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Conscious eating can help address our own health and wellness, social and animal welfare and the environmental impact of our food choices. Using three criteria—Is it good for me? Is it good for others? Is it good for the planet?—Sophie Egan, an author and leader at the intersection of food, health, and climate helps us navigate the bewildering world of food so that we can all become conscious eaters. To eat consciously is not about diets, fads, or hard-and-fast rules. It’s about having straightforward, accurate information to make smart, thoughtful choices amid the chaos of conflicting news and marketing hype.
Inspired by Egan’s new book, “How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet,” Ryan Lepicier, the National Peanut Board’s Chief Marketing Officer, explores the topic with Egan:
Ryan: What does it mean to be a conscious eater?
Sophie: Being a conscious eater means aligning your food choices with your values. By no means a diet, conscious eating is a lifelong commitment to continuously raising your awareness about the factors to consider when purchasing one food over the other—recognizing the tremendous power that each of us has, and the delicious opportunity, really, to vote with our forks and our grocery baskets with each and every food we bring into our homes or into our takeout cart. In understanding which values you might want to express through your food choices—what issues in the world you might want to try to encourage or discourage through market forces of collective consumer demand—I suggest asking yourself three questions. Is it good for me? Is it good for others? Is it good for the planet? (I consider “others” to be all the animals and people affected throughout the supply chain to make your food possible.) So in short, the three buckets are: health/nutrition, animal/social welfare, and sustainability/environmental impact. You can think of this as the Conscious Eater checklist, a shorthand for a simple but comprehensive way of accounting for all the major buckets of food-related considerations. And by no means do I expect that every single food you put in your mouth will check all three boxes. It would be exhausting and simply unlikely to commit to that standard for the rest of your life! But especially for those foods you eat on a regular basis, whose impact really adds up over the years—your morning coffee routine, your weekday lunch go-to, your Friday night takeout tradition—it is worth asking yourself if the foods you’re buying at least check one of the three boxes. Otherwise, is it really worth your food budget?
Ryan: How does water usage play into conscious eating?
Sophie: Water usage comes in under that third bucket of environmental impact. Specifically, I suggest that readers think about the “water footprint” of a given food, just as they might have heard about “carbon footprint.” A water footprint is the amount of water used to grow, process, and deliver a food product to us. All together, the U.S. agriculture industry sucks up about 80% of our country’s available fresh water. In part because of climate change (drought, extreme temperatures, erratic rain), by the year 2025, two-thirds of the people on this planet could face water shortages. That’s what’s at stake here. So, as a conscious eater, learn the relative water footprints of different foods, and try to keep the total water footprint of your diet as low as possible.
Ryan: What are some things to consider when it comes to your personal “water footprint?”
Sophie: As a general rule, plant-based foods tend to have lower water footprints than animal-based foods. The same is true of carbon footprints. This tends to be due to the fact that for animal-based foods, you have to raise crops to use as feed in order to turn animals into human food, whereas with plant-based foods, we eat those crops directly.
The other thing to consider when weighing the water footprint of one food over another is whether a food scores pretty high in the other two buckets of the Conscious Eater checklist. For example, vegetable oils are healthier than butter in addition to them having a lower water footprint, so it’s all the more reason to go for the cooking fat that happens to have the lower impact in terms of water use.
Ryan: We know that the “water footprint” to produce shelled peanuts is 3.2 gallons of water per ounce of peanuts, how does that measure up to other crops or food items?
Sophie: This is quite low. An ounce is a standard serving size, or approximately a “handful.” Peanuts in general rank extremely well in terms of having an overall low environmental impact. Peanuts are the lowest water users of all the nuts. This is because peanuts are actually legumes. Celebrated in cuisines all around the world, and nutritional powerhouses in their own right—full of fiber, plant protein, and nutrients, all at a small caloric price point—legumes are especially stars on the sustainability field. Legumes win the prize for lowest environmental footprint of any major protein source, plus they fix nitrogen into the soil. By comparison, other nuts have become known for having a quite high water footprint: 28.7. gallons per one-ounce serving (or “handful”) for almonds, and 26.7 for walnuts. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat almonds or walnuts, which are super nutritious and definitely “count” as great choices for conscious eaters. It just means that as you’re considering the total water footprint of your eating pattern, swapping almonds or walnuts with peanuts as an afternoon snack or peanut butter for almond butter on your morning toast would be one way to keep that total down.
Ryan: Are there any correlations between conscious eating and mental health/wellness?
Sophie: Absolutely. As I describe in the book, when asking the question, “Is it good for you?”, this means good for the whole you. Food that is nutritious, safe, wholesome—food that does a body good. So yes, the physical side of health. But this lens also recognizes that food plays an emotional role in our lives, and a social role in our families and our communities. Information is merely one of many pieces that make up the complex puzzle of our decision to eat something or not, and how much; also critical are the cultural elements of each decision, such as tradition, nostalgia, familiarity, and the delight of discovering new flavors. So, “good for you” largely concerns your health, but it also relates to your happiness.
