Personal, powerful, palatable: Mick Robertson rediscovers our fondness for food

U of T student premieres her short film Eating is a Very Tender Thing at TIFF Next Wave

Personal, powerful, palatable: Mick Robertson rediscovers our fondness for food

Michaela Robertson’s favourite time to eat is in the middle of the night. She likes to stand with the fridge open and about four different containers of leftovers strewn around her. She told me, with a chuckle in her voice, that she gets this from her father.

Eating is a very tender thing. It’s how we stay connected to our bodies, and, often, how we tell other people that we love them. That’s exactly what Robertson set out to document, with cinematographer Isaac Roberts and a set of DV camcorders.

As a part of the Battle of the Scores competition, an event that opened the TIFF Next Wave Festival, three filmmakers each created a silent film. Following this, six musicians performed original scores inspired by these films live at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 14.

Robertson’s three-minute silent film depicts her close family and friends eating their favourite foods, how and where they like to eat them. “The idea was to make it a love letter to eating,” she told me in a Skype interview — a fittingly grainy form of communication for talking about Robertson’s film, which she designed to look like a wedding video. Robertson was sitting in front of her childhood bunk beds with a smile on her face as she told me about all of the sparkling ideas that had shaped her project. 

The Varsity: Can you tell me a little bit about your film?

Micaela Robertson: My project is called Eating is a Very Tender Thing, and it was inspired by this passage from a play called Concord Floral by Jordan Tannahill, in which there’s this girl who talks about how she’s always felt like an outsider. And so she’s talking about how, at the cafeteria, she always felt comfortable, because in her mind, what she says is, “eating is a very tender thing. When we were apes we would all stand around and guard each other as we ate, because it’s the time when we’re most vulnerable,” and so I always really liked that. 

And so, when the opportunity came around, when I saw the posting for [the festival], I got excited at the prospect of being able to buy all of these people I cared about a meal, and then was hoping that I would be able to capture them eating the way that they love to eat, on camera, capturing them eating as comfortably as possible. And so, basically what my film ended up being is three minutes of over a dozen people eating some of their favourite meals the way that they love to eat them the most.

TV: If the film as a whole was a type of food, what would it be? 

MR: There’s one shot in it of a friend of mine eating a full brunch, but in bed. He’s eating takeout brunch, so it’s way too much to be eating while you’re sitting in bed, but he’s in bed in his pajamas. That’s the tone of the film. Or, honestly, noodles because [that’s] the image that I was really keen on trying to get at some point in the film. When I pitched it to TIFF Next Wave and Insomniac [Film Festival], I was like, “I want to have a film that has a shot of a big noodle going into someone’s mouth and slapping their mouth. I need some messy noodle eating.” I feel like messy noodle eating maybe encapsulates the film. 

TV: It sounds like there’s a lot of warmth in it, but there’s also a sort of a carefree aspect to it. Is that what you mean by the messy noodles? 

MR: The cinematographer for the film — his name is Isaac Roberts — used these old DV camcorders to shoot the entirety of the film, which gives it this feeling of [looking] almost like a wedding video. It looks sort of romantic in the way that it looks like it maybe wasn’t necessarily meant to be produced and shown at TIFF. It looks like it was meant to be shown on a TV screen to other loved ones. So, I think that that’s where the messiness comes in, because it’s shot in standard definition, which is so messy compared to the glory of HD. But it’s just the right tone for this film. It wouldn’t have worked, I think, if it was shot on a DSLR or anything like that.

TV: Would you describe your relationship with food as something that’s a bit romantic?

MR: This year, the Battle of the Scores falls on Valentine’s Day. So, the pitch had to be about romance. And so I think that my relationship with food is probably one of the most intimate relationships I’ve ever experienced. When I engage in that relationship it is just for me; it’s for nobody else. It makes me feel all sorts of ways, and I think that because the way that I love to eat is alone in the middle of the night, the only thing that surpasses the intimacy of those moments has been finding a romantic partner who also loves to eat like I do — in the middle of the night. All of a sudden, I’m comfortable doing this super personal thing with another person. And in that regard, I think it’s a highly romantic thing. 

TV: Were there ever any discussions, undertones, or thoughts about body image involved in the film? 

