How to Be a Conscious Eater

Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet


By Sophie Egan

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A radically practical guide to making food choices that are good for you, others, and the planet.

Is organic really worth it? Are eggs ok to eat? If so, which ones are best for you, and for the chicken—Cage-Free, Free-Range, Pasture-Raised? What about farmed salmon, soy milk, sugar, gluten, fermented foods, coconut oil, almonds? Thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or somewhere in between?

Using three criteria—Is it good for me? Is it good for others? Is it good for the planet?—Sophie Egan helps us navigate the bewildering world of food so that we can all become conscious eaters. To eat consciously is not about diets, fads, or hard-and-fast rules. It’s about having straightforward, accurate information to make smart, thoughtful choices amid the chaos of conflicting news and marketing hype. An expert on food’s impact on human and environmental health, Egan organizes the book into four categories—stuff that comes from the ground, stuff that comes from animals, stuff that comes from factories, and stuff that’s made in restaurant kitchens. This practical guide offers bottom-line answers to your most top-of-mind questions about what to eat.

“The clearest, most useful food book I own.”—A. J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author


Disclaimer: The author is not a doctor or medical professional. Before making any changes to your diet, consult a professional health care practitioner. Neither the author nor the publisher shall be liable or responsible for any loss, injury, or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestions contained in this book. This book is the product of Sophie Egan as an individual, not a spokesperson for The Culinary Institute of America.

Part 1

Stuff that Comes from the Ground

First, the bad news: Health-wise, our nation is in crisis. Maybe you're tired of hearing this. I sure am. We've been in this pickle for decades now: the prevalence and duration of the obesity epidemic going on multiple generations; crippling health care costs; compromised quality of life for millions of adults and children, many of whom are dying at ages younger than their parents and grandparents; and a serious threat to national security caused by a population unfit to serve in the armed forces. We're not alone, either: Globally, one in five deaths can be tied to poor diet.

Environment-wise, our planet is also in crisis. The newest research says that 2030 is the year by which climate change will significantly affect and even take more lives than it has in the past. Remember 2010? The Chilean miners, the BP oil spill, Wikileaks. Seems like a short time ago. It was ten years. That's how long we have to change things for the better before we see disasters that might include even more destructive episodes of extreme weather, heat and drought that put our health at risk, difficulty accessing clean drinking water, and eventually conflict between nations over who gets to use which natural resources to keep their people alive. And if the current standard operating procedures continue, the struggle of the people who grow our food—farmers and farmworkers—will become even more severe.

On the bright side, what would make the biggest difference for lowering our odds of diet-related disease is eating more healthy foods, as opposed to the usual finger-wagging to just cut the junk. Specifically, we're urged to consume more fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains than we currently do. The conveniently great news is that what's good for the planet aligns almost exactly with what is good for our health.

Eating a plant-rich diet not only is the approach most tied to longevity and well-being but is also dubbed the fourth most effective climate-change-reversing solution. By no means necessarily vegan or vegetarian, what this means in practice is eating mostly plant-based foods. But not at the expense of flavor. Done right, eating lots of stuff from the ground can fill your belly and bring you joy.

Source: Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation 2015


Almonds: Health Nuts or Water Hogs?

Until about 2011, almonds were sitting pretty. Americans had finally gotten excited about regularly eating something genuinely good for them. Almond butter had penetrated the market to challenge peanut butter as the only game in town. But then, a scathing report brought the concept of a food's "water footprint" into the mainstream, and almonds became the poster child of foods that require an irresponsibly high amount of water. A water footprint is the amount of water involved in growing, processing, and delivering a food product to us. All together, the US agriculture industry sucks up about 80 percent of our country's available fresh water. In part because of climate change (drought, extreme temperatures, erratic rain), by the year 2025, two-thirds of the people on this planet could face water shortages. That's what's at stake here.

More than 80 percent of almonds eaten around the world are grown in California. One of the biggest gripes about the high toll on California's drought-stricken agriculture system is that two-thirds of the almonds grown are exported. This "virtual water" gets shipped abroad. Furthermore, wildlife comes under threat when water levels reach dangerously low levels, as when endangered king salmon in Northern California reportedly became imperiled by water being diverted to almond farms.

