“There are aspects you could focus on first, and once those become part of your normal everyday eating routine, then you can adopt another Climatarian principle and build from there.”
In this episode, we are going to be speaking with Cynthia Sass, about all things the Climatarian diet. Cynthia gives us a rundown on what this diet is, what makes it different from other diets on the market, its health benefits, and can adapt to this diet to meet our nutritional needs while also thinking about our impact on the planet.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian nutritionist and three-time New York Times bestselling author with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. She writes for Health.com, develops recipes, and works with clients one-on-one with a focus on plant based performance nutrition
Shireen: In this episode, we are going to be speaking with Cynthia Sass about all things Climatarian diet. Cynthia talks to us and gives us a rundown on what this diet is, what makes it different from other diets on the market, its health benefits, and how we can adapt this diet to meet our nutritional needs while also thinking about our impact on the planet. Stay tuned.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and three-time New York Times bestselling author with master’s degrees in both nutrition, science and public health. She writes for health.com, develops recipes and works with clients one-on-one with a focus on plant-based performance nutrition Welcome, Cynthia.
Cynthia: Thank you so much for having me.
Shireen: An absolute pleasure, Cynthia. As a nutrition and health expert with extensive experience in the industry today, what initially really inspired you to pursue this field, and what continues to motivate you today?
Cynthia: Well, I think like a lot of people, I was inspired by my mom and dad. So, growing up, my mom, we always had a garden, so I remember going out pulling, ripping the carrots up out, off the ground. And she always took me to the farmer’s market. So, I think I got my love for fruits and vegetables from her. And then my dad, he was a very picky eater, very kind of meat and potatoes kind of guy.
And then when I was in high school, he became really interested in nutrition because his brother, who he was very close to, got diagnosed with colon cancer. And my dad’s mother and father had both had cancer as well. So, he decided he was going to research, whatever he could to find out how he could prevent this from happening to him.
And so, he started finding out that there was a big connection between nutrition and cancer prevention, and he started eating things like cauliflower and broccoli and oatmeal. I was so fascinated by this idea that you could prevent a disease that runs in your family through nutrition. And so, kind of the love of healthy food and the interest in the science of nutrition are the two things that led me into this field.
And then what has kept me in it is being able to really help people. Being able to actually make an impact on people’s quality of life and health is such a rewarding experience. And sometimes I actually do really feel like I can’t believe I get to do this for a living. I feel very lucky.
Shireen: No, that’s great. There’s a term that I learned recently and that is also thanks to you is the Climatarian diet. Let’s start things off there. To understand first, what does that term even mean and what makes it different from all the other diets we hear about today?
Cynthia: Right. So even though it has the word diet in it, it’s not meant to be associated with weight loss.
And actually, in reality, there is no one formal definition of a Climatarian diet. So, you could ask five different people and get five different answers. But in a nutshell, it really means eating in a way that helps to protect the planet. So, making choices that either don’t contribute to climate crisis or poor environmental health consequences or the opposite.
Shireen: And how does this diet compare to other sustainable diets?
Cynthia: Well, there’s no rules, so there’s no, so for example, there’s no absolutely no food that’s off limits, a hundred percent. And there’s no foods that you absolutely must eat, but it’s kind of taking a look at what are some of the foods that would have a better environmental impact and emphasizing more of those, and some that have a worse environmental impact, and kind of trying to minimize those.
So, it’s not a one size fits all. It doesn’t have these hard and fast rules. But there are some strategies that you could definitely develop. And also, because it’s not one size fits all, and it’s not kind of all or nothing, you don’t have to adopt all of it at the exact same time. There are aspects you could focus on first, and once those become part of your normal everyday eating routine, then you can adopt another Climatarian principle and build from there.
Shireen: Lovely. And so, walk us through an example of what the Climatarian diet would need for the environment and that’s sort of coming through. But I would also like to explore the health benefits for the individual and how it benefits someone. So, walk us through both of those.
Cynthia: Okay. Okay. So, from an environmental perspective, it’s looking at how do foods contribute to things like greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and how much land and water and resources do certain foods take, and how do they contribute to outcomes like ocean acidification.
We’re kind of connecting the dots between how foods are grown and produced or the secondary effects things like product packaging and how it fills up landfills, et cetera. And so what’s really interesting about the Climatarian diet is that it really protects people’s health in two very important ways.
One is indirect and one is direct. So directly, what’s interesting is that all the same foods that help prevent chronic diseases are the best foods for the planet. All the foods that tend to increase the risk of chronic diseases are the worst foods for the planet. So, if you follow Climatarian diet, you’re likely to gain health benefits, just kind of as a side effect. But also, the climate crisis and what’s going on with the environment is a big public health risk.
