Tagvegan diet

Koffee with Kuntal – In dialogue with a Vegan mountaineer

I first met Kuntal two years back, when he visited our new venture Imagine cafe – Mumbai’s first vegan restaurant. And after that first ever conversation with him itself, I had developed an immense respect for him as a human being.

Fast forward to 2 years later, I started writing about veganism with an intent to educate people about the horrors of the livestock industry and benefits of a vegan diet. I asked him if he could give me a quote for one of my articles, he said he was always happy to collaborate and will write back to me with his answers. But I was completely shocked, when, 24 hours later, he wrote back to me in great detail and told me I could use the answers however I saw fit. I could sense his emotions and passion through the mail. That is when I decided that the story in this email conversation has to be out there for people to read, a quote is just not enough!

For those who don’t know him –

Kuntal Joisher, 40, from Mumbai is the man who became the first vegan to climb the Mt. Everest from north and south sides against all odds. He not only did it on a vegan diet but used only vegan gear including a one-piece synthetic suit made completely from animal-free material made by ‘Save the duck’, as well as mittens and gloves constructed devoid of down or leather . Amazing isn’t it?

So here it is!

At what point in your life did you decide to go vegan?What/who was your inspiration?


As a part of my upbringing I was taught and always believed that, ‘Animals are sentient and emotional beings with individual characters, and have as much right to live freely and happily as much as we do’. And so consequently I grew up a vegetarian. Then I moved to the United States in Aug 2001 to pursue my Masters degree. And then sometime in late 2002, my room-mate at the university exposed me to the horrors of the eggs, dairy, and leather industry. After that conversation, I connected the dots that a piece of meat, a cake made with eggs, a glass of milk, a block of cheese, or a leather belt, or the Down jacket I was wearing – are all the same and come from abused animals. 

That is the first time I actually thought about where the milk we consume comes from? Cows are impregnated over and over, their babies stolen from them and slaughtered for meat just so that you can have their milk! Or think about eggs – male chicks are worthless to the egg industry, and so every year, millions of them are suffocated or thrown into high-speed grinders while they are still alive. The birds are crammed so closely together that they are forced to urinate and defecate on one another. Disease runs rampant in the filthy, cramped sheds, and many birds die! What about that leather belt or feather jacket? These are made from the skins of cattle, horses, sheep, lambs, goats, pigs, elephants, snakes, and feathers of chickens, geese etc who are all slaughtered so that you can look good.

Every animal wants to live, just as much as we do. Every animal loves, just as we do and every animal feels the same amount of pain as we do. I learnt the true meaning of words empathy and compassion the day I decided to turn Vegan, some 17 years ago. It was the start of a new journey – like a rebirth. And it was the best decision that I have taken in my entire life.

This was not the end. I learnt more shocking facts. Animals raised for meat, eggs and milk – the livestock industry – generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, uses up about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution. After knowing all this, I lost my sleep and peace of mind. I could not reconcile with the fact that as a Vegetarian I continued contributing to immense amounts of animal abuse, cruelty and slaughter, as well as destruction of the planet, and so I had to take a stand. That is the moment when I turned Vegan.

How did people in the mountaineering industry react when they came to know that you are planning to climb the Everest as a vegan?


Sometime in 2009, I realized that climbing Mt. Everest is the biggest dream of my life. I told myself that I am going to climb Everest as a Vegan, or not climb it at all. Most people in the high altitude mountaineering world thought I was crazy, as the recommended diet for extreme climbing expeditions includes salami, spam, cheese, processed meats, eggs, and dairy. I can’t eat any of these high-fat high-protein animal products. However, my diet has never been an issue. I’ve now been part of over 25 serious Himalayan climbing expeditions, and I’ve never had any problems being a vegan, even on this last climb to the top of Mt. Everest from the China side in May 2019! 

What is your diet like while training?


‘Whole foods plant based diet’.  Low fat, High carbohydrates. I love eating fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, dates, nuts / seeds and this diet has done wonders for me. I recover much quicker even when I do some of the most excruciating workouts (example – a 20 hour steep hike in the local mountains). On the other hand, every-time I eat unhealthy food such as deep fried stuff / white refined flour, I’ve realized that my recovery becomes slower. One’s body tells it what it likes. And my body likes a whole foods vegan diet. Some of my favorite foods are fruits such as Banana, Mango, Grapes, and power-packed dried Dates/Raisins/Figs, and I can not forget — the Oatmeal made with either water or soy milk (my favorite breakfast of all!).

