Easing up on animal products might strike fear into some avowed meat lovers’ hearts, but environmental, home-cookery and nutrition experts say the undertaking is both worthwhile and achievable.
Twenty-three percent of Americans in a poll published last week by Gallup said they had eaten less meat over the past year, with health concerns topping the reasons for cutting back. Many other respondents cited environmental, food-safety and animal-welfare concerns. But just 5% of U.S. adults actually identify as vegetarian, a separate 2018 Gallup poll found, reflecting a hunger in recent years for so-called plant-based diets sans inflexible rules or labels.
Brian Kateman, the president and co-founder of the nonprofit Reducetarian Foundation, which advocates for reducing the societal consumption of animal products in the name of health, environmental protection and animal cruelty, said his organization had observed the breakdown of the “all-or-nothing” mentality around meat consumption in recent years. Some people strike compromises like Meatless Mondays, weekday vegetarianism or “vegan before 6” rather than choosing a rigid diet, Kateman told MarketWatch.
“All of these strategies put us on the same path, the same team,” he said.
Food media kicked off 2020 with plant-centric pledges
Figures from some major food publications have made public commitments in recent months to eat and develop recipes with climate change in mind. New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark, for instance, published a “meat-lover’s guide to eating less meat” in late December, writing that she had settled on “about a 40% reduction from the six to eight meaty, cheesy, anchovy- and yogurt-laden meals I had been eating weekly.”
And Bon Appétit last month announced a series of guidelines aimed at reducing its test kitchen’s environmental impact, including a new composting program, reduction in plastic use and a goal to develop 30% of new recipes as meatless. The magazine’s sister brand, Epicurious, engineered the meal plan for this year’s COOK90 challenge (cook all three meals every day for the month of January, with few exceptions) to star vegetables, legumes and grains; minimize dairy; and limit animal protein to only a little seafood, mirroring a sitewide goal.
“We think a lot about delivery and eating out and all the plastics involved with carry-out,” said Epicurious site director David Tamarkin, who created COOK90. But home cooks can also play a significant role in mitigating climate change, he said, through both their dietary choices and food-waste reduction.
The climate-change argument
Activities like agriculture and forestry are behind nearly a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions generated by humans, concluded a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year. That quarter includes emissions from food production (like methane from cow burps and emissions from tractors) and deforestation (which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere), Richard Waite, an associate in the nonprofit World Resources Institute’s food program, told MarketWatch.
Roughly a third of food produced globally is wasted or lost, the IPCC report added. Separate estimates suggest that figure is as high as 40% in the U.S. “Think of all the food that’s being produced that isn’t ultimately being eaten,” Waite said. “That’s a huge amount of land use, and that’s a huge amount of greenhouse-gas emissions.”
‘Eating foods that are less resource-intensive and don’t take up as much space to produce makes it possible to add another 2 billion or so people to the planet.’
Generally speaking, eating in a climate-friendly way would involve a more plant-centered diet, reduced consumption of animal proteins (especially beef and lamb) and minimal food waste, Waite said. Beef and lamb are far more resource-intensive than other proteins, data compiled by WRI show. Dairy, pork and poultry have a “medium” impact on the environment, while foods like eggs, nuts, fish and beans have a relatively low impact.
The most sustainable animal proteins to eat are farmed bivalves like clams, oysters, scallops and mussels, Waite added.
“Eating foods that are less resource-intensive and don’t take up as much space to produce makes it possible to add another 2 billion or so people to the planet in coming decades without knocking down any more forest, and while also reducing emissions from food production,” Waite said.
Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, a trade association, told MarketWatch in a statement that “Environmental Protection Agency data show that livestock production in the U.S. accounts for around four percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”
“A recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences evaluated the potential impact if everyone in the U.S. adopted a meatless diet and found that it would only reduce total U.S. GHGs by 2.6 percent, and there would be a greater number of deficiencies in essential nutrients,” she added. (Some critics have taken issue with that study’s methodology.)