So, we’re seeing things like, extreme weather conditions, high, high, high temperatures, flooding, fires, all of those increase the health risks of the general public in a number of ways, an individual health risk too. So, if we can find ways to eat that help protect the planet, we can reduce those kind of public health risks. So, it helps us on an individual level as well as on a population level.
Shireen: Interesting. And what are some of the components of the Climatarian diet? Are there any foods, specific foods that individuals should follow under this diet or strictly avoid?
Cynthia: Well, the strictly avoid is kind of up to you. So, you may decide to minimize the food instead of completely cutting it out altogether. But when I wrote this article about the Climatarian diet for health.com, I chose 10 foods that you would want to eat more of and 10 foods you want to eat less of. Either minimize or eliminate those foods and probably one of my favorite foods to talk about to eat more of is pulses. Pulses is the umbrella term for all kinds of beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas.
These are great for human health. But also, they’re great for the environment because they tend to enrich the soil in which they’re grown and they don’t require as much natural resources to produce, and they don’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions that much. And they’re kind of this under the radar sort of secret superfood because they’re really loaded with key nutrients, including plant protein, fiber.
They’re the highest fiber food group on the planet. They’re high in antioxidants and minerals that a lot of us tend to fall short on, and they’re very affordable, readily available, and super versatile. I mean, I use pulses in almost every type of cooking. They’re used around the globe. But also, you can use them in both sweet and savory dishes, which sounds kind of odd putting like beans in something like a smoothie or pudding.
But they work really well because they don’t have a strong flavor of their own. They kind of take on the flavor of whatever you combine them with. So, if you’re going to only make one change on what to eat more outside, it would be to eat more pulses. And that kind of naturally goes along with the top food to eat less of, which is red meat.
So, some of your red meat with pulses and that would have a really positive effect. Livestock in general contributes about 14.5% to the greenhouse gas emissions issue. So, if we can reduce the intake of red meat and replace with pulses, we get a number of benefits. From both the personal and personal health and environmental health perspective. So, I have got some other foods too.
Shireen: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was going to say. Are there other foods that you can point to?
Cynthia: Yeah. On the foods to eat more of whole grains. Whole grains tend to require less water to produce than other types of crops and they’re really good for our health because eating more whole grains instead of refined grains is associated again with reducing almost every chronic disease, including obesity, type two diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
So, we want to replace things like white rice with brown or wild rice, for example, or eat more things like whole oats quinoa, et cetera. Another one that’s really interesting on the list is mushrooms. We, there’s a lot of buzz around mushrooms right now. They’re one of my favorite foods, but they’re really unique in that they can grow in the waste of other crops.
So, instead of that crop waste going into landfills, which produces more methane, greenhouse gas they can be used to help grow the mushrooms. Mushrooms require very little inputs to grow, and they grow really quickly. And also, the mycelium, which is the root of the mushroom, can be used as an alternative to plastic.
And they’re also very nutritious. They’re very low in calories, but they have important nutrients like potassium. So, it’s, you know, a great food to reach for more often. Also, another interesting thing about what to eat more of is locally grown fruits and vegetables that are in season. So sometimes you’ll hear about healthy diets, emphasizing fruits and vegetables.
But they don’t really talk about where they come from. If you’re eating fruits and vegetables, they’re out of season or they’ve been, they’ve traveled a long way to get to your plate. That is a contributor to negative environmental impacts. Whereas if you eat something that’s from your local farmer’s market or you go to your local market and you see that this something is in season and it was grown nearby that number one, it reduces waste because when produce is being transported, there’s a pretty large amount of waste in the process.
So, by the time it actually gets to its destination, a lot of it has to be thrown out and it will go into the landfill. So that’s one thing. But also, in terms of how it’s good for us fruits and vegetables, when they’re locally grown and, and harvested, maybe the day before, maybe even the same day that you eat them, they’re at their peak nutritional value.
So, they actually have more nutrients. And hopefully when you’re at your local farmer’s, you can only buy the amount that you need and you’re also supporting your local community, your local farmers, which is another great benefit. Nuts is another one on the list, and that’s because nuts require generally less water to grow than other protein sources even though some require more than others.
But there’s lots of plant foods that you want to incorporate into your diet. And then again on the flip side, in addition to the red meat and kind of meat and general dairy would be the next one on the list because again, they contribute. Meat and dairy use a lot of water and natural resources and grain has to be grown to feed the animals that the food comes from and those emissions.