Isn’t it hard trying to find vegan food while on an expedition?


My diet while on climbing expeditions is very different. At higher altitude the calorie requirements of a human body are dramatically different compared to while at sea-level. At Base camp, which is at 18,000 feet a climbers calorie requirements could easily be around 4000 calories a day, and this number would easily go upto 8-9000 calories at 25,000 feet, and a climber burns through about 15,000 calories on a typical Everest 20 hour round trip to the summit. While on an expedition, for me as long as the food is Vegan, I don’t care whether it’s healthy. I’ll eat it as I need the calories. For example a small bottle of 250 ml coke = 100 calories (99% simple carbs). A single oreo cookie = 45 calories, and so about 20 of them would be around 900 calories! These are all calories – Vegan calories, and they taste great, and at 23,000 feet where most people can’t eat anything, I would rather eat these and get my calories requirements met.

Regarding my diet while I’m climbing – a lot depends on where I’m climbing. If it’s the Himalaya, then most of the local food tends to be Vegetarian, and easy to Veganize. The food spread typically consists of Vegetable stews / curries, fruits, lentils, beans, soups, wheat bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, noodles etc. So on my climbs in the Himalaya, I stick to eating the local cuisine. At the same time I do carry comfort food from home which tends to be trail mix of dried fruits and nuts, nutrition bars made out of dates and nuts, and a few local snacks even if they are unhealthy (after all on the mountain – calories are calories – you need them!).  Veganizing the climbing expedition food menu isn’t that difficult. I’ve successfully worked with kitchen staff of expedition operators in the high Himalaya in India & Nepal, and even a remote region such as Northern Ice-cap in Chilean Patagonia.

For the Everest/Lhotse climb, at the Base camp (18,000 feet) / Camp two (21,500 feet) – I ate pretty much everything fresh right from beaten rice, to semolina / oat porridge, deep fried Indian bread and curry, Tibetan bread, pancakes, Lentils and rice, pasta, french fries, burgers, and several Indian food items – all Vegan of course. Our awesome cooks Ngima Tamang and Anup Rai even baked us a Vegan cake!  Beyond Camp two, I survived on mainly few things: Electrolyte & Energy powders, Freeze dried meals, Instant Soymilk oatmeal, Oreo cookies, Dried dates/figs, Dried fruit such as Kiwi, Pineapple, Papaya, Nuts – almonds & cashews, and some Indian comfort foods.

Do you think you had an advantage over other climbers or that you were compromising and taking a bigger risk by trying to climb on a vegan diet?


For me, when I shifted to eating a healthy vegan diet, I instantly had performance benefits during my training at sea-level. My recovery time improved, and I could train harder and harder for the big mountain climbs!

Another advantage I have over other climbers and that I have now been noticing for the past few expeditions is that I never catch a stomach infection. Most mountaineers at some point or the other during their expeditions catch a stomach bug that causes intense stomach pain, loose motions and these climbers tend to go weak and some of them never recover and go home. In my opinion most of these stomach issues are caused due to either lactose intolerance, or on the other hand infected meat. As a Vegan, I don’t eat any living beings or drink their by-products, which means that chances of catching infections is almost nonexistent. I have also recommended to my co-climbers to go Vegan when they catch infection and it has worked wonders with most of them!

But one of the biggest benefits and something that is not very obvious or tangible, is the amount of mental peace and focus that I derived after making this lifestyle change. Knowing that no animal or a sentient being died for me to go pursue my dreams gives me full peace of mind to go focus and achieve my dreams. If you are not already sold on the health benefits of this lifestyle, then I say go Vegan for the mental edge that this lifestyle gives you! And having climbed Everest and Lhotse, I know that in the end it’s all about your mental fitness and readiness.

And now, a question that every vegan is always asked- ‘But what about protein?


Protein is an essential nutrient, absolutely critical not just in building and repairing muscle tissue, but in the maintenance of a wide array of important bodily functions. Your body contains thousands of different proteins that serve different functions, all made from amino acids. It’s the arrangement of these amino acids that determines the type and function of a protein. There are 20 different amino acids that combine to form proteins, and although your body requires all of them, you only have the ability to make 11 of them. These are termed non-essential amino acids. The other nine—those you can’t make—are termed essential amino acids, and must be obtained from the diet. But these nine essential amino acids are hardly the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. In fact, they’re originally synthesized by plants and are found in meat and dairy products only because these animals have eaten plants. Basically all animal protein is essentially recycled plant protein at the end of the day.

