Dietician, Educator & Author Diana Rodgers Talks about Nutrition, Organic Farming and Taking Back our Food System for Better Health
Diana Rodgers believes in the power of real food to improve health and well-being and help reverse chronic conditions. As a registered dietician, she works with clients from her Concord, Massachusetts, office. Her practice focuses on all too common conditions of 21st century America such as weight, metabolic and digestive issues. As a dietitian Rodgers is unusual in her preference for nutrient-dense foods, including red meat and a diet low in industrially processed, hyper-palatable processed foods. Her concern for and knowledge about environmental sustainability, animal welfare, regenerative farming and social justice also make her an outlier in her profession. And she’s really good at getting people to listen through the use of story and occasional heartfelt turns of phrase, like her comparison of “taking a pill to lower cholesterol to cutting off a smoker’s fingers.”
In addition to her clinical practice, Rodgers is a passionate educator. She hosts fascinating guests on her Sustainable Dish Podcast, maintains an active speaking schedule at universities and conferences, and is the author of two cookbooks, The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook (2014), written with her farmer husband, and Paleo Lunches and Breakfasts on the Go (2013). She’s at work on a feature length documentary Kale vs. Cow: The Case for Better Meat, which promises to influence the broader conversation about food ethics, sustainability and animal agriculture. I first heard Rodgers speak at a 2017 Grassfed Exchange plenary session, where an audience of 500 conference goers responded enthusiastically to her presentation.
Starting in early childhood, Rodgers suffered from a cascade of untreated health problems as a consequence of undiagnosed celiac disease. After finally receiving a celiac diagnosis at age 26, she found she needed to make dietary changes beyond eliminating simply gluten to attain the optimal health she had missed out on. Her search for answers led her from the Weston A. Price Foundation to the Nutritional Therapy Association, where she earned her first credentials in the field, to the Paleo movement, where she ultimately “cured” herself, and ultimately to a mainstream nutrition program that provided the academic qualifications required for her to become licensed as a dietician.
Before pursuing her medical nutrition education, Rodgers earned an undergraduate degree in Art from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and worked extensively in natural foods marketing, including five years at Whole Foods Market. She lives on Clark Organic Farm in eastern Massachusetts with her husband Andrew and their two children, Anson and Phoebe.
Interviewed by Tracy Frisch
Nutrition for Real Life
ACRES U.S.A. You opened your plenary talk at last year’s Grassfed Exchange conference by observing that sometimes people who produce food don’t think about their own nourishment. Tell me about the statement.
DIANA RODGERS. As a dietitian who lives on a working regenerative farm, I see many farmers paying a lot of attention to what they feed their animals. But humans are also animals, and there is also a biologically appropriate diet for humans. One thing I wanted to do at the Grassfed Exchange was to let folks know that it’s okay to eat the meat they produce. When I was at the International Bison Conference last July, a lot of ranchers told me they were not eating their own bison because they were afraid that red meat was unhealthy for them. That’s really sad to me. What they didn’t realize is that their processed-food heavy diet is harming them, not red meat. I opened with a slide of cattle eating candy and said they’d never feed this to their animals because it’s biologically inappropriate, but why are humans eating food like this? We need to get back to a biologically appropriate diet for humans, and that means less processed food. I see so many farmers not putting the same amount of energy into taking care of their own bodies that they do for the animals that they care for.
ACRES U.S.A. If you’re a farmer who has more work than you can possibly do, it’s certainly easy to forget about your own needs. I’d like to hear about your evolving role in nutrition and after that we’ll talk about your personal journey.
RODGERS. I’m a licensed, registered dietitian. I knew about the importance of real food and the impacts of nutrition on health before I got my graduate degree in Nutrition. I wanted to start a private practice and be able to take insurance, which is why I got my RD. But I’m very atypical for a dietitian because I have very different philosophy than most dietitians.
ACRES U.S.A. Which is why I’m interviewing you!
RODGERS. In my clinical practice, I mostly focus on weight loss, metabolic health and gastrointestinal issues, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and celiac disease. Although I know a lot about sustainability, my primary job is helping people with their health. When I go to health conferences, I talk about why it’s important to consider the environment and other issues, beyond just food and nutrition. At agricultural and sustainability conferences, I try to get folks thinking about human nutrition as well.
ACRES U.S.A. During the years that you lived with undiagnosed celiac disease, what were you dealing with?
RODGERS. As a kid, I was underweight and had low muscle tone. I couldn’t keep anything in my system. I was starving all the time, and everything I ate just went through me or I threw it up. I ended up being hospitalized many times for dehydration. My doctor told my mom that it was a lactose intolerance and not to give me milk, but he didn’t understand the real root of my malabsorption issues. I also had learning disabilities, too. I had a lot of trouble reading, which is probably why I was an art major in college. In school I was able to get out of reading by making really creative posters and dioramas about what I thought the book was about. Today, I read tons of books, mostly on human nutrition and soil health.
