Food and Health: our thoughts after travelling through Eurasia

in TravelFeed6 months ago

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Back in 2016 we moved to Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city, for Pheng's new job. We had just returned to NZ after a cycle tour in Southeast Asia. During the first month in Christchurch Matt stumbled on a YouTube video featuring a guest speaker in front a lecture theater full of students. The speaker covered topics from animal farming and inhumane practices, modern diet of meat and dairy, and alternative plant-based diets. It also coincided with undercover footage on the NZ diary industry by animal welfare groups SAFE and Farmwatch.

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Radio NZ Article (html comment removed: /wp:image )

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[Article] Is there a 'dark side' to NZ dairy?
[Video] The dark side of the NZ Dairy Industry
[Video] Gary Yourofsky - The Most Important Speech You Will Ever Hear

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Feeling a strong urge to change, we decided to give up meat and animal products… or try anyway.

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At the start of 2016 we were in Bangkok celebrating the end of our first tour. On New Years day we participated in a cooking class. A few days later we did another food course using microbiotics. In this course we learned some key skills that would help us get started eating a plant-based diet. Soy milk and tofu preparation. Our two new best friends, okay so we never made tofu again but we did buy it. The first few weeks were difficult, we didn't slowly transition we just went 'cold turkey'. We made soy milk the same way we did in the cooking class and ate lots of salads. Our collection of vegan recipes were extremely limited. We had to start looking for new recipes, it didn't help that we had just moved and so every recipe we stumbled across needed a plethora of ingredients that we didn't have in the pantry. Our stomachs weren't feeling comfortable with the change, they gurgled, felt empty and our methane emission were almost carbon taxable.

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We didn't do vegan strictly, or exactly either. We came across a term coined by 'vegan' and 'free'. We branded ourselves as 'freegans'. In an attempt to have a more ethical lifestyle we chose not to directly support the meat or diary industries financially however at the same time would consume meat and diary when we were not the ones purchasing them. We convinced ourselves that we were eating animal products that otherwise would have gone to waste however on reflection this was not accurate. With choosing this approach we also did not become the awkward couple at the party - the so called picky eaters: although it did raise a few eyebrows and a number of questions when Matt ate a traditional lasagne at a work function. Reflecting back the choice that we made as not to be a burden on the host of any given function actually ended up putting more stress back on ourselves as we always felt we were on the back foot having to justify what we were eating.

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Pheng had a similar experience when he asked for plant based milk at his workplace which exploded into a drama that resulted in a patchy milk supply and a less friendly workplace environment.

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YouTube channel AwakenWithJP (html comment removed: /wp:image )

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[Video] If Meat Eaters Acted Like Vegans - Ultra Spiritual Life episode 35

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Fast forwards to the end of the year when we visited Matt's family down in Invercargill with our new friend Marcos and Clarita. We went a local cafe and ordered drinks and one savoury brioche. We weren't following our freegan rules (again) and ordered something vegetarian. This was another one of the quirky rules that we had made for ourselves; if we were eating at a cafe we could eat vegetarian as often vegan options were extremely limited. The brioche had milk, 3 types of cheese and egg. The first bite had us hooked. We contemplated becoming vegetarians and after thinking about it for a few seconds, we did. The savory brioche becoming our signature dish over the next few years. With our current understanding on health, food and the environment, we have now learned that the decision to switch to being vegetarian was a poor decision made on a whim rather than based on the science.

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Fast forward again to 2018. We started our cycle tour from China to Portugal. Our 'freegetarian' diet (yes, it was getting harder to spell) was close to being thrown out the window, balancing ever so delicately on a knife's edge. Restaurant meat-based meals were cheap and widely available. "Our legs needed the energy and the all important protein" - other people would say such things to us and eventually we would find ourselves saying the same to justify eating a bit of meat. At every corner of the continent we would find ourselves inside a local's home sharing a homemade meal with them. The meals were generally meat based and it would be rude to decline their food. Sometimes when we felt comfortable enough we'd bring up the topic of eating a plant-based diet. The common responses would be: how do you get enough energy without eating meat?/ don't you need proteins for the muscles?/ eating meat has always been in our culture/ I cannot live without eating meat… and so on. I'm sure some of you reading this can relate to some of those statements.

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The route we cycled took us to different places. From cities to remote villages, from lush green forest to wind sculpted desert. One repeating painful scene that annoyed Matt a lot was of farmers letting their sheep or goat graze the hills and mountains. The hills are barely covered with any plants and there's no chance of a forest recovering when livestock are frequently eating new growth. This would lead to hills losing their top soil and eliminating the chance of forests covering the hill again.