While certain foods—like soy, buckwheat etc — contain all nine essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts, other plant proteins have a lower amount of at least one essential amino acid. But that’s not a problem because your body does the work of making complete proteins for you. Your body creates a “pool” of amino acids from the food you eat throughout the day. So, if you eat oats in the morning, a salad at lunch, and legumes for dinner, your body will pool together all the essential amino acids from these foods and use them as needed to make proteins. This means you don’t have to worry about getting all the essential amino acids at any given meal. As long as you are eating an assortment of plant foods over the course of a day, your body will take care of the rest.

A plant based diet is devoid of Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D3? How to deal with that?


Now let’s see how a non Vegan gets these. The animals that are raised for dairy and meat are injected with high doses of Vitamin B12. These animals are then consumed by humans, who thus get Vitamin B12. To me this seems like a highly inefficient and a far more unnatural process. Wouldn’t it be smart to just inject yourself with Vitamin B12 or eat a tablet? Save the animal life, and make the entire process more sustainable? And similarly with Vitamin D3. So no I don’t think Veganism is unnatural or unbalanced, on the contrary it’s the most natural and balanced diet that a human can consume – a mix of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Good for our health, the animals and the planet. Win win for everyone involved.

Would you like to give some pointer/tips for folks wanting to switch to a vegan lifestyle?


Start out by replacing your dairy and meat by Vegan  alternatives. For example, you can easily replace your milk with a plant based version such as Soy milk, Almond milk, Oat milk which these days is readily available in most grocery stores across India. Several companies such as Sofit, So Good, Soyfit, Good Mylk, Raw Pressery, Urban Platter etc provide plant based milk options. Then you can easily replace your meat with a plant based alternative. There’s Good Dot / Vezlay Vegan meat which is today available across India, or the Nutrella soya chunks that are available at almost every grocery store across India. Several companies offer Vegan versions of cheese, dahi, butter, ghee, sweets. These would be great stop gap arrangements as you transition to a diet filled with more vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains combined with occasional servings of vegan dairy and meat alternatives.

  • Another idea would be to gradually cut down one thing after another. For example, you can take a 21 day challenge of completely cutting out lets say “eating chicken”. Research shows it takes about 21 days to form a habit, and so you can slowly take on these challenges and start cutting out animal products from your life.
  • Also during the journey there is a good chance that you will face cravings to eat animal products. Try and begin by eating vegan alternatives – in today’s world everything from Vegan butter to cheese to ice cream to Shrikhand etc is available. However, if you can’t find it and you go ahead and eat some non vegan stuff, don’t beat up yourself over it. It’s not the end of the world. The key here is to focus and stay committed to the path of transitioning to a Vegan. There’s not many people in the world who have found success without failing. So go easy on yourself.
  • Find other Vegans in your area, in your city, meet with them, attend the potlucks, learn Vegan recipes, discover Vegan and Vegan friendly restaurants, goto Vegan movie screenings, participate in a Vegan outreaches, follow and join various social media groups on Facebook and instagram to learn more about Veganism. Many people try to make the transition into the world of veganism alone, but if you have a group, community, or friends who are vegan, the transition is smoother and easier.
  • Be prepared to read food labels. If you’re serious about being vegan, checking food labels and verifying ingredients is a must. Just because a food product is not glaringly non-vegan doesn’t mean that it’s suitable for a vegan diet. Casein and whey, which come from milk, and honey are present in many cereal bars, breads, and granolas; while gelatin and tallow are derived from meat. Read the labels carefully before consuming.

If you have anymore questions for him, he is a gem of a person who is always happy to help. He reads and responds to every single message in his Facebook / Instagram message box. So, do not hesitate in reaching out to him.

As a Vegan, I have never told anyone of them to become a Vegan, instead my idea is to do spectacular things and inspire them to ask me a question — ‘What do you eat that you can pull off such feats?’.

Kuntal Joisher

You can read more about him and his Everest journey on his website.

Veganism is Environmentalism

Today our environment is in serious trouble. We are in the midst of terrible ecological devastation and mass extinction.

In a landmark UN report, 2018, the world’s leading scientists warned that there are just twelve years to keep global warming under 1.5 celsius or we significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, and other extreme temperature changes.

Twelve. Years. Two of which are already gone.

