This article is a collaboration between Rolling Stone and one5c, a weekly newsletter devoted to helping anyone identify easy steps they can take to help solve the climate crisis.
Here’s an inexpensive, concrete thing you can do to cut your personal carbon contribution: Stop eating meat—or cut down dramatically. Right now.
This is 100 percent not as easy as this blasé, sanctimonious pronouncement makes it sound. There are countless personal, cultural, and economic factors that put this protein at the center of so many diets and lives. And yet, if you can swing it, it’s hard to find an easier way to reduce your individual emissions contribution. That’s not just limited to food. For most of us, it’s easier to stop eating meat than it is to swap out your gas-powered car for an EV, change how you heat your home, or get your utility to generate electricity from cleaner sources.
It makes a huge difference. According to the University of Colorado, cutting meat out of your diet for one day a week can save more than 20,000 gallons of water and reduce your personal carbon contribution by more than 400 pounds per year. Imagine these numbers at scale. What does a million people practicing Meatless Mondays for a year look like? It looks like taking 348,000,000 car-miles worth of emissions out of the atmosphere, which is huge. What if those million people added another day? What if they didn’t eat meat at all? (696,000,000 car-miles and 2.4 billion car-miles, respectively. Also huge. In fact, huger.)
Humans will create emissions no matter what we eat, so we can’t fixate on perfection. Farmed vegetables still need to be farmed, which means tractors and trucks burning fossil fuels. Even the act of tilling soil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and while advances in agriculture can reduce our impact, all of it incurs environmental costs. Our civilization relies on food that we don’t have to forage. Go ahead and @ me if you disagree — then head out to your trap line and see how many squirrels you’ve got for dinner.
Squirrels notwithstanding, we should all start questioning whether we need meat with every meal. This small, personal moment, that occurs only in our own heads, is a beginning. We’ve been taught that no dinner is complete without animal protein, but that’s dangerous misinformation for so many reasons.
Consider: Raising any kind of meat is incredibly land-intensive. In addition to the physical space the animal occupies, you also need to grow its food, which takes up its own acreage. You have to process that feed, which incurs emissions as you harvest the crop and prepare it.
The further knock on ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats is that, because their digestive systems ferment what they eat in order to extract nutrients, they burp and fart a lot of methane. Methane is, according to the EPA, “more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.”
How to quit meat without becoming sad and weak
If you’re going to cut meat out of your diet, you should do so without becoming a malnourished mealtime grump. I quit eating most animals about a year ago, and ended up with diagnosed protein deficiency and symptoms that indicated I wasn’t getting enough vitamin B12 or iron. I’d argue that it’s equally as important to actually enjoy the switch to plant-based fare, because if you don’t enjoy your climate-friendly diet, you’re not going to stick with it.
“There’s a fundamental difference between animal cells and plant cells,” says cookbook author and New York Times columnist J. Kenji López-Alt. “Animal cells are designed to be elastic and stretch, because animals move. And so muscle has this chew to it. Vegetables, on the other hand, are rigid. Plant cells don’t have that same kind of chew,” he says. “They can be crunchy or soft, but they don’t stretch.”
“Just get it out of your head that a meal needs to be meat or have that particular texture,” he says. That may sound simplistic, but think of this as an opportunity to expand your food world. “You can turn to any of the diverse vegetarian cuisines and cultures that have full, satisfying, healthy meals,” says López-Alt. “Look to India, or parts of South America, or Asia.”
If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan who loves the taste and texture of meat, though, “now is the best time to be alive,” says López-Alt, because “companies like Impossible and Beyond Meat already make good products, and they’re only getting better.”
I’m with him on this. I’ve found almost no downside to substituting fake meat for ground beef in most recipes, and an Impossible burger is almost always better than a fast-food burger. In fact, let me turn the heat up a little: A hamburger is more about the bun than the meat. Nobody orders Salisbury steak, and ground beef is just the best way to serve bad cuts. For years, we tolerated turkey burgers, and it wasn’t because dry, gray patties are so appetizing.
