We are alive at a pivotal moment: For ourselves, for the Earth and for every animal on the planet. If we all are to survive, we must change the way we eat. Which sounds dire. But it is within our grasp. Think of it as a chance for a better world. A great and shared adventure. A journey to a place where we have long wanted to go, but until now lacked the means to reach. For many people, in many places, the shift is already underway: the move to a more plant-based diet. It is compassionate, it is hopeful, and, yes, it can be quite delicious.
The change begins with all of us. This summer. This week. Today. When you go to the grocery store, or open the refrigerator, or peruse a restaurant menu. The more you choose plants over animal products, the more animals you’ll spare from suffering, the healthier and better fed you’ll be and the more you’ll make possible a livable future.
We did not always know this, but now we do: The current system of intensive animal agriculture is unsustainable. And the switch to eating more plant-based foods must happen quickly. An article in Nature says that without big changes to current trends, the amount of food people require will reach levels “beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.” An editorial in the medical journal The Lancet says we are approaching a day of reckoning. “What is a healthy amount of red or processed meat?” asks the writer. “It’s looking increasingly like the answer, for both the planet and the individual, is very little.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of other foods to eat, equally delectable. We have the teeth and guts of a species evolved to eat almost anything. For the majority of our history, most of us survived on little—if any—meat or milk or cheese or eggs. And we can do it again.
Josh Balk, vice president of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States, envisions people taking steps—some small, some large—toward eating plant-based. “It can be Meatless Monday, it can be vegan before 6 p.m. or other plans to reduce meat consumption,” he says. Think of it as, “ ‘I can make a difference. I can make a choice to support a system that is abusive and destructive or instead one that moves us toward a kinder, more merciful world.’ ”
It’s only since World War II—in the memory of generations still alive—that meat, egg and dairy consumption soared in the United States and other wealthy countries, giving rise to factory farms and the cage confinement of animals. Today, Americans eat more meat than anyone in the world—100 pounds per person every year, or three times the global average. If Americans ate plant-based diets, U.S. agriculture could feed about 350 million more people, says a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s because growing crops to feed to animals that people then eat is less efficient than growing crops that people directly consume. As animals eat, breathe, digest, move around and defecate, they use up—and lose—energy from food. In the case of beef, 96% of the protein fed to cattle is lost.
Environmental studies warn that large-scale meat and dairy production is pushing species to extinction as forests and grasslands where wildlife live are converted into acreage for growing fodder and grazing animals. “Livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss,” states one paper by researchers at Florida International and Oregon State universities.
Beyond the threats to wildlife and health looms global warming, the largest danger from continuing animal-based diets. Climate change studies identify industrialized animal agriculture and the related destruction of forests as some of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, and the greatest opportunity to quickly reduce emissions. “Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential,” reads a paper by Joseph Poore of Oxford University and Thomas Nemecek of the Swiss research center Agroscope. A worldwide shift to plant-based diets could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28% while also curbing the carbon absorption that makes oceans more acidic and the nutrient runoff that pollutes lakes and bays, they say.
In the U.S., the biggest food-related reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could come initially from decreasing intensive production of beef and milk, according to Helen Harwatt, animal law and policy fellow at Harvard Law School. Some land where crops are grown for farm animals could be planted with crops for humans, such as beans, and land where cattle and cows now graze could be returned to its natural vegetation, such as forest, allowing for carbon to be removed from the atmosphere and put back into the vegetation and soil.
“It’s not about depriving anyone,” she says. “We’re reimagining food.”
Remake your plate
How do you go from an animal-based to a more plant-based diet? Reduce meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Base your diet instead on fruits and vegetables, including greens, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Replace meat with proteins such as beans, peas, lentils and sprouts, as well as tofu and tempeh, made from soybeans, and seitan, made from wheat gluten.
- Eat whole-wheat bread and pasta, brown and wild rice, and grains such as oats, quinoa and farro.
- Consume lots of fruits and vegetables; this is what your body needs the most of.
- Borrow from international cuisines, such as Mediterranean (hummus and falafel), African (peanut stews) or Asian (noodle soups and stir fries).
- When you don’t have time to cook whole foods, turn to new plant-based egg, dairy and meat products.
- Experts say you can get all the nutrients you need from plants, except for vitamins B-12 and potentially D.
Vegans and vegetarians remain a small portion of the U.S. population. But a third of people responding to a recent U.S. poll said they ate at least one meatless meal a week, and one-quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 are vegan or vegetarian. Demand for plant-based proteins rose 20% between 2017 and 2018. Veggie burgers—including new ones that simulate the texture and look of beef—are now commonly featured on the menus of national chain restaurants: Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, White Castle, TGI Fridays and A&W. This spring, Burger King announced plans to introduce a meatless Whopper nationwide.
Just four years ago, when Karla Dumas—a registered dietitian who directs the HSUS’s food and nutrition division—started training food service staff at universities, K-12 schools, hospitals and military dining operations to prepare cheaper, healthier plant-based meals, she had to work to persuade them to sign up. Today, as managers respond to what their customers want and what they see on the news, she gets unsolicited requests and is scheduling trainings many months in advance.
“We’ve seen a great shift,” Dumas says. “Now is the time.”
Switching to a more plant-based diet can be simple and inexpensive, says Sherene Chou, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant who trains medical students in how to make this way of eating affordable. As you change your diet, relax and have fun, advises Chou.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she says. “It’s less about judgment and more about being open-minded.”
After reading her first issue of All Animals magazine in January, HSUS member Holly Hain decided to try Meatless Mondays with her husband, 12- and 10-year-old sons and 6-year-old daughter. They now eat meatless about half the time. Even though her husband is “a meat and potatoes guy” who hates beans. Even though they live just outside Chicago, and she worried whether she could make hearty meatless meals in winter.
“After two weeks of not having meat on my plate, I said to myself, ‘Wow, you’re still here! I know I can do this.’ ”
Within three weeks of going plant-based, his sight cleared. Within three months, his blood sugar levels measured normal.
“I felt so clear,” says Adams. “I thought better. I moved better. I did not look at what I can’t eat. I looked at what I can eat. It was amazing how my taste buds opened up.”
This new way of eating is open to all of us. We can enjoy the abundance and color and amazingly varied tastes of plant-based meals. We can explore other cuisines. We can invent new ones. Fewer animals will suffer, fewer animals will die. More of us will live healthy into old age. The water and air and oceans will be cleaner. Land will return to forest and wildlife. And we will have literally helped save the planet.
It’s all still possible. If we choose.
The plant-based pantry
Having these foods on hand—in addition to staple pantry items—will make animal-friendly cooking even easier.
- Canned tomatoes
- Vegetable broth
- Sauces (soy, barbecue, buffalo or any of your favorites)
- Vinegars (balsamic, white, apple cider)
- Tahini paste
- Nutritional yeast (adds a cheesy flavor to dishes such as macaroni and cheese)
- Whole-wheat pasta or high-protein pasta made from lentils or black beans
- Assorted beans (garbanzo, black, kidney, pinto, etc.)
- Assorted grains (brown rice, oats, amaranth, barley, etc.)
- Assorted nuts and seeds (cashews, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, etc.)
- Plant-based meats (a variety of options are available at most grocery stores)
- Tofu (silken and firm) and tempeh
- Nondairy milk and creamer (almond, rice, soy or coconut)
- Nondairy cheese and sour cream
- Assorted fruits and vegetables
- Egg-free mayonnaise