When I was 16 years old, my mom hired me a personal trainer. It was at a gym that I'd never been to before, though I was no stranger to exercise. At the time I was quite overweight, and I'd tried in earnest to do the things that I thought would address the problem, but I honestly had no clue what to do. Though I was a bit apprehensive, I embraced the idea of having someone with the experience and expertise to help me along my journey. It turned out to be one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.
I don't think he liked me much. Why? To this day I'm unsure. I don't want to assume that it was because I was an overweight Black teenaged girl, but I don't think it helped that we had absolutely nothing in common. He was a muscular white guy, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, and considering that we were in a wealthier, majority white neighborhood that I did not live in, he probably hadn't had many clients like me. I was quiet and shy, but I did everything that was asked of me, without complaint.
The workout would begin with a strength circuit, silently jumping from machine to machine. He'd adjust the weights and I'd perform the movements. Next he'd bring me over to the dreaded stairs where I'd have to run up and down for what seemed like ages. These were the moments when my lack of fitness really came to the fore. Those stairs would leave me winded and I'd always feel like a pathetic mess after the fact. Once it was all over, he'd plant me on one of the treadmills, tell me to walk for a half hour, then leave. No praise, no discussion of how I'm improving, nothing.
The moment of embarrassment, the moment when I decided that I sure as hell would not be renewing my contract once it was over, came during a review of my diet journal. As was requested of me, I kept a detailed journal (as detailed as a 16 year old could anyway) of the meals I ate during the day and presented it to him for review. One day, I proudly handed over my diet journal, pleased with how many salads I'd managed to eat, confident that he'd see my efforts and be thrilled. Wrong. He blew up at me. Within view and earshot of other patrons, my trainer yelled at me and accused me of trying to sabotage myself. I was confused until he asked why the hell I would be eating a beef patty, so high in saturated fat, when I was trying to lose weight.
Now, at 16, I had no clue what the hell saturated fat was or why I should be avoiding it. As a matter of fact, I'd never had any nutritional counseling or education whatsoever. It wasn't something that was taught in school, and it wasn't something that my trainer had discussed with me. All I knew was that I should "eat better", and so I ate as well as I knew how. I ate salads when possible, and smaller amounts of everything else. But being of Jamaican descent and living in a Jamaican neighborhood, beef patties were ubiquitous, and it felt like such a normal and harmless thing to eat. I figured, hell, it's high in protein, right? Never in my wildest dreams did I think that having one beef patty would be such a problem.
I was humiliated. I felt smaller than I had already been feeling throughout the process, the smallest I'd felt since the entire thing started. I struggled, but I managed to hold back tears until our training session was over. For a few more weeks, I would continue to go to my training sessions, and the tension between us never dissipated. Once the training package had run its course, I told my mother to save her money because I would not be going back. I would continue to struggle with my weight and my diet for many years after this, putting on much more weight than when I began. I was no better off for having had a trainer, and in some ways, in the emotional and mental ways, the ways that I now know matter the most, I was worse off. My confidence was shot, and I felt like a hopeless cause.
I've heard many similar stories since then. Stories of people shelling out their hard earned cash to pay for training packages with trainers who were rude, dismissive, judgmental, and racially or culturally insensitive. Trainers who resorted to verbal and emotional abuse instead of providing support. Trainers who put their clients through the motions of working out without explaining why they were doing the things that they were doing, only that they must do it if they want to reach their goals.
This kind of training was popularized on television shows such as The Biggest Loser where overweight and obese contestants were regularly yelled at, belittled, and broken down under the guise of building them back up stronger. Their bodies were put on display in disturbing weigh-ins where normal, healthy weight loss was treated as failure while losing huge, unrealistic amounts of weight was celebrated as a success. We now know that the long-term result of all of this was metabolic damage, not to mention any emotional and psychological pain that was endured.
