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Excerpt: 'Food Matters: A Guide To Conscious Eating'

Sane Eating

In sum: Much about the typical American diet is wrong. It's damaging both individually and globally, and we can't expect Big Food or the government to help us fix it.

But the realization of just how straightforwardly and even easily we can make things right—at least a great deal for ourselves, and to some extent for one another—was the driving force behind my decision to change the way I ate. The more I understood about the relationship between human and environmental health, the more I felt a need to act. (As I said in the Introduction, a key moment for me was the publication of Livestock's Long Shadow, the UN report revealing the link between raising animals and climate change.)

Equally important, though, since I was unwilling to give up one of life's basic pleasures, was that I saw a way to introduce a much better diet into my own life without much sacrifice.

At first, I simply eliminated as much junk food and overrefined carbs as I could, along with a sizable percentage of animal products. All this turned out to be easy enough, for a couple of reasons. One, when I did allow myself to eat meat, or dairy, eggs, sugar, or bread made from white flour (usually at dinner), I ate whatever I wanted, and as much of it as I wanted. And two, I started to lose weight, quite quickly—a big boost of positive reinforcement.

I wondered: If the cumulative effect of the American diet could have such a negative impact on our bodies and the planet, then couldn't individuals help reverse the damage—again cumulatively—by making small changes in what they choose to eat?

Clearly, the diet was helping me; I lost weight and saw my cholesterol and blood sugar improve dramatically. But my impact on the industrial meat and junk-food complex—what I've been calling Big Food—and on slowing climate change was obviously insignificant. Suppose, though, I could get others on this bandwagon? This way of eating is far from complicated, has few rules, makes sense, and works. It can have its own reward in better health and often weight loss, but it also is a way to save energy in the same way as carpooling, turning off the lights when you're not in the room, lowering the thermostat during the winter and wearing a sweater in the house, installing a windmill, whatever other parallel you care to draw.

So. Welcome to Food Matters: a not very new (but for most Americans novel) way of eating that's personally healthy and globally sane but not deprivation-based, faddist, or elitist. No calorie counting, and no strictly forbidden foods: Just a few quite specific recommendations that you can adapt to your own style.

Sane eating, simplified

Here's the summary: Eat less meat, and fewer animal products in general (I'll get to specifics on page 93). Eat fewer refined carbohydrates, like white bread, cookies, white rice, and pretzels. Eat way less junk food: soda, chips, snack food, candy, and so on. And eat far more vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains—as much as you can.

If you followed those general rules and read no farther, you'd be doing yourself and the earth a favor. And I'm by no means the only one who thinks so.

Shortly after I started eating this way, an article appeared in Lancet, the highly respected British medical journal, that supports the general position of Food Matters, even in its specifics: 'Particular policy attention should be paid to the health risks posed by the rapid worldwide growth in meat consumption, both by exacerbating climate change and by directly contributing to certain diseases.'

As a measure of progress, the authors propose this: 'The current global average meat consumption is 100 g per person per day, with about a ten-fold variation between high-consuming and low-consuming populations. 90 g per day is proposed as a working global target, shared more evenly, with not more than 50 g per day coming from red meat.'

Ninety grams a day is about 3 ounces (50 grams is not even 2 ounces; it's less than an eighth of a pound); Americans' per capita consumption, as I've noted earlier, is more than 8 ounces per day. You might eat more than that; you might eat less. But for most Americans, cutting down to the international average would be a huge step (cutting 10 percent beyond that would be practically insignificant). In fact, it we ate the world average, 3 ounces a day, that average would fall to about 90 grams a day, or just about what Lancet recommends.

The goal of eating sanely is not to cut calories; that will happen naturally, and you probably won't notice it. The goal is not to cut fat, either; in fact it is possible that you eat more fat than you do now, although different fat. The same is true of carbohydrates—again, you may wind up eating more, but different kinds. And the goal is not to save money, though you will. No—the goal is simply to eat less of certain foods, specifically animal products, refined carbs, and junk food; and more of others, specifically plants, in close to their natural state.

If you made those your goals, you'd change your life. You'd probably weigh less, you'd have lowered your chance of heart disease and other lifestyle diseases, and you'd make a contribution to slowing global warming.

For a variety of reasons—it's not temporary, no foods are strictly forbidden, and there's no calorie counting—this is not what's popularly called "a diet," as in "I'm on a diet." Rather, it's a shift in perspective or style, an approach.

In any case, the principles are simple: deny nothing; enjoy everything, but eat plants first and most. There's no gimmick, no dogma, no guilt, and no food police.

I want to stress, too, that this is not a new way to eat, but one that's quite old-fashioned; you could even say it's ancient. Among our ancestors, there were few people who did not struggle to get enough calories; it was only in the late twentieth century that people could and did begin to overeat regularly. Until then, most people considered themselves lucky to eat one good meal every day; many people spent half the year eating poorly, and the other half eating decently, though certainly not lavishly, except on certain feast days and holidays. Think of Lent and Mardi Gras, meatless Fridays and Sunday dinners, festivals in autumn and spring, and more. These were all formalized acknowledgments that food was and is something to be celebrated and enjoyed, but overdone only occasionally. Food Matters is no more than a way to look at this from a contemporary perspective.

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Mark Bittman