New Year, New You! A Diet for 2015 You Can Actually Feel Good About

Forget the latest cleanse or superfood—there's no real secret to eating better for yourself, or for the planet.

(Photo: Verdina Anna/Getty Images)

Jan 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There’s something inherently disheartening about New Year’s resolutions, isn’t there? While we’d all like to preserve some sense of the bubbly midnight euphoria that typically fuels these annual declarations, alas, all too often they come to be associated with the cold gray winter’s light of January 1—a kind of memory of optimism as opposed to optimism itself (experienced alongside that dull little throb behind the eyes that frequently plagues the morning after). It’s no wonder that only a mere 8 percent of Americans say they end up fulfilling their resolutions.

But maybe the problem with New Year’s resolutions isn’t the notion of making resolutions. Rather, maybe it’s with the kinds of resolutions we tend to make: lose weight, get fit, eat healthy. Among the most popular resolutions there runs a common thread, which is that in contemplating how to achieve them, we tend to stare down a long, dismal path of joyless self-denial, itself somehow bound up in our culture’s persistent attachment to a puritanical attitude toward pleasure. After a holiday season spent wallowing in all manner of self-indulgence, this dysfunctional logic goes, now we must punish ourselves with celery sticks and brown rice.

Not only that, but so many resolutions are rooted not in empowerment but the kind of enfeeblement that’s best summed up in the feeling we get scanning magazine covers in the supermarket checkout line, with all those cover lines promising “New Year, New You!” alongside the impossibly perfect physical dimensions of some digitally enhanced specimen of humanity.

It’s enough to make anyone want to throw in the towel on the whole resolutions racket.

But what if…

What if, instead of measuring our goals—and ourselves—against a media-driven standard of success, we measured our resolutions against a more benevolent standard? What if we expanded the notion of self-improvement beyond the self (and selfish)? What if we stopped searching for the secret to feeling better about ourselves, and instead of suffering from a chronic sense that we’re just not quite “getting it,” we celebrated our individual capacity to make a difference—both in our own lives and for the planet?

"I used to feel powerless and bombarded with advertising," Frances Moore Lappé, a leading environmental and food activist, said of walking into a grocery store in a recent interview. “But now, with what I’ve learned, I have the knowledge and the power to make the choices that are best for my body, best for the earth, best for all people on the earth. And that is liberation. That is freedom. That is not restricting our diets, it is expressing our true humanity, our true nature. Because our fundamental nature is three things: Our need for connection, our need for meaning in our lives, and our need for power. Choosing food that is best for the earth, best for our bodies, best for all people—that gives us all three. That, to me, is the power of the food movement.”

Indeed, Lappé’s seminal book, Diet for a Small Planet, argued that the problem of world hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food, but by a squandering of resources—most notably in the gross inefficiency of producing meat. When we eat beef, for example, we consume a measly 3 percent of the calories those cattle consumed.

Incredibly, Lappé first made her case back in 1971, at the very dawn of the modern environmental movement. No doubt the passing of time has done nothing but strengthen her prescient arguments. Whereas four decades ago few people could imagine something as mind-boggling as global warming, today we know that livestock farming is one of the most significant factors contributing to climate change.

Yet, according to a groundbreaking analysis published recently in the journal Nature, by adopting a more plant-based diet, we could keep the global warming pollution associated with agriculture from rising—even as the world’s population continues to grow. The study, which was led by G. David Tilman, professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota, appears to be one of the first to rigorously examine the impact of global diet trends on both the environment and public health, and it not only confirms the environmental benefits of cutting back our meat consumption, but the health benefits too. The closer we come to vegetarianism, for instance, the lower our risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

But Lappé, who in the 40 years since publishing Diet for a Small Planet has gone on to write nearly 20 more books and to cofound several nonprofit organizations, doesn’t simply advocate for vegetarianism—and the “diet” she promotes is about as far from your average flash-in-the-pan fad regimen as you can get.

“The first rule is to eat as if every bite matters, because it does,” Lappé says. Her prescription for success: “We gain positive power by choosing organic every time we possibly can, eating low on the food chain, eating in the plant world as much as we possibly can, and eating from small farmers, local farmers, family farmers as much as we possibly can.”

Note the emphasis on “positive power” there. That’s something a whole lot more of our New Year’s resolutions could use a healthy dose of.