Shows like The Biggest Loser perpetuate the notion that people who are overweight and obese deserve to be abused and humiliated. That they must pay penance for daring to exist in their fat bodies. While there are plenty of reasons why everyone should eat healthier and get regular exercise, abuse, belittlement and judgment are not the ways to go about it. After years and years of jumping from gym to gym and tinkering with my diet, I was finally able to lose a substantial amount of weight on my own. But I resented the fact that I had to go it alone. I had to do extensive amounts of research in order to successfully navigate the clusterfuck of nutrition and fitness misinformation that's out there. Now, with fitness training and nutrition coaching certifications under my belt, I see much more clearly just how fucked up my experience has been. It shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't be this difficult to take control of your own body. It shouldn't be this hard to be healthy.
But this is the environment that we live in. Decades of processed food products being normalized as daily fare. A fast food restaurant on just about every corner. Convenience foods sold as viable substitutes for home-cooked meals because if you want to pay your rent you have to spend obscene amounts of time working, and who has time and energy to cook after working 40+ hours a week? Public health messaging that tells you that if you just move more, you'll lose more, and everything will be fine. Diet companies that profit off of nutritional ignorance by promising you that their particular brand of trash or their proprietary method of starvation is exactly what you need to eat to lose weight. A government that's been co-opted by industry lobbyists who purposely obscure any attempt to tell you the truth - that eating their addictive products is making you fatter and unhealthier, and no amount of exercise in the world can offset a poor diet. As a nation, we don't know how to properly eat and it's by design.
We keep pretending like we don't know how obesity rates continue to rise, but the answer is right there, plain as day: as the majority of working people toil day in and day out to afford a living, they're forced to prioritize financial survival over self-care, health and wellness, and billion-dollar industries - from food to fitness to pharmaceuticals - profit off of that fact. People are kept confused on purpose, and when they slip up and find themselves in a poor state of health, the entirety of the blame is placed squarely on their shoulders. It's their fault for being misled, for being misinformed, for being unaware.
This is a cop-out that will continue to exacerbate the spiraling health conditions that we're experiencing as a nation. There are too many people suffering to continue to categorize this as simply a matter of individual willpower. Because the needs of industry are placed above the needs of the people, people are forced to be extra discerning about who to trust when it comes to nutrition and fitness advice. It is unfortunate that there seem to be more entities concerned about making a dollar than making a difference. One scroll through Instagram will show you countless examples of "professionals" who approach fitness from a place of vanity and showmanship, who are themselves equally as misinformed about health and nutrition as the people they're trying to take on as clients.
People deserve better. They deserve to be seen as individuals, to be understood for who they are in the context of the lives they've lived and the experiences they've had, not as stereotypes. They deserve to have their needs and concerns addressed in a manner that is understanding and empathetic, not judgmental and dismissive. They deserve proper guidance on how to live a cohesive lifestyle where movement is accessible, enjoyable, desirable and safe, rather than painful and punishing. They deserve to be able to enjoy food confidently, knowing they've been armed with the knowledge necessary to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.
Unfortunately, I don't envision that the billion-dollar industries that profit from poor health will all of a sudden gain a conscience. Nor do I see our elected officials deciding to put their financial positions at stake by facing these industries head on. Change has to begin at the bottom. Until enough fitness and wellness professionals take it upon themselves to ensure that they're providing their clients with proper knowledge and treating them with the respect that they deserve, people will continue to fall prey to the well-established, insidious traps of diet and fitness fads.
"Make sure you take a milk!" At lunch time, there was always a teacher's aide to remind us that our meals were not complete without one of the small boxes of milk piled up in huge bins at the end of the lunch line. Despite my former love affair with cheese I've always hated the taste of milk. The beverage that came in those little red & white boxes were absolutely disgusting to me and I did whatever I could to avoid having to drink it. When forced to, I would place a box of milk on my tray only to surreptitiously toss it in the nearest garbage bin once I was out of view of any nearby adults.
On luckier days, there would be some chocolate milk on hand. The sweet, chocolate flavor went a long way towards covering up the taste of the milk, and it was a whole lot easier to go down - or so I thought. Little did I know then that it was contributing to the near constant stomach aches, unbearable gas and frequent, unpleasant trips to the bathroom that I experienced as a child. My complaints were so frequent that my mom would schedule trips to the doctor's office, only to be told that they could find nothing wrong.
