Plant-Forward = Planet Forward
Here we are in our 4th month of sustainable lifestyle changes for you to adopt! Whether you’ve been here for the journey or you are just starting – I want to give a little recap, so we’re all on the same page.
In our first month, we learned about valuing the earth’s soil. I highly recommend going back and listening to these episodes because everything comes back to the ground – mother earth. And even the topic we will be learning about this month is strongly linked to it – because, spoiler, it’s where our food comes from!
In the second month, we adopted practicing better waste management. And in the third month, we adopted the practice of choosing sustainable, ethical clothing.
These topics build on and intertwine to create a holistic view of sustainable living – giving you the tools and knowledge to live a healthy lifestyle for yourself and the planet.
This month, we will talk about how we can adopt healthier, sustainable food habits. With that being said, I want to make sure you understand that food is a sensitive topic for many people, and I will never tell you exactly how or what to eat – that should be intuitive to you. So please take everything I say and try to modify it to your lifestyle, culture, and personal health.
When I say eat healthily and sustainably, I mean eat to satisfy your health needs in a way that also is beneficial for your mind, body, and the planet. I’m going to try to avoid the word diet – as it has a negative connotation for most, and I think food should be thought of differently (particularly as fuel and medicine). But food can be fun. It can be delicious. I can be used to support local communities, to comfort us, to bring us together. Talking about food is one of my favorite topics. Mix that with sustainability, and now we’re cookin’!
However, it’s no secret that our food has a significant impact on Earth. From our episodes on valuing the earth’s soil, we know that much of our land is used solely for animal agriculture. “Livestock takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land, yet produces less than 20% of the world’s supply of calories.” Regenerative agriculture practices like animal re-integration and managed grazing can help with this. Still, as it stands – the world’s current demand for meat production coupled with unsustainable practices are causing human and environmental impacts that need a drastic change for us to move forward as a society. I like this summation on Cattle’s effect on the planet by World Wildlife “Cattle eat an increasing proportion of grain produced from agriculture, are one of the most significant contributors to water pollution and soil degradation, and are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. (And) processing cattle into meat, meat by-products, and leather is a major source of pollution in many countries.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the cattle’s fault, just how we manage them.
But traditional cropland agriculture also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, reduces our fresh water supply, decreases plant nutritional value, decreases soil biodiversity, contributes to significant desertification, and more.
So both of these things together mean we have a great need to improve the use of our land to supply food to the world and supply nutrient-rich food that will sustain us now and for generations to come.
But food also has significant impacts on human health as we consume it. It’s the food we choose to eat. Our food choices are inextricably linked to the planet’s health and vice versa. The Western-style of eating is “characterized by high consumption of calories, highly processed foods (refined carbohydrates, added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats), and high amounts of animal products.” (specifically red meat)
These foods are a high impact on our health – increasing the incidence of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, chronic kidney disease, inflammatory diseases, and cancer.
Regularly eating this way is not good for our bodies, and it isn’t good for the planet. In almost all cases, eating low-impact foods is healthier for our bodies and has a lower impact on the planet. The exception to this is substituting fish for red meat – as fish is known to pack in health benefits but has a pretty dirty environmental record. But high demand for meat as the center of the plate instead of plant-forward foods affects the planet because it determines how we farm, how much we farm, and what we farm.
But we can change this by increasing our intake and demand for plants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “7 of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States are from chronic diseases. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables daily can help reduce the risk of many leading causes of illness and death, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity.”
Domino Effects of our Food Systems
The middle of the Food chain
Agriculture and what we choose to put on our plate are still only a part of the puzzle. We have to look at the middle of the chain – how we get our food. Food processing, packaging, transport, retail, and food services contribute to climate change, waste, and pollution. They’re all factors of our food system that intertwine and affect human and planetary health but are under-researched.
We also produce enough food to feed the world, but many people still go hungry. The UN Environmental Program reports that “more than 800 million people in the world are hungry, two billion people are suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, and 2 billion people are overweight or obese. But these groups are not necessarily distinct; not all malnutrition is the result of food insufficiency.”
We need to open our eyes to the impacts of our food – from the beginning at the agriculture stage, to the middlemen, and finally to us – the consumers.
You know I don’t let you leave this podcast without learning one way, big or small, that we can make a difference. So what can we do?
If you noticed, I used the phrase “plant-forward” earlier. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health— Department of Nutrition crafted this phrase to mean “A style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to, foods from plant sources—fruits and vegetables (produce), whole grains, legumes (pulses), nuts and seeds, plant oils, and herbs and spices—and reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability.” You may have heard this said as plant-rich or plant-based too.
So the plant-forward definition can encompass entirely plant-based eaters like me and people who want to incorporate more plants into their life but don’t want to eliminate meat or dairy, and everywhere between. As long as you focus on “largely whole, minimally processed, and slow-metabolizing” foods and keep nutrient-rich plants at the forefront of your meals!
Benefits of eating plant-forward
Some studies show that by eating plant-forward, “between 10.9 to 11.6 million early deaths could be averted each year—a 19% to 23.6% reduction from current adult mortality rates.” This is attributed to some of the health impacts we discussed earlier, but it also has positive environmental impacts, as I’m sure you guessed! Less water, land, energy, and resources are used when eating plant-forward.
Think of it this way – we want the nutrients from plants, but we expect animals to get all of the nutrients for us, and then later down the line, the animals are consumed, and we try to get those nutrients for ourselves. Plant-forward eating eliminates all of the steps in between – allowing us to reap the benefits of the nutrients directly while reducing our environmental impact.
Keep in mind that supermarkets typically ship in fruits and vegetables – so when they get to you, they’ve sat for a long time and used many resources to get there. Plant-forward menus also focus on eating locally and seasonally, and it’s even better if they’re regeneratively grown, organic if possible. So that way, you’re truly receiving the best food for yourself and the planet.
To Taste says that “Grains, beans/legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are ingredients that support and sustain societies across the globe.” It’s about eating what is culturally appropriate and what food is grown for the climate, so it doesn’t have to be transported worldwide. Many countries and cultures have always eaten plant-forward or plant-rich – it’s not a new phenomenon. Jamaicans, Ethiopians, Indians, Israelis – they’re all heavily plant-forward eaters and have been for centuries. And that’s just naming a few.
How to eat plant-forward
If you want to eat plant-forward, try making at least half of your meals plants. This goes for what’s actually on the physical plate in front of you and the number of meals you eat. Try incorporating more plants and scale it up as you get used to it. Honestly, a good place to start is just thinking about your regular meals and how you can switch them up to incorporate more plants into them. That’s exactly what I started to do when I became vegan or entirely plant-based, so hopefully, it helps you too!
Supporting plant-forward policies
If you want to be plant-forward in other ways, you can also consider supporting policies and organizations that
empower regenerative agriculture practices,
Support healthy, sustainable meals for all
uplift small-scale food producers, particularly women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land.
Protect plant and seed diversity, as well as biodiversity,
Invest in rural agriculture
The EAT-Lancet Commission says that “Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” So, we will keep learning more about this topic and how we can use food for good.
Something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on segment, I want to challenge you to incorporate more plants into your meals for this week, and maybe even this entire month if you’re going to go for it. Set a goal for yourself, and try to take a mental note or write down how you feel after eating plant-forward. Do you feel more energized? Have you slept better? Did you experience less pain? Or a better relationship with your food? Maybe you feel better for the gift you’re giving your body and the good you’re doing for the planet. I know I’ll be proud of you, so be sure to tag Hometown: Earth in your plant-forward meals so I can see them and cheer you on!
Until next time, thanks for joining me, neighbor!
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