“I really view sustainability not just from the environment perspective but from how the whole food system impacts a person, impacts a community.”
In this episode, Sherene Chou shares her expertise on various components of a sustainable diet and explains the significance of each component for both personal health and the environment. Sherene provides valuable insights on how each component of a sustainable diet can fulfill our dietary preferences while being both healthy and environmentally beneficial.
Sherene Chou is an award-winning dietitian and chef focused on building a more equitable and sustainable food system through the intersection of plant-based nutrition, culinary medicine, and health equity. In 2020, she co-founded Food + Planet, an initiative to empower healthcare professionals to transform the food system.
Shireen: In today’s episode, we are in conversation with Sherene Chou, who shares her expertise on various components of a sustainable diet and explains the significance of each component for both personal health and the environment. Sherene provides valuable insights on how each component of a sustainable diet can fulfill our dietary preferences while being both healthy and environmentally beneficial. Stay tuned.
Sherene Chou is an award-winning dietitian and chef focused on building a more equitable and sustainable food system through the intersection of plant-based nutrition, culinary medicine, and health equity. In 2020, she co-founded Food+Planet and Initiative to empower healthcare professionals to transform the food system.
I don’t get to do this often. Welcome, Sherene!
Sherene: Thank you Shireen. I’m really happy to be here and I don’t get to do that often. I don’t think I’ve done that ever before. So that’s awesome. I’m really excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Shireen: Such a pleasure having you on. And I also, by the way, very rarely get to do that. This is the first one on the podcast for sure. Sherene diving right in, can you walk us through how you got involved with sustainable nutrition.
Sherene: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m actually a career change dietitian and I actually didn’t know anything about the field of dietetics, but I knew that I was very much interested in food. Food as medicine with my parents’ background in just Eastern medicine and also so I was trying to explore different avenues in this path of what I can do with food, food as medicine. So, I went to health supportive culinary school. And I also was very much interested and drawn to the idea of sustainability, but I didn’t have too much exposure to what that meant.
And one of my first exposures was working in New York City at the Green Farmer’s Market. And that’s where we had a chance to work with the community and really see how a food system can impact different underserved communities through food and providing access to food.
And so, in that sense, that was always and continues to frame my lens of what sustainable food systems and sustainability looks like is through serving our communities.
Shireen: I read that you were raised vegetarian and largely in part of your culture and your background. How would you compare sort of growing up as a vegetarian within the cultural framework and today’s sort of vegetarian definition, if you will?
Sherene: Yeah, I think just growing up, I didn’t think about it too much because that was my surrounding. I grew up in a temple environment and my parents’ friends they hosted temple sessions at our home and so I really grew up in that type of environment where everyone around me and my family, friends circle we’re all vegetarian Daoist.
And so, it’s just always just been my way of life. And even before, I think all of these different veg or plant-based things that are out there in the market now there was really not too much available. And my mom made a lot of things at home, continues to make a lot of things from scratch.
But I think within the Daoist or Eastern religious perspective, there has always been temple food. And that’s very much the type of food that I grew up with.
Shireen: That is so interesting. I do want to switch to when you talked about sustainability and the impact that it has. You know, sustainability is a very complex idea. It’s very layered. Can you define one sustainability for our listeners? And then I want to dive a little bit more around diet, but can you broadly just speak about sustainability first?
Sherene: I think sustainability is a very hot word these last few years. And so, people are defining it in so many different ways.
And for Food + Planet and even through my personal lens, I really view sustainability not just from the environment perspective but from how the whole food system impacts a person, impacts a community. So, thinking about sustainability and sustainable food systems through the impact of environment.
So planetary health, the impact of nutrition. On a food system, on a people, on communities, the economic impacts, as well as the sociocultural impacts.
Shireen: And then can you help us understand what specifically sustainable diet is?
Sherene: Yeah. I think that is, even though it can be a simple answer, I feel like it is a little bit of a loaded question depending on the framework and the lens that you’re looking through.