So, it was a big deal when we learned that it takes an entire gallon of water just to produce one almond. Ouch. Suddenly something long seen as a sign of a health-conscious eater was making shoppers think twice.

All of this is true, but two caveats are warranted:

1 The high footprint is in part because, to date, most almond growers haven't been incentivized to use water efficiently. Almonds are an economic powerhouse for California, and my sense is that growers have not been motivated to be frugal because they either have historically had such cushy water rights or could afford to buy senior water rights from others by growing such a lucrative crop. Flood irrigation has long been the norm. But that's started to change post-exposé. Farmers have been shifting to more precise techniques like drip irrigation, resulting in a flat level of total water consumption as an industry—despite having doubled almond acreage in California over the past two decades.

2 Almonds get the most heat for high water use, but other foods require a lot, too. It takes 37 gallons to produce your cup of coffee. It takes 450 gallons to make just one bar of chocolate. And it takes a whopping 660 gallons to make a Whopper. The comparison with animal-based foods overall is especially unfavorable. Yet that big-picture message often gets lost in the fray.

It's not to say we turn a blind eye to almonds' thirsty ways, but we have to weigh that issue against the benefits of almonds, the broad appeal they have to Americans, and their availability to most people. In other words, we have to consider them in the context of other foods we're choosing between. Nutritionally, almonds (and pretty much all nuts) offer healthy fats, nutrients, and a good amount of protein. They can be high in calories, but worth it, especially for how full you often feel after eating just a handful. They're best consumed instead of less healthy snacks like chips, crackers, cookies, or candy. Consistently, large long-term studies—such as the Adventist Health Studies, the Iowa Women's Health Study, and the Nurses' Health Study—find that regular nut eaters have a lower likelihood of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. As much as a 30 to 50 percent lower chance, in fact. And a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. There just aren't that many foods out there with such a well-established body of evidence to support their being a regular fixture in our diets for long-term health outcomes.

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. (The carbon footprint of a food is the amount of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, emitted to grow, process, and deliver it to us.) Or let's take breakfast. Almond butter toast instead of a bacon-and-egg breakfast sandwich? Almond butter toast across the board. In your coffee, almond milk's carbon footprint is about half that of dairy milk, according to an analysis by Planet Vision. Nutritionally, it depends on the brand and how each type of milk is made. Water-wise, almond milk wins over dairy (cows need a lot of water).

But of course there are plenty of other tasty nuts with comparable health benefits, great flavor, and a water footprint similar to or even lower than that of almonds. Walnuts and pistachios top the list. Peanuts are the lowest water users of all the nuts, and the most affordable.

As for how almonds affect others, don't overlook food allergies. Tree nuts (Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios, and walnuts, in addition to almonds) are one of the eight most common allergens in the United States.

How Much Water Does it Take?

Gallons of water required to produce one standard serving of the following food products:


Why Water Beats All, and Tap Beats Bottle

A long time ago, around 1970, almost nobody paid to drink water. It was a ridiculous notion. Then someone figured out that, like everything else, if you add a snazzy label to it and maybe a few celebrity endorsements, people will buy. And buy we have. Bottled water is now a nearly $19 billion industry in the United States.

Now, to be clear, I want you to drink water. In fact, plain old water is by far the healthiest beverage to consume in copious amounts. Drinking water keeps your digestive system on track and can help you maintain a healthy weight because it fills you up. Water beats milk, soda, juice, energy drinks, and sports drinks for daily hydration. We can't live without water; we can live without Red Bull. (And I hear some people can even live without wine, those noble souls.) The point is, drink water. And drink it from the tap instead of bottled. Because:

It's free.

It's safe.

It's better for the planet.

It provides you with fluoride.

To break it down

Cost: We spend as much as 2,000 times more for a gallon of bottled water than for one from the tap. Two thousand times! That's according to a 2018 report by Food & Water Watch. Why waste your money for something that gets delivered to your kitchen for free? (OK, technically you pay for home tap water through your monthly water bill, but it's been estimated that this costs $0.004 per gallon. That's less than a penny for 16 cups of water. Practically free.) Reusable containers—whether a glass at home or a water bottle on the go—are the best way to hydrate, for both financial and environmental sustainability.