So, we can reduce the intake of those. Also palm oil is a type of oil that’s been associated with things like destructing the environment where endangered species tend to live, deforestation. So, we want to limit that. Also, not great for our health. Sugar, refined sugar is another one.
That contributes to negative environmental impact. And of course, we hear a lot about how we should be reducing our intake of refined sugar and then just processed foods in general. They have a lot of packaging, but they also tend to be foods that have refined grains, sugar and palm oil. So, kind of three in one there.
So, if we can just as a very basic thing focus on one thing, maybe that one thing is reducing the intake of processed foods. Maybe it’s even trying to buy foods in bulk. With reusable packaging instead of buying something that comes in, a package that’s going to be thrown out, and then you buy the thing again the next week and another package.
There’s a lot of little things that we can do that will make a big difference is if you think about, we all eat probably three times a day every day, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It really does add up to some significant impact on what’s going on the planet.
Shireen: How can people with different cultural or even dietary traditions really adopt the principles of the Climatarian diet in a way that aligns with their beliefs and value system?
Cynthia: Well, I think that one nice thing about the Climatarian diet is it’s not very strict. There’s no hard and fast rules so you can align with whatever feels right for you.
Depending on what your personal values, beliefs and motivators are, you can sort of choose those aspects of it and follow through with those and it would feel like a natural match for what you’re already striving for.
Shireen: What are some challenges of adopting the Climatarian diet. And how would you advise people to overcome these challenges?
Cynthia: Well, I think it kind of depends on what your diet is like before you start. If you have been a, a heavy eater of meat and dairy products, then some people might think, oh, yikes, what do I replace that with? How do I, or maybe they’re not used to, they haven’t made a lot of dishes with beans or lentils or chickpeas, and they don’t really know how to do that.
So, they could be a learning curve there also with whole grains a lot of people I work with tell me they’ve ne really never made brown or wild rice from scratch before or quinoa. So, there are great, a lot of great resources online to figure out.
You know how to use great videos on YouTube and other resources to figure out, okay, if you buy a bag of dry beans, how do you actually make these and turn them into a tasty meal? Or how do you use them to replace meat in some dishes? Whether it’s a casserole or tacos or even making plant-based burgers and whatever you might be trying to replace it with.
So, you might have to learn a little bit in the beginning to figure out how to best incorporate some of these foods or how to replace other foods that maybe you were eating more of. But once you get past that, that learning curve, I think that it’s kind of just can become your new normal and can become very sustainable long term.
Shireen: For those who are listening and go, okay, I want to start taking steps today to work my way toward that and even reduce my own footprint, where would you tell them to start?
Cynthia: I think kind of similar to health behaviors. Some people will say to me, I’m so overwhelmed. I’m supposed to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, get enough sleep, floss my teeth, all these things.
I kind of say, well, what seems like easiest for you? What would be or either what’s easiest or what seems like would have more bang for your buck. Like what would you get the most out of and start there. So, for some people may be eating more fruits and vegetables, for example, it might be, there might be some nice benefits of going, like my farmer’s market that I go to, my local one is on Sunday.
I really like to go there. I look forward to it. I like to walk around. I like to talk to the farmers because they’re the ones who grow the food. Are the best person to ask about what to do with it, how to make it taste good, because they definitely know, and they eat it themselves. So, it can be a nice social thing.
It could be something that you do with your family or friends, and then you kind of have this like excitement about taking something home and being able to turn it into a nice meal and enjoy that. So that might be something that appeals to a person. But another one might just be like mushrooms.
I’ve been hearing a lot about mushrooms. And then maybe I want to start incorporating more of those into my diet. So whatever feels like a natural fit, start there. And then once that becomes kind of like comfortable for you, then maybe try another one.
Shireen: And are there certain things that you would tell people, especially who are big consumers of red meat or dairy? What would you, what would you tell them? Where can they start or how do they start?
Cynthia: Yeah, so number one, it’s not about having to completely eliminate those things but maybe minimizing them might be more appropriate or more realistic for some people.
And so maybe thinking about, like, some people will think we’ll do this in different ways. Some people will say, okay, I’m just going to start with meatless Mondays and on just on Mondays I’m going to have maybe lentils or beans or some alternative tofu or something like that instead. And I’ll just do that.
And then sometimes people will expand, maybe I’ll go plant-based Monday through Friday, and then on the weekends I have my meat or my dairy, and some people will do kind of plant-based all day and then have whatever for dinner. Maybe they incorporate animal products into dinner, but not into breakfast and lunch.