And so, in my experience I’ve just served so many different types of communities worked with so many different types of people, and I think that for health professionals, it’s our job to truly understand what being sustainable means for a person, for a community. And I think it’s easy to say, okay, hey, we should eat less meat.
Or we should be recycling more or reduce our packaging. I think that those are things that we commonly hear are easy ways to tackle sustainability. But I also ask people to kind of think about all the different people that they may be serving. And so, when I was working in the community, very hands-on one-on-one, I think about, okay, what would I tell the senior who really doesn’t have access to food?
Or even people who don’t have access to food. How would sustainability look like through their lens? And I think about, okay, that through that lens is really what’s affordable and what’s sustainable for my life right now. Like, how can I even have access to food? And so, I think that it’s not such a simple answer, but it’s really catering that lens to who we’re serving.
Shireen: And would you say there’s an intersection between sustainable dyes and healthy dyes and perhaps how they go hand in hand?
Sherene: Yeah absolutely. I think that once we’re able to provide access to food, affordable food options, that’s definitely one piece. And so, with my very first experiences and throughout my work, it’s really how do we create more access to helpful options for people to have, not only the education, but also the access.
Because I think that it’s no surprise to people that fruits and vegetables are healthy. That’s not a surprise. I think it’s more so how do we meet people and help serve them where they’re at and also be able to provide and compliment the foods that they are eating and being able to support more access.
So, for example, when I was working in the community, being able to provide. Free, free meals to people. And being in the position where we are creating meals for different people that we’re serving, how do we frame that where not only is it appetizing, but also educating people on why they should be eating it. But also making things culturally appropriate where people actually want to have the foods that we’re providing them on top of just instead of coming in and saying, hey, like, we’re going to save you by providing you with all this great healthy food.
Or this food that’s good for our food system, good for the environment, but what are the real steps to making those changes?
Shireen: I appreciate this focus on the why, which leads me to the next question, which is, you’ve co-founded Food + Planet, and this initiative really seeks to empower healthcare professionals to really transform the food system.
It’s a great call to action. Can you walk us through how you’ve the…four dimensional frameworks that you have for sustainable diet, how that really plays a role? Let’s actually start up by focusing on social and culture first. Can you walk me through, what that means?
Sherene: Yeah, absolutely. So, at Food + Planet, we’re really thinking about what is a sustainable diet? Like I mentioned, it can be very complex and so we really urge health professionals to think about it through these four different lenses. And how each of these kind of come into play depending on the communities that you’re serving.
And so, with through sociocultural, we really think about animal welfare standards, whether something is culturally appropriate. Thinking about food justice and food sovereignty, and then also thinking about health equity. So, thinking about all these different aspects when we’re really framing what a diet might look like for an individual or for a community.
Shireen: And what obstacles have you encountered when trying to implement programs that are both acceptable and then also culturally sensitive?
Sherene: Yeah, I think that because there is a big gap and lack in sustainable food systems, sustainability education overall within our profession and among health professionals. And now that it’s not just a hot topic, but a topic that we all really need to engage in. I think people aren’t sure where to begin, so we really wanted to break down the framework to encompass all the different aspects so that people can really dive in and understand.
Okay, we can understand from the planetary health, the science piece, the nutrition pieces at least from a dietitian’s perspective and then overall health professionals, you can understand that piece more. But I think when it comes to social cultural aspects and because of the makeup of health professionals in general, it’s a majority white profession, at least for dietetics, I think healthcare overall.
And so, there is a big lack in education in terms of understanding the diversity of the people that we’re serving. So, trying to bridge that gap not only with your own learning, but also when you’re engaging communities that you’re serving.
Shireen: What are populations that you’ve identified as being most at risk from inadequate access to sustainable diets?
Sherene: Well from my own work. One of the nonprofits that I’ve worked with in the past is LA Kitchen and that is a sister kitchen to DC Central Kitchen among several other community kitchens. And there we served seniors. So people who, and low income seniors.
So, a lot of the seniors who were, are going to these community centers to have lunches or also might have Meals on Wheels. And so, one of the big gaps that I learned from that experience and working hands on is okay people eat. And we all know people eat more than just lunch Monday through Friday.
