For this July’s Nutrition Month, we interviewed Shiela Castillo on veganism as a lifestyle to promote good health and nutrition and as a complementary advocacy to help address the climate crisis.

 

Shiela is a Futures Learning Advisor of the Center for Engaged Foresight and a co-founder of the newly formed Philippine Futures Thinking Society (PhilFutures). She trained as a Climate Reality Leader in Jakarta in 2011 and mentored and spoke in the training in Manila in 2016. She serves as a mentor to the ongoing virtual Global Training this July.

Especially in this time of pandemic & climate emergency, how important is nutrition in our daily lives?

 

Shie: Nothing is more important than one’s health. It is the canvas on which we paint the quality of our life. Our health is substantially anchored on nutrition. The quality and quantity of our food intake dictates our health. Especially in this time of pandemic, nutrition is all the more important. We must build our immunity to help fight the virus and its complications. 

Experts are saying that climate change exacerbates the spread of diseases and even cause mental health issues. With all of these challenges, it is imperative that we have excellent health to buffer us from a barrage of factors that could negatively impact our daily performance. But in order for us to have excellent health, we must also have good nutrition. As a vegan climate advocate, I always stress how important it is to shift to a vegan diet for optimum health.

Many are saying that nutritious foods come at a price. Could you tell us ways that individuals and households can prepare food for their families that are cost-friendly but also nutritious?

 

Shie: I would only promote vegan food and nothing else. Vegan food could provide a healthy balance of nutrients and can be cost-friendly, too. You don’t have to follow fancy vegan recipes on Instagram to be vegan. You just have to know how to “veganize” every day Filipino food. 

It’s really easy to do this to our everyday meals. There are so many plant-based substitutes you can use that are much cheaper and healthier. For example, you can veganize meat dishes like menudo and caldereta using tofu instead of meat. You can also make humba using unripe jackfruit. Banana heart is perfect for making veggie balls and patties.

You can also use mock meat, made of flour, seaweeds, and soya as meat substitute. They take on whatever flavor you season them with and would make great vegan barbeque, nuggets, and just about any meat dish out there. You can make chicken nuggets using cauliflower and mushroom to make a vegan version of breaded chicken. They’re available in most grocery stores. Using these ingredients, you could practically save up to 20-30% of your food budget. So as not to compromise nutrition in the name of savings, the key is to have a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds.

"People mistake veganism as a diet. It is not. And this is the reason why veganism could contribute more to solving climate change than people realize."
SHIE CASTILLO

What foods are highly nutritious and can help achieve this year’s theme of addressing stunting among our children?

 

Shie: Children need highly nutritious, protein-rich food, so that they would grow the right height for their age and avoid stunting. All of these are available on a vegan or plant-based diet. 

There are so many vegetables with even more protein than dairy, animal flesh, and fish. All kinds of beans, seeds, nuts, and lentils are great protein sources and have fiber and other nutrients to boost nutrition and support growth. Homemade plant milks are fresher, more nutritious, and have no additives that negatively impact health in the long run. Tofu is very versatile and is also a good source of protein. Instead of giving children junk food for snacks, give them nuts and seeds to munch on. Increase their vegetable intake because most vegetables have some amount of protein in them. This way, you are not only ensuring a child gets enough protein, but also other vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are necessary for the overall growth and development of a child. 

You can also serve vegetables in creative ways that mimic meat, for instance, using crushed green peas and chickpeas as base for veggie meatballs and veggie patties that you could use for pasta dishes, soups, wraps, and sandwiches. 

I remember when my son Toni decided to be a vegetarian at nine years old, my siblings said that he would no longer grow because he would be deprived of protein from meat. However, a couple of years later, they were surprised upon seeing how tall he has grown on a strictly no meat and no fish diet.

Through your individual actions, how do you encourage citizens, especially the children, to eat more fruits and vegetables (and less or no meat)?

 

Shie: I do this first by being an example. I was vegetarian for 17 years before I became vegan five years ago. More than two decades without eating animal products, fish, and eggs, I believe I am actually healthier and more vibrant than a lot of people younger than me. My kids see this and it must be the reason why decided on their own to shift to this kind of diet. When I speak about veganism, people don’t have to look far because it is my lifestyle. I am a testament to its benefits. 

I also often post food on my social media. This way, I am able to show that there doesn’t have to be too much effort and that it doesn’t have to be too expensive or boring to eat a plant-based diet. People message me and say that they have been inspired to take the leap. One Indonesian mom is also helping her children become vegan after watching my online talk. 

I write about veganism on my blog and I also give talks on veganism and climate change. I also maintain several online communities that promote veganism. I also join events or movements for animal rights, also in the name of veganism.

"Governments can create an enabling environment for veganism to thrive in the country to gain its full benefits on the health of the people, the animals, and the environment as a whole."
SHIE CASTILLO

How can veganism help address the climate crisis?

 

Shie: People mistake veganism as a diet. It is not. And this is the reason why veganism could contribute more to solving climate change than people realize. But let’s start with the diet aspect of it. A vegan’s carbon foodprint (1.5 tCO2e) is less than 50% of an omnivore (3.3 tCO2e). So it’s definitely a more climate-friendly diet. 

The climate benefits of veganism are not only measured by what one eats. Animal agriculture life cycle accounts for 14-18% of total emissions. This includes processing, refrigeration, and transport of meat, eggs, and dairy. Animal agriculture also accounts for so much water and land pollution. This, while extreme weather events caused by climate change already contribute to the decline of water quality and land productivity. 

Animal agriculture is also an inefficient way of delivering food to humans. Instead of using plants, like soya and corn, as food crops directly, they are used as feed crops for animals, which results in much lower calories for the people. 

As for the ethical aspect of veganism, by protecting the animals’ right to live and stopping the conversion of land into animal farms, we also support and promote the health of our environment. This will help regenerate and preserve forest habitats, which are effective carbon sinks. 

People also mistake veganism as an individual solution. It doesn’t have to be limited to that. Governments can create an enabling environment for veganism to thrive in the country to gain its full benefits on the health of the people, the animals, and the environment as a whole. 

Canada has revised its dietary guidelines to focus on plant-based food. New Zealand also strongly promotes plant-based diets in its 2019 Sustainability Report. 

In other countries, there are schools, offices, and even prison canteens shifting to vegan food. If the government understands the benefits of plant-based diet, it could institute system-wide changes like what’s happening in these countries. 

The idea that veganism is only an individual solution is a myth. It is definitely a solution that could be scaled up and deployed as wide as possible. Governments can plan for a transition to use public spending only on vegan food to minimize its own carbon footprint and ensure the health of its people. There are so many policies, programs, and initiatives that could be done to achieve this shift. The future is vegan, and it is coming sooner than expected.