Eating Mushrooms, Cutting Down on Meat and Using the Microwave: The Best Diet for You and the Planet | Health & well-being
Less meat, more plants
The easiest way to reduce your personal carbon footprint is to go vegan. Growing beef requires up to 100 times more land than growing peas or soybeans to produce the same amount of protein. I’ve reduced my meat intake to local organic grass-fed red meat or a rotisserie chicken as an occasional treat once or twice a month. It allows me to enjoy meat as part of my diet on a more sustainable level.
Studies have shown no difference in gut health between vegans, vegetarians and occasional meat eaters. The most important dietary factor we found for better gut health was the number of different plants we eat each week, with 30 per week being the optimal number.
That might sound like a lot until you realize it also includes mushrooms, spices, nuts, seeds, herbs, and legumes. The simple act of using a sofrito base of onions, garlic, olive oil and carrots when cooking, and adding mixed beans or lentils to your pasta sauce or mix spices to your cooking, or sprinkling a mixture of nuts and seeds on your yogurt, can quickly boost this. Number.
Ditch Ultra-Processed Meat Substitutes
Unfortunately, many vegans are overly dependent on ultra-processed foods high in salt and fat that are bad for us and the environment (some produced in large, energy-intensive factories). New production methods, such as cell-grown ‘meat’, ‘fish’ and even ‘cheese’ are on the horizon and are likely to be more environmentally friendly.
Brands like Symplicity (which currently stock restaurants nationwide and will soon be available to consumers) use large-scale vats to ferment organic vegetables without artificial additives, making “meatballs” and “burgers” that benefit our gut microbiome and with almost zero waste.
Choose legumes over animal protein
We care too much about protein. It’s the legumes, beans, and lentils that help the centuries-old populations of certain cultures survive the rest of us. This is due to their high fiber, protein, mineral and polyphenol content (polyphenols are the plant chemicals that help our gut microbes).
We need iron and iodine, zinc and vitamin B-12 to be healthy, but most of us can easily get them from eggs, clams or mussels and chicken – the most durable farmed animal products – once a week.
In 2017, I visited the Hadza people in Tanzania and noticeably improved the diversity of my gut microbiome in just three days by eating all the plants and seeds, fruits and nuts they eat in a week – along with a few porcupines.
Go organic, even a little
Herbicides were generally considered safe before we realized the importance of microbes, both to the soil, our guts and our immune system. Our own data has shown the power of a healthy diet and microbiome to protect against serious disease.
Pesticides and herbicides are designed to disrupt natural ecosystems, reduce biodiversity and degrade our soils, impacting our aquatic life and insect survival. We ingest these chemicals in small amounts each day and they are difficult to avoid, especially with plant-based diets.
While it is beneficial to only buy organic food whenever possible, the current level of organic farming is insufficient to produce enough food for all of us. And that’s not to mention the price difference. Buy local, seasonal ingredients that stay fresh longer. Certain foods are worth prioritizing: I always buy organic strawberries, oats, spinach, and apples, as the non-organic varieties tend to have the highest levels of herbicides.
Cook smarter (and use the microwave)
We can reduce cooking fuel consumption and preserving beneficial chemicals in food by harnessing the power of microbes to ferment and preserve vegetable scraps.
Kimchi, for example, uses cabbage, greens, garlic and chili peppers, while heating food in the microwave saves energy while generally maintaining nutrient content. I now microwave a whole potato instead of cooking it, and I also steam spinach in the microwave. I make vegetable soups, ferment leftover vegetables (like sauerkraut or beetroot), eat the tough outer leaves of cauliflower, and freeze soft fruit.
The fish was overrated
Fish science has changed and it is now clear that the health benefits of fish and omega-3 fatty acids have been overstated. Studies of omega-3 supplements show no clinical benefit unless you’re pregnant or recently had a heart attack, and fish is less beneficial for the heart than we thought. Additionally, most of the fish we eat in the UK today, including salmon and trout, comes from unsustainable fish farms.
Use a local fishmonger or supermarket fish counter that you trust and who can ask questions. Mussels and clams are healthy, largely sustainable and very tasty.
The dairy dilemma
Dairy products are a massive cause of global warming, and their health benefits, such as improved calcium intake and stronger bones, have been overstated. There are many better sources of calcium, for example sesame seeds and tahini, dark green leafy vegetables and calcium tofu. Although dairy alternatives are overall better for greenhouse gas emissions, they can cause other problems; the excessive amount of water used to create almond milk and its harmfulness to bees, for example. Others, like soy and oat milks, can be heavily processed.
Personally, the only milk I haven’t given up is fermented milk, called kefir, which I make myself and have a little shot every day for my gut microbiome.
Make it personal
The fact is, there is no one diet that works for all of us. But the burgeoning field of personalized nutrition (led by companies like ZOE, which I co-founded) suggests that by predicting which foods are best for our bodies, we can reduce sugar and fat spikes in our blood and improve our gut health. We can feel better, have more energy and be less hungry, all without talking about calories.
But as we wait for technology, including apps, home tests and continuous glucose monitors to help us eat healthier, we can make positive changes by following the broad approaches outlined here. During this time, listen to your body and eat more of what makes you feel good.
Give yourself a break
No one is perfect, and the enjoyment of eating and the social interaction that comes with it can be as important as environmental and health considerations. Even small positive changes can go a long way.
Food for Life by Tim Spector is published by Vintage (£20). To support the Guardian order your copy for £17.40 at guardianbookshop.com. Join the ZOE app waitlist at joinzoe.com