How to Ease Into a Plant-Rich Diet


Dr. Mark Hyman on how to eat eco-friendly

Is it possible to save the environment by changing how we eat? Health expert Dr. Mark Hyman answers that question and more, in his book, Food Fix. It offers a roadmap for a new food system that could dramatically improve public health and fight climate change  —  including adopting a plant-rich diet. But how can we ease into that kind of diet change? And what are some ways we can adopt this diet — part-time? Dr. Hyman breaks it down.

Katie Couric Media: You talk about the importance of eating a plant-rich diet. Can you tell us why this is so vital  — both in terms of our own health, and in terms of the planet’s health?

Dr. Mark Hyman: In Food Fix, I advocate for a plant-rich diet, which is different from a plant-based diet. A plant-based diet implies that everyone should go vegan, but I believe that meat that’s responsibly raised can complement a diet that is rich in veggies, hence a plant-rich diet. In fact, without animals integrated into regenerative agriculture, it’s impossible to restore damaged soil, conserve water, and restore ecosystems and biodiversity. The only agricultural path out of our climate-destructive agriculture must include animals to regenerate soil.

We’ve lost ⅓ of all our topsoil over the last 150 years. Lost soil means lost carbon-rich organic matter necessary to draw down carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Incredibly, 30–40 percent of the 1 trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere today comes from the destruction of our soil.

Grass-finished, pasture-raised meats are a healthy, climate-smart addition to a plant-rich diet. Still, we should all be eating mostly plants, along with clean protein and healthy fats. This is the diet that will not only serve our bodies but our environment. Seventy five percent of your plate by volume, should be non-starchy plant foods — things like bok choy, arugula, peppers, and Brussels sprouts.

The World Health Organization recommends at least 5 servings of vegetables a day at the minimum. But I believe that number should be about 15 servings, meaning 7–8 cups of veggies and fruit a day. Shifting from a nutrient-poor diet to a nutrient-rich diet abundant in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains improves the expression of hundreds of genes that control insulin function and obesity.

To use just one example, the vast array of colors in vegetables represents over 25,000 beneficial chemicals. These are literally medicines that regulate every function of our bodies, creating health and well-being. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate over 800 varieties of plant foods. Today, we don’t even consume a fraction of that amount. We need to make an extra effort to eat many different foods to get the full range of benefits.

The prevailing view is that meat is bad for the climate (and your health) and that if we all become vegans, we can save the world and ourselves. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are an unmitigated disaster for the cows, humans who eat them, and the planet. You might know this as factory-farmed meat.

Factory-farmed meat is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. The feed required for these operations is grown with climate-destructive methods, involving industrial, chemical-intensive agriculture.

But does this mean we should avoid all meat? Maybe not. It turns out it’s not the cow — it’s the how: How was the meat raised?

Not all farms and ranches are the same, nor are all cows. Eating grass-fed beef, managed the right way, is good for the animals, the humans, the environment, and the climate. In fact, properly managed livestock on grasslands and in diversified farms can convert inedible grasses into healthy protein and nutrients for humans. Managed grazing is the most important strategy to create the new soil required to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and save us from extinction.

Long story short, I say eat a plant-rich diet, and if you eat meat, eat sustainably raised meat such as pasture-raised chicken and grass-fed beef.

What percentage of our diets should be plant-based, in your opinion?

More than half of your plate should be plant food. The greater variety and color, the healthier. Stick with mostly non-starchy veggies. Winter squashes and sweet potatoes are fine in moderation. But not a ton of starchy potatoes! French fries don’t count, even though they are the number one vegetable in America, popularity-wise. And neither does ketchup, which is the second most common “vegetable.” Choose organic and regenerative when possible.

For someone who’s been eating a diet with lots of processed foods, meats, and other animal products, what are some easy swaps we can start with to make our diet more plant-based?

Learning to cook the basics is the best way to start to incorporate more real, whole foods into your diet. When people tell me they don’t like veggies, I tell them that they probably don’t know how to prepare them properly. Find 3–5 recipes that sound delicious to you and keep them on rotation on your house. I like stir-frys as a way to get in more veggies. I also add tons of veggies to my morning smoothies, along with some frozen berries.

What advice do you have for us in the grocery store? Are there certain types of plant-based product labeling we should look for? Should we head to the organic section?

Look around your market the next time you’re there  —  you’ll notice that the whole, fresh foods are stocked on the outside aisles, not in the inside shelves. Stick to these aisles for the main ingredients of your meals. Remember : When selecting beef or meat, choose grass-fed, hormone-free, or organic, when possible. The USDA mandates that all poultry is raised without hormones, so look for the terms “antibiotic-free” or “organic” when buying poultry.

Also, load up on produce. Non-starchy veggies are freebies  —  eat as many as you like! But I do recommend limiting fruits because too many can increase your insulin levels. And when possible, choose organic, seasonal, and local produce. In the winter months when your favorite produce is out of season, you can find organic versions in the freezer section. When you can, avoid the most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables by consulting the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list and instead choose from the “Clean Fifteen” list featuring the least contaminated options. Just make sure you’re buying unseasoned or unsweetened varieties. Also, check out your local farmers market or the options around you for joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

What are some of your own go-to, easy plant-based dinners?

This zucchini lasagna is one of my favorites. Also check out my book, Food. What the Heck Should I Cook? for loads of plant-rich recipes and tips on cooking basics.

For someone who’s trying to be completely plant-based but struggling, what advice would you give them?

You don’t have to go completely plant-based in order to be healthy. Again, it’s about eating mostly plants and focusing on quality sources of meat and poultry. Check out my tips for buying sustainably raised meat above.

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