ACRES U.S.A. As a child and young adult, were you able to engage in much physical activity with those kinds of problems?
RODGERS. I was definitely not an athlete as a kid. I’m much more athletic today than I was then. Luckily for me, I ended up being a normal height. Growth stunting is common with undiagnosed celiac disease. My body was fighting hard to compensate and trying to absorb whatever it could.
ACRES U.S.A. When did you discover you had celiac?
RODGERS. I had no idea until I had a new job, with new health insurance, at the age of 26. When I went to go see my new doctor she spent a really long time with me and asked me a ton of questions. She asked me how my digestion was. I told her it wasn’t quite right — it was probably just IBS or nerves — and that I had lactose intolerance. She asked if I was ever tested for lactose intolerance. I told her I don’t think so. She tested me for celiac, and sure enough the blood work came back positive. An endoscopy confirmed it. I got the diagnosis on a Friday. I had a weekend with wheat and all my favorite foods I would never eat again, like “real” pizza and beer. Then, starting that Monday, I never intentionally ate wheat again, though I have been poisoned quite a few times. At the time, I saw a classical dietitian, who told me to eat low fat and lots of gluten-free grains. I was following that advice, but I was still always so hungry. I had to carry gluten-free granola bars and other gluten-free snacks in my bag all the time. So basically I went from a “healthy” standard American diet to a gluten-free version of that. I was eating gluten-free toast for breakfast, a gluten-free sandwich for lunch, and gluten-free pasta for dinner. I knew that my blood sugars were all over the place, because I couldn’t go for more than an hour or two without eating or else I’d get severe headaches and sometimes tunnel vision. But every time I’d go to the doctor and have them run a test, I wasn’t diabetic. Still I knew something was wrong. I went to a Weston A. Price Foundation conference and learned that butter was okay and that other animal fats were good. I then enrolled in the Nutritional Therapy Association’s “NTP” program because I wanted to learn how real food might fix my blood sugar rollercoaster. That was my entrance into nutrition education. I started eating more fat, and I felt better. But it wasn’t until I discovered the paleo diet that I really felt “cured.” It’s essentially a high animal protein, low carbohydrate diet, with lots of healthy fats and vegetables. It changed my life. I no longer needed constant snacks; I was free of my processed food addiction! I opened a practice as a nutritional therapy practitioner. People came to see me for weight loss or IBS issues. Everyone who saw me was removing processed food and grains from their diet and benefitting. That’s when I decided to go back to school and become a registered dietitian. I wanted to have that medical credential for liability reasons, to be able to take insurance and to make it a full-time job.
ACRES U.S.A. What kinds of limitations do states place on how people with an NTA certificate can practice?
RODGERS. A website called nutritionadvocacy.org has a really nice map of the United States with states in green, yellow, orange and red. Only in the green ones (there are 11 green states today, and the number is reducing constantly due to changing laws) are you allowed to take money for giving people nutrition advice without a license. And even in those states, you generally can only talk about healthy eating or weight loss.
ACRES U.S.A. So you can’t address actual health problems without an RD?
RODGERS. No. That’s called medical nutrition therapy, and you need an RD or a license to do that in every state. Even to see someone with celiac and tell them to go on a gluten-free diet is considered medical nutrition therapy. So if you want to help people who are sick and do this for a living, unfortunately you need an RD or in some states you can get a license if you have a master’s degree or other medical credential.
ACRES U.S.A. With your paleo diet, Weston A. Price and nutritional therapy background, I would imagine that entering a conventional nutritional program must have been a challenge.
RODGERS. Definitely. Also, I’m an older student and a mom, and I was going to school part-time while working. That in itself was a challenge. Many classes felt like a waste of time and money, but other classes were really great. I loved biochemistry. I know what makes a good research study and how to rip apart a scientific paper. That was new to me, and it’s been extremely valuable.
ACRES U.S.A. You should do some seminars in that, Diana!
RODGERS. Unfortunately though, registered dietician training is pretty standardized, with the majority of courses set by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It is very old-fashioned, conventional information. Generally I found the professors had vegetarian and vegan-friendly attitudes and were very meat-phobic. I was told that the paleo diet is horrible because it excludes food groups — meaning grains, which actually aren’t a food group. And they’ll say a vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy for all stages of life, even though it cuts out meat, the most nutrient-dense food there is, and a vegan diet requires supplements. There’s not enough evidence to show removing animal products is safe for pregnant women and children.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s almost surprising to me. I guess I’m out of touch. Did you have to demonstrate that you knew things that you had serious problems with?
