by Margaux Salcedo
Many know Fr Anton Pascual as the Executive Director of Caritas Manila. But those who know him better know that he has another advocacy: converting people to a plant-based diet.
If Pope Francis has an advocacy to save the environment, Fr. Anton has his advocacy to save our health. He tries to convince everyone he meets to shift to a diet that is more plant-based, in order to live a longer, healthier life.
Fr. Anton’s own paradigm shift came only in 2017. He used to purchase balut (fermented duck eggs) weekly when he was a parish priest in Pateros and would also often partake of lechon (spit-roasted pig).
Later, when he was already with Caritas, he noticed that the beneficiaries of the health cards of Caritas Manila were seeking not only paracetamols and pain relievers but also maintenance medicines for hypertension and diabetes. It was a curious revelation to him because usually the poor would complain of ulcers, due to having nothing to eat, or hepatitis, due to dirty food. This time, however, it seemed the ailments they were complaining about were due to appreciating too much food.
So he tried to analyze: are the Filipino poor eating too much? He realized, after conducting research, that perhaps the problem is not that the poor are eating too much but that they are too often eating the wrong kinds of food such as processed food (burgers, hotdogs, canned goods) or commercial chicken, because these are all they can afford.
“It’s the tasty, cheap, processed food that is the number one cause of chronic diseases,” Fr. Anton concludes.
After seeing how coronary heart disease and diabetes affect the poor, Fr. Anton Pascual, Exec. Director of Caritas Manila, has started advocating a lifestyle change to a plant-based diet.
So he started looking for alternatives to the processed food diet.
Documentaries on the benefits of converting to a plant-based diet enlightened him. He recommends watching Forks Over Knives, a 2011 American documentary that advocates a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet as a way to avoid or reverse several chronic diseases; and What the Health, a 2017 documentary that also advocates the plant-based diet while questioning the health impact of meat and dairy products consumption. These documentaries may convince you to convert to a plant-based diet.
Through these documentaries, Fr. Anton learned that 84 percent of our ailments nowadays, including chronic heart ailments, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, are not hereditary but are due to eating unhealthy food. How much unhealthy food are we eating? Generally speaking, the regular diet of the average person today consists of 60 percent processed food (junk food, fast food), 30 percent animal-based food and only 10 percent plant-based.
“We need a paradigm shift,” Fr. Anton says, “because the healthiest food on the planet are vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes.”
Food, he emphasizes, should heal people, not hurt them. “It’s supposed to make you healthy, not sick; make you stronger, not weak.”
He relates the story of Daniel in the Bible: “But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself.” (Daniel 1:8)
To heal and to create a healthier generation, Fr. Anton shares the good news that “plants are full of micronutrients, phytochemicals and antioxidants that help heal the body.”
He shares stories of some individuals whose ailments have been reversed not due to medicine but by changing their diet alone. “This kind of diet, the plant-based diet, can prevent, arrest and reverse chronic lifestyle diseases,” he says.
“That is why you must change your lifestyle,” he advises. “It begins with the mind. Because your mind controls your life.” He quotes Proverbs: “The wise prevail through great power, and those who have knowledge muster their strength.” We must be wise about our diet, he preaches.
To practice what he preaches, Fr Anton has now started farming. At the San Carlos Seminary, he has started planting eggplants and tomatoes. Caritas has also identified six areas where they will set up demo farms: Caritas Manila, Baseco, San Carlos Seminary, Guadalupe Seminary and two sites in Tagaytay.
Fr. Anton dreams of influencing communities to not only eat vegetables but also to plant them.
Caritas has also partnered with farmers in Bulacan, Laguna and Cavite to supply vegetables for their beneficiary communities in Metro Manila.
In line with Pope Francis’ own advocacy, Laudato Si, Fr. Anton says we should also stop the commercial production of animal-based food products to save the environment. Laudato Si is the second encyclical of Pope Francis where he critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming and calls on all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action” to save Mother Earth.
Fr. Anton shares that, aside from the inhumane treatment of animals, the commercial production of animals for food is not natural and even harmful to the planet. He cites, for example, that some rainforests in Latin America are being converted into grazing farms for cattle for the commercial production of meat.
We should instead grow trees and vegetables. This is more in touch with God’s plan as it emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between earth and man.
Finally, he says processed foods that kill mankind may possibly be the work of the devil. (I confess I laughed so hard when he said this. “The hotdog is a creation of the devil?!” I asked him, laughing.) But Fr. Anton seriously argues that they could as well be given these foods are deceptively pleasurable yet they cause harm.
He urges—and I join him in this plea—big corporations to take the lead in supplying affordable plant-based food and food products.
Let’s hope restaurants also come up with a few dishes on their menu for vegans so that those who are on a plant-based diet would not have to miss out on the wonderful company of their animal-eating friends who would rather go hungry than eat at a purely vegan restaurant. Vegans are still the minority, after all. In Fr. Anton’s words, “We’ve only just vegan!”
If we all come together and increase the demand for plant-based food and food products, we may just see a world where humans live longer and healthier … and, who knows, a world free of cancer. That would be an answered prayer, for sure!