That timeline is shocking. Generally speaking, conversations about climate change usually end up including fossil fuels. Mentioned far less are the ways that animal agriculture contributes to the changing climate. Confused?

Ten thousand years ago, 99% of biomass (i.e. zoo mass) was wild animals. Today, humans and the animals that we raise as food make up 98% of the zoo mass. Raising animals for food is the single greatest human-caused source of destruction to our environment.

Land and Rain forests

Animal agriculture is very land intensive. Of all the roles trees play in climate change, their role as carbon sinks might be the most important. A carbon sink is anything in nature that holds or stores more carbon that it releases, like trees. They manage this by acting like a sponge and soaking up carbon and other greenhouse gases that would otherwise be free and wrecking havoc on climate patterns. But animal agriculture is the biggest industry leading to deforestation.

Greenhouse gases

Water

Waste

Oceans

The fishing industry affects a number of marine conservation issues, including: fish populations, water pollution, and habitat degradation.

The fishing industry needs to be significantly decreased in order to maintain healthy marine environments around the world. Oceans of the world may be fish-less by 2048, and irresponsible fishing practices are being held as one of the major culprits behind this potential disaster.

One of the most detrimental techniques is bottom trawling, in which fishermen drag a net along the bottom of the ocean floor. It disturbs the bottom of the seabed, stirring up significant amounts of sediment and damaging the coral species which is a vital component of healthy ocean ecosystems as it provides shelter to a number of deep sea-dwelling species. The sediment that is brought up from the bottom of the ocean floor can be carried along by currents, reaching areas of the ocean located miles away. An overabundance of sediment creates murky waters, blocking sunlight from reaching underwater plants and creating dead zones of oxygen deficiency. Additionally, many of the organic pollutants that have settled into the sediment are stirred back up and reintroduced to the food chain, beginning with plankton and moving up to humans. The UN has estimated that up to 95% of global ocean damage is a direct result of bottom trawling. Blast fishing and cyanide fishing are two other practices that are detrimental to marine habitats. In blast fishing, fisherman use explosives to kill large quantities of fish. The explosives do more than kill the fish, however, and also cause destruction to underlying habitats such as coral reefs. Cyanide fishing is a similar practice, but uses cyanide to kill large quantities of fish. Fishermen spray this poison throughout coral reefs, Then collect the stunt fish and place them in freshwater for roughly two weeks. The fresh water is believed to cleanse the fish of any remaining cyanide. In many places, these practices are illegal, yet continue to be used.

FAQ

What if everyone starts eating only plants? That will also lead to increase in the agricultural land requirement and lead to deforestation etc.

No, it wont. Raising animals is very resource intensive as opposed to cultivating crop for direct human consumption. Animal based diet is 16 times more resource intensive than a vegan diet, whereas a vegetarian diet is 3 times more intensive. Hence, if everyone in the world ate a plant based diet even after factoring the increase in demand of land for human crops we will be able to return almost 80% of the total land today under agriculture to the forests. (Assuming, the level of global calorie intake stays the same)

How much would changing my diet actually help? I am just one person! Can I really make a difference all by myself?

Source: Aleksandrowicz et al, PLoS One

As you can see, it would definitely make a big difference if the world’s heaviest meat eaters scaled back even moderately, helping to free up land to feed everyone else. If many people collectively made changes to their diets, it will add up.

Why is animal agriculture resource intensive?

Instead of directly eating plants and getting our nutrients from there, human as usual tend to do it through animals who themselves get their nutrients from plants. Animals eat large quantities of grain, soybeans, oats and corn; however, they only produce a comparatively small amount of meat, dairy products, or eggs in return. An animal’s efficiency to turn its food into body mass known as feed conversion ratios (FCR) (i.e. feed: meat). The range of FCRs is  according to Dr. Robert Lawrence of Johns Hopkins University, the ratios are approximately 7:1 for beef, 5:1 for pork and 2.5:1 for poultry. The larger the animal, the larger the percentage of that animal’s body mass is inedible material like bone, skin and tissue. The second reason for meat production’s great resource intensity is due to its immense scale. Globally, there is a projected “food animal” population of over 20 billion, almost thrice that of the current seven billion humans the planet carries, with the animal count expected to rise along with human population growth. It all adds up.

What about grass fed beef and free farms?

