laden deserts. So why am I taking that plunge again, and into the far harder-to-achieve vegan diet? This time it’s not over my feeling of moral obligation to end animal suffering (it’s still a considerable motivator though), but it’s because of the sheer destruction of our environment and the devastating impact of the coronavirus itself.
It is, naturally, an argument that would inevitably emerge in a world that is embracing vegan diets more today than ever before in human history. It’s simply undeniable that the Overton window of popular diets has shifted from a dominantly omnivorous way of life to plant-based eating over as short a period as the last 10 years. Think back to 2010 and ask yourself how many of your friends were vegan then and how many are following the lifestyle today. It is unquestionable, as well, that the food industry has shifted its focus to accommodate the change in our culture. There are entire sections of supermarkets dedicated to offering vegan-friendly foods and cruelty-free meat, for those who still can’t quite make the shift and are willing to pay a little extra for free-range meat.
What you decide to do about your diet in the wake of this virus is entirely up to you. And there’s certainly a debate to be had about whether the SARS-2 coronavirus would have occurred under a hypothetical scenario of an all-vegan world. Several experts, such as Dr. Ron Weiss, a primary care and urgent care physician who helped treat the first COVID-19 patient in New Jersey in March, have suggested that following a plant-based diet will aid your immune system in fighting against the diet and limit your exposure to viruses that naturally transmit between animals that are tightly packed together in meat factories.
“What strikes me is that the patient is generally unaware that their underlying diseases can pose more of a risk for the poor outcome in COVID-19,” he said in a story published in Today. “Even more so, they’re unaware that if they were just to make simple lifestyle changes, they could rid themselves of these increased risks, so that’s where the teachable moment comes in.
“A plant-based diet is not just eating some more vegetables. It’s an approach to nutrition so that you’re eating a high level of plants that can help you, and avoiding animal foods and processed foods that hurt you.”
Dr Weiss also details exactly how certain foods can improve your health, pointing specifically to garlic and mushrooms as healthy options that compliment plant-based meals.
“The first food I tell them about is garlic, which has a compound called allicin that’s been shown to upgrade our natural killer cells. At the same time, allicin calms molecular networks so they don’t go haywire and then cause the cytokine storm that’s said to then lead to this respiratory failure that causes patients to need ventilation,” he says.
“Mushrooms — you don’t have to get fancy, so plain white button mushrooms that are cooked are fine. They’ve been shown to increase IgA, the antibodies found in our saliva. You can get increased levels of these attacking antibodies just by eating those mushrooms every day.”
However, for every expert out there, there are more saying that a plant-based diet will not change health outcomes nor the spread of the virus.
The argument is that human beings’ relationship with animals is far more dynamic and complex than simply our dietary intake. We are exposed to pets, like cats and dogs, pests like mice and bugs, as well as pigeons and other animals that either move into our living spaces or we move into theirs.
“The best thing we can do is try to mediate that coexistence to ensure we’re not making one another sick,” says Gregory Gray, a Duke University infectious disease epidemiologist who spoke to Popular Science in January for a story on the origins of COVID-19.
“It is true that if humans were to cease eating their meat,” Gray continues, “We would probably have less contact with animals that we’re either growing or ceasing to capture from the wild for food. Even if we did go entirely vegan, we would still have contact with animals that may harbour pathogens that are foreign to the human immune system.”
“I don’t see [that] it would stop the cross-species spread.”
In a statement issued by Heather Russell, Vegan Society Dietitian, she claims that research done in collaboration with the British Dietetic Association shows that no specific diet would prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
However, there is one simple truth that all scientists agree upon, and have done so since the very first cases, COVID-19 was originally transmitted to humans from animals. Although there isn’t definitive proof of exactly where it originated, just about every sign points to a wet market in Wuhan and the consumption of bats. And what is already a clearly stated fact is that Ebola originated from bats in Congo, MERS originated from camels, H1N1 (swine flu) originated from pigs and HIV was originally transmitted from chimpanzees to humans.
All animals are carriers of millions of viruses, no matter where they are from, but the massive outbreaks are merely from viruses that were able to mutate in order to move into human hosts. We are typically safe from many viruses present in animals, simply because they cannot live within the complex human immune system.
However, as we start to invade wildlife by logging (as is done on a massive scale in tropical regions like the amazon, which is home to countless animal species), taking over new lands for agriculture and other similar human practices, we force more species of animals to live closer together in confined spaces than ever before. We change their migration patterns and, of course we breed them in filthy, inhumane conditions – that are also breeding grounds for viruses – only for the sake of later killing them and processing their meat for consumption.
And it is specifically in meat factories that coronavirus is spreading like wildfire. In the United States, 12 of the 25 coronavirus hotspots are counties that are home to large meat factories, meaning that the highest per-capita infection rates are originating in the close conditions that don’t allow for social distancing. Elsewhere, in Germany, meat factory working conditions have been likened to “slave labour” and have been at the centre of several COVID-19 outbreaks in recent weeks. Further reports of coronavirus outbreaks originating from meat factories have emerged from the UK, Ireland, Australia and Spain. So, all-in-all, while the meat industry has been getting away with their inhumane practices for years, the prioritisation of human consumption habits over animal rights has always been their saving grace. Now, however, human lives are on the line and people may start to feel a little more compelled to change their tune.
Then there’s the popular Netflix documentary that was released three years ago, What the Health.
For those of you that haven’t seen it (spoiler alert), the documentary details how negatively meat-based diets affect our health, as well as the incredible impact meat consumption has on our environment, in comparison to plant-based diets, mostly based on water consumption. Switching to plant based diets would drastically reduce our carbon footprints, which would mitigate several long-term environmental catastrophes that stretch far beyond pandemics.
What the Health also dispels several myths about plant-based diets, such as that you can’t build muscle without eating meat – as they detail the daily routines of a vegan body-builder – that vegan diets are very difficult to follow because of the lack of options and the expenses involved, and countless other stories that will probably have you convinced… at least up until the end of your first week of following a plant-based meal plan.
Everyone knows that it takes a lot of energy to cook vegan meals and can also end up costing a pretty penny. Personally, I suffer from epilepsy and giving up meat has led to a number of breakthrough seizures that have been rather debilitating and a pretty unpleasant experience to say the least. So, whatever your reasons may be for continuing to eat meat, I get you. I genuinely understand. But the reasons to go vegan are fast outweighing the reasons not to, as we enter a completely new era for the human experience.
So if we are going to radically change our lifestyles, why not make this big change along with it? It may just help prevent the next epidemic, or at least contain the spread to greater effect. And, wouldn’t you rather the food industry suffer the consequences of a massive cultural shift than see every other industry go down with it due to extended lockdowns?
I’ve experienced a far more compelling paradigm shift, or perhaps more aptly an epiphany, than I ever have in my long history of compulsions to switch to a plant-based diet. And yet, that’s something personal and I’m not asking you to follow me. I’m asking you to look into it and reconsider your stance. Future generations may just end up thanking us all for changing the status quo and making a conscious decision to preserve our environment and life as we know it.