This article features topics discussed in the 50th Anniversary Edition of my book, Diet for a Small Planet, released September 2021. This version features a brand-new opening chapter, simple rules for a healthy diet, and updated recipes by some of the country’s leading plant- and planet-centered chefs. We are so excited to share this with you; order your copy here now! You can join in the Democracy Movement at www.democracymovement.us.
In a tough time, here’s some heartening news: Centering our diets in the plant world brings huge benefits for both our bodies and the Earth.
What triggered my writing Diet for a Small Planet 50 years ago was the realization that plant-centered diets more efficiently use our precious agricultural resources. Since then, however, I’ve been wowed by findings of multiple health benefits as well. Over the past decade, research showing the positive health impact of plant-based diets has soared and is now entering mainstream consciousness.
Diets centered around whole, plant-based foods are now commonly recognized as the most “cost-effective, low-risk interventions” for those suffering from the most common non-communicable diseases, reports a study from Permanente Journal.
This positive, diet-health link connection hasn’t always been so clear.
You see, I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1950s. Affectionately dubbed by locals as “Cowtown,” the aroma (I could use other terms) of the area stockyards I knew well. In our house, “What’s for supper?” was always answered with a meat dish—pork chops, meatloaf, or, of course, hamburgers.
But before launching into the medical evidence, here is my personal story—none of which I could have predicted.
Meat defined the meal.
But in my twenties, I was shocked to discover that those meals I took for granted reflected vast waste and injustice. Today, one measure of such waste is that from the meat Americans eat, we get just 8 percent of the protein fed to livestock. For beef, it’s 3 percent. Our supposedly smart species is actively reducing the earth’s capacity to feed us.
Terrible, I thought…I want no part of that.
So, in what felt like my act of rebel sanity, I embraced plant-based foods. I imagined the shift would be tough, yet I was determined to try.
To my surprise, the change turned out to be not only easy but enjoyable. Not once on my journey did I feel I was sacrificing. Rather, I relished my journey of discovery. In those days, few were the plant-centered cookbooks, so experimentation was my M.O. Putting plant-based foods together in new ways was a kick. And, of course, I was inspired by cuisines around the world that had long been centered in plant-based foods.
My journey also involved eschewing chemically treated foods and therefore, taking frequent trips to the local food co-op to buy organic.
Today, we have much more evidence of the soundness of all of these choices.
One recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found “higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer.” Reducing reliance on livestock—here typically trapped in giant feedlots for long periods—also means fewer health hazards from air and water pollution for those living nearby.
And to weigh the overall health benefit of less meat, consider these findings:
Noncommunicable diseases now cause more than 70 percent of all deaths worldwide, and red meat is a risk factor for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, among the biggest of these top killers. For our heart health, the biggest threat is processed red meat—bacon, cold cuts, and hot dogs. They are deemed carcinogens by the World Health Organization that now account for more than one fifth of the meat we Americans eat.
The remarkably positive and diverse health benefits of plant-centered eating are more evident with each passing year. Studying tens of thousands of meat and non-meat eaters, scholars writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association found non-meat diets “associated with lower all-cause mortality.” Plant-based diets could cut the incidence of Type 2 diabetes by up to 41 percent, found the AMA study.
Not long ago, Eric Adams, Brooklyn borough president, and now the Democratic candidate in New York City’s mayoral race, reached out to thank me for my work. He told me that he had been diabetic and losing sight in one eye. “Then I switched to a whole-food, plant-based diet,” he said, “and my sight soon returned to normal, and my diabetes was gone in three months.”
I choke up as I think of this one life transformed and its implications for so many of us. I also understand that it might sound too good to be true, but research confirms the possibility of such recovery.
And a final personal note. Before my big shift in diet, my relationship with food was, well, complicated. I’d been painfully weight-obsessed—manically counting calories and trying to shed what I thought of as “those last extra pounds.” But as I shifted to the plant world, something unexpected happened. Cravings stopped, counting calories stopped, and my body reset at a weight that felt right for me. I was able just to enjoy food again.
Fortunately, the vast benefits of centering our diets in the plant world are registering broadly. In a 2019 poll, roughly a quarter of U.S. adults, across generations, reported eating less meat in the last year than previously.
In all, we have come a long way from the days of meat-centric meals common to my generation. My hope now is that more and more of us come to experience the vast “win-win-win” in plant-centered eating: It’s best for our earth, our health, and rich in satisfaction—all while helping to address our climate crisis.
As this awareness continues to grow, we could be on the brink of a “food revolution,” and to that I say: Onward!