I often wish that I'd had the luck of coming across a physician like Dr. Milton Mills, one with the knowledge and awareness to ask the questions necessary to diagnose what should have been fairly obvious: lactose intolerance. Instead, I made my way into adulthood continuing to consume dairy on a regular basis, though I'd long left my chocolate milk days behind. I was under the impression that dairy was a necessary part of my diet, providing nutrients like calcium and vitamin D that would supposedly build strong bones. As a child in public school, I was constantly being fed the message that I needed dairy. From the Got Milk? posters on the walls to those adamant lunch aides, countless authority figures in my life told me that dairy was a necessary and healthy part of my diet. But how can my body need something that clearly causes it harm?
Lactase deficiency affects 60-80% of the Black population in America. This means that the majority of Black people in the United States do not possess the lactase enzyme necessary to properly digest dairy. Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous Americans also experience high rates of lactose intolerance and are unable to consume dairy without some sort of negative consequence. Thousands of Black children across America who are over-represented in high poverty public schools are depending upon their schools to provide breakfasts and lunches, as well as some general guidance regarding proper nutrition. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines is exactly where school administrators and policy makers turn to in order to formulate the menus for places like public schools. So why does the U.S. continue to push dairy as a necessary part of a healthy diet if a substantial portion of its population can't even digest it properly?
One would hope that by now, given all the research available on the negative health effects of dairy, that these guidelines would be adjusted. Canada, for example, got rid of its 3 cups a day recommendation back in 2019, opting instead to group dairy in as a protein option. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines, however, continues to treat dairy as its own food group, recommending upwards of 3 cups of milk per day. One may respond that to their credit, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines have been updated to state that a comparably nutritious soy milk beverage may be substituted for cow's milk. But how does this translate into practice? The guidelines may allow for additional options, no doubt to save face, but what about cash-strapped public schools? I highly doubt that any of them can afford to provide an additional bin full of little boxes of soy milk for their lactose intolerant students. Not to mention that the MyPlate diagram, which is more public-facing and accessible than the 164-pg U.S. Dietary Guidelines document, continues to feature a cup simply marked "dairy".
The diets of children aren't my only cause for concern. The guidelines continue to recommend 3 cups of milk per day into and throughout adulthood, despite research suggesting a link to various illnesses, including cancers. It has been found that women who consume even 1 cup of cow's milk per day had a 50% increase in their chances of breast cancer. This is particularly concerning for Black women, who die from breast cancer at rates 40% higher than their white counterparts. Black men are also disproportionately affected by illnesses linked to dairy consumption. A 2015 meta-analysis of 32 different studies found that dairy consumption increases risk of prostate cancer, and Black men have the highest rates of death from prostate cancer.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines stress that establishing healthy eating patterns in youth have a major effect of dietary patterns later in life. If such is the case, then it does a major disservice to Black children to insist that they must consume dairy, or to teach them that dairy is the only way to receive certain nutrients. Without a deliberate push to provide alternatives while making it clear that not consuming dairy is perfectly fine, the message received by most will be that dairy is a dietary necessity.
I honestly call bullshit on the notion that the Guidelines were purely scientific and created with everyone's best interest in mind. If such were the case, then it wouldn't be so blatantly misleading. To present dairy as its own food group implies that dairy in and of itself contains nutrients that cannot be readily found elsewhere, which is patently false. It also does this while presenting paltry, insubstantial recommendations for other more nutritious foods. For example, while calcium can be readily found in green leafy vegetables, it is only recommended that they be consumed in quantities of 1.5 - 2 cups per week. Similarly, beans and legumes, which are also good calcium sources, are recommended at an intake of only 1-2 cups per week. This is compared to 3 cups of dairy per day, in spite of the fact that greens and beans provide exponentially more nutritional value than a cup of milk.
I find it hard to believe that if lactose intolerance were not disproportionately suffered by Black people and other people of color that dairy would continue to be promoted as a recommended part of one's daily diet. It is difficult to ignore the contradictions and biases apparent in what should be a purely scientific and informational document, and it is difficult to ignore the racial disparities in poor health outcomes related to dairy consumption. Maybe if kale and lentils had powerful corporate lobbies behind them ensuring that their product was prioritized, promoted and subsidized with taxpayer dollars, the Guidelines might read quite differently.