RODGERS. Yeah. During my internship when I was working in hospitals and my only tool was Boost, I couldn’t help anybody — that was the hardest thing for me. The diet for diabetics was the standard 250 grams of carbs a day, which is horrible.
ACRES U.S.A. In a blog post you spoke about giving some nutritional advice to a supervisor.
RODGERS. Yeah. And she lost a ton of weight! My supervisor was a dietitian and life-long Weight Watchers member. She would have her salad with low-fat dressing and no protein and then be starving all afternoon. She drank Diet Cokes all day. We ate lunch together every day, and she would see my meals and ask how I ate so much meat yet was thin. I told her that I was following a paleo/Whole30 type template. I need to go lower on carbs and higher on protein than the average person due to the metabolic issues that I’ve had my whole life. While I don’t think everyone needs to eat that way, if bad digestion, too much weight or blood sugars are an issue, I think they should at least try it. I try not to proselytize because people don’t like it. But when she started asking me questions, I gave her a Whole30 book and suggested she try it since Weight Watchers wasn’t working for her. Every day after she read it, she told me, “You’re blowing my mind.” She’s totally a convert. We’re still friends and once in a while she sends me new nutrition studies about low-carb diets.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s great that she had that curiosity. I feel so helpless when I see people struggling with what they consider good eating habits, but having poor health outcomes. All I can do is say that this is what I eat.
RODGERS. With farmers, it’s the same thing. They can be better farmers if they take care of their bodies. I’ve seen so many producers not taking care of themselves, not sleeping enough, drinking too much. Want to fatten up a pig or a cow? Give it tons of grains. Yet, we don’t seem to understand that our dietary guidelines are perfectly poised to do the same thing to us.
ACRES U.S.A. What’s your role in the farm community?
RODGERS. I’m married to a farmer. For the last 16 years, we’ve lived on a working organic farm. He’s one of these magical people that seem to be able to eat whatever they like. Lucky for him he doesn’t struggle with his weight or need to be gluten-free. I think most people are somewhere on the spectrum between me and my husband.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m presuming that, like me, some of our readers aren’t familiar with Whole30.
RODGERS. Whole30 is similar to paleo. It focuses on real, whole foods and eliminates processed foods, industrial oils, sugar and grains. The diet mainly consists of meat, vegetables, healthy fats, fruits, nuts and things like that. Its main difference with paleo is what Whole30 excludes. Some people have taken paleo-type ingredients and made them into paleo junk foods. Honey plus almond flour plus chocolate can make a really tasty cookie that will probably trigger you to overeat. Whole30 says no to that. Whole30 is designed to be a 30-day reset, though most people end up staying within the Whole30/paleo-type zip code much longer because they notice how much better they feel. As a practitioner, I prefer to promote a major change as opposed to little, minor ones. You’re not likely to see that much of a difference if you cut down from six sodas a day to three. But if you make a major shift, you will very quickly experience the benefits. That makes it very obvious to you how much better your body works on a real foods diet.
ACRES U.S.A. That makes good sense. An analogy could be made to a farmer making radical, qualitative changes in their agricultural practices versus simply tweaking the amount of chemical fertilizer they’re applying. I noticed that paleo and Whole30 exclude not only soy, but also other legumes, like dried beans and lentils and peanuts.
RODGERS. Legumes are inefficient in their delivery of protein, and they’re quite high in carbohydrates and calories. In order to get 30 grams of protein — which you can get from about 200 calories of roast beef — or about 480 calories worth of beans (and a whopping 70 g of net carbs). Like dairy products, legumes can also cause inflammation in some. The idea is to take out all the potentially inflammatory foods and get down to basics. Then you can slowly put things back in and see how you do. Everyone’s different.
ACRES U.S.A. I was a vegetarian for 20 years, from when I was 16, but only later did I realize that it had not been a great diet for me.
RODGERS. I think a lot of people feel like a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10 without realizing what a 10 is like. When they go on Whole30 or paleo and feel like a 9 or 10, they can’t believe that they can feel that good.
ACRES U.S.A. When I heard you give a plenary talk, you presented a case study of a 34-year-old woman with fatty liver disease who you worked with. That made a major impression on me. How did her condition affect her well-being?
RODGERS. She came to me with a diagnosis of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which in many cases, responds well to a low-carb diet. She was young, overweight and very sick. She had to take daily naps because she was so exhausted. That’s not uncommon among the people who see me. She was really nervous about talking to me because she had been to a dietitian before. Once I told her that her problems weren’t her fault because she was eating what we’ve been told to eat, she broke down crying. She said she was at rock bottom.