MR: I was conscious of how eating is related to body image as I was dealing with the participants. And so, before the participants were officially signed onto the project, they all filled out a survey outlining very necessary things that I said I explicitly needed to know about, like food allergies. But there were also areas in the survey in which I encouraged them, that if they wanted, they could share with me things that I might need to know in order to make this more comfortable with them.

I did make a conscious decision for this film not to be about body image, but in a way, to me, that makes it about body image in a certain regard.

My eating habits are insane — like, loving to eat until you’re really, really full right before you fall asleep is not good for someone’s body image, but nevertheless, it’s something that I love to do, and I do try to eat as healthily as possible. Therefore, I wanted to enjoy the fact that I really love to eat, and make a film that was about really loving to eat. Which, in a way, because of the way that it doesn’t give time to talk about the dark underbelly of [eating], it kind of is talking about it. It’s about trying to dismiss those dark thoughts in the form of a film. Like, it’s okay to love to eat late at night. It’s okay. So, that was the idea, to make it a love letter to eating, to highlight all the positives of it, rather than focusing on the negatives.

TV: How did you try to capture the different cultural approaches to eating communally? 

MR: It was more personal. Although, the thing that ended up happening was that there ended up being a focus on eating individually. That’s not a complete throughline in the film. There’s a couple of siblings eating together, actually. So, although that sounds like there’s a lot of people who eat communally together in the film, there’s actually way more people who eat by themselves. I think I was more interested in what people do when they’re alone and enjoying eating, just because I know that I have my own rituals that I perform when I’m eating alone.

Of course, a lot of that ended up being people watching TV, which is interesting in and of itself, but I did try to encourage some of the participants who I felt particularly comfortable with to try to engage in something that wasn’t watching TV. My friend Michael for example did a series where he photographed all these people eating brunch in his apartment. Right where his kitchen table is, there’s a skylight above, so all of this natural light floods in, and so for him, we kind of did this artificial thing where we got him to sit where his participants would have sat, and he just kind of sat and ate quietly.

With regard to cultural aspects of eating, communally or non-communally, that was the goal of the survey, to make it so that if people wanted to include culturally specific rituals around food or culturally specific food, they could, but that they also didn’t feel like they had to perform that for me. The goal was to acknowledge that food and culture go hand in hand, but the ultimate goal was for the participants to feel comfortable, and to feel seen as they appear most normally, or be seen as they would most typically be, or would want to be seen. And I really hope that everyone felt comfortable with that.

TV: There’s a growing culture of watching Netflix while you eat, or getting home late from a long day of work and eating. It’s sort of the ritual and system that we’ve built up, as opposed to some cultures in which it’s extremely important that you eat together. So, how did you diversify the film in terms of cultural expectations and individual behaviour?

MR: I tried to make sure that the age range was wide in the film. That being said, it ended up largely being people who are in their twenties. However, I think there’s something to be said about how people in their twenties are most often alone, because you’re not living necessarily with your family anymore, and you also might not have your own family set up yet. 

So, I think there’s a lot of normalcy in the people who are in their twenties eating by themselves. There’s also a lot of them eating in bed, which I feel is very typical because apartments are small. And, you know, usually, the dining space is a communal living area, so you’d rather eat in your bed. That said, the siblings we filmed eating together — both groups of siblings were substantially younger than I am, they were all under the age of 20. So, under the age of 20, people tend to still be living at home, and therefore be eating with their siblings.

Then, with my dad, he’s captured eating alone, but we faked that one a little bit because we had to tell my family to leave him alone so we could capture him as he would normally be once we’re all in bed.

Robertson’s film highlights the importance of cultivating a love of self through meditating upon what we put in our bodies, as well as using food as a vehicle to express our feelings to others. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UTSG: Dumplings for Dummies!

Come learn to make dumplings with your international and residence student directors! We will have both meat and vegan options available, and a small dinner will be provided. This event is limited to 30 students on a first come, first serve basis.
Please sign up with the link here: https://forms.gle/1t9YKqcKSMNhYHSXA

U of T now offers some kosher options at UTSG following Hillel UofT’s Kosher Forward Campaign

Jewish diet available at Robarts, Medical Sciences building, Goodmans LLP Café

U of T now offers some kosher options at UTSG following Hillel UofT’s Kosher Forward Campaign

On January 23, Hillel UofT announced the partial success of its Kosher Forward Campaign, which aims to make kosher food options accessible at U of T. Kosher refers to food that is prepared in accordance with traditional Jewish law.

