The long read on “Why I choose to
be powered by plants”…
This is the full text of a 30 minute talk I gave at the 2016 Vegan Expo in Whangarei, New Zealand.
Here's a downloadable pdf version.
Lots of people I meet feel resigned about the state of the world. For a long time I did too, and eventually I grew literally sick and tired of that sense of resignation.
The trouble was like most people, I didn’t know what I could do about it. How could I make a meaningful difference?
My big question was “how can I feel real in these unreal times”? How I can live in this crazy world in a way that feels authentic to me personally as well as responsible in terms of the world around me. And not in a try-hard or depressing way - I wanted to find a way of being that felt cooler, sexier and more fun than how I was living before.
One of the main results of this quest was my choice to eat a plant-based diet, and I’d like to share with you some of the experiences and inspirations that transformed how I think about food.
In a nutshell, I choose to live this way first of all because I love it - and also because it makes the biggest difference to
the body I live in
the world we live in together, and
the rest of the life on this amazing planet.
I’ll go into each of these things in more detail, but let’s start with a quick summary of my background.
I was raised vegetarian, but as a kid that mainly meant I felt like I was missing out on what everyone else was having. Sure they’re cool now, but back then homemade brown bread and bean sprouts weren’t exactly in the same league as space invaders and roller disco!
I didn’t enjoy being the odd one out, and I think a big part of that was the feeling that I wasn’t choosing it myself.
I vividly remember one time as teenager when I woke up feeling sick with guilt from a horrible nightmare. What despicable deeds had I committed in my dream? Something most New Zealanders wouldn’t even bat an eyelid about - I’d eaten chicken. Believe me, the sense of relief when I woke up to find it wasn’t true was huge. But that fearful attitude didn’t feel right to me. So of course I rebelled and embarked on a journey of eating all the most decadent food the world could offer. To satisfy my lust for lusciousness I learned how to cook. Yay, now I could indulge to my heart’s content.
Fast forward 15 years and I’m a self-employed IT consultant living in Raglan. I wasn't keen to do IT work forever though, and unfortunately I felt depressed + highly self-critical.
Cooking what what I did to relax and feel creative. One day, looking out a plane window at the clouds below, an idea came to me: maybe I could make sourdough bread for the locals.
I loved playing with dough when I made pizza, and here was a way I could do that from home. And it was an important step for me to take charge of finding satisfaction in my work. My wife taught yoga from home, so I had a ready supply of tasters and potential customers.
I made my own sourdough starter, and felt a real affinity with it. As it bubbled and grew, we both started coming to life. I began learning the secrets of great bread, then spent a hot, earthy summer building a huge wood-fired brick oven.
And I found real satisfaction pulling out my loaves of dark, crusty sourdough. Imagine this - you’re standing there next to me with the hot bread crackling as it cools, and the sound of surf roaring in the distance. While we talk we break off steaming chunks and eat them slathered with butter. That sense of connection with nature and with each other made my early starts and long days worthwhile.
Our family watched Masterchef every night with meals on our laps. My wife and daughter encouraged me to enter, knowing my love of food more than I did. I went into the show with strong choice to give it my all and a plan for how I’d perform at my best: healthy diet, lots of sleep, regular exercise, daily meditation and yoga, no caffeine and very little alcohol.
My persona was the final pillar of the plan, and that was easy - just be me. No pretence to keep up under pressure, and I liked realness the most when I watched others.
A few days before the audition I had a pivotal experience. I’d gone for an early morning run and stopped to rest under some tall trees. With the sound of the wind in the branches way above me, I cast my mind ahead to the final of the competition. Something like deja-vu washed over me. It was amazing - my whole body felt as if I’d already won.
On the show, the pressure kept building. I upped my exercise, doing epic swimming missions in the bay below the house. I did lots of yoga and spent hours working on food ideas. The challenge was intense and I turned up my own intensity to match it. It worked. I won!
Seven months of keeping that secret in a small town was challenging. I experienced a big dollop of celebrity and felt my stress levels rising and rising while working on my cookbook and doing a month-long stint as a guest chef at a top Auckland restaurant. I also felt huge pressure to ride the wave of publicity and make the most of it.
By the time my book was launched and the book tour was done I was totally burnt out. Unfortunately my marriage was under severe stress too, and by the end of the year my wife and I separated.
My first cookbook was all about the food I'd enjoyed up till then in my life. Unfortunately, eating too much of it while developing recipes didn’t made me feel good. Unlike my success plan during Masterchef, I’d got to a point where caffeine, alcohol and sugar were big factors in my lifestyle. And although I tried to re-find the enjoyment and contentment I’d felt while making sourdough bread, I got disillusioned with all the refined white flour I was using and the feeling that it wasn’t adding to people’s physical health even though it brought them lots of pleasure.
