Perhaps you read Rip Esselstyn's The Engine 2 Diet or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and want to reduce your risk of lifestyle related diseases and avoid factory farms, or perhaps it's the recent U.N. study that said eating less meat is better for the planet -- either way, there’s no doubt that reducing your meat intake and embracing a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your health and the environment.
It’s trendy too, thanks to UC Berkeley professor and food writer Michael Pollan, famous for In Defense of Food and Omnivore’s Dilemma. His simple credo re-defined what it means to eat smart today: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Pollan emphasizes the importance of knowing how one’s food was raised, eating locally and organic by "shopping the seasons" at the farmers market, and avoiding the growing number of "Frankenfoods" on the market -- high in mysterious additives. "Don’t eat anything with ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t recognize!" he warns. His advice may sound like a joke, but when it comes to food chemicals, trans fats, and genetically modified foods, it could help prevent long-term health implications.
Many others have contributed to the "flexitarian" paradigm: from well-known garden-to-table chef Alice Waters, DYI urban homesteaders like Novella Carpenter, and the Oscar-nominated film, Food Inc. Keeping transportation and environmental costs in mind, this philosophy of eating says support your farmers market, eat whole foods, and limit your meat consumption to grass-fed, wild meats.
Getting started with a more plant-based diet
Replace one, or better yet, two to three days of your week’s meals to vegetarian options.
Food: The Meatless Monday campaign is gaining nationwide momentum as even celebrity chef and meat-lover, Mario Batali has signed on. Simply cut back on your meat intake, starting on Mondays. The site has resources, recipes, and a growing online community.
Education on Environmental Impact: Read Mark Bittman's New York Times article, 'Considering the Meat Guzzler' to see how reducing your meat intake equates to swapping your SUV for a Prius.
Add healthy meat alternatives
Tempeh, edamame beans, tofu, and seitan (wheat gluten) add texture, fiber, and healthy protein to your meal. Make sure to get organic soy products, as most commercial soy beans today are genetically engineered to feed cows.
Food: Skip frozen soy nuggets and opt for fermented soy products. Like tofu, tempeh will take in any flavor you give it. Traditionally eaten in Indonesia, you can marinate it like you would fish, letting it soak in flavors of sesame oil, tamari, and ginger, and sautéing it. Its texture makes a great meat substitute.
Soup lover? Add miso paste to make soup – it’s got live cultures beneficial for digestive health. It offers a great savory, chicken soup substitute, and even makes a great wintertime breakfast as part of the macrobiotic diet.
One product I love is Lightlife Smoky Tempeh Strips. Three slices are just 100 calories with 8 grams of protein, and they taste great in salads or sandwiches for a veggie BLT.
Legumes all the way
High in fiber, carbs, and protein, legumes are generally feel-good foods for satiety, balancing blood sugar, maintaining weight and energy.
Food: Hummus makes a great spread on toast, layered with cucumbers, sprouts, and tomatoes. Look for flavor varieties like cilantro or mint at your farmer’s market, rather than the same ol’ at your supermarket. Make your own with herbs, steamed red bell peppers, nuts, or fresh edamame.
French lentils are easy to cook, high in iron, and protein. Trader Joe’s sells a handy, pre-cooked and ready-to-eat version that I love over greens with avocado, cherry tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Stir it up
Smoothies are a delicious high-protein alternative to a heavy, egg-centered breakfast. What other drink offers fiber, antioxidants, protein, and healthy fats in one meal? Here's a vegan protein smoothie recipe from plant-based triathlete, Brendan Brazier (pictured, right)
Food: Just blend a cup of frozen, ripe banana with any other fruit and fill with almond milk and apple juice. Throw in a handful of kale or spinach, a tablespoon of almond butter, one of hemp protein, and blend for a green smoothie. For extra sweetness, include a teaspoon of agave nectar or maple syrup, better yet: dry dates. Trader Joe's sells a good quality, cheap hemp protein.
Know your labels and meat sources
CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are the worst kind of polluters with methane emissions and runoff that pollutes bodies of water. The animals are also grown in cruel conditions, and contain a high dose of hormones and antibiotics.
Food: Choose organic, free-range chicken, beef, and eggs when you choose to eat them. Look for a humanely-raised label too. Support restaurants that purchase these kinds of products and as much as you can, skip the rest.
Tip: Next time you're sorting through dozens of egg brands, choose Glaum for their humanely-raised, vegetarian-fed, AND cage-free eggs.
Tip #2: On the go, grab a burrito from Chipotle -- Mexican food priding itself in hormone-free and free range meat.
Education: The Meatrix is a fun, clever, animated short film that goes a long way in explaining some key concepts about factory farming.
Choose your fish wisely, if at all
Fish gets a lot of health hype for its omega-3 fatty acid content. But at this rate, worldwide supply for seafood like tuna and salmon won’t keep up with demand. Farmed fish is a recent development that is not recommended. Some fish like tuna is high in mercury, and should only be eaten once or twice a month. Make sure to ask where your fish comes from and stick to wild varieties. Give props to sustainable seafood restaurants that make their sources public.
Food: Include a handful of seeds and nuts on a daily basis for healthy fats: hemp and flax seeds; walnuts, almonds, and cashews, nut butters, and avocados.
When eating fish in or out, refer to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood chart to help guide your decisions. They also have an iPhone app.
Give tilapia and sole a try. At places like Whole Foods Market, you can ask at the counter where they come from.
Eat low on the food chain. Experiment with anchovies and sardines: they reproduce quickly, have low risk for mercury content, and offer plenty of omega 3 fatty acids and flavor to any salad, rice, or pasta dish.
If you have access to wild salmon, make it an occasional part of the menu. It’s high in omega fatty acids and delicious. Avoid farmed salmon.
Think of sushi as a treat and support sushi joints with sustainable menus.
Avoid eating shrimp, it's a bottom feeder that can be high in ocean contaminants. Shrimping practices like trawling ravage ocean life.
Education: watch The End of the Line film.
Eco-conscious foodies are popping up all over through blogs and online communities. Even Michelle Obama's now tackling child obesity and planting an edible garden. Follow Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Life blog -- a fun new space to learn all about the vegan lifestyle and connect with veg "flirts" and "superheroes." You can go shopping with Alicia, too -- here's her grocery list. Join a local Meetup to learn how to cook farm-to-table meals. Keep your eyes out for uplifting foodie films like FRESH screening in your local community.
If you want to get started with a plant-based diet, check our Plant-Based Nutrition Video Course With Rich Roll at MindBodyGreen!