On January 27, U of T Food Services announced that food options that are certified by the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR) as kosher are available at the Grab ‘N’ Go fridge at Robarts Library food court and the Medical Sciences Building. A third location, Goodmans LLP Café, located at the Faculty of Law building, also began to offer kosher options on January 29. Currently, the menu offers COR-certified wraps, sandwiches, and cold salads.

The campaign ran under the leadership of students Sofia Freudenstein and Chaim Grafstein. It involved a public petition, which brought together students, allies, and campus organizations, as well as months of discussion between Hillel UofT and the university. The original petition aimed to establish kosher food options at both food vendors and at residences; the latter has yet to be achieved.

Hillel is a Jewish campus organization with chapters at universities around the world. At U of T, the organization represents 1,000 to 1,500 students.

Food as an accessibility barrier

Hillel UofT Senior Director Rob Nagus wrote to The Varsity about the origin of the campaign: “Noticing a vital need for kosher food options, our Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Rabbi, Rabbi Julia Appel, along with some of our Hillel Student Leaders began conversations with many of our campus partners to explore the best way to move forward with a campaign to address said need.”

Nagus listed the Multi-Faith Centre and the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office as two major partners. “The plan was to gather a broad range of support for our campaign before approaching Administration.”

In a letter dated July 12, 2019, Freudenstein and Grafstein appealed to President Meric Gertler for U of T to live up to its commitment to diversity and inclusion by offering kosher food at the university, similar to how it offers vegetarian, vegan, and Halal options. “We believe the University of Toronto loses much by not providing kosher food,” the letter read.

The two campaign chairs stressed that the unavailability of a kosher option poses an accessibility challenge for Jewish students, who they claim are excluded from enjoying food on residence and on campus. The two urged the administration to follow other Canadian universities that already offer kosher food, lest they lose potential Jewish students to neighbouring schools. It would also relieve the strain that is put onto organizations like Hillel UofT to bear the cost of offering these options.

Aside from the letter, which requested a meeting with the administration, the campaign included a petition form that undergraduate and graduate students, both Jewish and allied, were able to sign to demonstrate support. By the end of its campaign, the petition accumulated over 400 signatures over at least three months.

The university accepts the campaign’s demands

On November 23, the public campaign ended and the petition was sent to the Office of the President. Hillel UofT further requested a meeting to discuss the petition.

On December 19, Hillel UofT members presented their campaign to the U of T administration, as represented by Vice Provost Students Sandy Welsh and Director Ancillary Services Anne McDonald. The university accepted the campaign’s demands on the same day, and committed to making kosher food available in the 2020 winter term. Its January 23 press release reads, “The strength of the partnership between Hillel and the U of T administration is testament to our collective ability to provide to our students with ongoing support and access to the services they need.”

While kosher food is officially available at three St. George locations, Hillel UofT looks forward to expanding the reach of the campaign in the future, possibly to UTM and UTSC. “We will look to reform a long dormant food services committee with the University to address long term solutions for providing greater access to kosher food that will extend to more locations, potentially including UofT’s satellite campuses,” wrote Nagus. “This committee will also address other food equity issues that affect the broader campus community.”

Controversy with the UTGSU

On November 15, Hillel UofT accused the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) of anti-Semitism after the latter’s External Commissioner, Maryssa Barras, expressed hesitation to support the Kosher Forward Campaign due to Hillel’s “pro-Israel” views. The story received widespread media attention in Canada and abroad.

Hillel UofT condemned the UTGSU’s conflation of the accessibility needs of Jewish students with Israeli politics. These tensions follow a previous conflict over the UTGSU’s establishment of a permanent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Committee on Israel, which Hillel had opposed.

Following further discussions between the organizations, the UTGSU apologized for the incident in a November 21 press release. It further announced that Barras had resigned and that it would undergo anti-oppression training.

Hillel UofT responded positively, writing that the UTGSU had “expressed a willingness to bring forward a motion to support the Kosher Forward campaign.” In addition to its apology, the UTGSU “has begun working with Hillel and other Jewish communal organizations to ensure incidents such as this one will never happen again,” Nagus wrote.