Safety: We have one of the best, most reliable public water systems in the world. Ninety percent of the time, your community water source in the United States meets or exceeds the federal water safety standards for contaminants (e.g., from agricultural runoff) and bacteria. If you're wondering if you're in the 10 percent whose doesn't, know that by law your water provider must deliver a consumer confidence report annually by mail. You can check online for it anytime through the Environmental Protection Agency. At least in theory. I tried actually doing this and, it being a government website, nothing worked as advertised. It was extremely confusing. Instead, contact your local utility directly for the report, or search your district in the Environmental Working Group's more user-friendly website. The point is, if you have concerns about the safety of your home tap water, get peace of mind by having it tested. The Food & Water Watch report also points out that tap water is subjected to more rigorous safety testing than bottled water—something most people don't realize. I didn't.

Now, there are certainly exceptions to the assumed safety of tap water in the United States. In Flint, Michigan, most notably, residents suffered from devastating and scandalous lead contamination. Though the situation has since improved, any residents who are still waiting for their lead pipes to be replaced have good reason to remain wary of water from their sinks. As with anyone who has concerns, Flint residents have been encouraged to get their water tested and use a filter.

What about health? If we assume that bottled water is displacing other worse beverages like soda, that's progress. And in fact, since the early 2000s, the downward trend of soda sales has coincided with the upward trend of bottled water sales. In a major tipping point, in 2016 Americans bought more bottled water than bottled soda. Something to celebrate, no? The trouble is the false premise of the marketing: Manufacturers position it as a healthy alternative to soda (which it is). Except that choosing bottled water should be compared with choosing tap water. In that light, it's a bamboozling, environmentally worse, health-wise-neutral, far more expensive alternative.

The planet: It takes a lot of resources to make and ship bottled water (more in Part 3 on the environmental harms of churning through so many single-use plastics). From there, reports vary widely about recycling rates, from as low as about 17 percent to a high of only about 54 percent. The rest winds up in landfills, polluting lakes, or adding to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That's a 600,000-square-mile patch of floating garbage, made up of nearly two trillion pieces of plastic floating between California and Hawaii. Studies estimate that over fifty billion plastic bottles of water get consumed each year in the United States—more than twice the amount consumed in 2000. The average family of four now goes through an entire case a week.

Fluoridation: Ignore the fearmongering chatter, because the American Dental Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other credible health officials agree that fluoridated tap water is good for long-term oral health. Considered one of the greatest public health achievements of the past century, it means you get to spend less time in the dentist's office having your teeth drilled.

Reasons to think twice before drinking your tap water

You rely on a private well instead of public supply. This is roughly 10 percent of Americans. Private wells aren't regulated by the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act standards, so you are encouraged to test the water from yours annually for bacteria, other contaminants like heavy metals, and pH levels.

You are pregnant or have young kids. The possibility of lead contamination is the main exception to the clear, obvious, unequivocal advantage of tap water over bottled. The vast majority of utilities stopped using lead lines in the 1980s, but between approximately six million and twenty-two million Americans still get their tap water via lead pipes, which may not appear in your citywide water report. Lead exposure, especially for kids, is a serious matter. Elevated lead levels affect cognitive development and behavior. So those who are pregnant or have young kids are encouraged to test their own water. Call the EPA's safe drinking water hotline (800-426-4791) or your local water utility to find the form and a lab where you can send a sample from your faucet. I did this myself through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and it worked great. They mailed me an empty testing bottle, which I filled from my kitchen sink, and then I called them to come pick it up from my doorstep. A few weeks later I received notice from the lab that my water's lead levels were quite safe. It cost $25, which was a lot, but it was well worth it for the peace of mind—and the savings—to continue drinking my tap water.

You checked your water district's safety report and it got a bad score. If you think your water may be cause for concern, once you know the status of your tap water, consider buying a filter certified by NSF International, an organization that helps consumers with issues related to the health and safety of food, water, and various products. Different tap water filters remove different contaminants, and they range from "point-of-use" options like pitchers and contraptions you install under the sink to treatment systems for your whole house. See more information at

The Fizzy Fix

Now, if it's bubbles you're after, buy a home carbonator, such as SodaStream, and make your own sparkling water. (Sparkling water is the umbrella term for carbonated water, including naturally carbonated sparkling mineral water and artificially carbonated seltzer and club soda.) It'll sure save you money. Sparkling water companies sell approximately 800 million gallons, or $8.5 billion worth, in the United States each year. LaCroix (Nasdaq symbol FIZZ) is even traded on the stock market.