The health argument
Diets that are relatively higher in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, and relatively lower in animal-based foods such as meat, seafood, dairy and eggs, are linked to a lower risk of having a cardiovascular disease or dying from any cause, according to research published last summer in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
‘Research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that may lower body mass index, blood pressure, [hemoglobin A1C], and cholesterol levels.’
A separate 2013 study published in the peer-reviewed Permanente Journal noted that “research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that may lower body mass index, blood pressure, [hemoglobin A1C], and cholesterol levels,” and urged physicians to recommend plant-based diets to all patients.
A U.S. News and World Report panel of experts this year named the Mediterranean diet — which focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts; weekly servings of fish and seafood; poultry and eggs in moderation; and the occasional serving of red meat — as the best plant-based diet, the best diabetes diet, the best diet for healthy eating (a tie) and the best diet overall.
The similar DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet prescribes eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as poultry, fish, beans, nuts and low-fat or no-fat dairy, but limiting fatty meats and full-fat dairy. The diet is also highly recommended by health professionals and associated with lower blood pressure and lower LDL cholesterol, in addition to lower risk of developing heart failure.
The money argument
An economical version of the U.S. government’s animal protein-inclusive MyPlate meal plan costs nearly $750 more a year than a plant-based diet, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition by researchers from Providence, R.I.’s Miriam Hospital and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. “Our plant-based diet was substantially cheaper, and featured a lot more fruits and vegetables and whole grains,” lead study author Mary Flynn said in a statement.
These cost savings bear out anecdotally, as well. Tamarkin, who began his own transition away from certain animal products last summer, said the shift had indeed saved him money. “Vegetables are cheap,” he said. “You know what’s really cheap? Beans, lentils — even if you get them from the fancy place that I get them from.” With that said, Tamarkin believes it’s worth spending money on good-quality foods like fish to get a more environmentally sustainable product.
‘You know what’s really cheap? Beans, lentils — even if you get them from the fancy place that I get them from.’
Wasted food is “money down the drain, in addition to being terrible for the planet,” he added. “When you have food waste front of mind, you’re not only helping with the food-waste problem, you’re saving money.”
If you want to pursue a more plant-centric diet but aren’t quite sure where to start, here’s advice from experts — including folks who have done it themselves:
Start simple. Think of this as tweaking your diet, said the WRI’s Waite, whose research inspired him to evolve his own food habits about five years ago. “Make it easy, and don’t go all-or-nothing unless that’s what you really want to do,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to feel like you’re sacrificing enjoyment — because if you do, you probably won’t stick with it.” Each time you decide what to eat, think of how you could eat a bit more plant-based food and a bit less animal-based food, he said.
Kateman, of the Reducetarian Foundation, suggested easing yourself in by ordering veggie versions of familiar take-out or restaurant dishes: Instead of getting chicken with your usual Chipotle CMG, +0.84% order, try guacamole. See if there’s a vegetable version of your favorite lamb or beef dish at the Thai or Indian restaurant. If you want a burger, try plant-based substitutes from Beyond Meat BYND, +4.07% or Impossible Foods.
‘If someone’s going to eat meat at a meal, they can at least think about making it a much smaller component of a meal.’
Learn how to make meatless food delicious. If you think tofu is bland or boring, you’re doing it wrong. “For me, the key to unlocking a real lust for tofu is texture,” Tamarkin said. Fully drain the water from your tofu so you can introduce new flavors into it, then try tearing it up and frying it to get crispy edges and a creamy interior. Be generous with seasoning, Tamarkin said.
Find ways to approximate the textural contrasts of animal products — for example, a chicken thigh with crisp skin and fatty meat — through plant-based means, Tamarkin said. That might look like some savory lentils topped with crispy fried shallots and a dollop of yogurt, for instance. If you’re scaling back on dairy, embrace ingredients like tahini, nut butters and pureed beans to add creaminess without the actual cream, he said.