López-Alt won’t go as far as I do, but he’s in the same zip code. “When you’re talking about a hamburger, which is a patty of something with some toppings and a bun, I think the flavor is the least important part when you’re trying to make substitutions,” he says. “Really the texture is the important thing.” Part of that texture is whatever you’re using as “meat,” and you can crisp up the fake stuff very well.
But the other elements of a burger are more than mere accessories. A good bun is a purpose-baked little loaf of bread, and its springy deliciousness is not to be overshadowed by some three-ingredient protein puck. Similarly, the flavor brought by the crisp of a pickle, the smooth melted cheese, and the bright sauce provide contrast to the hot, savory patty in an orchestra of flavor that shouts: We are each our own instrument!
That looks pretty good, right?
No disrespect to the Original Griller, but non-meat patties have come a looooong way. “It’s the juiciness factor,” says López-Alt. “When you bite into a steak or a piece of chicken, there are sheaths of proteins that are full of juices. And those juices stay in place until you bite into them. That feeling of chewing something and juice or flavor coming out is the essential eating experience of meat.” The new crop of imitation meats have identified and utilized plant proteins that can behave this way and come very close to that sensation. They aren’t as good as really good beef, but you’re not using a wagyu porterhouse for Taco Tuesday.
The other experiential difference is in how animal fats feel in your mouth, and this is something the imitators don’t do as well. “Most animal fats are highly saturated, which means at body temperature they are essentially still solid,” says López-Alt. “As you cook them, they get softer and eventually liquify. But most plant-based fats are liquid at room temperature.”
This is a huge challenge for beef substitutes, and it’s complicated by the fact that a given piece of meat will have several different kinds of fat in it, many of which melt at different temperatures. So when you bite into a steak, you’re tasting some fats that are melted and some that are still solid. “The way the fats coat your mouth and deliver all those different fat-soluble flavors is a very different experience,” says López-Alt.
Some plant-based fats are solid at room temperature, though, and they have the potential to deliver the same sort of substantial, satisfying mouthfeel. Palm oil and coconut oil are the two most prevalent examples. Let’s just agree to skip palm oil, though; it’s a major driver of deforestation worldwide. Coconut fat, on the other hand, is great to have in your pantry. There are tons of Thai curries and Indian dals that use coconut milk. Skip the light crap — you’re not eating meat, you can afford the cholesterol! — and gorge yourself on the richness of its saturated cap. Before you dramatically change your diet, talk to someone who has studied this and advises people professionally. That’s what I did 👇.
Taking care of your body
I called Catherine Perez, a registered dietician with a master’s degree in human nutrition. I found her on Instagram, while trying to figure out how to cook more than a big salad or my trademark “chickpeas with tomato and whatever leaves I find in the fridge.” Vegan instagram is… frickin’ awesome. My two favorite recipe inspo accounts are a German high school student (!!) named Maya and a Taiwanese chef (and UC Berkeley biochemistry student) named George Lee. Between the two of them, plus some aggregators, I’ve been tearing it up in FlavorTown. Nutrition wasn’t as easy for me.
Perez recommends making a plan. “Tracking can be really helpful,” she says. She suggests logging what you eat before and after you cut meat out of your diet, so you can see what changes.
I use MyFitnessPal to track my meals and snacks. It’s fine, but there are other apps and options out there; use whatever you’ll stick with. I found MFP particularly helpful for getting a baseline understanding of how my go-to foods contributed to my protein and caloric kitty.
As you compare, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that you’re not getting enough calories. “This is pretty typical,” says Perez. “Plant-based foods tend to be lower in calories and have a lot more fiber,” she says. “They fill us up a lot easier compared to traditional American fare.” So you could come out of a midday vegetable-heavy meal feeling satisfied, but you might not be that nourished. “Try smaller meals throughout the day,” says Perez. That will help spread the fiber out, and you can eat more without being uncomfortably full.