Especially right now during the pandemic, we want to nourish our bodies and eat in ways that support our immune systems, but we also want to choose foods that nourish our souls and bring us comfort and joy. This might mean making a family recipe that reminds you of a happy time, or enjoying a special treat from your childhood. There’s an interesting movement growing around the notion of “intuitive eating,” which in essence reminds us to listen to our bodies and notice how we feel while eating a food and afterward—does our stomach hurt, do we feel lethargic, hazy or not as sharp as usual, low-energy, or do we feel upbeat and clear-headed, are our digestive systems on track. So, I would encourage you to notice the ways in which foods that are good for you physically almost always also happen to be the ones that don’t leave you feeling mentally yucky afterward—headache-y, foggy, tired, or generally in a funk.
Ryan: Does conscious eating mean you have to compromise on taste and satisfaction?
Sophie: Absolutely not. By contrast, just as the foods that tend to be good for us happen to be good for others and the planet, so too do these foods often taste the best. Consider for example that fruits and vegetables eaten in season are often peak flavor. Produce eaten from your surrounding region often also offers peak flavor. Crops grown in healthy soils tend to be the most nutritious. Guess what: Many chefs have noticed they also tend to have more flavor than crops grown conventionally. Pasture-raised dairy products tend to have a richness and depth of flavor that’s missing in corn-fed dairy products. Same goes for grass-fed meats. This goes to the reminder that not only is it true that “You are what you eat,” but “You are what you eat eats.” Meaning: the diets of animals affect the flavor of animal-based foods, and how they’re raised, how much room they have to roam, the quality and diversity of foods they get to enjoy, all of that winds up in the end product you put in your mouth.
These are just a handful of examples, but as more and more farmers, ranchers, and producers start to raise and grow foods in ways that are optimal for us, others, and the planet, I think more and more eaters will taste for themselves the difference. And we’ll collectively come to see these attributes not as opposing goals, but overlapping ones—and even to realize all the flavor and extraordinary biodiversity we’ve been missing out on all these years.
Ryan: What changes should someone implement if they want to become a conscious eater?
Sophie: Read my book and you’ll find out! JK, JK. In short, there are three bottom-line suggestions that cover a lot of territory when it comes to being a conscious eater:
1. Aim for a Flexitarian way of eating. Also called plant-rich, plant-forward, plant-centric, it means try to make the majority of foods you eat throughout the day and the week come from the plant kingdom. And ideally have these be minimally processed, as close to their original form as possible. The reason for this is that, by and large, plant-based foods tend to be best for both us and the planet. At the same time, it’s critically important to minimize consumption of red meat. Eating a plant-rich diet is now ranked the #3 most effective solution for reversing global warming, according to Project Drawdown. So, this is by far one of the most powerful things you can do as an individual who cares about climate action.[i]
2. Minimize food waste. This is in fact the only food-related step you can take that beats out eating plant-rich diets from a climate standpoint. It now ranks #1 on Drawdown’s list.[ii] Consider that the list includes dozens and dozens of solutions, from electric cars to solar panels. Which means that wasting food means wasting an enormous amount of natural resources that go into food production—from the farming and processing to packaging and distributing to refrigerating and disposing. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter after the U.S. and China. There are tons of tips in the book as well as at savethefood.com for how to minimize your household food waste—and save tons of money while eating deliciously and creatively in the process.
3. Save our soils! Soil is one of the most precious resources on planet Earth. Plant life, animal life, and the biodiversity of both all rely on the stuff. As does our entire food and water supply. Soil is also alive. Like our gut microbiomes, soils have their own microbiomes. Although soil health is not yet a top-of-mind factor in most Americans’ food decisions, there’s a hint in the air from a growing movement of farmers, manufacturers, investors, and consumers that it soon will be. You may have already noticed that the growing practices showing up on food labels are expanding beyond just conventional versus organic. You may have seen biodynamic wines, for instance. And coming to a supermarket near you: regenerative agriculture. You can think of it as organic plus. Support these and other more environmentally-friendly agricultural methods by asking questions of producers and raising your voice that soil health matters to you.
Ryan: Is there anything else that people need to know about the conscious eating lifestyle?
Sophie: Yes: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. This is not about overhauling your lifestyle all at once or depriving yourself of the foods you love. This is a lifelong pursuit. An intention to continuously strive for greater transparency in the food supply, and working toward your personal goal—within whatever means you have, based on whatever foods you can access—to help nudge that food supply toward a future where foods that are good for us, others, and the planet become the default. The norm. And a future when we won’t need to even call it conscious eating. We’ll just call it eating.
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[i] “Drawdown Scenario 1 is roughly in-line with 2?C temperature rise by 2100, while Drawdown Scenario 2 is roughly in-line with 1.5?C temperature rise at century’s end.” https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/table-of-solutions
[ii] “Drawdown Scenario 1 is roughly in-line with 2?C temperature rise by 2100, while Drawdown Scenario 2 is roughly in-line with 1.5?C temperature rise at century’s end.” https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/table-of-solutions