The ‘Bite-Size Vegan’ has an out-size commitment to change food habits

  • Emily Barwick, who calls herself The Bite-Size Vegan, broadcasts her activist message from her home in Northampton. CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emily Moran Barwick at her home in Northampton where she writes her Blog on being a Vegan. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Among her many tattoos, Barwick has cows inked on either side of her throat. CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emily Moran Barwick at her home in Northampton where she writes her Blog on being a Vegan. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emily Moran Barwick at her home in Northampton where she writes her Blog on being a Vegan. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • fresh vegetables for salad Liudmila Korsakova—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Staff Writer
Published: 5/31/2016 5:38:19 PM

A few years ago, Emily Barwick of Northampton faced an unusual choice. Go to med school to become a doctor, or become an artist and activist.

Doctor might have won out in the stability department, but an interesting bit of insight made her decision.

“To me, going to medical school to become a doctor was the easy route,” said Barwick, who is 32.

That’s because, she explains, it was a pre-programmed, if particularly long, path she could stay on. On the other hand, the artist/activist path would involve an immediate start, not to mention, she says, “doing something important.”

It became an easy choice: “I just took a flying leap, which is totally unlike my character.”

From that leap, she took flight — these days, Barwick is something of a Youtube star, with just over 118,000 subscribers who tune in for her “vegan nuggets,” which cover vegan nutrition, education and activism with style. She goes by the handle The Bite-Size Vegan.

Singular focus

Vegans eschew all animal-derived foods (and usually, products, like leather and wool), as opposed to the less-restrictive notions of vegetarianism.

Barwick, who moved to Northampton just over a year ago from Florida, says she gave up meat at age 4, and eventually evolved to veganism. For her, the chief arguments in favor of the diet have to do with the ethics of human use of animals. But there are health reasons, too, whether it’s the health of humans or animals.

Barwick is a striking, if self-deprecating presence. She’s got plenty of visible tattoos, including two cows that reside on either side of her throat, and she sports nerdy glasses. Or, as she says, “I have the duality of super science nerd and artist.”

She broadcasts her message on bitesizevegan.com from her Northampton home, where she lives with housemates. Her activism has become such a time-consuming pursuit that Barwick says she doesn’t have time for her other interests. That’s necessitated incorporating them in other ways, like working at a “bicycle desk” of her own creation.

She pokes fun at herself regularly, and is a font of sometimes dry, sometimes silly humor, prone to doing things like dressing up as a vegan superhero who slaps hot dogs out of people’s hands.

It’s perfect material for the short-form world of social media. “I always wanted to be an effective activist with an artistic bent, if possible,” Barwick said. “I wanted to try to use social media, despite no experience with video or social media.”

It took some learning.

“In the early videos I’m way too close to the camera. I was using a web cam, and there was awful editing.”

She learned the ropes quickly. And these days, she says, things are going very well — she’s received invitations to speak as far away as Portugal. She also supports herself as a full-time activist, largely thanks to crowdfunding. She got to this point, however, through using her savings.

The right approach

The diet Barwick so passionately espouses isn’t just for activists like her. It really is a healthy way to eat, done right.

 Paula Serafino-Cross, a registered dietitian at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, and the rest of her profession agree — if in more measured language — that veganism and vegetarianism are good for you. In a position paper, the American Dietetic Association says “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

The diseases they point to include the common killers heart disease and cancer.

Many, if not most people go for a nutritionally sound version of veganism, focusing on fruits and vegetables as mainstays. Barwick is one of them. “I have no kitchen skills. I’ll steam something — that’s about as intense as I get.”

That focus on fruits and vegetables is something, says Serafino-Cross, that everyone, from Atkins Diet carnivores to diehard vegans, ought to pay heed to. “There’s nobody that cannot benefit from eating more vegetables.”

Serafino-Cross says the key to healthy veganism (and vegetarianism) is knowledge. “Doing it well means being educated. It’s a commitment,” she said, and can’t be done haphazardly. “You’re trying to improve the overall health of your intake. You could just eat bagels, pasta, rice, rolls — there’s no dairy in that, but you’re not getting any healthier.”

One of Barwick’s frequent guests in videos is Dr. Michael Greger, nutrition expert and author of the bestseller “How Not to Die.” His nutritionfacts.org amplifies the sentiments of the American Dietetic Association, offering an overwhelming mass of research backing up his health claims for eating a plant-based diet.

Though she points to Greger’s research as a good resource for what to eat, Barwick’s activism encompasses the frequent addressing of health questions raised by non-vegans. That calls, she says, for a reframe.

“When it comes to veganism, people say, ‘Well, where are you gonna get this nutrient? How are you going to get enough protein?’ We never ask, ‘Are we getting too much protein?’ In a lot of ways, our problem now is over-nutrition.”

