How to Be a Conscious Eater
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How to Be a Conscious Eater

In her new book, health and sustainability expert Sophie Egan shares how to make practical food-related decisions that you can feel good about.

By Rebecca Heaton

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There’s no denying that we are living in unprecedented times. But one thing that remains constant is the need to eat. In her latest book, How to Be a Conscious Eater (Workman, 2020), Sophie Egan, M.P.H., a Stanford lecturer and regular contributor to the The New York Times Health section, offers a holistic, easy-to-follow framework on how to navigate the sometimes overwhelming world of food to make healthy choices and become a conscious eater.

What inspired you to write this book? 

Through touring for my first book, Devoured (William Morrow, 2017), and writing for The New York Times, I’ve been fielding reader questions about conscious and healthy eating. I discovered that 8 in 10 Americans are confused about how to make good food choices and align those with values, like sustainability and supporting local, because of an overload of nutritional, environmental and scientific information and misinformation. My book aims to be a prescription lens to navigate that overload, save time, and make smart, informed food choices that are science-based.

During these uncertain times, what advice can you offer on eating consciously?

I suggest asking yourself three questions in evaluating a given food: 1) Is it good for me? 2) Is it good for others? 3) Is it good for the planet? Conscious eating is not a diet or about missing out on all the foods you love, but rather it’s the lifelong intention to align your food choices with your values. This mental checklist is evergreen and meant to empower you over the long haul. In the time of the pandemic, I call it “coronaconscious” eating. During this time, I encourage you to think about how new definitions and new factors have emerged.

When it comes to what’s good for you, this may now include eating to support your immune system. How does what you eat affect your sleep? That’s one of the most important things we can do to keep our immune systems humming. Think about foods that may upset your stomach and make you uncomfortable as you try to fall asleep. Sugary foods deserve extra caution, both for inflammation as well as for potential sleep disruption. And so on.

When it comes to good for others—whom I define as all the animals and people affected throughout the supply chain (from the farm to the processing plant to the storage facility, to the distributor, to the grocery shelf, to your delivery worker)— think about a whole new set of “others” hopefully now on your radar: slaughterhouse workers, farmworkers, grocery delivery drivers, restaurant workers, small-business owners struggling to hold on.

How can you use your food dollars to support fair wages, paid sick leave and humane work conditions for these essential workers?

How can you raise your voice at a policy and company level to raise the bar for these issues, not only for your specific meal or specific ingredient but on a systems level?

And lastly, when it comes to good for the planet, on a very hopeful note, let’s all take heart in the continued urgency and power of food as a tool for climate action. Think about creative ways to continue the great cultural momentum around minimizing single-use plastics and emphasizing reusability—and the increasingly popular notion of circularity, or keeping materials in use as long as possible—while also being safe in terms of minimizing the spread of the virus.

You mention ways to avoid food waste. It seems like now, more than ever, that’s so important to address. Do you have some tips?

Food is truly a gift—each and every bite you have access to and that you have the opportunity to enjoy—so try to do what you can to minimize your household food waste.

5 tips to avoid food waste:

  1.  Always use a shopping list to make sure you have an intended use for every item you buy.
  2.  Of all the things not to waste, red meat is the most important because of its especially high water and carbon footprints.
  3.  Love your leftovers.
  4.  Organize your refrigerator to make foods visible.
  5.  Extend the life of leftovers and fresh foods by putting them in the freezer.

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