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Kathy Freston

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One Bite at a Time: A Beginner's Guide to Conscious Eating

Posted: 02/27/07 12:50 PM ET

If you read my last two entries, "A Few More 'Inconvenient Truths'" and "Vegetarian Is the New Prius," you know that a plant-based diet is a good choice for the planet, your health, and animals. Of course, there are other things we should be doing--from cutting down on our consumption to working for governmental change to buying organic and on and on--but where diet is concerned, a vegetarian diet is the hands-down best choice for those of us who care about animals and the environment.

I heard from a lot of people who wanted help in making the transition to a vegetarian (or mostly vegetarian) diet. Let's face it: If you've been eating meat all your life, this sort of a change can be daunting even just to think about, let alone act on. Happily, it's easier than ever today to make the transition from meat-eater to vegetarian, and the following suggestions should help even the most die-hard carnivores make the switch.

First: Transition

If you're not ready to give up meat completely, start by eating meatless meals one or two days a week. The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Columbia University's School of Public Health, and other public health schools have designed a "Meatless Monday" campaign to help Americans avoid our four top killers--heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer--by eating meat-free at least every Monday. The "Meatless Monday" program provides recipes, meal plans, nutritional guidelines, cooking tips, and more.

My only problem with the campaign is that some of the recipes feature fish, and fish are definitely not vegetables. If you're eating fish, you're eating meat, and the recent studies on fish are even scarier than the studies on beef or any other food. The three-part front page series in the Chicago Tribune about brain damage and other health problems caused by mercury, PCBs, and the other toxins found in fish and the front page piece in the Wall Street Journal about the teen whose fish consumption put him in remedial classes should be enough to turn anyone off fish consumption. For omega-3 fatty acids, go with flax seeds, walnuts, and leafy greens.

Second: Give Up the Little Animals First

Although many people tend to stop eating red meat before they give up chicken, turkey, or fish, from a humane standpoint, this is backwards. Birds are arguably the most abused animals on the planet, and birds and fish yield less flesh than cows or pigs, so farmers and fishers kill more of them to satisfy America's meat habit. If you choose to give up meat in stages, stop eating chickens and turkeys first, then fish, and then pigs and cows. Some will suggest that cattle are the worst for the environment, but that seems like hair-splitting to me. As I discussed in my previous post, the Amazon rain forest is being cut down to grow soybeans to feed chickens; it's chicken and pig farms that are poisoning the Atlantic Ocean, and vastly more energy is required if we eat the chickens who are fed grain rather than eating that grain directly.

Third: If You Can't Give Up One Particular Animal Product, Give Up All the Other Ones

One friend told me that he just loves burgers too much to give them up; I suggested that he give up all animal products except burgers. Some of my friends can't give up ice cream or cream in their coffee or whatever―so give up everything but that. That's a huge step forward, and I suspect that after eating mostly vegetarian for awhile, you'll decide that those burgers or that ice cream aren't so tasty anymore. And you'll probably find that you enjoy the faux meats and dairy-free options just as much.

Fourth: Examine Your Diet, and Substitute

Take a look at the meals that you and your family already enjoy, and you'll probably notice that many of them can be made without any meat or with mock meats (which are great transition foods) instead of animal flesh. For example, instead of spaghetti and meat sauce, make spaghetti and marinara sauce, or instead of beef burritos, try tasty bean burritos. Replace ground beef with the vegetarian variety made by Boca or Morningstar Farms, which can be found in just about any grocery store. Or try Morningstar Farms' faux chicken strips and steak strips and Boca's Chik'n Patties. If you need help putting together a shopping list, check out the product reviews at VegCooking.com before you head out to the store.

Mock meats, nondairy cheeses and milks, and other vegetarian foods are sold in most major supermarkets these days, and health food stores offer even more. Silk soy milk is probably one of the most recognizable vegan products on the market--you can even order it in your latte at Starbucks. And if you like to bake, look for egg replacer, a powdered mix that can be used instead of eggs in cakes and other baked goods, at the local health food store (or just use applesauce). But don't forget to eat your vegetables--as well as plenty of whole grains, fresh fruits, and legumes--before filling up on cake and coffee!

After a few meatless meals, you'll likely realize that you don't miss meat and are ready to go meatless for good. But don't beat yourself up if you slip up every now and again--before long eating vegetarian will come as naturally as breathing.

I know that some readers who are already vegetarian may take issue with the idea of relying on faux meats (I can predict all the raw food comments, the macrobiotic comments, and so on), but mock meats and soy milk are superb transition foods. Certainly going with real foods, as Michael Pollan calls them--things that your grandmother would recognize--is a great idea, but don't worry about it if you find that mock meats make the switch easier for you. Animals are going to be happier either way.

Fifth: Eating Out

If you're eating out, there are countless restaurants that cater to vegetarians and vegans. VegCooking.com features regional vegetarian restaurants, restaurant chains that offer vegetarian options, and links to other Web sites that list vegetarian-friendly eateries. Ethnic restaurants, especially Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants, are always a good choice, as they offer a variety of vegetarian and vegan options. If you're still looking for a burger and fries, many restaurants, including Johnny Rockets, Denny's, and Ruby Tuesday's, serve veggie burgers. Just don't drive yourself--and your dining companions--crazy worrying that your veggie burger was prepared on the same surface as the hamburgers. It might be a bit aesthetically troublesome, but it won't harm animals (or the planet) if your food is cooked on the same grill as meat. Unless you absolutely can't stomach it, let it pass.

Sixth: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Vegans and vegan wannabes, I believe that when you're eating out, you also shouldn't be too concerned about ingredients that make up less than 2 percent of your meal. You'll obviously want to avoid dishes served with meat, cheese, or eggs, but it doesn't really matter if there's a modicum of butter or whey or other animal product in the bun that your veggie burger is served on. You won't stop animal suffering by avoiding such minuscule amounts of animal ingredients. But you may give your nonvegan friends--not to mention the restaurant wait staff--the idea that vegans are difficult to please. The goal is to show others how easy it is to eat in an animal-friendly manner and that restaurants can satisfy vegan customers without having to do cartwheels.

I know, again, that some will post their protest, and I understand the desire to eliminate every last bit of animal ingredients from one's diet, but let's face it: Even vegan foods cause some animals to be tilled up in processing. (Note: Since more than 70 percent of all grain, soybeans, and other crops are fed to farmed animals, not to humans, there is a lot more tiller death in chicken, turkey, pork, and beef than in plant foods, but the point should still give vegetarians a bit of humility.) Vegetarianism is not a personal purity test--our positive and reasonable influence on others is just as important as our own commitment to a conscious and compassionate diet.

Conclusion

When you consider your choices--heart disease, colon cancer, plus-size pants, melting ice caps, gale force storms, and animal suffering vs. good health, energy, a trim physique, a livable planet, compassion, and tasty, diverse foods--it's clear that going vegetarian is an excellent choice as we move toward living a more conscious life.

Thank you to all readers for your compassion, and I look forward to meeting you on the journey toward more conscious eating.