Fantastic Foods & Simple Solutions, in 3 Parts
The climate crisis, by its very nature, is tough to wrap your head around. We can feel some of its immediate effects, but most of the most severe changes happen on a scale that is beyond the ability of one person to see. Many of the actions we can take as a society to mitigate those effects have proven challenging to do. More and more of us agree that collective, systemic action is needed to combat climate change. In addition to systemic action, it is important that individuals still do our part. It can be really tough to figure out what to do!
When faced with the enormity of the climate crisis, we often find ourselves asking: what can we do to help?
I’d like to present a very simple answer to that question.
We can eat! (I’m sure you were planning to eat anyway.)
Or to be more specific, we can eat in such a way that reduces the climate crisis. Yes, an action this easy really can help save the world. There is a growing body of research that shows that changing the human diet to become as plant-based and as locally resourced as possible will help alleviate the climate crisis to an incredible degree. There are so many good citations on why climate-conscious diets are important that I have created a handy bibliography at the bottom of this article. Skip ahead and check it out, so that you can see the facts for yourself.
While climate-friendly eating habits certainly won’t single-handedly solve the climate crisis, such habits are a great place to start for taking individual action. It may be surprising to hear that most people have very few opportunities to take certain actions that have the biggest impact. You may not have a chance to choose the most fuel-efficient vehicle, weatherize your house, or spring for an expensive upgrade like solar panels or an electric car. If your work depends on frequent transportation, you may not be able to choose public transportation or choose to drive or fly less. On average, people in the highly-developed Western world emit far more carbon per capita simply by living.
Having an individual impact, even when you want to, can be tougher for the average person than many well-meaning environmentalists realize. That’s why a climate-friendly diet can be so impactful. It delivers easy, measurable results in carbon reduction. You can start at any comfort level, and once you get the hang of it, a climate-diet is very enjoyable! Plus it’s highly sustainable and as a result, has a huge, cumulative impact.
I write about this topic as an Italian-American raised on cold cuts, pizza, sausage and meatballs. I went from paying no attention to the climate-impact of my diet, to managing about 95% vegetarianism for 5-6 years now, with a recent emphasis on cooking at least 2-3 vegan meals a week. My journey did not happen overnight, and I did not embark on it for social media brownie points or the ‘gram. Although I certainly don’t miss meat in my everyday diet, I don’t turn down meat cooked by family or the very occasional Five Guys burger. There are some animal products that I personally have a hard time cutting out. (We’ll get to a discussion of the challenges of plant-based diets, and why they’re not as bad as some people think.)
I adopted this lifestyle change not as a trend or because I hate animal products, but because it’s extremely effective at giving back to the planet and future generations. It’s the most climate-saving bang for your buck, and it’s a pleasure to eat delicious foods in order to save the world.
But I don’t want you to take my word for it. I’ve set out to convince you in a triple-series set of articles that will provide experience, opinion and objective research that shows why a climate-friendly diet is healthy, easy and most importantly, super fun to adopt. This first entry (or entrée) will focus specifically on plant-based diets and their advantages. Part 2 will focus on a less popular but equally important part of a climate-friendly diet, eating locally and growing your own food. The Adirondacks are uniquely able to have an outsized impact on this second topic. Therefore, we’ll focus on local groups who are making a big difference.
Finally, Part 3 will zoom back out to the bigger picture. We’ll look more closely at climate-oriented eating as a part of the environmental movement as a whole. Some of the research noted in the bibliography below will be reviewed explicitly, to help us understand why many of the habits that are optional for this generation will probably be required for future ones. There isn’t a wide understanding yet that due to the shrinking availability of key natural resources, and the huge changes that climate change has already brought to the planet, humanity is only at the very tip of an enormous iceberg of changes that will be needed. It is still unknown if our current methods of organizing society can sustain the human race beyond another few hundred years (if that). Tough choices are ahead for future generations. It’s the responsibility of those alive now to make those choices easier for our children and grandchildren.
Therefore, let’s get into Part 1: a plant-based diet, and why it’s easier than you think to adopt one.
