Diet For A Healthy Planet
To be eco-friendly and heart healthy, try eating vegetarian.
By Katharine Mieszkowski
Kat Saks grew up in Montana, where meat was always on the table. In fact, she had never considered not eating meat. But when she began yoga teacher training at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Manhattan and her instructor mentioned that vegetarianism was one way to practice ahimsa, the yogic principle of nonharming, she decided to try it for the duration of the program.”I wasn’t confident I would make it through the four months,”she admits.
Saks’s journey to vegetarianism was not without setbacks. In the first few weeks, she struggled with cravings, even “slipping” once and eating a piece of chicken. But as the months went by, she felt transformed. “I noticed a significant shift in my mood and emotions, and a general lightness of being on my mat—I felt more fluidity of movement, and everything was just a little bit easier,” she says.
Almost two years later, Saks, 27, is fully committed to a vegetarian lifestyle, in which spinach, beans, and grains like quinoa have become the new staples in her diet. “I fell in love with it after a while,” Saks says. “I was skeptical at first, but practice is believing.”
Many students find that yoga and vegetarianism go well together; ahimsa, a central tenet of classical yoga, is often used as an argument against eating meat—and, some argue, against the consumption of any animal products. And it’s not just yogis who are giving up meat. About 3 percent of Americans don’t eat meat or fish (including the less than 1 percent who are vegan, eschewing eggs, dairy, and honey as well), according to a 2009 poll conducted by Harris Interactive for the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group. Many more are striving to eat less meat. Another poll, conducted in 2008, found that a full 10 percent of Americans have considered going vegetarian.
Be The Change
From a health standpoint, there is good reason to consider plant-based eating. Vegetarian diets are associated with a number of health advantages, including lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, compared with meat-based diets. Vegetarians are less prone to cancer, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, according to the American Dietetic Association. On average, they also have a lower body mass index.
Even in the city of Chicago, famous for its Polish sausage and Italian beef sandwiches, government officials extol the health benefits of eating less meat. For the past three years, Terry Mason, MD, Chicago’s health commissioner, has given up meat for the month of January, encouraging residents to do the same. Last year, Mason, a urologist who suffers from high cholesterol and had a coronary stent implanted in 2005, went even further and gave up meat for seven months—and is now working toward giving it up for good. “I’m going to focus on eating a healthy and delicious variety of fresh fruits and vegetables,” he says.
As awareness grows about the personal health benefits of eating less meat, so too do concerns about the ethical and environmental implications of a meat-based diet. The average American consumes an astonishing 31 land animals per year, and at least that many crabs, lobsters, and fish, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
“Most farm animals are raised in factory farms, industrialized large-scale facilities where they suffer immensely,” says Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the organization. “To the extent that we reduce the consumption of animals, we reduce an enormous amount of suffering.”
Many yoga practitioners are taking that to heart. “I can’t even imagine going back to eating meat,” says Diana Rein, 32, who lives in Los Angeles and has been a vegetarian for more than two years. After a few months of practicing vinyasa yoga daily and listening to her teachers talk about ahimsa, meat became unappetizing. “Something clicked,” she says. “It was strange, but I haven’t wanted it since.”
Some say that this kind of shift in awareness about the connection between what\’d5s on your plate and its impact on the world around you is common when you commit to a regular yoga practice. “The goal of yoga is to dissolve the state of exclusive, individual reality into one that’s inclusive, or one consciousness,”says Los Angeles yoga teacher and former Vedic monk Steve Ross. “From this nondual way of looking at things, everything is a part of you. When you realize this, you don’t want to harm any being or any form.”
This feeling of connectedness often extends to a desire to care for the environment, and there’s growing evidence that what’s on the other end of your fork has far-reaching implications for the health of the planet. Raising animals for slaughter contributes to land erosion and water pollution. And a seminal 2006 United Nations report found that, globally, livestock and dairy farming produce more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. Two engineering professors at Carnegie Mellon University calculated that a person choosing to eat a plant-based diet rather than meat just one day per week would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount as driving 1,000 fewer miles per year. Going entirely vegan would be equivalent to driving 8,000 fewer miles per year.
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