ACRES U.S.A. What made her previous attempt to work with another registered dietitian so discouraging?
RODGERS. Standard dietitians will say that all food is good in moderation. That doesn’t help people who are facing a grocery store full of hyper-palatable, processed foods. There are really smart people working in labs to make sure you can’t eat just one, so the odds are stacked against anyone eating most foods from the supermarket. Generally, processed foods bypass our natural satiety signaling. Even though we have this protein requirement, we’re told meat is bad for us, so our bodies are not getting the protein we need. Instead we keep feeding on bread, pasta, sugars and industrial oils. It’s no wonder people are overeating, sick and overweight.
ACRES U.S.A. Right up front you told that patient that her health problems were not due to a moral failing or a matter of self-control, but from the wrong diet.
RODGERS. In telling people, “Eat everything in moderation, and you just need to control yourself,” we put a moral weight on their intake. You would never tell an alcoholic to just control themselves and drink a little less. Yet so many people are addicted to processed foods, and that’s what we’re telling them. There are different profiles of obese people. Some people eat a ton. Other people don’t eat very much. Some people may be overweight for genetic reasons. But when you focus a person’s diet on meat, vegetables, a little fruit, some nuts — basic foods that are biologically appropriate for humans — usually their weight regulates. Their moods lift; they sleep better; and a lot of their digestive issues go away as well. They can make it from breakfast to lunch and from lunch to dinner without any snacks. They’re really liberated from being addicted to processed foods.
ACRES U.S.A. What’s so cool is that you had this same experience yourself!
RODGERS. Exactly. I know how painful it is to go through a hypoglycemic event, which is really bad for your brain, and what it’s like to feel shaky and “hungry” between meals.
ACRES U.S.A. What did you do for the woman with fatty liver disease?
RODGERS. I told her to greatly increase her protein to at least 30-40 grams from animal sources at every meal. That’s about 4 to 6 ounces of meat per meal, a lot more than what most people are eating. I wanted her carbs below 60 grams a day, far less than most Americans eat. And I suggested she mainly eat meat and vegetables, plus healthy fats like avocados. She was to eat one serving of fruit a day, one serving of a starchy vegetable a day (like sweet potatoes), with the rest being meat and non-starchy vegetables. On the third or fourth follow-up, she was feeling amazing. She had been losing weight effortlessly because she wasn’t hungry. You can feel completely satiated when you eat enough protein because it’s the most satiating macronutrient. A recent New York Times article covered a study that recommended adults over 40 lift weights and get 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That’s double the Recommended Daily Allowance, but that’s where I go with most of my nutrition clients.
ACRES U.S.A. When you work with clients, can you order lab tests and do you interact with their physicians?
RODGERS. As a dietitian, I can order lab tests and interact with patients’ doctors. I fax notes to doctors and doctors make referrals to me.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you get push back about the cost of buying grass-fed beef?
RODGERS. In my nutrition practice, I don’t stress sustainability. I first try to get people healthy, and even typical beef is better than a bagel. As folks start to see the benefits of giving up processed food, many decide to source from better producers. Sometimes I hear people complain about the costs, and they’ve been conditioned to say it’s elitist to tell people to eat that much grass-fed meat. But we don’t consider it elitist to eat junk food, like a Snickers bar, even though Snickers costs more per ounce than organic, grass-fed beef! We’re spending a lower percentage of our overall budget at the grocery store than ever before. We’ve doubled what we spend on processed foods and our spending on meat has declined. You can’t have food that’s healthy, convenient and cheap. Something has to give there. People need to get back into the kitchen.
ACRES U.S.A. We talk about the epidemic of obesity as if it’s a hereditary disease or something that showed up from another planet. Do you see the increasing rate of obesity as the problem in itself?
RODGERS. It’s a symptom of other things that are out of whack. Genetics are certainly at play here, but food is about 80 percent of the problem, and then there’s our lifestyle. Our lack of sleep has a huge impact on insulin control, overall health and weight, as do our stress levels. And if your blood sugars are completely out of whack, you’re not going to get a good night’s sleep. When the obesity numbers really jumped, partly it was due to the new way of measuring obesity and looking at Body Mass Index. A lot of people with a bad BMI are perfectly healthy though they are considered obese. Also there are certain ethnic groups whose populations are growing in the United States, that are particularly prone to diabetes. We’re also learning a lot about the role of the human microbiome in our overall health — similar to how farmers are learning about soil biology. It turns out processed food has a negative impact on our gut flora.
ACRES U.S.A. When I heard you speak, you said, “Why don’t we tell diabetics the truth?” What do you mean?
RODGERS. The typical cover of any diabetic magazine is going to show cake or pasta, or other “forbidden” foods that people with diabetes are not supposed to eat. That’s because that’s what sells magazines.