Plant-based diets are exactly what they sound like: a diet that focuses only on eating products from plants. As you may already know, there are lots of options to choose from when adopting a plant-based diet. Diets that count as plant-based range from the relaxed flexitarian or reducitarian diets, to vegetarianism that cuts out all meat, to veganism that cuts out consumption of all animal products, including outside the realm of eating (such as not wearing leather gloves or shoes, i.e., not using any products made from animals). You do not have to strictly adhere to one particular diet in order to adopt it. This notion may go without saying, but I am continually surprised at how many people I meet that believe that changing their eating habits requires something as formal as adopting a set of rules or a plan for what they eat.
As noted above, I call myself a vegetarian, but every few months there is an occasion where I end up eating a serving of meat. Too many people get caught up in a set of rules, and then feel guilty when they break them. I can assure you that lightning does not strike me down on the rare occasion I exit my car while headed to Five Guys. In other words, I have an intent and a clear set of guidelines, but do not have super strict rules. This works for me, especially when the goal is to have a long-term impact. Other people find adhering to a strict set of rules rewarding, and if that’s you, more power to you. There are a wide variety of ways to approach a focus on eating plant products, and as long as you are making regular, conscious choices to eat plants, you’ve adopted a plant-based diet.
Where to start?
In the West, it’s often the case that people who approach plant-based diets do not have a history of eating in this way. This has been the situation for almost all of my vegetarian or vegan friends. Therefore, it’s extremely common for someone who is motivated to make a change to ask, where to start?
The answer should always be: start wherever and however strictly you want to start. In my opinion, a lot of popular media related to vegetarian or vegan diets does a poor job at being welcoming to people who are hesitant or confused regarding the benefits of going plant-based. In order to make a real impact on the climate, there needs to be more emphasis that every single meal consciously chosen to be plant-based is valuable and important. Insisting that these changes be part of a fad, or a politicized social obligation, or even as a tool for garnering attention excludes so many people that would otherwise have an excellent experience if they tried out eating more plants. There are benefits for everyone who wants to try an entry point into a plant-based lifestyle.
I sometimes refer to a lot of the trends regarding plant-based diets as “hippie marketing,” because in most contexts there is a demographic being targeted when an article, influencer or other party is persuading people to adopt a trend. In order to make such a trend appealing, it is often the case that it needs beautiful, hip representatives. The trend also needs rules that make adhering to it valuable, i.e., if you stop eating beef and dairy you will save a bunch of adorable cows. While I too find cows to be completely adorable, that marketing is not going to appeal very widely. Too often, the elitism in such an approach seems to be the point.
I advocate for an approach to plant-based diets that is as relaxed and comfortable as we can make it. If after reading this article, I can convince you to trade one night of beef or chicken for a veggie quiche, a risotto or a tofu stir-fry, I believe we’ve already made progress. It’s absolutely the case that you’re not really contributing very much to fight climate change if you only occasionally make plant-based choices. However, there is an undeniable sense of accomplishment in even a single choice consciously made, rather than a “choice” made under some sort of societal pressure. I believe that this is the best way to make adopting plant-based diets fun for people. When you surprise yourself by making a delicious vegetarian meal, after you did not have a previous expectation that such a meal would be so tasty, you will repeat the experience.
One of my biggest accomplishments of 2020 was a tiny vegan Christmas dinner for my husband and I while in lockdown due to COVID-19. It had been on my list to try for years, and I finally got an opportunity where I was not cooking for anyone who expected to eat animal products. I was shocked at how well the result turned out, given that I expected “to need” at least some animal products like butter, milk or cream to make the dishes that are traditional for Christmas. Because I made a choice under the conditions that are comfortable for me, I had a good experience. Environmentalists need to be more accommodating to the varying paces that many people will need when adopting climate-related changes.
Unfortunately, we are in a race to stop climate change. However, as long as all of us are traveling in the same direction, it doesn’t matter too much who’s going the fastest at any one time. The more of us who are headed towards the finish line, the sooner that the majority of society will make it there.
Health Questions & Concerns
By far, the biggest common concern I hear in America regarding why people are hesitant to adopt plant-based diets is a fear that they’re unhealthy. Let me be as clear as possible on this point: such concerns are simply unfounded. (They’re also often exploited in a menacing fashion by commercial interests that produce animal products.) Any diet is healthy so long as you get a full-range of necessary nutrition, and you’re consuming the correct number of calories. That fact is universally true – use it next time you have friends arguing over the best diet. I certainly do!
