By Joan Marlow Golan, Bronxville Green Committee
Jul. 15, 2020: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Food-writer Michael Pollan’s oft-quoted manifesto summarizes the optimal diet for health. And not only for human health, but the planet’s health as well.
Livestock Agriculture & Greenhouse-Gas Emissions
Reports vary widely on what percentage of greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by livestock agriculture; most sources estimate 15-20%. A December 21, 2018 article in The Guardian warns, “Meat rearing practices risk mass extinctions of other animals, as well as spawn significant pollution of streams, rivers, and ultimately, the ocean.”
Many studies, including the United Nations’ 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recommend reducing meat consumption as the most effective action individuals can take to reduce the global carbon footprint and mitigate climate change.
I am very proud of my oldest granddaughter, Emily, for choosing to be a vegan, and for inspiring her boyfriend to join her; her nuclear family is now also following a primarily vegetarian diet. Among the many health benefits of eschewing meat are a lower risk of heart disease, hypertension, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
In a May 21, 2020, op-ed piece for The New York Times, Jonathan Safran Foer connects such health concerns to related issues and insists, “If you care about the working poor, about racial justice, and about climate change, you have to stop eating animals.”
In theory, I agree with Foer and with the other proponents of a plants-only diet; by every metric—health, environment, animal cruelty—their arguments are supported by the facts. But in reality, I am not quite there yet. And I’m not alone. Even Michael Pollan, whose book The Omnivore’s Dilemma introduced many of us to the negatives of industrial agriculture, acknowledges he hasn’t completely stopped eating meat because he likes it too much.
The good news is that eating meat is not an all-or-nothing proposition. “Flexitarian” describes those who eat animal protein sparingly in a mostly plant-based diet. The cumulative effect of flexitarianism is impressive—with one serving of meat representing more greenhouse gasses than twenty servings of vegetables, even a modest substitution of plant-based meals for those including animal protein yields substantial benefits.
With the coronavirus pandemic making us more aware of what we buy at the grocery store, now may be an ideal time to make some gradual changes.
These strategies may help.
1. Less is more - meat, poultry, and fish as garnishes
In Asia, meat has traditionally been used more as a condiment than as a main course, and that’s how I use it now. Instead of a six-ounce portion of steak, chicken, or fish, I make a big salad and sprinkle on top one or two ounces of julienned meat or poultry, one or two jumbo shrimp, or a bit of flaked fish.
A salad entrée offers a great opportunity to follow nutritionists’ advice to “eat the rainbow.” Mine usually includes mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, red onion, blueberries or raspberries, ground hemp, chia and/or flax seeds, and perhaps some dried fruit.
Endive, fennel, radicchio, alfalfa sprouts, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, and mixed nuts are welcome occasional additions. Friends of mine include roasted vegetables in their go-to dishes.
Instead of animal protein, I often substitute nuts, grains, beans, or tofu. The diversity of colors and textures makes me feel satisfied, with less desire to eat meat.
2. Meatless Mondays, or Any Day
It doesn’t have to be Monday, but devoting one day a week to a plant-based diet is a way of cutting down without cutting out. I’ve come to prefer black bean pasta and adding broccoli, garlic, and a dash of saffron to my tomato sauce makes it tastier.
Red lentil pasta is another favorite. So is brown rice. I’ve also adapted a favorite recipe, Rice Cristoforo: layers of rice, tomato sauce, and cheese. There’s no need for meat in the sauce, although you can use vegetarian meatballs or crumbles; I add some of my favorite vegetables. Nondairy cheese substitutes can replace mozzarella, provolone, or parmesan.
For those to whom a whole day without meat is a bridge too far, an alternative is a meatless meal several days a week. Or follow food writer and television personality Mark Bittman’s VB6 diet, eating like a vegan before six p.m. and reverting to an omnivorous diet in the evening.
3. Treat Instead of Meat
As dieters know, feelings of deprivation can sabotage the best intentions. I guard against this by making a non-meat day a treat day. I splurge on vegetarian takeout from local restaurants,—including the Indian dishes Bhindi Do Pyaza (okra, tomatoes, onions, and spices) and Baingan Bharta (eggplant and spices) and the Chinese entrée Moo Shoo Vegetables. Amateur chefs might prefer to add such dishes to their culinary repertoire.