I felt unwell and unhappy with my lifestyle choices and I wasn’t comfortable in my body. For all sorts of reasons, it was time to look around, reassess what I believed in and learn some new tricks.
Looking at the world
I’ve always been curious and I’ve always enjoyed finding out new things. This is when I started to look at the world around me with a sincere intention to understand as much as I could.
At first I was pretty overwhelmed by what I saw in the world:
most people going about their lives as if the climate wasn't already suffering destructive change
an economy based on the concept of perpetual economic growth through exploiting dwindling resources
a consumer society where we’ve been convinced that happiness can be bought (on special)
an epidemic of what we call lifestyle diseases, especially heart disease, diabetes and cancer
an almost total lack of corporate social responsibility around food and health, with addictive and seriously unhealthy food mass-marketed to children
lots of people confused about food in general, feeling bombarded by conflicting advice
people highly disconnected from the sources of their food, and removed from the reality of meat production
a New Zealand countryside largely cleared of trees to make way for monoculture crops and profit-motivated dairying
It became painfully obvious to me that how we live simply doesn't work very well for a lot of us.
I starting looking for answers, and I’d like to share some of the places I found inspiration
FINDING MY TRIBE
“Finding Ultra”, Rich Roll
I heard this as an audiobook in which Rich shares a powerful and personal journey from being an overweight alcoholic lawyer to becoming an ultra-endurance athlete and role-model for plant-based nutrition
nowdays I’m on his weekly email update with links to his podcasts where he dives deep into all things wellness with all sorts of inspiring guests
“The China Study”, T. Colin Campbell
reading this was one of my first big steps towards considering changing my diet
it’s a solid book full of solid medical research and insights into the ways research is often compromised and influenced by big business
written by Colin Campbell, a research doctor who has spent his life understanding the effect of diet on health
he’s in his 80’s now and is a great example of vitality in older age
“Thrive”, Brendan Brazier
Brendan is a pro ironman triathlete who gives a beautifully clear description of how a cycle of stress can become a self-reinforcing vicious circle
he’s also one of the world’s top plant-based nutrition gurus
Urban gardening movement, e.g. Ron Finley
Ron (the master of the inspiring one liner) inspired me about people claiming back their power to grow healthy food in urban areas
he started doing this in what was otherwise the “food desert” of South Central L.A. “where the drive thrus are killing more people than the drive bys”
The body I live in
It’s a cliche, and also very true that we have 30 trillion human cells in our body, and every one of them is created from our food. I like how Dr Libby puts it:
“the foundation of our health is how we eat. We have to give our body what it physically needs to create the substances that allow us to experience energy, or think clearly, or have a happy mood, or sleep well. What we eat becomes the cells of our immune system that defends us from infection and the neurotransmitters in our brain that impact how we feel”
I find that when I really understand something, the choices I make come from a different place. An important part of my desire to eat well has been getting an insight into what goes on at the microscopic scale in our bodies.
Something that stayed with me came from a cool book called “Feed me right”, a nutritional know-how book aimed at teenagers but great for all ages.
On the page about good fats was a simple diagram showing how our human cells are just a dot of liquid jelly enclosed in a thin membrane made up of fatty acids. In nature’s design the fatty acids have two hydrogen atoms on the same side of the carbon chain. This allows them to joins up tightly creating an intact cell membrane which looks after the absorption of nutrients and the elimination of wastes.
Have you heard of trans fatty acids? These are found in heated and hydrogenated oils, which we often eat in highly processed foods. The heating process changes the way hydrogen atoms attach along the carbon chain. Instead of attaching on the same side, one of them transfers to the other side. This means they don’t link up properly - like a bag with a broken zip, a cell built with trans fatty acids can’t function properly because it has a leaky border.
Somehow when I scaled that up 30 trillion times in my mind I really “got” that fact that my food choices affected my health. And not at some random future point, right now.
When I eat vital fresh veges and fruits I imagine trillions of tiny parcels of goodness getting happily lapped up by my digestive system and being used to regenerate new cells to keep my body functioning well. Like the ghost chips TV advert, I've been internalising a really complicated situation in my head, and just like the ad it helps me make good choices.
What’s just becoming widely known is that human health is powerfully affected by the types of microbes we have in our bodies, mainly in our digestive tract. A lot of common diseases like asthma are affected by our microbial balance, and our diet has a big influence on this. Plant fibre especially from whole plant foods like fresh fruits, veges + legumes is what beneficial microbes need to thrive. A diet high in refined and processed foods leads to a different mix of species of microbes with negative effects on our health. We need to feed our microbes well.