Perez also advises that you pay attention to protein. “Probably the biggest thing I see is people completely removing the meat, but not replacing it appropriately,” she says. “This can lead to protein deficiency.” (👋) Perez actually recommends that people who maintain plant-based diets should take in more protein than those who eat meat: 0.9 grams per kilogram of body weight for someone living the plant life versus 0.8 grams for an omnivore. But, she cautions, “protein needs can be different depending on your situation, whether you’re exercising a lot or dealing with an injury or any number of factors.” Again, it’s never a bad idea to talk to a pro.
For what it’s worth, Perez’s math has me at 65 grams of protein daily; but MyFitnessPal, which takes goals and activity into account, recommends 128 grams. I can’t make an educated choice between an algorithm and a professional human I only spoke with for 40 minutes. For now, I’m aiming for more than the 50-ish grams I got in my early salad days but not stressing about hitting 128. I’ll probably try to get on Perez’s schedule as a real client in the near future. (If you want to beat me to it, you can reach out here.)
Is this where we talk about beans? This is where we talk about beans. First off, everyone who can eat beans should be eating them — vegan, omnivore, whatever. They’re cheap, nutritious, and delicious. They are as close as we’re going to get to a drop-in meat replacement, protein-wise, but their fiber content makes them an objectively superior food. Whether it’s in the form of tofu or dal or a pile of chickpeas, Perez recommends 2-3 servings of beans daily.
Once you get past calories and protein, you need to watch out for a few nutrients that aren’t as plentiful in an all-plant diet:
- Calcium – If you plan to keep dairy on your menu, you’ll probably be good on calcium. If not, you can get it from dark leafy greens, almonds, sesame seeds (including tahini), and tofu that lists calcium citrate as an ingredient.
- Zinc – Time to fire up your seed game. Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are good sources, and they’re also great on salads. Dark leafy greens have some zinc as well.
- Magnesium – Pumpkin seeds and dark leafy greens again. It always comes back to dark leafy greens.
- Iron – Black beans, chickpeas, red kidney beans. Many whole grains are good sources of iron, as are dried fruits and nuts (pistachios, the iron-kings). Also — surprise! — dark leafy greens. Some rice is enriched with iron, so check your labels. Perez has an important tip here, though: Iron found outside of the animal kingdom is non-heme iron, and you can increase how well your body absorbs it by adding some vitamin C. A small squeeze of citrus makes a big difference.
- B12 – The easiest way to get B12 (aside from meat and dairy), says Perez, is with a supplement, but you can also find it in fortified foods like soy milk and breakfast cereals. Here is the justification you’ve been waiting for to keep Lucky Charms in the cupboard: 20-percent of your recommended daily B12 intake from a tiny bowl of joy. They’re not vegan though — gelatin in those magically delicious marshmallows.
Perez has a few easy tricks for staying healthy, too. She kicks the day off over a latte made with fortified plant milk, which delivers a quick hit of protein and other nutrients like B12. And she tries to eat these five things every day:
- Flax seeds
- Dark leafy greens
- Some kind of probiotic food like miso, kimchi, or sauerkraut
She recommends keeping that list stuck to your fridge door. If you eat everything on it every day, you’ll probably be good to go. But don’t take my advice, because I am not a doctor or a dietician. (I have to keep saying that so nobody will sue me because they ate too many beans and blew a job interview or something.)
Until then, see how much meat you can leave at the butcher’s. Celebrate every all-plant meal as a victory and chew-carve little trophies out of carrots. Then eat them with peanut butter. Try some new veggies and pour yourself a grownup-size bowl of kids’ cereal. What you eat can make a serious impact on the world, but that doesn’t mean meals shouldn’t be fun. If you ever get stumped at dinnertime, remember: most beer is vegan, and it’s calorie-dense. (Please do not take my nutritional advice.)
Joe Brown is an award-winning journalist who has previously served as Editor-in-Chief of Popular Science and Executive Editor of WIRED. His weekly climate-focused newsletter, one5c, skips the doom and gloom and instead outlines easy steps regular people can take to help preserve and even renew our planet. Subscribe to one5c
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