At its Annual General Meeting (AGM) in December, the UTGSU held a discussion on anti-Semitism in response to the November controversy. The meeting featured members from Hillel UofT, Independent Jewish Voices UofT, and the Kosher Forward Campaign itself, who offered competing views on the question of anti-Semitism in the UTGSU and Hillel’s representation of Jewish students.

The discussion on anti-Semitism continued on January 27, when the AGM was readjourned due to a failure to meet quorum in December.

From food environments to food marketing: the science behind diets

Expert panel informs what we “should, and could, and can do” about dieting

From food environments to food marketing: the science behind diets

When trying to find the silver bullet diet, a few questions may pop into one’s mind. “According to whom? To us? To science? What is science?” asked Jessica Mudry, an assistant professor in Professional Communication at Ryerson University. She spoke about diets at a Royal Canadian Institute of Science panel titled, “New Year, New You: The Science of Healthy Eating.” The event took place January 26 at the JJR MacLeod Auditorium at the University of Toronto, and touched on subjects ranging from diet fads to how they tie into mental health.

Resolutions about finally getting healthy easily become quite puzzling. “Monday, eggs are good for you; Tuesday, [eggs are] not so good for you,” she explained. To make things worse, she continued, “comprehensive diets are even more confounding,” due to how consumers receive mixed messages all the time on what diets constitute healthy eating.

Diet fads and what our food eats

Amy Botta, a postdoctoral nutritional researcher at York University, explained currently popular diets, namely the ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting, and veganism. She noted that such diets “have a place for certain pediatric conditions, but in terms of weight loss, the evidence is actually kind of mixed.”

Evidence is not only mixed, but lacking in quantity. Botta added that “we need a lot more research in order to be able to decide exactly what diets are appropriate.” Additionally, the vegan diet may decrease the overall risk for cardiovascular disease, but people who follow the diet have a 20 per cent risk increase in strokes, while also lacking many vital amino acids that are only obtainable through animal products.

It’s also important to consider what our food is eating. Farmed fish lack 75 per cent of the omega-3 fatty acids that are present in wild-caught fish due to the simple fact that farmed fish are fed corn, a food which gives them unhealthy amounts of the wrong fatty acids.

Botta argued that “it’s not just about understanding the diets; it’s understanding our food system, and… specifically what the inputs are into that.”

Population health and food policy

Our food environment is “the environment in which people make food choices,” as defined by Laura Vergeer, a PhD candidate at U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences who was at the panel. Food choices are influenced by nutrition facts tables and ingredients — two mandatory components of food packaging in Canada which aren’t always user-friendly, as Vergeer noted.

She highlighted countries with “good practice food environment policies,” such as front-of-package labelling for products that don’t meet certain nutritional standards and restricted marketing to children.

“These types of policies can prompt food companies to reformulate their products to make them healthier, so that they meet the criteria to be marketed to children, or so that they’re not required to display these front-of-pack symbols,” she said.

Although Canada has not yet successfully passed such regulations, Ontario has passed the Healthy Menu Choices Act for displaying calorie contents on the menus of fast-food chains, and by 2022 food products in Canada will not be able to contain artificially produced trans fats.

The “psychological-biological bind” of diets and eating disorders 

Lindsay Bodell, an assistant professor at Western University’s Department of Psychology, was also present at the panel, and discussed her research regarding dieting and its ties to mental illness.

Beyond social media pressures to lose weight and obtain certain body ideals, the complexity of eating disorders include psychological and biological components. Bodell’s research focuses on “what’s happening when someone’s losing weight” — which is known as a ‘weight -suppressed state’ — and its impact on eating disorders.

Drastic weight changes are associated with negative eating-related thoughts and behaviours. Within clinical samples, this is a predictor of poor response to medical treatment. Leptin, a hormone produced by fat tissues that provides feelings of satiety, is decreased during weight; this is then associated with binge-eating symptoms.

“Our psychology is saying we need to lose more weight, but then when we are losing weight, our biology is pushing us up in the other direction,” she said. “And now individuals are stuck in what we call this psychological-biological bind that’s really contributing to maintaining these disordered eating behaviours.”   

Amidst the unbalanced, chaotic life of a student, trying to eat a balanced diet can be difficult — but don’t fear. Meal prepping to set yourself up for the whole week and making sure to find time to enjoy your meals with others on a regular basis can make way for healthier and more enjoyable eating.