Serafino-Cross says a lack of protein shouldn’t be of concern outside of special cases like growing children. “It’s not that difficult to get enough protein,” she said. “That’s the least of your concerns. There’s protein in beans, grains, seeds, nuts.”

For the many carnivores who raise the protein question, Barwick has another counter. “Where did the animal get its protein?”

Her answer, of course, is plants.

“Go take on a silverback gorilla who sits around eating leaves all day, and see who wins.”

Eating an animal to get protein or other nutrients, she says, means getting some undesirable things as well, like cholesterol and carcinogens.

“I have yet to see any condition that benefits from eating more animal foods,” she said.

The poor approach 

Even so, Barwick acknowledges that veganism can be pursued in an unhealthy fashion. Look at a few junk food labels, for instance, and you’ll find plenty of chips and snacks that contain no animal-derived ingredients. 

She also points to the efforts of another Youtube vegan star, who’s dubbed himself The Unhealthy Vegan.

Using only vegan substitutes, he often recreates the most cholesterol-laden hits of the fast-food world, including the KFC Double Down, a bacon-cheese sandwich with chicken breasts for buns.

The B12 issue

Adopting veganism also requires awareness of potential shortfalls in particular nutrients, chief among them vitamin B12. It plays a role in making red blood cells, nerves and DNA. The detrimental effects of a deficiency include anemia and impaired cognitive function. Worse yet, in the elderly, the symptoms of deficiency can’t always be reversed, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

“It’s cheap to supplement, and it’s smart to do it,” Barwick said. “But vegans aren’t the only ones who are short on B12.”

Serafino-Cross says there simply aren’t reliable plant-based sources of B12. Vegetarians who eat dairy can more readily get enough, she says, “but for vegans, it must be obtained from fortified foods and beverages, and sometimes things like meat analogues.”

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends supplementation, and pokes holes is some common assertions: “While claims are made for tempeh, miso and other fermented soy products, as well as spirulina, some seaweeds, brewers yeast and leafy vegetables, these foods do not contain any significant level of vitamin B12.”

Getting enough iron is another oft-raised concern.

Serafino-Cross says while meat sources offer the kind of iron that’s more readily absorbed, there are plant sources. It’s a concern, she says, but not usually a big one outside of special cases like children and pregnant women.

Fate of the animals

For Barwick and other vegans, there’s another kind of health that’s worthy of strong consideration: the health of animals raised solely for food. It’s the cornerstone of her argument for veganism.

“There’s no nice way to raise someone for slaughter or to take their eggs,” Barwick said.

Those animals, in many cases, have been selectively bred for maximum production, something which is often counter to their good health and quality of life.

“We’ve created these perverse manifestations of productivity,” Barwick said. “If you allow pigs as they’re now bred to live beyond when they’re usually slaughtered they become so massive they can’t even support themselves. We’ve created these monstrosities. I’m OK if they go extinct.”

To Barwick and others, the use of animals in any way to produce food, or even clothing, for people is simply wrong, no matter what the animal or the attempt to mitigate its circumstances. That extends to bees used to produce honey, and even sheep sheared for wool.

Even if potential vegans don’t embrace that extreme view, Barwick points out that the animal-based food supply is hardly a pure one. “What is in your meat? There’s feces — there’s poop. And pus is all up in dairy.”

What she’s talking about is the standard for measuring milk quality, the “somatic cell count” per milliliter. Those cells include key ingredients of pus if a cow has an infection with the common dairy cow malady mastitis. According to the USDA, the U.S. has the highest allowed limit of such cells at 750,000 cells per milliliter, though it’s pasteurized before it makes it to store shelves.

Such matters, Barwick says, demand that we look at the way food works now and respond.

“If you look at what’s going on behind products that are everywhere, well, most people don’t want to destroy innocent beings.”

Still, she acknowledges, “looking at that and thinking about changing the way we eat is hard.”

For those who are willing to make that leap, she has plenty of advice. “The easiest way to start is to look at what you’re eating now. Replace whatever you’re doing now with vegan substitutes.”

If your commitment extends to the kind of whole foods that promote health, she says, that start can gradually lead to incorporating more and more that’s not a processed substitute for meat or dairy.

Promoting that kind of gentle transition is key to Barwick’s activism. “My main goal is to make veganism accessible.”

Anyone, she says, can do it. “You can be a conservative. You can be Christian or Muslim. You can even drive an SUV. The offset (of eating vegan) is so astounding you could still drive a Hummer and have a positive effect,” she said. “It’s remarkable what veganism does.”

James Heflin can be reached at jheflin@gazettenet.com.

 

 


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