“Can we view the goals of nutrition and a more sustainable food system as worthwhile, but not so all-encompassing that they dictate how we act at every meal?” - Virginia Sole-Smith, The Eating Instinct.
The forced pause of the past year and a half has prompted us all to reflect on our impact: for some, it’s been a racial reckoning, for me, it’s been the environment. While pre-pandemic, I’d occasionally pan-fry tempeh at home, lately, I’ve been diving into veganism more seriously: swapping all my cheeses and butter for cashew alternatives, ham cold cuts for smoked beet slices and choosing coconut-based options instead of dairy yogurt and ice cream.
Really, I’ve been driven by curiosity—do the alternatives satisfy? As David Kortava writes, “One metric for assaying the quality of a self-consciously vegan dish (that is, a dish featuring imitation meat or dairy) is the extent to which it approximates the sensory attributes—the mouthfeel—of the real thing.” I love treating eating plant-based like one giant experiment; taste testing BBQ pulled jackfruit and smoked carrot lox to see how they compare to their animal counterparts. Gone are the days when vegans have to settle for bean burgers and plastic-like cheese shreds—chefs and food tech companies have been innovating, and their creations have never been more convincing (the Impossible Burger even bleeds like real meat on the grill).
As it’s repeatedly proven that the most effective lifestyle change one can make to curb climate change is to eat more plant-based foods, we’ve finally past the point of vegans representing a niche market of tree-hugging animal lovers. More flexitarians like myself are realizing we don’t have to commit ourselves to a life without steak, we can make a difference by simply reducing our consumption of animal products.
“If each of us limits our daily meat intake to 1.5 ounces (approximately three hamburgers a week), it would help the world cut emissions by over 50%. Substituting mushrooms for even a third of the beef in the 10 billion burgers we eat annually would be like taking 2.3 million cars off the roads.” – Eve Turow-Paul writes in Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning.
While the climate change case for going plant-based is strong, I can’t help but question whether the environment or animal welfare is enough to impel someone to undertake such a major lifestyle change. As a cynical skeptic, I believe humans are fundamentally selfish and ego-driven; our emotions ultimately trump our values. If you put a vegan on a deserted island, with no one to witness their veganism, would they still choose to live off the plants? How much of modern veganism is virtue-signalling or a search for community and shared purpose in an increasing disconnected world?
Picture the millennial ‘Jennifer’: she wavers in and out of vegetarianism; buys organic believing it’s better for her and the animals, even if the products are more expensive; avoids pesticides, and GMOs. “The way of eating that Jennifer practices seems more ethical because it follows in the long tradition of demonstrating virtue through sacrifice,” writes S. Margot Finn in Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution. “Many white people consider shopping at Whole Foods to be a religious experience, allowing them to feel good about their consumption,” writes Finn, quoting Stuff White People Like.
The motivation to feel good about what we eat is taken a step further when you throw the wellness-industrial complex is in the mix, bombarding us with messages from nutritionists and wellness influencers alike on what “living well” looks like.
In the same way that someone innocently wanting to incorporate some exercise into their routine can soon find themselves a devout member of the cult-like fitness tribes of CrossFit or Peloton, a vegan can quickly become obsessed with clean eating as a means of feeling “pure” and “good.” The virtue signalling becomes internalized, where the vegan derives the most satisfaction not from demonstrating their sacrifice to others, but to themselves.
What happens when a plant-based diet goes too far? And can veganism ever be disentangled from morality? Stay tuned next week for the conclusion.
Would people eat more plant-based foods if they felt more easy and familiar? I think people stick to what they know, and if what they’re used to tasting and cooking is meat, well then that’s what they’ll buy. But plant-based products are becoming increasingly approachable (even Hershey’s makes a vegan chocolate bar now), and simple to make.
But even the most well-intentioned can default back to their meat-heavy routine when life gets busy—it can be hard to try something new when you’re pressed for time. And no season feels busier to me than fall. I rounded up some of the most interesting and delicious plant-based products designed for busy lifestyles. Check out my munching section below for the standouts.
Personal care products, second to electronics, cause me the most confusion when it comes time to throw them out. Sure, my contacts come in plastic and my Argan oil is in a glass bottle, but my gut tells me it’s not recyclable. Turns out most of it ends up in landfills, even if it’s labelled recyclable, making beauty products responsible for 120 billion tonnes of waste a year.
Recycling is clearly not enough, we’re past the point of minimizing impact, meaningful sustainability must be regenerative. New Zealand-based skincare brand Emma Lewisham is setting a new standard for the beauty industry with their 100% circular business model. What does this mean? Reuse rather than recycle; keeping everything in circulation.
I talked to the founder Emma Lewisham on the importance of being carbon-positive, rather than just carbon-neutral, and what it will take for the industry to change. The Jane Goodall-endorsed company believes it will take consumers buying more sustainable products to convince the bigger brands to follow suit.
🌎 What do experts say are the two lifestyle changes with the biggest environmental impact for reducing climate change? Wasting less food and eating less meat.