ACRES U.S.A. One of your important strategies for discouraging overeating is getting people to avoid the hyper-palatable and tantalizingly flavored foods we encounter in the supermarket aisles and at fast-food outlets.
RODGERS. When you look at an “all you can eat buffet,” people are overeating mac and cheese and spaghetti and all of the desserts. And there’s another phenomenon as well. We always have room for dessert, no matter what. But it’s kind of difficult to overeat roasted chicken, steamed broccoli and a baked potato. If we keep food pretty basic and simple, like scrambled eggs for breakfast, a salad with some steak for lunch, and a piece of meat or fish and some vegetables for dinner — we’re less likely to over-consume.
ACRES U.S.A. That strikes me as a funny thing for someone to say who has written two cookbooks.
RODGERS. In my cookbooks I talk a lot about nutrition, and I don’t use that many ingredients. I have recipes for a lot of soups and stews, which in my opinion are the best ways to eat meat. I’m not a big dessert fan or of other foods that would stimulate you to overeat.
ACRES U.S.A You mentioned that the role of diet in people’s mood swings. Do you see dietary changes affecting people’s mental health issues?
RODGERS. Definitely. That’s huge. The brain is highly sensitive to the fuel that we’re putting in, and when you feed the body the proper nutrition, a lot of issues, like depression and anxiety, go away. Omega-3s, which are anti-inflammatory, are so important for the brain. Processed foods are generally high in omega-6s, which are inflammatory. We want to try to reduce grains and vegetable oils that are sources of omega-6s. Also we know that glucose dips and spikes highly affect mood. By keeping blood glucose from spiking too high — even if you’re not diabetic — the brain is much happier. Usually people come to me to lose weight or address their GI issues or knowing that their metabolism isn’t working right. I’d say almost half the people that I see also have depression that greatly resolves itself once we fix their diet.
ACRES U.S.A. You had a guest on your podcast named Amy Berger who’s talked about Alzheimer’s as type 3 diabetes. Why are some experts thinking about Alzheimer’s in that way, and what are they recommending patients do to prevent its progression or even reverse the condition?
RODGERS. Ketogenic diets are one tool being used for multiple brain health issues. In that kind of diet your body runs on ketones instead of glucose. (Our carbohydrate requirement is actually zero.) I don’t think it’s necessary to live your whole life in ketosis in order to prevent Alzheimer’s, but I would recommend watching your carbohydrate intake and focusing more on whole, plant-based carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes in place of highly processed grains. Most of our grain intake is not pearl barley; it’s highly processed. And even though we like to call some breads or pastas “whole wheat,” they’re not really whole grain.
ACRES U.S.A. Is there a single, optimal diet (with some variation) for everyone, or at least for most people? That seems to be what you’re saying. We are the same species, after all.
RODGERS. I think animal products are essential and that carbohydrate tolerance varies depending on the individual. Among traditional cultures, the traditional diet of the Inuit and the Maasai is primarily animal products and almost no vegetables, but the traditional diet of the Kitavans in Papua New Guinea is about 70 percent starchy roots and tubers. Carbohydrates are not necessarily a problem, but once we develop carbohydrate intolerance from our modern, highly processed food diets and lifestyle, then going lower carb becomes the best solution. Someone with a healthy metabolism should be able to tolerate a wide variety of foods. But processed foods are the big villains here, not meat, as many people would like to blame.
ACRES U.S.A. Why has meat become so demonized?
RODGERS. I think it started with Ancel Keys blaming saturated fat as the cause of heart disease. We also have a lot of corporate backing in the grain industry, because processed grains are the backbone of our modern industrially produced foods. And we have a lot of egos that have hung their hats on meat as the major cause of our health decline, yet we’re eating less red meat than we have since 1970. What has gone up is vegetable oils, processed grains and sugar.
ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the myths about meat?
RODGERS. I see a three-pronged attack on meat — nutritional, environmental and ethical. The nutritional claims against meat, that it causes cancer and heart disease, rely a lot on epidemiological studies, but they don’t distinguish cause from correlation. And evidence shows that people lie on food-frequency questionnaires. They might remember that they had three burgers in the last two weeks, but forget about the large serving of fries, 72-ounce soda and deep-fried apple pie.
ACRES U.S.A. You have alluded to the benefits of red meat. Can you say more?
