A Plant-based Challenge

Can a burger lover survive 30 days without meat?

“What have I gotten myself into?” — Sean

“He finally did it!” I announced over the phone to my mom.

With the same enthusiasm I would have if Sean, my boyfriend of three years, had popped the question, I exclaimed, “He finally agreed to be a vegetarian for 30 days!”

It wasn’t the exciting news my mom had been hoping for, but it was a big deal to me.

A Bit(e) of Background

I’ve eaten a plant-based diet since I was 16 for various moral, health and environmental reasons. But I’ve never been an “evangelizing vegetarian” — someone who attempts to convert everyone they meet to a meat-free diet. Let’s face it, eating is personal.

So when I met Sean, a hilarious and whip-smart guy whose favorite foods happen to be fried chicken and juicy cheeseburgers, I didn’t let it become a deal breaker.

That’s not to say we both haven’t had to learn to adjust. Learning to cook and eat with a devout meat eater took a bit of trial and error, especially since he professed an aversion to most vegetables. But we eventually learned how to make tasty meals together that satisfied us both.

It wasn’t until I started an internship with the Center for Biological Diversity that my ambivalent attitude towards Sean’s meat-filled diet changed.

While working on an assignment, I came across the Center’s Extinction Facts labels. They creatively put into perspective just how much environmental damage America’s appetite for meat causes. For example, to make a single hamburger it takes 425 gallons of water, nearly 595 square feet of habitat and more than 6 pounds of greenhouse gases.

Check out the Extinction Facts Labels for yourself here.

Sean eats a burger nearly every week, and he’s not alone. Americans consume about 50 billion pounds of meat each year. So, in an effort to see if I could help tackle America’s carnivorous culture, I decided to try to persuade the biggest meat eater I know to adopt a more Earth-friendly diet.

When I showed Sean the Extinction Facts labels, he was astounded. He wasn’t ready to quit meat-eating all together, but the widespread damage caused by animal agriculture convinced him to give a 30-day challenge a shot. He just had one major stipulation:

Sean would not, under any circumstances, eat tofu.

The Challenge Begins…

We chose a time-period that didn’t include any big holidays or other celebrations to try to avoid any difficult temptations. Not even 48 hours into the challenge, despite our planning, Sean faced (and passed) his first tests. He braced himself and quickly walked past his favorite burger joint. He even turned down free sausage samples at the farmer’s market.

Sean’s saving grace during the challenge was breakfast, as this was the easiest meal of the day for him to avoid eating meat. With so many meat-free breakfast options — pancakes, cereal, oatmeal and even eggs — he had lots of choices.

Sean especially loved eating my original pancakes for breakfast.

Lunch and dinner proved to be more difficult. Sean reluctantly replaced his BLT sandwiches, pepperoni pizza and carne asada burritos with grilled cheese, cheese pizza and bean and cheese burritos. While these were all incredibly tasty substitutes, they created an unexpected and unpleasant problem… I don’t know how to put this gracefully. Sean was cutting even more cheese than he was consuming.

And here’s the kicker: It takes about nine pounds of milk to make just one pound of cheese. The American thirst for milk alone, not including cheese, produces as much greenhouse gases as 9.2 million cars. To save the two of us and help the planet, we decided limit cheese as well.

Clearly the challenge was living up to its name. Sean became a meatless mope, and it was time to call for backup.

As a true millennial, I turned to the internet for reinforcements: Tasty recipes that skipped meat and dairy. We tried quinoa and carrot kugel, quinoa and black bean veggie burgers and an Indian eggplant and tomato dish called Baingan Bharta.

All three were a hit since these cheese-less options were both tasty and also easy to make. Thankfully, our new recipe arsenal helped make the rest of the challenge significantly easier.

One of Sean’s favorite challenge dinners was Baingan Bharta on top of rice paired with butter-steamed broccoli.

An Omnivorous Convert?

I’m happy to report that Sean successfully made it 30 days completely meat free. He liked that cooking plant-based meals took less time. He also found that the challenge made him a more adventurous eater. And, yes, he even tried tofu.

But probably the biggest win is in the numbers: Using USDA statistics, we determined that Sean’s challenge saved 17 animals and prevented the release of 134 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to taking 28 cars off the road for an entire year.

We were both blown away by the results, but Sean still isn’t quite ready to fully commit himself to a completely plant-based diet. As a compromise he now eats vegetarian at home, only eating meat dishes when we go out.

That commitment is nothing to sneeze at. Cutting just one-third of the meat from his diet can save as much as 340,667 gallons of water, more than 4,000 square feet of land, and the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving 2,700 fewer miles per year.

If every American followed Sean’s lead, we could protect crucial habitat from destruction, clean up our waterways and help prevent a significant portion of climate destruction.

Natasha Tandler was an intern for the Center for Biological Diversity.