(That’s an annual challenge run by a U.K.-based charity to go vegan for the month of January.)
If the proposition makes you feel guilty or anxious, then this guide might be for you.
Meat and dairy production, for instance, accounts for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and beef production is the biggest driver of tropical deforestation. Meanwhile, emissions from plant-based foods are an average of 10 to 50 times lower than those from animal products.
But it can be a challenge to turn this knowledge into action long-term, particularly in communities and cultures where ‘meat at every meal’ may be expected and assumed, and for those of us who haven’t been raised to prepare and enjoy plant-based dishes.
“Here in Malaysia, especially during religious celebrations, almost every dish has some form of meat,” said Malaysian vegan advocate Diyana Rahim, during a Youth Daily Show titled ‘Kale it Quits: Going Plant-Based for the Planet’ at GLF Climate 2021.
“So, it was tough when I transitioned [to veganism], especially when I spent time with relatives during all the festivities and I had to say no to all this food that I was used to when I was young. I literally had to make my own food and bring it to my grandma’s house!”
If we want to inspire lasting change that feels like a life-affirming habit rather than a sacrifice, it’s crucial to look at the transition from multiple angles – psychological, cultural, nutritional and culinary.
So, here are five steps to thrive on a plant-heavy diet for the long haul, and five meat-free recipes from our favorite food influencers to get you started.
Making a change that counts doesn’t have to mean purging the freezer of meat products and going fully vegan or vegetarian.
In fact, scientists say it’s possible to feed the world on an omnivorous diet – if we all do our bit to cut back on our meat intake.
“We don’t need everyone to become a vegan,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, during an Inspirational Talk at GLF New York 2019.
“We can consume small amounts of red meat, dairy products, fish and poultry if we want to have an omnivorous diet,” he emphasized.
“We just have to keep those amounts rather small: for example, the target number [in the planetary health diet] for red meat was equivalent to about one hamburger per week – or a big 12-ounce [340-gram] steak once a month.”
If going vegetarian or vegan is a bridge too far for you, then it’s time to set yourself some targets: how much less meat do you want to eat? Are you planning to stop eating certain types of meat, or to not eat meat on certain days of the week?
“Doing it alone can be so hard,” Rahim acknowledged. “Finding a community is really helpful when you’re making a transition like this.”
A common error many people make when they try to shift towards plant-based foods is to simply eat the same meals – minus the meat.
“You can have a diet that is relatively healthy for the planet but very bad for humans,” said Willett in a 2021 interview in the Harvard Gazette.
“And that’s the diet that is low in animal source foods but high in starch – especially if it’s refined starch – and sugar. We often call that a ‘poverty diet,’ in that the cheapest sources of calories are starch and sugar. That has a light footprint on the planet, but it’s not healthy.”
That can lead to serious deficits in key macro- and micro-nutrients like protein, iron and vitamin B12. Because the makeup of animal meat is so similar to what’s in our own bodies, it’s a straightforward way to get many of the nutrients we need – which is why it can feel so satisfying to eat.
So, without meat, we may need to work harder to feel full and nourished. That means prioritizing rich protein sources like legumes, nuts, tofu and plant-based meat alternatives, as well as a generous range of healthy fats and oils and a ‘rainbow’ of different-colored fruits and vegetables.
“The first time I tried to go vegan, I had no idea what to eat – and after four days, I just had to stop,” said Ghanaian vegan chef Zuu Gbedemah (also known as The Ghanaian Vegan), during ‘Kale it Quits’.
As we mentioned earlier, going plant-based can require some careful forward planning and fresh thinking about what to buy, grow and prepare.
Fortunately, many of the world’s cuisines – think Thai, Mediterranean, Indian and Mexican – have a firm place for plant-based foods and often use meat sparingly for a touch of flavor, rather than as the centerpiece of a dish.
“Here in Ghana, a lot of our local traditional meals don’t have meat in them,” said Gbedemah. “With globalization, we now have a lot of popular fast food brands moving into the country and opening branches, so people are getting more and more into meat consumption. But in my grandparents’ day, it wasn’t really a thing.”
Ancient practices like boiling down bones or vegetable scraps for stock can bring big flavor hits while also reducing food waste – another key part of transforming our food systems towards sustainability.
Pay attention to how your body responds to changes in your diet. If you’re feeling exhausted or ill since making the change, it’s a good idea to check in with a nutritionist or healthcare professional to make sure you’re meeting your nutritional requirements.
If you’re a big meat eater, going completely meat-free overnight might be harsh on your body. You may find it easier to take it step by step and gradually start cutting meat out of your diet.
Be kind to yourself: we all do our best world-saving work when we’re well-fed and feeling good!
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