4. Commit to the Healthy Plate
We Americans tend to overestimate the amount of protein our bodies need. Coming from a family where the meat portion took up half the plate, I was surprised to learn from an August 21, 2019 New York Times article by Jillian Mock, titled “One Thing We Can Do: Eat a Bit Less Meat,” that North Americans eat more than six times the recommended amount of red meat.
Reliable sources suggest different proportions of vegetables and fruit to grains, beans, and animal protein. In search of a simple, effective model of healthy eating, I settled on the Healthy Eating Plate on the website of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Now, at every meal, fruits and vegetables comprise half my plate, whole grains one-quarter, and protein (including animal protein, legumes, and nuts) the other quarter. With this tasty, fiber-rich diet, I don’t miss those extra ounces of meat!
5. Fool the Palate
Is that craving for a hot dog or a hamburger really a meat craving?
Food has an emotional and social component—hot dogs may recall an enjoyable family outing at the baseball stadium; hamburgers, the annual Fourth of July picnic. I’ve found that slathering a veggie dog with mustard and sauerkraut, a black-bean burger with ketchup, and tofurkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce effectively fools my memory, bringing the same comfort as the comfort foods they are replacing.
For those who want the meat substitute to look and taste as much as possible like actual meat, there are now convincing versions, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. However, some sources question their highly processed ingredients and suggest that their relatively high-fat content makes them less healthy than you might expect.
6. Quality over Quantity - Sustainable Meat
Sustainable meat is produced from pasture-raised animals allowed to graze on grass (or acorns in the case of pigs), as opposed to animals raised in an industrial system in which they are confined to barns, cages, and lots, and given a grain-based feed (usually corn) that nature did not design their digestive systems to consume.
Not only are CAFOS (concentrated animal feeding operations) unhealthy, they are also inhumane and endanger soil, water, and climate. Although pasture-raised meat is more expensive, it tends to be more flavorful and satisfying than industrial-produced meat. Some experts argue that animals raised in this manner make the most efficient use of resources.
Land that isn’t fertile enough for farming can still produce grass to feed animals. In turn, the animals’ manure fertilizes the land, completing a natural cycle.
7. Vegetarian for a Season
It may be easier to give up animal protein for a limited time—for example, during Lent or the summer. Hot weather reduces my cravings for meat while increasing my appetite for vegetable and fruit salads, so I rarely eat meat or poultry between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
If a months-long meatless stretch seems overwhelming, perhaps a seasonal Meatless Monday is more manageable. Recently, our neighbors in Bedford, New York, challenged themselves to forego all meat, poultry, and fish every Monday for twelve weeks, replacing them with healthy fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
The Bedford 2020 website published the results: The Meatless Monday campaign reduced their collective carbon footprint equivalent to:
-Driving 56,113 fewer miles or
-Using no electricity in 3.4 homes for one year, or
-Recycling 8 tons of waste instead of sending it to a landfill
Finally, adopting a vegetarian diet will do your bank account a favor. Foer’s New York Times op-ed piece cites a 2015 study in The Journal of Nutrition and Hunger that concludes a vegetarian diet is cheaper than a meat-based diet by $750 a year.
Yes, food habits are hard to change. But life will become harder for everyone if we don’t treat the earth more kindly by reducing our meat consumption. Think of it as an act of love for ourselves, our animals, and our earth to embrace a flexitarian (or vegetarian, or vegan) diet, perhaps first on a limited basis and then as a way of life.
WebMD: Is It Better To Be A Vegetarian?
Go Meatless Monday
Healthline: The Flexitarian Diet
Harvard: The Nutrition Source
Food Print: Eating Meat Sustainably
Photo courtesy Green Committee
Editor's note: As a public service, MyhometownBronxville publishes articles from local institutions, officeholders, and individuals. MyhometownBronxville does not fact-check statements therein, and any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the thinking of its staff.