I think it’s really important not to get obsessed with the details though, that leads to what some people call Nutritionism - not seeing the forest because all the trees are in the way. One thing I have absolutely no doubt about is that we are only just beginning to discover what complex systems we have operating in our bodies. To me this makes it vital that we look at the big picture when it comes to healthy eating, and take heed of what people have been doing for thousands of years - getting most of their nutrition from whole plant sources.
It’s not that complicated. As Michael Pollan says,
“eat food, mostly plants, not too much”.
eat close to the sun
Compared to a century ago, we live in a world full of richly concentrated food sources which are incredibly appealing to our stone-age metabolisms.
This leads to what psychologist Douglas Lisle calls The Pleasure Trap, and I got a lot of value from his TEDx talk. He describes the motivational triad that rules all animals: maximising pleasure, avoiding pain, all with the least effort possible. We’re designed to respond to rich sources of energy - these satisfy all three motivations.
Whole natural foods interact in the brain the way nature intended, but highly concentrated sources of energy like sugar and white flour hijack the pleasure centres of the brain and cause cravings. Our brains adapt to the frequent rushes of dopamine so that we need more of our chosen drug to get the same effect. Then, if we choose to adopt a healthier diet of whole natural foods, we suffer an initial big drop in our brain’s pleasure response. And to make it worse, if we’re trying to use willpower to get us through we need help from a part of the brain that requires blood sugars to operate - just when we’re probably low on these as well as feeling down and vulnerable.
Learning this helped me understand why I’d found it hard to eat healthy in the past.
The fast food industry is well aware of both this motivational triad and our three major taste pleasures: salt, sugar, and fat. In order to sell more product, their food scientists work to create an irresistible food by combining the three major pleasurable components in just the right proportions, to achieve what is termed the “The Bliss Point”.
The effect of this is that once we get used to concentrated refined food it’s quite a challenge to wean ourselves off. The great thing is once we do cut out the over-rich junk food, our tastes adapt and natural foods taste fantastic. I get a huge amount of pleasure from the food I eat now, actually more than I used to get from my previous choices.
I’m into plant-based whole food, and that’s not necessarily the same thing as Vegan. After all, champagne and chocolate are both vegan. So are Coke and potato chips. That doesn’t make them everyday food though, it’s all-too-easy easy to be a Junk Food Vegan - no animal products but still eating lots of highly refined and not very nutritious food.
I like the idea of eating closer to the source. When you think about it, all the food we eat is a form of stored solar energy. Plants capture energy from sunlight thanks to photosynthesis, storing it as carbohydrates and using it to create all the amazing varieties of plant life we know and love. You could say Eat close to the sun.
Top of my list are fresh fruits and vegetables, still full of enzymes and active nutrients. Grains, beans nuts and seeds come next, they’re all clever ways that plants store energy in forms that naturally last without refrigeration.
Near the bottom comes what I think of as “human-processed” foods. This when we strip away the healthy fibre, water, minerals and vitamins, leaving behind just the super concentrated elements like fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates.
Last of all for me is food “processed” by animals, who eat plants and turn them into meat, milk and eggs.
Do you know the quote “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like”? I think we could also say “We buy food that doesn’t nourish us from people who don’t care about us then expect doctors who don’t fully understand us to fix the diseases we didn’t realise we inflicted on ourselves”.
The more I pay attention to the food environment we’re surrounded by, the less sympathy I have for profit driven big food businesses. In the future I think we’ll look back and see them the way most people now see tobacco companies - as destructive parasites profiting from making us sick.
Here’s an example: I was riding my bike past a bus stop recently when a big ad for a Cadbury chocolate bar which says “Obey your mouth”. My first thought based on years of training by advertisers was “yum”, then my brain function moved up a few notches from that gut reaction and I started to think about the messages I was being sold.
Let’s decoding this, considering what we’ve just been looking at in terms of our stone-age metabolisms.
Here’s one I prepared earlier: “Spend your money on this addictive product that we’ve carefully designed to maximise our profits by targeting your brain’s dopamine pleasure system. In exchange we’ll give you a short term rush of pleasure which will leave you ultimately dissatisfied and wanting more while your body struggles to cope with the onslaught of refined sugar, turning it into fat and taking you one step closer to potential diabetes and a future of ill health”. Yay! Sounds great, I’ll take two!
We can do so much better than this!
The great thing is, by paying attention and educating ourselves we can start to see through the dense fog of misinformation around us and make choices based on knowledge instead.