In what seems like a previous life, long before I committed to a plant-based diet and an ethical vegan lifestyle, I was in love with cheese. I mean desperately, obsessively in love with cheese. However, this was a totally one-sided love affair because one thing was for certain: cheese did not love me.
It all started, as so many problems do, during my childhood. My mother used to host art shows in our home, which was always exciting for me not only because I'm an artist at heart, but because this always meant that there would be a table full of hors d'oeuvres. Being that I was only a kid, it was easy to hang around the hors d'oeuvres table, picking at food without judgment while the adults oohed and aahed over gorgeous Black art. I took full advantage of their collective distraction and zeroed in on what I really wanted: cheese.
You know the stuff, the solid blocks of cheddar and pepper jack that come wrapped in shiny metallic wrappers. My mother would cut them up into bite-sized little cubes and lay them out next to some tasty crackers. I had no interest in the crackers, however. It was the cheese that I'd come for. I'd stand there, popping cube after delicious cube of cheese into my mouth, damn near melting into ecstasy under the snack table. I really wasn't concerned whether or not the guests had gotten their share. As far as I was concerned, Christmas had come early, and the cheese was all mine.
This marked the beginning of a years-long habit. As a kid, I'd run to the fridge to munch on individually wrapped slices of American cheese. In elementary and middle school, I chose whatever cheese option they had for the day, whether it be pizza or a cheeseburger, or an ooey gooey grilled cheese. Our after school hangout spot was the nearby pizza shop. During high school, I'd spend what little money I had to engage in my morning ritual of scarfing down beloved New York classics like bacon, egg & cheese sandwiches (with salt, pepper & ketchup!), or bagels with thick, obscene layers of cream cheese. This diet followed me right into college where, with my newfound freedom, I ate whatever cheesy thing was available in the Morningside Heights neighborhood where I was located - and there were endless options.
It wasn't until I was in the middle of my twenties that I realized that I'd long been exhibiting gastrointestinal symptoms as a result of my cheese habit. I mean, there were signs. There had always been signs - I just refused to see them. Once during my preteen years I was at a family party hanging out with my cousins, eating ice cream and enjoying various childhood shenanigans. To my embarrassment, I accidentally let one rip, engulfing the room in an odor that had my cousins scattering away in shock. "Nivea! You're lactose intolerant! You need to stop eating all that ice cream!", my cousin yelled at me. Now, as far as I was concerned, she was no medical doctor and I'd never received such a diagnosis so she could kick rocks. There was no way in hell that I was going to give up dairy - or so I thought.
As the years went by it became obvious that dairy wasn't doing my body good. I'd long suffered from regular bouts of diarrhea and terrible gas, but it took forever to make the link to dairy. There was no way that something so delicious was doing me any harm. I refused to believe it. Throughout college I kept a Costco-sized box of Lactaid nearby to pop whenever I wanted to indulge in some cheesy goodness. This worked, but only for a while. Eventually it felt like I needed more and more of it for it to work. But it was a Costco-sized box so, I always had plenty.
Then, a couple years after I'd left college, I was eating a protein bar after a workout when I suddenly experienced itching in the back of my throat. This itchiness spread slowly throughout my body. I was having an allergic reaction. That was when I learned that I'd somehow developed an allergy to whey, a protein found in milk. Now, this did not bode well for my cheese addiction. After hitting up Google, I learned that some aged cheeses were very low in whey, so maybe I could still eat it, as long as I stuck to those few. This was a short-lived revelation, however, as my stomach problems had gotten so bad that I couldn't deny it anymore: my beloved cheese was hurting me. I had to give it up for good.
It wasn't until I began this current plant-based journey that I realized I'd been harming myself all along. I learned that because cow's milk comes from lactating cows, it is high in mammalian estrogen that our body does not distinguish from our own. It's no wonder that I suffered from debilitating menstrual periods every month. I also learned that upwards of 70-75% of people of African descent (and high percentages of other people of color) are genetically lactose intolerant. Though it took over a decade to admit it, my cousin was right after all. My body could not digest lactose, and it had been openly rejecting it since childhood.
