How to Eat Like a Climatarian: dinner plate shrinks with less beef

Eat Like a Climatarian for a Healthy Planet and a Healthy You

Our personal health and that of our planet have never been more closely intertwined. There's a lot we can do to ensure a positive outcome for both.
By Mark Bittman
April 19, 2021
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It's not a coincidence that what's good for us is also good for the planet: We are the dominant species and, increasingly, we determine a great deal of what happens on Earth. What we eat not only determines our health and well-being, it also has a profound impact on other species as well, and on the land, air, water, and other resources.

Animal-related agriculture, for example, uses more than two-thirds of our farmland and is the largest source of water pollution, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has estimated that 80 percent of the antibiotics distributed in this country go to animals. The U.N., the medical journal Lancet, and a host of other trusted authorities have called livestock production one of the most significant contributors to the climate crisis—and say it creates more emissions than all of the world's transportation combined.

These are all serious wake-up calls.

Say, for example, we take away the antibiotics. Less meat would be produced, but it would be healthier, more humanely raised and more expensive. That's not a bad thing: For one, it would more accurately reflect the actual cost of raising animals for meat, dairy, and eggs. For another, it would make humanely raised animal products, which are less destructive of the climate and more competitive. Ultimately it would reduce meat consumption. Cutting back on meat is a more powerful tool in curbing global warming than switching from an SUV to a Prius.

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If we change the way we eat, even moderately, we'll not only improve our health, but also start to save our planet. That's the guiding principle behind a climatarian diet, and the overall plan is simple: reduce the amount of meat and junk food we eat and supplement it with minimally processed plant-based foods.

This way of eating goes by many names: We're calling it climatarian here, but vegetarian, vegan, part-time vegan (like my own VB6), flexitarian, reduceatarian, and all less-meatarian diets fall in the same ballpark. Anything that reduces the consumption of industrially produced animal products and junk food sets us on the right track.

Doing so has the potential to enhance personal health, avoid chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even Alzheimer's. It would also reduce waste and pesticide use, save money, enable most people to lose weight and, at least equally as important, slow and even reverse global warming.

Intelligent food choices do not necessarily mean opting for the life of a vegan or even a vegetarian. For some, personal health will motivate a new diet; for others, the idea of community action will be a driving force. What's true is that, given money and time, everyone can find some comfort level in a diet that is healthier than what now passes for conventional.

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Here's where to start. The typical American diet includes more than a pound a day of animal products; most of the rest of our calories come primarily from foods made from white flour, like donuts, cakes, and white breads; French fries, chips, and other snacks; soft drinks and beer (together, they account for nearly 10 percent of our daily calories); sweetened fruit juice; and, finally, plants—fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, which comprise only 5 percent on average.

To eat like a climatarian, that last category should actually make up the majority of our daily calories. The USDA says 50 percent; I'd recommend something closer to 90. I'm going to borrow a chart I devised for my new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, to demonstrate how easily this can be achieved.

desirable-food-chart-infographic
Credit: Julia Bohan

The beauty here is that there are no clear-cut rules; this system is all about flexibility. You might want to be a part-time-vegan. You might want to continue to eat meat, but in smaller portions. You might not like whole grains or legumes or fruit. You might have to have ice cream every day.

There are other issues that will influence your choices: making land available to farmers who want to raise food well; shortening supply chains so more of our food is grown closer to home; treating workers (and animals) more fairly; the relative sustainability of different foods; and improving access to real food for everyone.

Whatever path you choose, you'll quickly learn that adopting a climatarian diet is neither onerous nor unpleasant. It swiftly and decisively increases your awareness of good, wholesome, truly nutritional food. And in this process, your personal consumption will flip, so instead of getting the vast majority of your calories from animal products, processed food, and other stuff that's generally not good for your health, most of your energy starts coming from plant foods. Eating a good diet is suddenly the new normal, and you'll have changed the way you think about food forever.

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Mark Bittman is the author of more than 30 books, including the How to Cook Everything series and his latest, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, which you can buy on Amazon. Bittman is currently special advisor on food policy at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, where he teaches and hosts a lecture series called "Food, Public Health, and Social Justice." He is also the editor-in-chief of Heated.

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