RODGERS. Meat is one of the most perfect foods for humans. It’s a calorically efficient way to get protein. Red meat has iron and B12, plus lots of other vitamins and minerals, CLA, and other fatty acids. It has nearly all of the nutritional requirements that humans need. Vegetables have benefits, too, and I’m certainly not anti-vegetable. But if you don’t want to eat too many calories and you want to get enough protein and other nutrients, meat is the best delivery method, not beans and grains. There are populations that live long, healthy lives on just meat. A lot of people think that plant foods are healthier and cleaner, or even that chicken is more pure than red meat, which is ridiculous. Chicken is nutritionally inferior to red meat. It doesn’t have the iron and B12 that red meat does, and these are the leading nutrient deficiencies worldwide, according to the CDC. And it’s hard to find a pasture-raised chicken at Wal-Mart, but you can find grass-fed beef.
ACRES U.S.A. In your opinion, can a vegetarian diet be healthy?
RODGERS. I think a vegetarian diet can be healthy for some people if it has enough animal products in it. I don’t feel that a vegan diet can be healthy. There are genetic reasons why some do better on a vegetarian diet than others. For example, nearly half of the population can’t easily convert beta-carotene (found in plants) to the usable form of vitamin A (which is found in meat).
ACRES U.S.A. Should people be able to get everything they need from the non-fortified foods they eat or do you recommend supplements?
RODGERS. If someone’s really broken, then I think they can benefit from some digestive support and other supplements, like probiotics. Ideally we don’t need any supplements, but we’re not living in an ideal world, and they can be a helpful bridge to a whole foods diet. However any diet that’s completely lacking in certain nutrients is not an appropriate diet for humans.
ACRES U.S.A. Aren’t there some studies touted as showing that vegetarians are healthier?
RODGERS. A lot of the studies comparing vegetarians to meat eaters are flawed. They actually compare typical vegetarians that are health conscious, and may do yoga, meditate and shop at a health food store with people eating a standard American diet, and all of the typical lifestyle choices Americans make. Of course there’s going to be major differences between those two groups. It’s not just the meat. But when they adjust for the confounding factors, like smoking and drinking and behaviors, there’s no difference at all in longevity between vegetarians and omnivores. Not too long ago, there was a really large study of nearly 250,000 people — out of Australia that found no evidence that following a vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, or pesco-vegetarian (fish only) diet will make you live any longer than a diet that includes meat.
ACRES U.S.A. How do you respond to that inevitable question about how we are going to feed the world, if we all eat more meat? I think that is a reasonable question.
RODGERS. First of all, we waste close to 50 percent of the food that we produce today. We don’t have a food production issue, but we do have a soil problem. After a vegetable harvest, the soil needs to be replenished. We can choose to use more chemical inputs or we can instead use holistic methods. We’re ruining our soils with the way we’re producing crops, and we need animals as part of the system in order to recover our soil health. Most agricultural land is only suitable for grazing. Animals (and their meat) are critical to our food system. We also need to think about what optimal health is. Do we want to just feed people, or do we want to have healthy people that thrive? It’s critical that nutrition science be part of this conversation, rather than just someone’s feelings on what “should” be the right diet. I often see chefs telling people that meat should be a condiment. Why are we getting nutrition information from chefs? Meat is not a condiment.
ACRES U.S.A. So much of this debate is driven by people’s understanding of what is moral. Against that backdrop, how would you contrast the sustainability of an integrated, grass-fed meat and cropping system of agriculture with a vegan approach to agriculture?
RODGERS. With a plant-only agricultural system, you are only using arable land. That puts a great deal of food production land out of the equation, wasting land that could be producing grass that animals can convert into nutrient-dense food for humans, while at the same time sequestering carbon. And again, how will you manage the soil fertility without animal inputs? It can be quite difficult to keep up with the “nutrient withdrawals” that plants make from the soil with only compost.
ACRES U.S.A. In other words, agriculture that excludes livestock would only grow crops on land that is flat enough, dry enough, and not too rocky, so that it’s tillable.
RODGERS. Exactly. But even what’s considered arable land has some serious limitations. In the Congo, for example, most of the arable land is only suitable for cassava. But do we really want that much cassava? Is there enough the water to grow it? Is there a market for it? Can we store it? Is it a healthy food for humans? In California, is it ok to grow vast amounts of almonds (mostly for export) and irrigate them with water when there’s a shortage of drinking water? Is water for irrigation being diverted from rivers and destroying fish habitat, and in turn threatening the bears that eat the fish? The ethical argument and environmental argument are intertwined. I don’t think that you can fully appreciate the ethical reasons for eating meat without fully understanding the environmental reasons for not supporting industrial crop production. Agriculture should strive to be as closed loop as possible. Cropping is inherently not regenerative, because most plants take out of the soil bank without giving much back. We need to figure out how we’re going to give back. We can’t continue to rely on fossil fuels and chemicals to produce food. It’s time to create an agricultural system that more closely mimics nature.
ACRES U.S.A. We’re often told that one pound of hamburger requires an outrageous volume of water. Are such figures accurate or misleading?