Despite persistent rumors, bubbles are not bad for you. It's just pressurized carbon dioxide. Your bone density and teeth are safe. And, if you make your own effervescence, you don't have to worry about whether the manufacturer snuck in added sweeteners or other additives.


The Best Produce Is the Kind You Eat

Of all the things you could possibly do for your health, eating more fruits and vegetables is far and away one of the best. It's that simple.

You'll want to aim for at least five servings a day and a delicious diversity. Eating enough veggies is especially important. Fortunately, a serving is not as big as you may think—you can easily have two or three in one sitting. If they can be organic, great. If they can be seasonal and regional, great. The primary thing is to eat them.

How much is a serving?

Here are some examples of a serving of fruit and a serving of vegetables. Aim for five a day total.

Adapted from the American Heart Association


Why Organic is Better, When You Can Afford It

Being a conscious eater means of course that you care not only about your own health and that of your family but also about the impact of your food choices on others and the planet. Dozens of different third-party certifications are used on food products, so depending on your budget and the things you care most about supporting, certain ones may be worth the extra cost. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s organic label is arguably the most rigorously backed certification on the market. It's not perfect, but it checks a lot of boxes.

What's at stake for the planet

According to the USDA, the practices that distinguish organic agriculture include "maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering." Organic processes "contribute to soil, crop and livestock nutrition, pest and weed management, attainment of production goals, and conservation of biological diversity." Among a portfolio of practices, managing pests and weeds is a major difference between conventional and organic production methods, so pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides are top-of-mind considerations in deciding between the two. Conventional industrial agriculture is characterized by maximizing the yield of crops above all else—doing so through energy-intensive farming practices and synthetic chemicals as fertilizers, at the expense of the surrounding environment. By contrast, rather than using chemicals with abandon, organic farmers first work to prevent and avoid pests, insects, and weeds and then, if need be, suppress them through approved substances. As a general rule, substances that are naturally derived are allowed, whereas synthetic substances are prohibited, though there are exceptions in both directions. Not that being made by humans automatically makes something bad, but it's worth noting that conventional agriculture has at its disposal at least 900 approved synthetic pesticides, whereas organic agriculture has only 25. All told, organic farms host more biodiversity (from bees to butterflies), release fewer greenhouse gases into the air, and enhance the quality of their soil and water. Yields vary but can certainly be less than non-organic. This can lead to the need for more farmland to grow the same amount of food, which may be a potential drawback.

What's at stake for others

Organically grown produce means significantly less exposure to pesticides, and therefore far lower risk of the long-term reproductive, cognitive, or cancer-related health problems that have been tied to the chemicals. The health problems associated with certain toxic agrochemicals are especially concerning for farmworkers, whose exposure is higher and more direct than that of consumers, often through skin contact or breathing the chemicals, rather than by ingesting food with chemical residues.

The same goes for rural communities that may be exposed because of pesticide drift, which occurs when chemicals get carried through the air after being sprayed on a given plot. This issue disproportionately affects low-income communities of color, who often lack the political capital to earn the environmental justice protections they deserve.

Economic development—boosting rural communities and helping to lift farmers living on the margins out of poverty—may be another benefit of supporting organic practices. Some research suggests that because farmers earn a premium on organically grown food, it provides higher incomes to help run small- or medium-sized family farms. By one estimate, organic farmers earn about 35 percent more than conventional farmers, at least those in North America, Europe, and India. That said, actual wages and labor conditions for farmworkers are by no means necessarily any better under organic standards. On farms of all types, some alarming conditions have been reported, such as backbreaking repetitive motions, heat exhaustion and dehydration, forced labor, withheld pay, and lack of breaks. For assurance of fair labor practices, a handful of farms from California to Florida and New York have earned Food Justice Certification from the Agricultural Justice Project. The certification earns Consumer Reports' "highly meaningful" designation; see

What's at stake for your own health

Overall, the risks to human health are fairly low from most pesticide residues, or so it appears thus far, and at least according to the USDA and the EPA. That said, certain pesticides are more hazardous than others.