Look for umami — a savory taste often found in meat — in other places, Tamarkin added. Incorporate ingredients like soy sauce, miso, fermented black-bean sauce, sun-dried tomatoes and nutritional yeast to amp up the umami in your home cooking, he said.
Jim Webster, a copy editor on the Washington Post’s food team and self-described “affirmed carnivore,” resolved to give up meat during the month of January for environmental, health and moral reasons, having already gotten a taste through Meatless Mondays over the last three years. During his meatless month, Webster learned how to make equally satisfying plant-based versions of meat dishes he enjoyed, including a mushroom banh mi and tacos with “meat” made of walnuts.
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He even made a spinoff of his grandmother’s beloved stuffed-cabbage recipe using mushrooms and walnuts instead of ground beef and pork. “It wasn’t mimicking anything — it was its own thing,” Webster said. “But it was really good.”
Take baby steps, especially if the concept of a meatless meal seems foreign. “If someone’s going to eat meat at a meal, they can at least think about making it a much smaller component of a meal,” Kateman said. Double the vegetables and halve the meat in your chili. Dial back the meat so it’s a component or flavoring in your meal, rather than the centerpiece.
Explore cuisines that are less meat-heavy rather than trying to make your existing American diet vegetarian, Tamarkin suggested. “Go deep on that cuisine, because that is a full experience,” he said. Tamarkin recommends digging into vegetarian-friendly South Indian cuisine, as well as ample vegetarian options within Middle Eastern cuisines. Serious Eats chief culinary advisor J. Kenji López-Alt has also deemed Japanese and Chinese foods vegan-friendly.
‘I know that the impact that I make is basically zero. At the same time, if I don’t do this, then I know that I’m making the problem worse.’
Make sure you’re still getting the nutrients you need. Most people will see generally positive results from upping their plant-based food intake and eating less meat, but pay attention to how your body responds, especially if you’re cutting out animal products altogether, said Corinne Bush, the director of nutrition science and education at the American Nutrition Association.
First up: protein. Complete proteins are found in animal-based foods and soy, while many plant-based proteins are incomplete sources of protein, according to the Food and Drug Administration. So make sure to combine incomplete plant proteins to complement each other, Bush said, like grains with beans or legumes. The average person’s recommended dietary allowance of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, though experts suggest that older adults and some other groups should consume more.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal foods, so consider a B12 supplement or nutritional yeast, Bush said. While milk is a good source of calcium, you can also find it in some dark, leafy greens, some legumes and fortified plant milks. Beans, lentils and soy are sources of iron; be sure to boost your iron absorption with vitamin C, Bush said. Beans, nuts and seeds offer alternative sources of zinc, and non-animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts, she said.
Plan ahead. Creating some rules to govern when and where you eat meat could help you reduce your consumption, Kateman said. If you rarely cook, maybe you decide to eat meat only at home; on the flip side, someone who seldom eats at restaurants might make meat consumption a going-out affair only.
Webster, the Washington Post editor, found meal-planning integral to his meatless experiment, sitting down each weekend to plot out seven dinners for the coming week. He planned for occasions when he’d need to eat at restaurants, as well, screening potential locations for both viable menu options and forbidden foods he would be bummed not to try.
“I create a meal plan, create a grocery list from that meal plan, and every week my fridge is packed,” Tamarkin added. “As the week goes on, every little thing gets used.”
Do what you can and don’t be hard on yourself. Tamarkin has cut out beef, chicken and pork from his diet, and steers clear of dairy in his savory meals so he can justify using butter for baking. “I know that the impact that I make is basically zero,” he said. “At the same time, if I don’t do this, then I know that I’m making the problem worse.”
Waite still eats everything, but has rebalanced his diet to be more plant-centered. While he eats beef and lamb every once in a while, he makes sure it’s a treat that he really enjoys.
“You can still eat all the foods you like; it’s just about finding the right mix that reduces your footprint,” he said. “A climate-friendly diet doesn’t have to be about deprivation at all — it can be delicious and satisfying.”