RODGERS. You have to look at the methodology of those water studies to find out if they’re looking at green water or blue water. Often they’re looking at green water, which includes all the rainfall that fell on the pasture the whole time the cow was alive. That’s not really fair. A blue water study from UC Davis, found that typical cattle used 410 gallons of water per “typical” pound of beef, which is the same as for walnuts and sugar and rice. A well-managed, grass-fed only system does even better than that. Cows also improve the water-holding capacity of the land, which crops don’t really do. Another benefit of ruminants on grasslands is they increase biodiversity instead of annihilating it.
ACRES U.S.A. What are your concerns with the tropical products that many of us eat regularly?
RODGERS. Many major chocolate brands are largely the product of child slaves. The big issue with bananas is pesticide spraying that lands on schools and nearby homes. The number one fruit consumed in America rotates between bananas and apples, but bananas don’t even grow here. In a lot of the countries where they’re grown, insecticides and herbicides are used that are banned in the United States. Near banana plantations, some of these chemicals are causing deformities in children. For coffee the issue is price. The farmers just aren’t getting paid well for the coffee they grow. I like to support producers in other countries, but I think how the food is produced, harvested, and how the farmer was paid is something not enough people think about.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m curious about the basis for your strong critique of lab meat and vertical farming. I was heartened to see that you’re thinking about these supposedly miraculous innovations. What are the issues for you?
RODGERS. Lab meat is sold as ethically, nutritionally and environmentally superior to meat from real animals. I can’t see how it could possibly be nutritionally equal to meat. It’s just not the same. And what a lot of people who are backing it don’t realize is that you can’t grow something from nothing. So what is actually making the lab meat grow? People think it comes from a sort of magical 3D printer like in “The Jetsons,” and that the meat just appears! Actually you need a medium to grow it in from mono-crop agriculture (usually wheat or soy), with all of the problems that mono-crop agriculture has. Then you’re using high-energy processes to transform that feedstock into a fake meat product, when we can raise cows on well-managed pastures, without having to mine minerals in order to grow meat in labs. We can let the fungi mine the minerals in a natural system.
ACRES U.S.A. Wouldn’t any mineral nutrients in lab meat have to be mined, refined and delivered? Otherwise I’d think lab meat would be devoid of them.
RODGERS. Many of the lifecycle assessments of lab meat that I’ve read are missing the mineral inputs. While they may only be a small percentage of meat by weight or volume, they’re really important, and environmentally costly to obtain.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s equivalent to hydroponic meat.
RODGERS. Exactly. And people seem to think, “We can just do this in a lab and it doesn’t take up any land.” The amount of resources (and waste) needed to create a pound of lab meat is just insane compared to well-managed cattle on grass sequestering carbon.
ACRES U.S.A. Many years ago, Joel Salatin wrote a memorable article called something like, “Let the Animals Do the Work.” Futuristic methods for producing food forget about the organisms that do all the work in natural systems and regenerative agriculture. I’m thinking of the fungi and bacteria and earthworms that do so much of the work of delivering essential nutrients to plants, yet in the rush to implement new, disruptive production methods, designers ignore them.
RODGERS. Which is why I don’t think that you can have an intelligent, ethical discussion about meat production without understanding the environmental impacts of a system void of animals.
ACRES U.S.A. Didn’t you have some thoughts about imitation meats, like Tofurkey?
RODGERS. I did some calculations a couple of years ago and found that on a per ounce basis, it’s cheaper to buy organic, grass-fed beef than Tofurkey. And Tofurkey’s nutritional content isn’t even comparable to beef. Fake meats like this are typically the product of mono-cropping under chemical GMO agriculture. Producing and transforming the commodity crops that go into these products requires a lot of water and energy. It’s a thermodynamic nightmare that doesn’t make any sense at all. You asked about vertical farming. Let’s look at indoor lettuce production. The light used is 100 percent artificial. But even if they use solar panels, you have to take into account the energy and materials that goes into making the solar cells, light bulbs, racks and the plastic the lettuce grows in. At the end of the day, people think the output — the lettuce — is so great, but it has the nutrition of a Kleenex. It’s not a nutrient-dense food but crunchy water.
ACRES U.S.A. Sometimes I think people just want to believe. There does seem to be one giant benefit — the entity with control over production can make a lot of money.
RODGERS. They’re also selling a moral fantasy, that buying foods produced in these ways makes you a better person, and that no death happened in order for that food to be produced.
ACRES U.S.A. What do you believe the role of the state should be in regards to its citizens’ food choices? I’m thinking, for instance, of the City of Philadelphia’s tax on soft drinks.