Opinion: UTSG vegan options leave much to be desired

Moving toward campus sustainability and student health requires improved access to meat-free food options

Opinion: UTSG vegan options leave much to be desired

I have unsuccessfully been vegan for about two years now. My game plan has been this: meal prep on the weekend, eat my prepped meals throughout the week, and mission accomplished —  I’m a vegan. As one could probably expect, my dream of being a meal prep queen is rarely realized because, like many students, I don’t have the time to properly meal prep. So, when plan A fails — which it frequently does — I move to plan B, which is finding a vegan meal on campus. However, this endeavour is not as easy as one would hope.

While there are some vegan options on and around campus, the selection is small and the prices are very high.

Over my two-year struggle, I have found a few vegan-ish foods that I have grown to love: plain french fries — which can be found at pretty much every food truck; Ned’s Cafe’s veggie samosas — which combine the nutritional value of a small variety of vegetables with the comforting quality of crispy, carby, dough; Café Reznikoff’s overpriced pasta salad, which may or may not actually be vegan; and The Green Beet, which is delicious but unsustainably expensive.

Additionally, the Food Services website features a list of on-campus locations with certified vegan items.

These lovely options aside, finding a well-balanced, reasonably priced vegan meal on campus is not easy. Really any healthy meal of any kind is hard to come by, and those that do exist are usually far out of the price range of most students. Students should be able to find healthy meals on campus for a relatively low price. Currently, students either pay for overpriced and slightly healthy food, or restrict themselves to cheaper, greasy foods.

Research finds that cognition is greatly affected by a person’s eating habits. Increasing the availability of healthy, cheap, and plant-based options in cafeterias across campus will not only make eating on campus more accessible to those who are vegan, but will also give the average student a greater variety of healthy options to choose from.

In 2018, the American College Health Association found that approximately 63 per cent of postsecondary students are not eating sufficient portions of fruits and vegetables. This comes as no surprise. I often find myself eating fries, bread, and other carbohydrates-filled snacks, unable to find or afford healthier options.

University students often reach for the closest options, factoring in portability and price in between classes, jobs, and study sessions. Poor diets have become a commonly accepted feature of the postsecondary experience. But this is an issue that the university has the power to improve.

According to one study published in the journal Science, going vegan is the single most effective way to reduce one’s environmental footprint. While it is unrealistic to expect the majority of U of T students to switch to a vegan diet, it is in the best interest of the university to give students options to do so by providing students with increasingly accessible and varied vegan food options.

Seeing as U of T has already pledged itself toward the U7+ climate goals, promising to work toward “campus as a living lab, university as an agent of change, and curriculum innovation,” it would be prudent to consider investing in plant-based options.

If the university is to influence students and society toward sustainability, food must be a part of that effort. Exposing students to affordable, nutritious vegan food will not only increase awareness of the possibility of veganism as a sustainable diet, but also reinforce the university’s commitment toward student health — an action that is long overdue.

Harper Stewart is a fourth-year Political Science student at Innis College.

Can’t find a snack this Valentine’s Day? Don’t worry, The Varsity’s got you

Easy eats that are closer to campus than your next Tinder hook up

Can’t find a snack this Valentine’s Day? Don’t worry, <i>The Varsity</i>’s got you

One of the best things about going to the University of Toronto is the food scene. Food is often tightly coupled with our emotions, so when midterms and essays have you feeling blue, refer to this list for a little pick-me-up.

Carole’s Cheesecake Café: Yorkville, 114 Cumberland Avenue

One time after an awful midterm — CHM136 Introductory Organic Chemistry I, I’m looking at you — Carole’s Cheesecake literally saved my life. Carole’s sells small slices of heaven in to-die-for flavours like classic New York, Skor, triple chocolate, and Reese’s Peanut Butter, to name a few. All cheesecake slices range between $5.99 and $13.99, and all are guaranteed to make unbearable classes a little more bearable.

UT Sushi: essentially on campus, 185 College Street

Please, for the love of God — and truly, I’m begging you — do not be lazy and get the Bento Sushi at the Medical Sciences Building. Please. I cannot stress this enough, walk the extra minute for the good stuff at UT Sushi. UT Sushi is reasonably priced and will satisfy you much more than Bento Sushi ever will. My personal favourites are the sushi lunch combo, which comes with both salad and miso soup; or salmon sashimi with rice.

