'How to Be a Conscious Eater' Will Help You Make Smart, Ethical Food Choices

The book is a practical guide to picking foods that are good for both people and planet.

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Author holding a copy of her book

Workman Publishing

Grocery shopping used to be easier for me. Years ago, before I starting thinking about carbon footprints and animal welfare issues and plastic packaging and ethical labels, it was fairly straightforward to grab a package of bread, a carton of eggs, or piece of meat off a store shelf. All I considered was the price per unit. 

Now I know too much about too many things, and this information overload can lead to analysis paralysis. Shopping has become a slower and more exhausting process as I weigh one evil against another in order to make the most eco-friendly, ethical, healthy, or zero-waste choice – and, ideally, all of those in one.

If you can relate to this sense of overwhelm, then perhaps you should pick up a copy of Sophie Egan's new book, "How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet" (Workman, 2020). Egan, who works for the Culinary Institute of America and is a director of strategy for the Food for Climate League, has written a highly readable guide to making food choices that tick as many of the boxes on your list as possible.

Egan's guiding principles, mentioned in the title, are that foods be good for oneself (this includes enjoyment and cultural elements, in addition to health), good for the people who produce them (leaving the best possible mark on farmers and animals), and good for the planet (making choices that don't damage, and perhaps even repair, natural ecosystems). These are ambitious principles, but necessary ones if we hope to alter our food habits in order to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, as we've been told is necessary by numerous scientists.

"How to Be a Conscious Eater" is divided into four parts – "stuff" that comes from the ground, from animals, from factories (a.k.a. prepackaged, processed foods), and from restaurant kitchens. Within each of these categories, Egan addresses the main foods and the issues associated with them that would influence your decision to buy. 

I appreciated her emphasis on the the importance of putting environmental issues into context. Take almonds, for example, which have a notoriously high water footprint that has led many people to avoid them in recent years. Egan writes:

"With every food choice you make, ask yourself, As opposed to what? If we're talking about a handful of almonds versus a stick of string cheese, which wins? The handful of almonds has a lower water footprint. Almonds also win for health and carbon footprint."

While there are other nuts with smaller water and carbon footprints and comparable health benefits to almonds, the point is that we shouldn't consider items independently; everything must be put into the right context.

Egan is a strong proponent of "plant-forward" eating, rather than veganism or vegetarianism. She challenges the common misconception that foods are automatically healthier just because they don't contain animal products and points out that many vegan substitutes are highly processed food products. It would be more effective to "readjust the ratios of plant and animal foods compared with typical American diets," and eat more beans and legumes than red meat.

Sophie Egan, author
Author Sophie Egan.

Workman Publishing (used with permission)

The best vegetables are the ones you're eating, so Egan urges people not to get hung up on expensive organic produce and just start trying to get those recommended five servings a day. She dedicates a chapter to "beans, the humble heroes" that improve the earth not only through their protein- and fiber-packed tastiness, but also by fixing nitrogen in the soil when growing. 

"This boosts soil health, which can boost yields. And most altruistically of all, because of the way legumes enrich the soil around them, they actually lower the greenhouse gas emissions of crops planted there after they are gone. Like a beachgoer who cleans up not just her own picnic spot but the sand surrounding her area, legumes are pros at paying it forward."

Many pages are dedicated to reading labels and packaging, and making sense of the countless logos and seals that appear on supermarket products. Some are helpful, others are misleading, and Egan offers clear advice on what to look for and what to avoid. She discusses specific certifications, including USDA Organic, Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, American Grassfed, Seafood Watch Best Choice, MSC Certified Sustainable Seafood, and numerous egg carton labels. 

She warns against falling for "health haloes," which portray foods as being healthier than they are, usually by stating something has been removed that we tend to view as unhealthy, i.e. "low-fat" or "gluten-free," when in reality it hasn't improved the product's nutritional profile. She uses "veggie sticks/straws" as an example:

"Those products are typically about the same calorically and the same or worse nutritionally (depending on the replacement ingredients, which are often higher amounts of salt and sugar). As a result, most of us will unwittingly eat more of products like these than we would have of the original product."

The book includes extensive advice on how to reduce food waste through meal planning, using a shopping list, storing food in ways that make it highly visible, and incorporating leftovers into subsequent meals. Egan is a proponent of plastic reduction, avoiding bottled water, favoring glass packaging whenever possible, and shopping with reusable containers. 

In striving to address its three principles of doing good for eaters, others, and planet, the book is a curious mishmash of dietary science, environmental information, eco-frugality, and cooking advice – but it works well. It answers the ordinary, practical questions that many of us have, offering resources for follow-up if wanted. It can be read either in its entirety or used as a reference book when you have a burning question about specific ingredients and production methods.

If you want to feel more confident in the grocery store and in knowing that you're feeding yourself and your family to the best of your ability, then this book is an excellent place to start.

You can order the book here or request it at your local library.