So why was it so hard to give up? Despite countless hours spent glued to the toilet in agony, I refused to believe that dairy was the problem. After all, I'd learned growing up that dairy was a necessary food group and that I'd be deficient in calcium if I didn't consume it. Things weren't adding up. Why would the authorities that I presumed had my health in mind recommend that I consume something that was making me sick? It was also cheap as hell and readily available virtually everywhere in my neighborhood.
I eventually learned that this was not by coincidence but by design. Our government subsidizes dairy via the dairy checkoff program in order to promote the sale and consumption of dairy that is produced in excess. In the case of places like the Bronx where I grew up, cheese is easy to access for very little cost, which is why it is found in ample amounts in virtually everything - from fast food to school food to bodega food. This is despite the fact that a significant portion of those of us who live here cannot digest lactose and should not be consuming it.
Cheese was also extremely hard for me to give up because of its chemical composition. Cheese contains an opiate-like compound called casomorphin. Its natural purpose is to make a mother cow's milk enjoyable enough to the calf that it keeps coming back for more. The problem is that it makes dairy addictive to humans, as well. It also contains growth hormones which are great for growing a baby calf into a full-grown cow, but which wreak havoc in human bodies, promoting the growth of things like excess adipose tissue and tumors.
Honestly, looking back, I'm thankful for the signals that my body was giving me, even if it took way too long for me heed the warning signs. Politics, money and systemic racism are the true drivers behind the blanket recommendations to consume dairy - not science. Had I continued to listen to dietary guidelines rather than my body, I'd still be battling with the myriad symptoms that came from consuming something that my body was never meant to consume.
From acne to painful periods to other menstrual disorders and hormone-driven breast, ovarian and prostate cancers, dairy has been widely linked to health problems. Dairy broke up with me long before I was ready to let go, and honestly, I'm glad it did. I'll get my calcium from kale, thank you very much.
When I first adopted a vegan lifestyle in April 2017, it was the beginning of an exciting, illuminating and sobering journey that I've come to fall deeply in love with. Suddenly, my entire world view had been flipped upside-down. Everything I thought I knew about food, nutrition and health was revealed to be false, meaning that much of what I'd been taught throughout my life was completely untrue. It was daunting to realize that I knew so little and had so much to learn, but I was ready. Because of my personal health struggles, I was fully prepared to re-learn everything I thought I knew about healthy eating and living a holistically healthy lifestyle.
What I didn't expect was that my veganism would grow beyond my motivation to live a healthy lifestyle. While I'd always been quite sensitive to social injustices, going vegan made it abundantly clear to me that the way I lived previously contradicted my desire to live in an equitable and just world. I became aware of the multitude of abuses that arise from our agriculture system, and as the information mounted, the more I realized that veganism was about more than the simple act of eliminating meat and dairy from my diet.
For the first time I made the connection between the food choices I made several times a day, and various forms of social injustice and destruction. Prior to going vegan, I spent about three years of my life as a pescetarian, not considering the fact that within my lifetime we're likely to witness fishless oceans. It simply didn't dawn on me that every time I ate seafood, I was contributing to a demand for fish that is currently depleting life from our oceans.
In all the years that I ate meat, I never once considered the abuse, pain, torture and utter turmoil that exists within these massive slaughterhouses that produce our meat. It wasn't until I challenged myself to watch videos and look - really look - at the pain from which my food was produced that I was fully and utterly turned off from the notion of consuming meat. It was through veganism that I learned that my natural inclination for empathy also extends to non-human beings. I was finally humbled enough to question the notion of human dominance. For the first time, I saw non-domesticated animals as sentient and just as deserving of life as I am.
After watching What The Health, I learned about the horrific health consequences facing poor people of color who live near large-scale industrial animal farms. To make it worse, these health consequences aren't limited to nearby residents or poor, overworked farm workers. Large-scale animal agriculture is also responsible for polluting our air, our water, and our crops. Indeed, we can point directly to animal agriculture as a major contributor to climate change. Without question, the world's appetite for meat is literally making our planet sick.