And that’s when these community centers are open. And so being able to fulfill the gap of providing more food to people who might not be able to have access to food for the other mealtimes, that was one big gap. And I think a lot of times people wrongfully government relies on nonprofits to fulfill that kind of bridge these gaps.
And there are a lot of nonprofits who are trying their best to do this piece. So, I feel like nonprofit work is incredibly important when we were doing that. So that’s one big learning. Another learning is we worked with former foster youth, formerly incarcerated individuals and formerly houseless individuals.
So, a lot of people who are kind of in a transitional period of their life. And a lot of times once you’re in transition, you don’t really have a stable environment. So, being able to provide job security and then also providing a skill. We had a culinary job training program for people so that we would help place them into jobs.
And then also this would help create some sort of security and kind of transition into back and reiterate into society with some stability. And so, I think these are just small populations that are often forgotten but are very much in rural parts of our communities. So, these are just some of the people and I think just even everyday people. Right now, a lot of people are struggling because food is incredibly expensive. And then also the last few years of COVID just so many families have struggled on so many different levels, I think. Just not truly understanding until you are in a position where you might be food insecure or need a little help to kind of reframe your lens of how you’re viewing things in healthcare and sustainability in that sense.
Shireen: What jumps out to me here, Sherene, is that sustainability is really a multifaceted construct, right? Which just varies dimensions that go even beyond the environment. However, when we talk about the environment and the planet, just play a crucial role in sustainable diets. Can you elaborate on the benefits of a sustainable diet for the environment and then also vice versa?
Sherene: Yeah, absolutely. And so, I think there are different reports that have come out. EAT-Lancet Report where they’re putting in different frameworks of how food should be eaten, what should be eaten. Offsetting what we’re eating in terms of land-based, food land, land animals specifically.
With one of our new projects right now, we’re very much focused on blue foods, so aquatic foods and ocean foods. And so, with these types of foods we’re specifically looking at sea vegetables, seaweed. And that’s kind of becoming a more popular conversation as well of how do we turn to different ocean foods, reduce the amount of intensity that we’re putting on land, but also how can we still sustain people, sustain the environment and provide nutrition.
So, these are some of the types of foods that we’re looking to. Aquatic foods, so specifically bivalves, which are mussels, clams, oysters, and then sea vegetables. So, tapping into these wide variety of foods because these really don’t require any type of input almost depending on how it’s grown.
But for the most part, no fertilizers, no inputs and really can help offset land use. So, that’s been a big project that we’re actually going to be sharing the full toolkit for health professionals. We’ve been working on this for over a year, and we have a big toolkit coming out specifically for health professionals and food service professionals with our partners at Food for Climate League that we’ve created. And we’ll have a big launch during Earth Week.
Shireen: Oh, great. So, we’ll, we’ll be on the lookout for that. The next sustainable diet dimension is economics, which is an extremely important aspect. You talked about inflation as well. Because in order to be able to encourage a sustainable diet, it needs to be affordable and accessible. Can you talk to us about the perception that healthy foods are more expensive? I cannot tell you how many times I hear that. And then how true is this belief?
Sherene: Yeah. I think again, it goes to, I think for the most part, depending on who we’re serving, but yes, like I think plant foods are pretty affordable.
Beans and rice, one of the most affordable foods in different variations and varieties that you can find in every single culture. When I think about beans and rice in my culture, I think about tofu and rice. A type of bean and rice. And so many different other cultures have different iterations, whether it’s lentils, whether it’s the variety of beans.
So that is very, very much affordable. I think there are a lot of different resources out there that also requires a lot of cooking from scratch and cooking from home and, and batch cooking. And so, I do feel like these are very much affordable things that we can have that have like pantry staples that don’t go bad, which are great ways to fulfill our nutrient needs and fulfill our…and help offset a lot of the costs and things like that.
So that’s definitely one way. I also encourage people to look to frozen and canned. I know that a lot of times people might have the perception that having fresh is the best, but it’s not necessarily the case. And you are definitely able to have really great variety of diet with frozen produce, with canned produce and canned foods as well.