There are numerous resources available online that provide guidance on how to make sure you’re getting complete nutrition with a plant-based diet. I will be the first person to say that doing so can be tricky for a beginner. It is the most common issue I know of that causes people who try more strict diets like vegetarianism or veganism to quit. Some people get especially concerned about protein, but again, this concern is often overblown in the West because of our historically high-meat diets. (There is a lot more debate than you’d think regarding the essentiality of meat-eating to human evolution. There’s also debate over its importance to recent human history, even in the West.) The fact is that plants produce plenty of protein, and when different plant products are consumed in variation, even the strictest vegan can get all of the proteins required for health.
Another common concern is that athletic performance is reduced by plant-based diets. Again, as is the case for any diet under the sun, as long as you’re achieving complete nutrition, there is no athletic disadvantage to a plant-based diet. In fact, it’s quite in vogue lately to highlight elite athletes who adhere to plant-based diets. Check out this article to meet some very well-accomplished vegans I bet you didn’t know you’d heard of before. My favorite plant-based athlete to cite when asked by skeptics is Alex Honnold, perhaps one of the best rock climbers ever to exist. Yes, it’s possible to not only climb thousands of feet, but to do so without any sort of gear or protection, and to win an Oscar while you’re at it, all while eating only plants! If there’s a cooler ad for veganism, I couldn’t write it. (Admittedly, certain corporate interests have taken note.)
Finally, it is often helpful to remind skeptical or hesitant folks that plant-based diets are widespread throughout the world. For example, there are millions and millions of vegetarians, found in all regions and among all socio-economic groups. I occasionally remind people that there are more vegetarians in India than there are people in the United States! Even in the United States, that previous citation estimates that there are between 12-20 million vegetarians. In my opinion, it’s the best time in human history to adopt a plant-based diet, since we cumulatively have so much of the health and wealth that make dietary choices even possible. It is easier than ever to find good plant-based takeout or restaurant food, or to find vegan alternatives to your favorite non-food products, or even to find plant-based food products that closely mimic the taste and texture of meat. We’re in such an advanced era that you can eat plants that are all but indistinguishable from meat – fast-food chicken nuggets and plant-based “chicken” nuggets are my favorite example. Try these two side by side some day. I bet you the comparison will tell you a lot about the quality of fast food.
More than anything else, I hope the information above convinces you that plant-based eating does not need to be a fad or a status symbol. Rather, it is a concrete and reliable weapon in the fight against climate change, and can be adopted to whatever degree works for you today. The more you adopt it, the bigger the impact you have on the planet and the ecosystems we all love. But even one meal consciously chosen is a win for our irreplaceable Earth.
I know that choosing what to eat is a very personal experience for everyone. Further, your diet often has to do with a lot more than just your personal choices. Availability of food, the money to purchase it, the time to cook it – all of these factors contribute to what we’re able to eat. But compared to other times in human history, and especially compared to many other places in the world, the modern human in a fully developed nation has more food choices than ever before. It’s easy and enjoyable to make a difference with plant-based food – I hope you all try it out!
All meals pictured were cooked by the author and are 100% vegan, save for some “cheating” goat cheese. All guidelines, no rules followed!
Bibliography: Climate-Friendly Diets
Benton et al. “Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss.” Report from the Chatham House, 02/03/2021. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/02/food-system-impacts-biodiversity-loss
Carrington, Damian. “Plant-based diets crucial to saving global wildlife, says report.” The Guardian, 02/03/2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/03/plant-based-diets-crucial-to-saving-global-wildlife-says-report
Carrington, Damian. “Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth.” The Guardian, 05/31/2018. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth
Clark et al. “Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets.” Science, 2020. Vol. 370, Issue 6517, pp. 705-708.
Leiserowitz et al. “Climate Change and the American Diet.” Report for the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 02/13/2020. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/climate-change-and-the-american-diet/2/
Pike, Lili. “Why we need policies to reduce meat consumption now.” Vox, 11/20/2020. https://www.vox.com/21562639/climate-change-plant-based-diets-science-meat-dairy
Poore, J & Nemecek, T. “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.” Science, 2018. Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 987-992.
Schiermeier, Quirin. “Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet.” Nature, 2019. vol. 572, pp. 291-292.
Woolston, Chris. “Healthy people, healthy planet: the search for a sustainable global diet.” Nature, 2020. vol. 588, pp. S54-S56.