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BBC Article (html comment removed: /wp:image )

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[Article] Why soil is disappearing from farms/
[Video] Why soil is disappearing from farms

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As a child Matt had Perthes disease bilaterally (avascular necrosis of the femoral head) which affected the hip bone (head of femur) development. This affected his ability to sit cross legged as a child but aside from this he does not have many memories of how this affected him. As Matt got older he became interested in running, running many 10km races, half marathons and even a full marathon. Unfortunately shortly after completing his full marathon his hip became increasingly painful, to the point that after an MRI and a few expensive sports physician specialist appointments the advice he recieved was if he continued to run he would need new hips by the age of 30 and if he stopped he might get to 40. Naturally Matt gave up running and that is where his new love of tour cycling was born. By cycling Eurasia Matt had hoped the exercise would strengthen his muscles around the hip so he could get back to running, even if it was just a brief stint. Sadly we didn't notice any improvement. This hasn't been mentioned before in our blog, but Matt had been enduring a sore hip from walking around the cities on our days off, eventually culminating in not being able to walk for more than one kilometer at any given time, he started taking pain relief for his hip which dulled the pain however it did remain present. Nearer the end of our trip we would tour the cities on bike during our rest days as he could no longer manage much in the way of walking. Some times it's just not practical to bike in the old cities of europe, and so Matt would limp through the city covering just a fraction of the attractions that he wanted to see. The pain would kick in usually within an hour but oftentimes in less than half that. We would then have to take things easy, rest often, only walking a few hundred meters at a time. Pheng slow his walking pace and was often used as Matts right hand crutch. We felt hopeless by the end of the trip because the only way to improve his condition was by surgery - something the doctor warned Matt when he did his running at university.

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We arrived in London for New Years 2020. Settling down again meant we had more control over what we ate. Matt started listening to a podcast called "Nutrition Facts". Having a proper kitchen again allowed us to stock up on foods that were essential for our vegetarian lifestyle. Just prior to starting work Matt measured how far he could walk without pain and he found that he was just shy of a km. During Matt's commute to work, he learned about the wonders of superfood, ways to gain maximum nutrition though the methods of cooking, avoiding dairy, and the immune-boosting properties of nutritional yeast, to mention just a few. We started following his advice and shared what we'd learned with our flatmates.

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Slowly Matts hip seemed to be improving and we weren't really sure why. He started to be able to walk further up to 4 or 5km, with only one week-long relapse of limping around the hospital and during his commute.

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Podcasts from Dr Greger (html comment removed: /wp:image )

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[Podcast] Nutrition Facts with Dr. Greger
Have you ever wondered if there’s a natural way to lower your high blood pressure, guard against Alzheimer's, lose weight, and feel better? Well as it turns out there is. Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, founder of NutritionFacts.org, and author of the instant New York Times bestseller “How Not to Die” celebrates evidence-based nutrition to add years to our life and life to our years.

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Then Covid-19 came.

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Everyone was in lockdown. The only way to connect to the rest of the world was via the internet. Being stuck at home meant suddenly we had heaps of time on our hands. Pheng didn't have to commute to work anymore. That saved an hour each day. Matt continued going to work at the hospital, treating patient after patient - yes, they are all Covid-19 patients. In our shared apartment in East London, we started planting herbs at home. There would be plenty of time to watch them grow. Netflix would become one of our closest friends and we binge watched all four seasons of Money Heist during the Easter break. Another weekend came by and we decided to watch some documentaries. We watched the following.

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Documentaries on Netflix (html comment removed: /wp:image )

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  • The Game Changers
    James Wilks travels the world on a quest for the truth about meat, protein, and strength. Showcasing elite athletes, special ops soldiers, and visionary scientists to change the way people eat and live.
  • What The Health
    Filmmaker Kip Andersen uncovers the secret to preventing and even reversing chronic diseases, and he investigates why the nation's leading health organizations doesn't want people to know about it.
  • Forks over Knives
    Researchers explore the possibility that people changing their diets from animal-based to plant-based can help eliminate or control diseases like cancer and diabetes.
  • Cowspiracy
    Follow the shocking, yet humorous, journey of an aspiring environmentalist, as he daringly seeks to find the real solution to the most pressing environmental issues and true path to sustainability.
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We could finally respond with confidence next time the discussion about diet is back on the table.

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"How do you get enough energy without eating meat?" → There's plenty of energy from plant-based diets. There are vegan elite atheletes that are as competitive and strong as other atheletes.
"Don't you need proteins for the muscles?" → Plant-based diets also provide proteins.
"Eating meat has always been in our culture" → There's evidence to suggest most humans were vegetarians.
"I cannot live without eating meat" → That's all got to do with willpower. Some people said it was impossible to cycle across Eurasia.

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We have picked up some useful information that we believe will benefit us and the environment. The good news about our body and health is there is always room for improvement. The best thing we will be doing is trying stick to the plant-based diet as best as we can, and Matt is hoping to see a continued improvement in his hip pain and gradually get back to running.

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As of May we have lived in London for 6 months and explored a fair amount of London's eastern suburbs. Our favourite place to walk is down the canal to Limehouse Basin (6 km return). On a really good day we might walk out to Canary Wharf (10km return). So far Matt has not experienced any hip pain from any of these walks, and we credit this to the change in diet.

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We recommended the above films to Matt's parents who have just completed a week of a plant based diet. Matt's Dad experienced a 20 point drop in his systolic blood pressure, large enough that if he was to continue with this lifestyle change he would eventually be able to get off his blood pressure lowering medications!

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If you have ever wondered about what the benefits are of going plant based, or even briefly in your life thought about going veg, if you've any long term health complaint I would strongly recommend you take a look at these films. We need to take more responsibility for our own health and stop relying on symptom relief by medication when we already know the cause of our current poor health status and the knowledge is already available for how to reverse our lifestyle induced diseases.

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