But it's also making us sick, too. My original motivation for going vegan - my health - never wavered, and while I educated myself about veganism as a lifestyle, I also delved into the nutritional aspects. I started watching lectures and reading books, gathering knowledge from doctors, scientists and holistic healers alike. From T. Colin Campbell to Dr. Greger to Karyn Calabrese to Chef Akhi to Dr. Sebi and more, the idea that gaining health comes from eating plant foods in their most whole, unadulterated form became a common theme. It's been almost 2 years since I've changed my diet and every day I marvel at how much my health has improved and continues to improve in ways that I never imagined possible.
The opposite is also true, however. Not eating whole fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds and herbs contributes greatly to poor health. With enough research it becomes painfully obvious that diet is the most crucial factor when it comes to cultivating and maintaining optimal health. Most of the chronic diseases that are negatively impacting and ultimately claiming the lives of our friends, families, coworkers and acquaintances can be traced back to poor dietary choices. (Please, if you can, make time to watch the lecture above, it's worth it.)
I've come to realize that there is a schism that exists within the vegan community, with die-hard vegan-for-the-animals folk clashing with self-described plant-based folk. While one side ignores the notion that diet and health are intricately connected, the other side neglects to consider the greater humanitarian value of making the right food choices. From my own experience thus far, the two concepts are inextricably linked. As an individual concerned about my health, my choices matter. As a human sharing this planet with other beings, my choices matter. As a person concerned about the welfare of future generations as well as the future of the planet we live on, my choices matter.
I embrace the vegan label just as wholeheartedly as I commit to a whole food, plant-based diet because I care about the health of the world as much as I care about my own personal health. It is of very little benefit to me to be healthy in an ill world. Indeed, I can only ever be as healthy as the world that I live in and the people who inhabit it with me. As much as we may want to pretend that we are all islands, we aren't. What we do (or don't do) affects our planet and its inhabitants, just as surely as we as individuals are affected by the health of our planet and fellow citizens.
Our collective choices matter, and we're slowly but surely being forced to face that fact. Whether it be mounting collective medical debt, poor air quality, impotable water, dying oceans, or any of the major crises that currently exist, those of us who are able are going to have to take up the mantle. For the sake of ourselves, for our loved ones, for the poor, the innocent, the disenfranchised, and for all the generations to come, we must make more responsible choices. And it all begins on our plates.
The taste of the ocean was what did it for me. I was around ten years old and staying with family in Jamaica for the summer. It was a bright, sunny day, perfect for heading to the beach. We took a trip over to Hellshire Beach for a day of swimming and unwinding, but it wasn't the crystal waters that took my breath away that day. It was a meal. A meal of fried fish and festival that would inevitably kick off my years-long love affair with seafood.
I was never a huge meat person. The texture of beef was too much on my sensitive teeth, pork was great when it was bacon, and chicken was basic unless deep fried and covered in a sticky, savory sauce. I ate what I thought I needed to for protein, but rarely was I ever craving meat. Seafood on the other hand, I adored, particularly when seasoned with flavors of the island. I loved some pepper shrimp (though my tongue could hardly handle it), spicy jerk salmon and crispy, tangy escovitch fish.
When I got to college I met someone who was pescetarian and learned that I could exclude all other animal protein in favor of fish. This kicked off a three year stint of percetarianism that included way, way too much sushi. It was all seafood, all the time, and yes, it was terribly pricey. But this lifestyle was a whole lot more costly than I ever imagined, not only to my wallet but also to my bodily health and on a greater scale, the planet. It wasn't until I'd become vegan and had fallen down a rabbit hole of research that I realized that eating ample amounts of fish and seafood was not as harmless as I'd thought it was.
Fish Is NOT The "Healthier" Option
What I found appealing about the pescetarian lifestyle was that it seemed healthier. There was no red meat in my diet, so I felt better about my cancer risk. I had a vague understanding that not all fish was the same, so I would opt for wild caught salmon and more "sustainable" options like sardines. I felt like I was prioritizing my health while also making the best choice for the health of our oceans. I was wrong.