Most cattle spend their first year on pastures eating grass, after which they are typically moved to a feedlot, where they are fattened up with grain. By contrast, “grass-fed” cattle keep grazing on grass until they are slaughtered. But, on the flip side, grass-finished cattle which are not given antibiotics etc. also take longer to reach slaughter weight, which means they spend more time burping up methane into the atmosphere. Because of this, some studies have suggested that grass-fed beef can actually be worse for the climate over all.

Is organic produce better than conventionally grown produce?

Organic produce is grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, which is definitely good for your health. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better from a climate perspective. In some cases, it can be a bit worse as organic farms often require more land than conventional farms.

Should I worry about whether my produce is local and seasonal?

Transportation accounts for only about 6 percent of food’s total climate footprint. Anything that’s in season where you live, whether you buy it at a local farmers’ market or at a supermarket, is usually a good choice. Things get trickier when it comes to out-of-season produce. Some fruits and vegetables that are shipped by plane can have a surprisingly hefty carbon footprint. In some cases, though, there can be an advantage to food that’s shipped in from elsewhere grown in its natural environment than to buy a local variety that was grown in an energy-intensive heated greenhouse.

Also, many believe that air-freight is more common than it actually is. Very little food is air-freighted; it accounts for only 0.16% of total transportation involved in the food supply chain, as most foods are transported by ships. Many of the foods people assume to come by air are actually transported by ships – avocados and almonds are prime examples and crops even when shipped at great distances, its emissions are much less than locally-produced animal products.

Even almonds are very water intensive. Is’nt that bad for the environment?What is the environmental impact of different types of milk?

Yes, almonds are more water intensive as compared to other nuts and grains. But even they use 50% of water per litre as compared to milk from cows.

This graph is a good representation of the environmental impact of different types of milk, per liter.

Source: Poore and Nemecek, Science

Why aren’t governments speaking more openly about how harmful animal agriculture is for the environment? How come we have never heard of this before?

Reducing your carbon footprint by eating less meat and dairy rarely gets attention. This strategy has been recommended by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and a host of other highly-regarded researchers and organisations.

Industry and lobby groups have traditionally had much economic and political power. They push heavy consumption and meat marketing campaigns which target our insecurities, attempting to convince us our brain development is linked to hearty meat intake. Governments under the pressure of these lobbyists and capitalists aren’t acknowledging this openly or making policies that could aid in this shift.

Religious and cultural associations are definitely there as well. It is a difficult shift to make mentally and it appears we don’t want to be put off our food by acknowledging the implications of our diet. And hence, as we say, ‘Ignorance is bliss!’

I would like to conclude this answer by quoting a speech given by Greta Thunberg a climate activist who is only 17 years old –

We are about to sacrifice our civilization for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess. Even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You say you love your children above everything else. And yet you are stealing their future. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. But I do not care about being popular, I care about climate justice and the living planet.

To all of you who have never treated this crisis as a crisis. To all the political parties that pretend to take the climate question seriusly. To all of you who chose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent catastrophic climate change than the catastrophic climate change it self. Your silence is almost worst of all.

We are running out of time. We are standing at a crossroads in history. We are failing but we have not yet failed. We can still fix this. It is up to us. The real power belongs to the people.

GRETA THUNBERG

Conclusion:

  • Modern agriculture inevitably contributes to climate change, but some foods have a bigger impact than others.
  • It is definitely good to buy stuff locally as far as possible and eat organic as it is better for ones health but what you eat matters a lot more than whether it’s local or organic, or what kind of bag you use to carry it home from the store.
  • Beef, lamb and cheese tend to do the most climate damage. Pork, chicken and eggs are in the middle. Plants of all kinds typically have the lowest impact. Hence, a vegan diet is being considered as the most environmental friendly.

A plant based diet or vegan diet is not only good for the environment but also ethical, cruelty free and good for your personal health.

I will talk more about the same in my next few articles. Follow my blog for regular updates.

References and sources:

All the data has been taken from reliable sources. I have listed down all the major websites and articles I have referred to for the data. Most of the statistics are global averages, but some of them might be more specific to USA/Europe as many of the studies are carried out there.

https://ourworldindata.org/

https://www.cowspiracy.com/facts

https://www.culinaryschools.org/yum/vegetables/

https://www.geo41.com/water-uses

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/04/animal-agriculture-choking-earth-making-sick-climate-food-environmental-impact-james-cameron-suzy-amis-cameron

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-environmental-impact-of-the-fishing-industry.html

Article from The New York Times

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/30/can-a-burger-help-solve-climate-change

www.forksoverknives.com

Book – No one is too small to make a difference – Greta Thunberg