More people than ever seem to mindful about the way they eat these days. I am sure you often think about what’s in your food. I know I spend a lot more time reading ingredient labels in the grocery store than in the past. With all the warnings and recalls recently for food ranging from lettuce to beef, it’s enough to make us all wary of everything we eat.

Most of us were raised to enjoy a good steak or cheeseburger, but there are long-term questions to ask about how meat and dairy consumption affect our health. Medical studies often point to the food we eat as a major contributor to health concerns like high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and even some cancers.

So, what’s a health-conscious person to do? While moving towards a plant-based diet — also known as going vegan — might seem drastic, it’s a healthy choice that you can achieve with small steps. Cutting back on meat and dairy is healthy, even if you don’t cut those items out of your diet entirely. The new year gives us all the perfect opportunity to make changes for the better.

Two ideas to get you started are Meatless Monday and Veganuary. As you can tell from the names, these projects are aimed at getting people to try more plant-based foods on certain days of the week or for a short period of time.

Do you worry that a meatless day will be a tasteless day? Put that worry out of your mind. There are plenty of tasty options to choose from right here in Blount County. Both Blaze Pizza and Barley’s have vegan cheese for their pizzas, and they’re worth trying. Pile them with lots of veggies to make a really filling meal. Other good options are McAllister’s for its veggie chili or Moe’s veggie nachos loaded with pico, guacamole and beans and rice. Try a Superfood Wich at Which Wich or choose the ingredients you want and make your own plant-based creation. Even Taco Bell is on the vegan bandwagon with a helpful guide to going plant based on its website: www.tacobell.com/how-to-eat-vegan.

After trying Meatless Monday, you might decide you want to give Veganuary a try. It was started in the United Kingdom in 2014 and has blossomed into a worldwide movement, helping people learn about the many benefits of eating vegan, including overall health for you and the planet. In fact, eating a healthier diet is the second-biggest reason people decide to become vegans. It’s been shown to drop cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. Even better, many people notice physical improvements to conditions like inflammation and irritable bowel syndrome after moving toward plant-based eating.

While improving your health is reason enough to reduce your consumption of meat and dairy, if you’re concerned about environmental issues, going vegan is a great way to lower your environmental impact. Just from a standpoint of water quality and conservation, did you know that it takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce one steak, 800 gallons to produce one glass of milk, 600 gallons to produce one pound of chicken meat and almost 400 gallons to create a pound of eggs? If you forgo meat for just one day a week, you can reduce that load on our water supply. There are plenty of other environmental reasons to go vegan, too, including protecting natural habitats for endangered species.

Whatever the reason you have for trying Meatless Mondays or Veganuary, there are countless benefits for you, our animal friends and the environment. I like to think about how I am making a difference in the world. Why not make a resolution to give it a try in 2019?

Heather Ripley runs her own Maryville business and is a proponent of plant-based eating for health, the animals and the planet.

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