There are different ways to go about this and finding what works for you and what feels like, oh, that’s really doable. Yeah. I could actually, I could see myself doing that, not just for a week, but maybe for the foreseeable future. But it’s not about feeling pressured or like, there’s not these intense rules.
It’s kind of like what, this should be sort of a motivational what really feels like, I would feel really good about making this change for the planet and for my health at the same time. And those are the ones that I would say to aim for first.
Shireen: What would you say to folks who are listening who go, well, sure I would do it, but then what about the rest of my family? Or I’ve got picky eaters and I can’t cook for myself and then cook something completely different for them. I don’t have the time. Or what would you say to someone like that?
Cynthia: Yeah, I know that’s really a tough situation, but I would say a couple things. If, if you, you could possibly. Get your family more involved. Like what we know for example, about children is that when they’re more involved in the whole process of shopping for the food, maybe even doing a little fun assignment of learning about…like for example, how many kids do you think know what lentils look like when they’re growing? I didn’t even know that until I was in college.
So, they could do a little online researching and it could be fun for them to learn about it. Maybe they could watch a little video, YouTube video of like a lentil growing and something like that. And then t, they’re a little bit more invested in, then let’s go to the store and find some, and then let’s make them together and whatever would be an appropriate task in the kitchen for the kid to get involved with the preparation of the meal and then actually getting to eat it.
And it can really become a fun family activity to make some of these changes, even if you’re just looking at that them as an experiment. Like, hey, let’s try and experiment together. So, I think there are ways to kind of increase the interest or the openness to making some of these changes versus being so rigid.
But also, some of the people that I work with say that if it feels so good to them personally to make some of these changes, that they’re willing to make a separate meal for themselves because they just feel like, this is something I can do for me. It’s good for my health. It makes me feel good.
It makes me feel like I’m making some sort of an important difference. And I’m going to go ahead and take the extra time. But even if you have to start with some convenience things like canned beans that you just drain and rinse, that’s much easier than having to soak and cook. Beans that are from a dry bean from a bag, that would be fine.
Even eating canned beans would be better than eating meat in terms of the environmental impact. So even though, yes, there’s a can, you’re putting it in the recycling bin, but even that would be a great start versus having to go get a slow cooker or, some other way of preparing those beans.
Shireen: If someone wants to start experimenting with some of these pulses what are some go-to either recipes or ingredients that they can start with that are pretty low barrier easy to make?
Cynthia: Yeah. So, think about all the dishes that are your go-to dishes that now have meat, especially ground beef.
And you could just do a simple replacement of about a half a cup of beans. A half a cup to a cup of beans for every three ounces of meat. So, if you make, normally let’s say a lot of families have like a Taco Tuesday night or something like that, and maybe they normally have ground beef, they could replace that with black beans or lentils would work really well.
So, think about all the dishes where you would normally use ground beef, and you can definitely, in almost all cases, use beans as a replacement there. But then it can also be kind of fun to do things like soups. Soups are a meal, right? Because you can fit your veggies in there, as well as your beans can be your protein source, and they provide healthy, high fiber carbohydrates, and they’re pretty easy to make.
And that’s an entire meal in and of itself, and something that you can make a larger batch of and eat for a couple of days. So even just starting with, oh, all right, so, a couple nights a week we’re going to have black bean or lentil soup or split piece soup, or whatever it is as our dinner, and that would be another way to kind of get into using more pulses.
Shireen: How can dietitians and nutritionists play a role in advising individuals who are interested in adopting a Climatarian diet?
Cynthia: Well, I think just even bringing up, when you’re talking to someone about changing their habit, their eating habits. For example, if you’re talking to a client about eating more fruits and vegetables, even just mentioning that, hey, it actually does have an impact on the planet to eat more locally grown in season fruits and vegetables too, and not just vegetables that have traveled 1200-1500 miles away.
So just kind of as an add-on, little tidbits like that, that people think, oh wow, I didn’t know that. So, it’s, now I’m trying to increase my fruit and egg vegetable intake. But also, let’s talk about what’s in season now. Because certainly if you’re eating, if it’s the middle of winter and you’re eating summer fruits, those probably were not grown for eating melon and cherries and stone fruits and berries and things like that in the winter, they probably travel the far distance to get there.
And so even just incorporating that, those little bits of information into the counseling that dietitians and nutritionists are already doing can be really helpful for helping people connect those dots between how the food is. Where and when it’s produced kind of packaging, again you are buying in bulk or when you go to your farmer’s market, bringing your own bags so you don’t have to get the plastic bags that they always have those plastic bags there for people that didn’t bring their own. But all those little things do make a difference.