Also, once we understand how powerful we are as consumers we can directly affect our environment by refusing to support companies and products we don’t believe in. If we all stopped buying McDonalds they’d either be out of business in months or have to start making big changes.
Thinking about this consumer power we wield gives me hope for the future. How we spend our money not only sends a strong message to businesses, it also allows us to take our health into our own hands and choose to eat in ways that prevent and even reverse disease. I’m not a physician so I’ll suggest you check out the movies “Forks over knives” and the new one “Food choices” if you want to hear from highly qualified people about the benefits of a plant-based diet.
When my daughter was about 8 years old environmental issues really became personal for me. Ariana was learning about climate change at school and she was deeply affected by it. And I mean deeply. Not just “a little concerned” or “rather anxious”, but seriously heartbroken about what her future looked like. Would there even be a world for her that she could feel safe to bring children into when she grew up? As a dad, seeing my 8 year old daughter in tears about the state of the world powerfully affected me. It got through my adult defences and made it real for me.
And importantly, it planted a seed, a desire to know what I could do.
It was when I watched the movie “Cowspiracy” that an important part of the jigsaw fitted into place for me. Up till then I hadn’t really given much thought to where the bulk of our greenhouse gases come from, I’d just assumed it was burning fossil fuels. Watching that movie with my daughter made me realise that the way and the scale that we farm animals was a key issue.
It finally sank in that we’ve taken this to a ridiculous extreme. I wondered if they were exaggerating because surely I would have heard more about this in the past? Apparently not.
The Smithsonian Institute says
“The global scope of the livestock issue is huge. 26 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is used for livestock grazing. One-third of the planet’s arable land is occupied by livestock feed crop cultivation. Seventy percent of Brazil’s deforested land is used as pasture, with feed crop cultivation occupying much of the remainder. Globally, 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the livestock industry - more than is produced by transportation-related sources.”
It was a real double-whammy - not only are we creating a staggering amount of greenhouse gasses by raising animals on this scale, we’re using between 10 and 20 times as much land as we’d need if we raised food crops instead.
I never used to think about this, I just accepted it as normal that most of New Zealand consists of fenced-off fields of green grass for cows and sheep. I even thought they looked pretty. Now I just see a great big opportunity for us to do better. And given that recent reports confirm that we’ll soon only have 1/3 of the wild animal numbers compared to 1970 levels, it’s clear that our desire for cows and sheep is a big contributor to the mass extinction of other life on the planet.
The game-changer for me was thinking about the ways I could make a difference.
Taking shorter showers seemed like trying to use a spoon to drain the ocean. Within everyone’s reach but completely ineffective.
Buying an electric car might make a bigger difference, but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and didn’t feel like something most people myself included could do soon.
Making a different choice about the food I ate made total sense to me because I could do it right now, and it would have the biggest effect.
I was sold.
life on this planet
As a kid I felt like the odd one out as a vegetarian. Something I learned recently helped me understand why. I was listening to a Rich Roll podcast and heard him talking with Dr. Melanie Joy about her book “Love dogs, eat pigs, wear cows”. She came up with the term “Carnism”, the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals, but not others.
She talks about how we’re so conditioned to a certain way of seeing the world that we don’t realise it’s only one point of view.
“We often assume that only vegetarians and vegan bring their beliefs to the dinner table. But the only reason many of us eat cows but not dogs, for example, is that we do have a belief system when it comes to eating animals. It’s not a necessity, it’s a choice - and choices always stem from beliefs. In meat-eating cultures around the world, people typically classify only a tiny handful of animals as edible. All the rest are classified as inedible and disgusting. Members of all cultures tend to find their own choices to be rational, and the choices of other cultures to be disgusting and even offensive.”
That makes sense to me, most New Zealander see eating horses and dogs this way.
She goes on to say:
“Violent systems such as Carnism keep themselves alive by using defence mechanisms, so that rational humane people participate in irrational inhumane practices without fully realising what they are doing. These defences hide the truth about animal agriculture and distort what little we are able to see, so that we support a system we would otherwise find deeply offensive. The primary defence is denial. Carnism denies the truth by making it invisible.”
Just look at Donald Trump if you want a great example of denial in action.
“An animal based diet, which is what Carnism conditions us to follow, has been linked with some of the most prevalent and deadly diseases in the world today. While a plant-based or vegan diet, which is what Carnism conditions us to resist, has been shown to prevent and reverse disease, as well as to optimise health and to enhance athletic performance.”
In my own family I’ve had good role models for the health benefits of a mostly plant-based diet. My stepfather hasn’t eaten red meat for many years and he went for a scan recently, given that there has been bowel cancer in his family. Afterwards when the doctor heard what he ate he told him “ahh I see, well there’s no need to come back in future then, you’ve got nothing to worry about”.