"Getting households to recycle, switch to LED lighting and hybrid vehicles, and add rooftop solar systems would save less than half the carbon emissions combined than would reducing food waste and adopting a plant-based diet." - Annie Lowry.
🍌 One way to reduce waste? Eat your banana peels.
🍫 Processed foods are not bad and you are not bad for eating them.
“Yes, [ultra-processed] foods are designed to taste very, very good. But your emotional relationship to that food is much more about access and permission than it is about flavor.” -Virginia Sole-Smith.
🛒 FYI- the best before date is kind of a scam. “They’re more about protecting the brand, than us, to make sure we ‘eat the food when it tastes the way they think it should,’” writes Alissa Wilkinson.
🍣 Imagining a world without sushi. Did you know 25% of all ocean-caught seafood is used to feed farmed fish?
“This means fish farming is resource-intensive, the same way livestock farming consumes far more resources to produce a single calorie than plant farming.” - Juhea Kim.
🥛 The significance of the Rwandan milk bar.
🙍🏻♀️ What it feels like to be Asian American in the U.S. right now.
“I was adopted from China into a white family. My parents don’t see me through the eyes of society: a young Asian woman who is often hit on for being exotic, or constantly asked where I am from. Like most white people who are currently trying to understand what it means to be a person of color in America, their intentions are good but the burden to educate is on me.” - Annie LaFleur.
🧘🏻♀️ The cultural appropriation of Eastern practices in wellness (think gun sha, yoga, reiki) has polarized traditional science and alternative medicine.
“There’s the romantic approach to Eastern wellness and alternative therapies, and its hysterical counterpart, which is distrustful of traditional beliefs.” - Shreena Gandhi.
🗣 The unregulated business of life coaching.
🥦 One woman’s simple request for health.
“I’d just like to have a healthy body that doesn’t get a splitting headache only sometimes when I drink boxed red wine, so who knows when it’s safe to ever have any red wine. If that means I have to eat broccoli, fine. I’m not unreasonable.” - Maria Ciampa.
Close-up, slow motion shots of vibrant fruits and veggies tossing in the blender, getting in tune with the earth via lying in an open grave—Nine Perfect Strangers is the perfect example of how wellness culture fixates people on the allure of purity and being “good.”
Masha (played by Nicole Kidman) is the therapist/spiritual guru/spookier version of Gwyneth Paltrow heading Tranquillum House—a culty wellness retreat set in Northern California. A group of nine very different people—played by an impressive cast (Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Regina Hall)—have come to the luxury center in search of healing.
They do Gestalt therapy, micro-dose via their morning smoothies and confront their inner demons. They bicker and mope like the rich people they are. It has the same intrigue, sexual tension and implied murder mystery as The Undoing and Big Little Lies (it’s from the same creator after all). As a goop-ified version of Lost or an Agatha Christie novel, it feels fitting for the Halloween season.
Unfortunately, Nine Perfect Strangers fails to deliver. It doesn’t help that it debuted three days after the finale of The White Lotus, a show with a similar vibe but more nuance. I keep watching though, because as someone who’s been the skeptic on many a wellness retreat, I find solace in the show’s attempts at satire.
“It might be a send-up of wellness fads, but it’s too heartfelt for that. It’s not consistent enough as a satire of the wealthy and neurotic to be defined as such. Nine Perfect Strangers is to its audience kind of like Tranquillum House is to the group of troubled men and women who decide to stay there: a place that sounds like a great investment on paper but feels confusing and not quite what you expected once you arrive.” - Jen Chaney.
In this Point of Origin episode on the morality of meat, Whetstone Magazine founder Stephen Satterfield thoughtfully interrogates the politics of eating meat and the relationship between diet and identity. Writer Alicia Kennedy talks about how eating meat not only harms animals and the environment, but perpetuates systems of power that contribute to exploit immigrant workers. While Ysanet Batista, activist and owner of Woke Foods, discusses the healing potential of plant-based foods for Black, Brown and Indigenous folks.
But the most interesting discussion is with Dr. Yamini Narayanan on the politicization of beef in India.
“Vegetarianism becomes this fascist activity because it’s used as part of nation building,” says Narayanan. “They want this ultra right wing, pure Hindu Indian nation and vegetarianism is part of this pure Hindu nation. Because it is seen as part of nation-building, it is tied up so politically, it goes well beyond the ethics of diet itself.”
With plant-based foods becoming increasingly approachable and convenient, it’s never been easier to incorporate them into my routine, no matter how busy I get.
Plant-based ready-made meals reimagine the TV dinner with warm 🇬🇭 Ghanian dishes (made in collaboration with Top Chef star Eric Adjepong!) and comforting home classics like mac and cheese made with koji 🍄, a fungi that serves as a more sustainable meat alternative. Faster than the microwave are meals that simply require water—like adaptogenic cereal milk in overnight oat form 🥣, a protein-packed tomato and herb vegan rice dish 🍅 and superfood-infused instant ramen 🍜. And when I’m really pressed for time, I’m getting my nutrition via plant-based liquids, in fun flavors like banana 🍌 and cinnamon roll 🥛.