Shireen: What can be done for individuals who would like to adopt this and are able to do so at home, or at least to a certain extent, and like the flexibility of this diet as well. But what would you say to those who like to go out and eat most often? How would they be able to manage this diet if they’re used to eating more outside or even part of the time?
Cynthia: Well, there are some restaurants that do focus on local in season. In fact, some restaurants change their menu four times a year for the season, so that you could look for a restaurant like that or you could support local chefs that use local fruits and vegetables in their cooking and on their menus would be another great way.
And then there’s a lot more plant-based restaurants than ever before. And it can be a great way for people to try plant-based food because if they’re kind of a little unsure about preparing something, even like a black or lentil soup themselves going out or other kinds of curries and things like that, they can maybe try them at a restaurant first.
And then find a recipe to try to recreate those things at home. So, there are definitely restaurants and, and dining out options that are complete, really completely in line with some of the core principles of the Climatarian diet. So not everything that you eat has to be homemade or from scratch or take a lot of time. Definitely dining out can be a big part of it.
Shireen: How can the Climatarian diet really be adapted for different stages of life? Be it, during pregnancy or even older individuals.
Cynthia: Yeah. So once again, what’s great about it is that there’s no calorie requirements, either an upper or lower limit. There’s no macronutrient ratios that you have to aim for.
There’s no, you absolutely must eat these foods and you cannot ever eat these foods. So, it’s really about whatever life stage you’re in, whatever your goals are. Just pulling those foods that make sense for your needs at that time and incorporating more of them or being more mindful of how your choices where do they align. In terms of the list that’s sort of more pro-environment versus the one that’s kind of less, less environmentally friendly.
Shireen: I think what I like about what you’re saying, Cynthia, is that you really make the rules for yourself, right? So, there’s no, what I like to, what you mentioned was there’s no hard and fast rule. There’s no guidebook that you have to follow exactly this. It is understanding, and I think what I really like about this as well is that it makes you very conscious of what you’re eating.
You’re just not eating for the sake of having a meal, but you’re also being conscious in that journey. You’re inviting your family to take part in that. And then the other part of it which is red meat costs more than beans or chickpeas. It’s also a great way if you’re someone who’s mindful about your budget and how much you’re spending on your meals as well for you or a growing family, for instance. And this is a great way to even cut back on expenses, to move away from some of those expensive food items as well. Just budget friendly too.
Cynthia: That’s right. There’s a lot of aspects of the Climatarian diet that help with the food cost. So even getting things in bulk versus packaged foods that’s less expensive.
Locally grown produce does tend to be less expensive because it doesn’t have to be transported and there’s not as much waste that gets factored back into the cost. So those cost savings are passed on to you. And as you mentioned, you could get even cans of beans versus, say buying ground beef is far less expensive.
And especially when you look at per on the per serving level. And then when you look at the value of how it can protect your health, which down the road can perhaps save a lot in healthcare costs, prescription medications, doctor’s visits and things like that, because that’s something that obviously isn’t going to affect us like today, but it may affect us in the relatively near future.
And what’s really great is if you, even if you look at something like swapping out…Let’s say one simple thing, one simple place you could start would be if you normally have a packaged snack in the afternoon in between lunch and dinner, maybe it’s replacing that package snack where you’re going to throw that wrapper into the garbage with something like fresh fruits and nuts.
Something as simple as that is one thing that you could be doing that can have an impact on both your personal health and the climate or the planet.
Shireen: And that’s just one small, tiny change that you can start today. Love it. And so with that Cynthia, unfortunately we are to the end of the episode at this point, can you tell our listeners how they can connect with you and just learn more about your work?
Cynthia: Yeah, so my website is just my name, Cynthia Sass, like sassy without the Y on the end, so cynthiasass.com. And so, there is a contact form if someone wants to reach out to me through the site and also the connections to my social media if someone wants to connect with me that way. And the article that I wrote for health.com on the Climatarian diet, you’ll also find that there’re on my website under the article section.
Shireen: Lovely. And we will link all of this up in the show notes. It’s so if you are looking for some of these links to scroll down, you should be able to find it there. With us, Cynthia, thank you so very much for your time. For our listeners who have followed a Climatarian diet or are still following it share with us how this diet has impacted your health, your lifestyle, and just overall wellbeing.
So, head over to our social media at Yumlish on either Facebook or Instagram. Find this very podcast post and comment below it to tell us how the Climatarian diet has really impacted your health, your lifestyle, and again, just your overall well being how you feel different share with us, and we’ll find you there.
We’ll continue the conversation there. With that, Cynthia, thank you again.
Cynthia: Thank you so much.