Shireen: And then the fourth and last dimension is of course the nutrition piece, which focus on the quality of our diet. Globally, we are consuming more than ever, especially animal-based foods. What popular diets are sustainable?
Sherene: I mean, I think. To address that first, it’s whatever diet you’re able to have access to.
And then once I feel like you fulfill the access piece being able to think about variety. And variety, thinking about what types of foods you want to include. And of course, including more plant-based foods is incredibly important. And then also the variety. And so, diet diversity is something that we really strongly urge.
Being able to diversify the type of plants that you’re eating really also helps support the diversity within your gut microbiota. So that’s something that I think we tend to probably often default to the same feet, handful of ingredients. So being able to offset that and diversify and explore all the different types of cuisines out there is really a fun part and also a really important part of eating healthfully.
Shireen: Wait, when we’re speaking of sustainable foods, it’s very easy to default to plant-based foods. Is that for the most part the most sustainable? Are there other types of diets or food choices that can also be sustainable?
Sherene: Yeah, I think that for the most part, you know, looking at a lot of the different reports and things like that, plant forward is overall you don’t have to cut out meat completely.
You don’t have to change your diet completely. But I think, thinking about the fiber piece and thinking about how Americans in general lack a lot of fiber, and we know fiber comes from plants, and so being able to fulfill that fiber piece is really important, but also including the foods that you still enjoy.
And so different reports when we think about different healthy menus. We think about menus of change, which is an initiative from Harvard and the Culinary Institute of America. Thinking about meat or seafood as more of a topping and then the type of meat and seafood that you’re getting to purchase, being able to provide higher quality items of these foods. That’s also more sustainable way.
Shireen: I was going to ask how can we change our eating patterns to be more sustainable but still eat the foods that we enjoy? So, part of it is what you mentioned. Are there other things that you recommend?
Sherene: I think really not having to change something so drastically straight away, I think that’s anything that is successful is something that you’ll be able to stick with.
And so being able to take things at increments and maybe doing some swaps. And so for one day, if you’re thinking about having this type of protein, you know, a red meat or something, maybe think about swapping it out for a different type of protein. Either something from the ocean or something that’s plant based.
It’s really diversifying the type of proteins that you’re having also is important as well. And so, it doesn’t have to be a full swoop. Just get rid of everything that you’re having, but it’s very much exploring different foods that you might not know that you enjoy.
Shireen: And I like thematically what you’re saying is it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
There’s a sliding skill here that you can adapt for your lifestyle, then make small changes to get to where you need to get to and be comfortable so that it doesn’t have to feel overwhelming that you’re not doing certain things, or you feel any kind of guilt around not being able to accomplish those things for yourself.
Sherene: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is removing guilt from any of the foods that you’re having, whether it’s your cultural foods, whether it’s the foods that you just absolutely love and enjoy. Don’t get rid of those. It’s if that’s something that brings you joy, think about other ways to add in other foods that might be also beneficial.
Shireen: I love that. And with that, Sherene, we are toward the end of the episode. How can our listeners connect with you and learn more about your work?
Sherene: Well, I really want to invite everyone to join our toolkit launch which is April 20th. And I don’t know if that will come out at this time or not.
So, April 20th, it will be our big launch. So, you can reach out to me at @eatsustainablefoods on Instagram, or you can reach out to @foodplanetorg on Instagram as well. And we’d be happy, happy to have you at our launch.
Shireen: That’s lovely. That’s lovely. So, follow the Instagram account depending on when this episode releases, but follow that, find the information over there.
With that, Sherene, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so very much for your time. To our listeners you know, head over to our social media and answer this quick question, which is, which of the four components of a sustainable diet that we discussed matters the most to you when making food decision?
So, head over to our social media, go to Facebook, go to Instagram, find Yumlish, and over there, find this very podcast post and common below to tell us which of the four components, again, of a sustainable diet matter the most to you in making food decisions. And so, with that, thank you very much again Sherene for your time.
Sherene: Thank you so much.