32 Chicken St.: Little Italy, 409 College Street

Are you looking for food near campus that will change your life? We both know that you are, so wander up College Street to find 32 Chicken St. My best friend describes its Crispy St. Chicken Burger as orgasmic. I suppose you could more tastefully call it ‘heaven in a bun!’ It has melt-in-your-mouth, Korean-style fried chicken, the perfect sauce, and the best coleslaw, all in a delicious bun for $8.80. I promise it is worth your money. Of course, the restaurant offers some other variations, like Soy Lover St. Burger, Sweet St. Burger and D-Cheese St. Chicken.

Almond Butterfly: Locations in the Annex and Trinity Bellwoods, 100 Harbord Street and 792 Dundas Street West

I discovered this beauty alongside a friend during exam season. Like I said, sometimes school requires little pick-me-ups, and Almond Butterfly excels in this area. It is a gluten-free café, but as an avid gluten eater, I can assure you it is a fantastic choice no matter your dietary restrictions. My personal favourite is its vanilla latte for $4.50, which is made with vanilla syrup that they make in house, paired with its vegan chocolate chip cookie, at $3.95.

In addition to making fantastic coffee and baked goods, its homemade bagels are to die for. The Harbord Melt, for $9.50, has apples, turkey, aged white cheddar, butter, and homemade honey mustard — oh my heart. Its Harbord location is also close to the Robarts Library, which gives you the perfect excuse to go before you study. Life hack: the Dundas location has a happy hour from 3:00 — 6:00 pm with reduced prices on many sandwiches and cocktails, and two-for-the-price-of-one cupcakes!

Insomnia: The Annex, 563 Bloor Street West

Have you ever had too much to drink? Cue Insomnia, the perfect place to go for brunch after a night out. Insomnia is filled with hearty meal options, including a variety of egg benedicts, sandwiches, and sweet breakfast options as well. Personally, I’d make sure you order something with their home fries because who doesn’t love carbs?

Golden Patty: Kensington Market, 187 Baldwin Street

The Golden Patty is golden for anyone on a student budget. It serves delicious Jamaican patties for $1.50 and for any vegetarians out there they also have the Trinidadian classic, doubles for $1.70 each, making it the perfect place for a cheap and filling lunch.

Egg Bae: Kensington Market, 189 Augusta Avenue

Pick me. Choose me. Love me. This is your bae calling. All of these sandwiches are equally deserving of your love. My two favourites are the Bae-Sic, which is made with a fried egg, pork belly sausage, tomato jam, onions, muenster cheese, and bae sauce; and Seaside Bae, which is made with soft scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, potato chips, shallots, arugula, and mayo. The best part? All the sandwiches are under $11 and are truly filling and delicious. Thank me later!

High steaks: new study with controversial methods questions whether red meat is all that bad

U of T professor David Jenkins, other researchers criticize study’s methods

High steaks: new study with controversial methods questions whether red meat is all that bad

Last month, the Annals of Internal Medicine published an article co-authored by Dr. Bradley C. Johnston — an associate professor at Dalhousie University — that criticizes the scientific backing of public health advice to eat less red meat in order to counter heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.

Johnston’s study attacked the quality of research of other nutritional studies with a method named the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE), which is used to judge the quality of clinical drug trial research.

GRADE ranks studies based on precision and accuracy. Due to GRADE’s design, it automatically ranks the “large observational studies and randomized trials” common in nutritional science as low-quality research.

Johnston and his team, evaluating the nutritional studies that link meat consumption and health ailments using the tool, could conclude that all studies that find this connection are low quality. As a consequence, this delegitimizes nutritional science.

But the nutritional science community has been vocal in its opposition of the study, largely citing a misuse of GRADE. “You can’t do a double-blinded placebo-controlled trial of red meat and other foods on heart attacks or cancer,” Dr. Frank Hu of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said to The New York Times. “For dietary and lifestyle factors, it’s impossible to use the same standards for drug trials.”