Carnism also teaches us to believe in the three N’s of justification: that eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. And of course we’ve heard this all before - 150 years ago in the US people believed that slavery was normal, natural, and necessary. I’m realising that if I directly or indirectly cause harm to other living creatures it has an effect on me too. I felt really desensitised to this for a very long time, but I can see there was a personal cost. The invisible defences I needed in order to keep those feelings out worked both ways - they blocked my awareness and empathy in other areas of my life too.
When we’re born into an institutionalised system like Carnism we internalise it and it seems invisible to us. This was probably why I was surprised when I learned about the scale of our animal farming: Around the world, over 100,000 farmed animals are slaughtered - and not just every day, or even every hour. Unbelievably, that’s every minute.
Personally, it feels really good not to be a part of that any more.
I love discovering my own hidden assumptions and bringing them to the surface to check them out. I certainly had a preconception of what vegans were like until I became one, and I got a handy reminder just before this talk when I made a Facebook post about being here. Someone with the nickname South made this comment:
“Who wants to look emaciated, have health issues and no energy!!? Go have a good feed of meat and enjoy life.”
That’s definitely a common one and so far from the truth it’s actually laughable. When I started looking I discovered that the opposite is true - many top athletes these days are adopting a plant-powered lifestyle because it gives them a competitive edge. This is the new image about what it means to be vegan:
There’s a noticeable new food movement happening - plant-powered food businesses are springing up all over the place. People are playing with new ways of doing food and seeing a plant-based diet as a fresh and fun creative challenge.
It’s really taking off. I went to a pop-up restaurant event recently which was totally vegan and was super inspired by the creativity the chefs showed. They were playing with texture and taste in amazing ways, and I think most people eating a dinner like that would hardly notice it didn’t contain animal products.
This is the kind of stuff that inspires me, it might not be everyday food but it shows what’s possible.
Talking to lots of people recently has helped me realise that few people are going to truly embrace a new way of eating if it feels like they have to give up on tasty food in order to eat well. Eating plant-based needs to be easy, as well as cooler and more exciting than the alternative. Let’s not beat about the bush, it’s got to be sexy! It’s those same three basic three life motivators that cause the pleasure trap - maximising pleasure and avoiding pain, with the least effort possible.
What’s got me excited is that I’m enjoying food more than I have for years. As well as getting lots of pleasure from the actual eating of it, the underlying knowledge that I’m looking after myself and the planet at the adds a deeper layer of satisfaction.
wouldn't it be cool
The present world was pretty much entirely designed by people. Mmm, is this the best we can do? I think not! The great thing is that since we designed this, we also have the power to design something better.
I like the “wouldn’t it be cool” game. Wouldn't it be cool if:
we could grow all the food we needed and still have huge amounts of land for trees, wilderness and wildlife. Imagine great forests full of birds and cycle trails close to towns rather than barren fields of grass and eroded hills covered in gorse.
NZ was known as a world leader in sustainable organic farming, with people coming from all over to study and learn about how to work with natural systems to create super-nutritious plant-based food. Just imagine, we could export high-value leading edge knowledge instead of bulk milk powder.
we all understood and used the consumer power we have to influence businesses.
we had one of the healthiest populations in the world. I’d love to see a NZ where going to the doctor was more about fine tuning our happiness and wellbeing than confronting scary illnesses.
everyone enjoyed taking responsibility for their own impact on the environment and saw it as a playful game to keep creating cooler ways to live in harmony with natural systems.
our children were delighted about their future and felt that we were handing them a world full of positivity and potential.
All of these things are possible. Very possible. And I truly believe that changing how we eat can make a big difference to all of them. When I changed my diet I noticed a strong link with how my body and mind responded. It’s been like a positive feedback loop, a joyous circle rather than a vicious one.
The title of my talk is “why I choose to be plant-powered”, and it’s this conscious CHOICE that feels so good to me, because in the process I’ve examined my principles and values and found a way to be in the world that enhances my sense of integrity and gives me a new sense of clarity.
I choose to live this way because I love it. And because it makes the biggest difference to the body I live in, the world we live in together, and the rest of the life on this amazing planet.
In the movie The Matrix, Neo is offered a choice.
He can take the blue pill and return to a life where he’s surrounded by the familiar but at a cost to his own wellbeing and that of the world around him.
Or he can take the red pill and see the world as it is, initially full of challenges but ultimately incredibly empowering and rewarding.
I took the red pill and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I feel clearer, more alive and more excited about the future than I have for years.
At the start I was asking myself a question: What can I do? How can I make a difference? And I found an answer:
I can change the world with every bite.