It's now come to light that basically all fish contain worms and parasites, but it's even more prevalent in the wild caught fish that I used to love so much - and that's not all they contain. The aquatic food chain is filled with heavy metals such as mercury and lead. While this may not be much of a worry for those who only eat fish every once in a while, it should definitely be a concern for health-conscious individuals who make fish and seafood the main source of protein in their diet.
There was also a time where I took fish oil supplements because I believed they were necessary to boost my omega-3 intake, but it turns out that fish oil supplementation does not have any protective benefit against heart disease. This was all really just the tip of the iceberg for me. The more I learned about fish and seafood, the more I realized that it was hardly any healthier than the meat and poultry I so eagerly shunned. However, it's the environmental effects of fish consumption that should truly have all of us worried.
Our Oceans Are Suffering
For most of my life I've heard that we need to "Save The Oceans", a motto that now feels more like an empty platitude than anything else, because in spite of the desperate state of our seas, there hasn't been enough collective mobilization towards actually doing something about it. I wonder: who are we waiting on to save us? This is our planet and yet, we've literally treated it like a trash dump. Currently, there is a patch of garbage that is roughly twice the size of France sitting in the Pacific Ocean. Island nations like the Dominican Republic are being overwhelmed by the trash and debris washing up on their once pristine beaches.
While movements to reduce single-use plastic such as straws have picked up a bit of traction, they're misguided at best and ableist at worst. Yes, single-use plastic is a major pollutant, but what never seems to come up in these conversations is the fact that a huge percentage of ocean plastic can be attributed to fishing nets and fishing gear. The painful truth is, our collective appetite for fish and seafood is directly harming our oceans.
To make matters worse, we're directly killing hundreds of thousands of other types of sea life via bycatch - the "extra" sea animals that get caught up in these very same nets during fishing and after these nets have been carelessly left in the ocean. We may also eventually come to learn that all of this plastic can have consequences for our health, as scientists are currently researching the health effects of microplastics consumed via seafood.
The reaction to such news tends to be shock and then helplessness: 'WOW that's terrible, but what can I do about it? I'm just one person.' Well, we can choose not to support these industries. We can choose to not contribute to the huge demand for fish and seafood by removing them from our diets altogether, and urging those around us to do the same. Call me idealistic, but I do believe that if enough of us can take a stand, the market for the product will eventually disappear.
Fish Are Highly Intelligent Beings
If I hadn't been moved by the toxic contaminants or the rapid deterioration of our oceans, learning about the intellectual capabilities of these beautiful creatures might've been enough to do it for me. Fish are capable of using tools, are fast learners, have long memories, and are capable of deception. Additionally, despite old reports to the contrary, fish do feel pain.
Personally, I don't abide by notions that other living beings must experience emotions like pain, grief, fear, longing and worry in the exact way that I do in order to be deemed worthy of protection. I no longer believe in archaic notions that I somehow possess a human superiority that gives me permission to harm other living beings, especially not for the sake of food. The plain fact of the matter is, they are living, sentient beings - period! - and I don't want anything to do with ending their lives if I can help it.
Something's Gotta Give
On one of my recent trips back to Jamaica I went out in a glass-bottomed boat for the first time. At the urging of the driver, we hopped into the ocean with snorkels to get a closer look. What I saw was shocking. What I saw was... not a damn thing. The beautiful coral reefs that were once the prize of Caribbean nations have been slowly but surely decimated. The very same Hellshire Beach that I visited over a decade ago is currently succumbing to pollution, overfishing and the effects of climate change. To me, this is one of the clearest pieces of evidence that our appetites for fish and fun - an appetite I once fondly shared - is ruining our planet.
It's 2018, and it's time to evolve. We can split hairs and make arguments about culture, habits, nutritional needs, and the "food chain", but the facts remain clear. If we don't adjust our appetites to meet the needs of our Earth, then it won't matter what we like to eat, what we've eaten for centuries, or where we believe we stand on the "food chain". While I'm sure that our planet isn't going anywhere, I do fear a day when it's no longer safely habitable, and no longer possible for us to call it home. Change is possible, but first we need to have more care for ourselves, our fellow living beings of all kinds, and most of all - our planet.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. I'm an independent Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness Coach hailing from the Bronx, NY.