Dr. David Jenkins, a U of T professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Faculty of Medicine, has also been vocally opposed to this methodology. “What [nutritional scientists] rely on is perspective cohorts — [we]take a group of people and follow them over time and work out what they’ve eaten and what their lifestyle is,” Jenkins told The Varsity. “It works well, but people who smoke, [for example,] tend to have other bad habits.”

In other words, it’s hard to control for a single factor, and thus GRADE “automatically ranks these studies as low-quality, even if there is a consistent response.”

The misuse of GRADE has real-world repercussions on the face of public health.  “I’m concerned about the damage that has already been done to public health recommendations,” Hu told The New York Times. “Certainly, the data are regarded as low-quality [according to GRADE] — let’s accept that,” said Jenkins.

“But it’s not about just one thing. It doesn’t just relate to diabetes or heart disease or an increased cancer incidence — it relates to all of them. Surely, then there must be some significance. It’s the scope… it’s not strong, it’s broad.”

In response, public health organizations are taking action. For example, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates for veganism, filed a petition to the Federal Trade Commission against the journal that published the article due to concerns that it delivers “dangerous advice.”

Furthermore, Johnson was a senior author on a study aiming to discredit international health guidelines that advised against high sugar consumption. The study was sponsored by food and pharmaceutical companies like Pepsico and McDonald’s.

Jenkins also ventures that health should not be the only motivating factor in considering to eat less meat. “We’ve got a global warming situation,” he warns. “We have as many — or more  — four legged friends that we eat on the planet than there are of ourselves. We have to consider all the mechanization that’s used to produce feed for them, which use fossil fuels, and all the required energy and land.”

Dr. Gordon Guyatt, the chair of the peer review panel for the article, said to Coast Mountain News that it is “hysterical… It’s completely predictable and they’re doing themselves no favours from my point of view about these sort of hysterical statements.”

Jenkins is nevertheless eager to reach a point of agreement in the meat debate. “It’s not low quality about just one thing. It doesn’t just relate to diabetes or heart disease or an increased cancer incidence — it’s related to all of them.”

The environmental impact of diets

The intersection of the climate crisis and your eating habits

The environmental impact of diets

Whether due to a facetious New Year’s resolution, a new documentary that spooked you off meat, or a genuine concern for your health, many of us have tried a new diet. It’s normal to experiment with what we consume on a daily basis. However, in the midst of all these trends, the environmental impact of our choices is hardly discussed. Whether you’re a strict steak-lover or a die-hard kale enthusiast, for those who have the means, it’s time to consider the impact your food has before it hits the table.

The keto diet

The keto diet is among one of the most popular ‘trendy diets’ today. In essence, the keto diet is made up of 75 per cent fat, 20 per cent protein, and five per cent carbohydrates.

Since it involves a high level of protein proportionally, many followers choose to consume meat products as their method of choice. However, meat production can have a massive carbon footprint.

For example, the production of livestock such as cows, chickens, and pigs accounts for 70 per cent of all agricultural land usage, and creates 18 per cent of the greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere. Moreover, 43 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions are released for every one kilogram of beef produced. The keto diet is not doing any favours in correlation to environmental impacts.

Vegan and vegetarian diets

According to a 2018 Gallop poll, five per cent of Americans identify as vegetarian. Contrary to the common perception that cutting meat out of your diet correlates to a positive impact on the environment, a strict vegetarian or vegan diet may also have its own shortcomings, though it can still be a much better alternative to an omnivorous diet.

For example, vegetarians in the US commonly replace the meat in their diets with dairy products. Dairy products, an adjacent production to livestock, have a massive carbon footprint, since dairy cows release copious amounts of methane into the atmosphere, as well as other greenhouse gases, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Dairy production also uses high amounts of water in order to nourish cows, and process manure. Moreover, manure runoff can pollute water systems, which can lead to serious health problems for consumers.

Vegans, however, do not consume dairy; in fact, they avoid animal products altogether. In theory, this should remove any negative environmental impact. However, according to the US Library of Medicine, pesticides used in conventional agriculture, such as fruit and vegetable crops, leak into surface level water where it can also pollute soil, poison wildlife, and harm other nearby plant-life.

It’s absolutely admirable to take on a new diet in order to improve yourself —personal growth is important. However, the next time you follow the next trendy diet, consider how much our Earth loses, too. There is no one diet that can save the planet, but individual consumer choices do add up.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.