RODGERS. Initially, that might sounds like a great idea. If we agree that soft drinks are bad, why not tax them to discourage people from buying them. But what about when they start on other foods, like butter and meat? There are already many people advocating for a meat tax. I’m very opposed to any kind of sin tax on food. It’s not the government’s job to decide for me what’s good and bad. Also it’s ironic to be taxing sugar-added drinks when we’re subsidizing the corn syrup industry at the same time.
ACRES U.S.A. There’s mounting evidence that the standard American diet of highly processed foods isn’t conducive to good health and vitality, or, for that matter, to thriving offspring. In the absence of such a sin tax, what should we do as a society? Do you have a prescription for change?
RODGERS. There’s a lot of money to be made in managing diabetes and obesity and various degenerative diseases. If people took more individual responsibility for their health instead of throwing up their hands and getting a drug prescription, I think there would be much more attention on prevention. I take care of my car. I get oil changes. I don’t expect insurance to pay for the oil changes. Similarly, I think that if people had more ownership over their health, there would be a lot more changes, because they would look for solutions to problems, instead of just going with whatever they’re told.
ACRES U.S.A. But isn’t there also a lot of misguided information trying to persuade us that whatever we eat is fine, as long as we eat in moderation from the different food groups?
RODGERS. That’s correct, because our information is being controlled. But if people actively seek out what works and try to find the best diet for themselves, then I think that people would experiment more and greater innovation would happen. I have many clients that pay cash to come see me instead of seeing who their doctor recommended. These are the folks who have the highest success rate because they’re highly invested in seeing the change happen.
ACRES U.S.A. I sense that there’s an uptick in the number of people who are realizing that what they’re doing isn’t working so they need to seek stuff out themselves. And it’s great that people like you are there to fill that need.
RODGERS. I think our medical system is a big part of the problem.
ACRES U.S.A. I agree that it’s too often an obstacle. It’s obvious that you put a lot of time and thought into your educational activities, such as your podcasts. You provide a great public service. What drives this aspect of your work?
RODGERS. I would get bored if I was just talking about carbs and protein every day. I’m somebody who needs to do a lot of different things in order to stay stimulated. The podcasts have been really fun. I’ll get interested in someone who I’ve met at a conference or listened online or whose book I’m reading. Doing a podcast is an awesome way to get to know them.
ACRES U.S.A. I bet you form some great relationships as a result.
RODGERS. I do. It’s a nice intro and I learn so much. I hope that people also find it entertaining and enriching. And I always have a friend at a conference, because I’ve interviewed them on a podcast.
ACRES U.S.A. How many registered dietitians have you encountered who have taken a more ancestral or traditional dietary view and also think critically about food in terms of sustainability and ethics?
RODGERS. There is a growing number of real food RDs. We have a Facebook group and people post all the time. Even when I’m in the middle of a consult with somebody, if I have a question about a certain lab value or health condition, I can post on the group and before the end of my consult, I’ll have an answer from somebody.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s remarkable.
RODGERS. I love it. But I don’t know any other dietitians that are looking into sustainability the way I am.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s been really interesting to find out about this world that I knew nothing about. Now to wrap up, tell me about your ambitious documentary film project.
RODGERS. Last summer, I was about halfway through writing a book on the nutritional, environmental and ethical benefits of well-raised cattle in our food system. Then yet another vegan food documentary came out and was making a big splash. It was at that point that I decided the topic of my book would lend itself very well to film. You have to see and experience it in order to fully understand it. It can be dry to explain in a book. The citations and charts I could put in a book might influence someone who is scientifically minded, but the majority of people make decisions based on emotion. In film I can make a strong visual and emotionally compelling argument for why we need “better meat” in our food system. I’ve teamed up with Myna Joseph, who I met through my connections at Maple Hill Creamery, which her family started. I first knew Myna’s sister Julia. When I mentioned that I wanted to make a film, she told me that her sister was a documentary filmmaker. I talked to Myna and to a few other directors. She came back to me with a concept of storytelling instead of doing a talking heads, “60 Minutes” style documentary. The whole reason I wanted to do the film in the first place was to share stories and sway people emotionally so I loved that idea. Bombarding viewers with facts is ineffective in the film format. Since last fall, I’ve been working with Myna. We’ve raised quite a lot of money through our crowd-funding campaign, and we’ve started filming. We have ethical stories, nutritional stories and stories of producers sequestering carbon and showing other environment results. We’re also tracking a few young people that are wrestling with how they should eat, which is why the working title is Kale vs. Cow. We’re exploring the polarizing world of the real food movement and questioning whether blaming all red meat is really the right target. We’ll be filming through the spring and summer, and hopefully we’ll finish raising the funds we need to complete the film and release it in 2019.
Find out more information about Diana Rodgers and Sustainable Dish.