The type of chemicals that appear to be the most toxic are called organophosphates. A 2016 investigation by the EPA led to the conclusion that one such chemical, chlorpyrifos—which is commonly used on more than fifty crops, from broccoli and cauliflower to apples and oranges, and has been linked to acute illness among farmworkers and rural residents exposed to it, and to more severe long-term problems for babies and children, such as lower IQ, low birth weight, and developmental delays—was not safe and should be banned. But that ban has since been rejected. It remains to be seen what happens policy-wise, but regardless, we'll all want to steer clear of it. (See the shopping tips in the next essay.) Thankfully, use of these chemicals has already declined, so their prevalence is not as high as it once was.

The most widely used herbicide in conventional agriculture is called glyphosate. In 2015, it was dubbed a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency on Cancer Research. More recently, in a very public court case against Monsanto, a giant chemical company that produces herbicides containing glyphosate (Roundup and Ranger Pro are the trade names), a San Francisco groundskeeper won nearly $300 million by demonstrating that exposure to these chemicals from spraying them in his job significantly contributed to his life-threatening non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

When it comes to exposure through food, the people at highest risk are women and men trying to conceive, pregnant women, and children. A few studies suggest some compromised fertility, and in utero or early childhood exposure to organophosphates has been associated with damage to the brain and nervous systems, as well as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

There's a lot we don't know yet about pesticides and health. This is especially true of the long-term, cumulative effects of exposure to residues in food even if they're present at low levels at a given time. Plus, questions abound from many environmental groups and farmworker advocacy groups about the synergistic effects of pesticides used together, and how that could affect health risks. Given the historical track record in the United States of finding out only years later that things long allowed in the food supply are bad for us, I argue for the better-safe-than-sorry approach—while keeping a level head. Read on to see what that means in practice.


Radically Practical Tips for Buying Produce

In the spirit of being a conscious eater while making your meals as satisfying and downright joyful for yourself as possible, here are my top tips for buying produce you can feel good about:

Just eat them. Only once you've found a way to afford, access, and feed yourself and your family sufficient servings of fruits and vegetables should you worry about anything else. Eating at least five servings a day is far and away the number one priority.

Be strategic on organic. It's unrealistic for most of us to have the budget to buy organic everything. But if you'd like to choose some organic produce and want to know where you get the most bang for your buck, follow the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen. The Dirty Dozen lists the types of produce with the highest levels of pesticide residue. Strawberries and spinach are at the top of the list, along with apples, grapes, tomatoes, bell peppers, and more. As a general rule, if you eat the skin, opt for organic. If not, and it has a peel instead—bananas, avocados, oranges, and so on—buying organic is less important. The Clean Fifteen are the produce categories with the lowest levels of pesticide residue. The list includes avocados and sweet corn as the cleanest, along with asparagus, eggplant, cauliflower, pineapples, and more. Read more at

The EWG's Dirty Dozen

If you are able, it's a good idea to buy organic versions of these foods that have the highest levels of pesticide residue.

Mothers, babies, children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that if you're pregnant or have young children, wash all fruits and vegetables and buy organic produce when possible to minimize exposure to pesticide residues. You're also encouraged to choose fresh or frozen produce to minimize exposure to BPA, a harmful plastic that lines many metal cans, including some canned fruits and vegetables.

Eat seasonally.


  • “…smart and sensible approach to eating consciously…” Michael Pollan, New York Times bestselling author 

    "If you’ve ever stalled out in the refrigerated aisle debating the environmental merits of oat vs. almond milk, add this book to your bedside table. Sophie Egan provides clear, non-judgmental information... It’s a practical guide that empowers readers to understand the plethora of labels and claims out there and make informed food choices every time you go to the store." Bon 

    “The clearest, most useful food book I own. Thank you, Sophie, from my stomach, farm animals everywhere, and my great-great-grandchildren.”
    —A.J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author

    “Thought-provoking… Egan displays a talent for making the environmental complexities of food choices comprehensible… [A] thorough primer to combining health consciousness and environmental responsibility.” – Publishers Weekly starred review 

    “Egan (Devoured: How We Eat Defines Who We Are) presents a voice of reason in the cacophony of advice about food and diet that surrounds us…Recommended for everyone who eats, particularly those who hope to improve their own health and the planet’s by doing so.”Library Journal starred review

    “Readers will find much to take away, including reminders that our consumer behavior can drive change and that what's good for us and good for the planet often align.”—Booklist

On Sale
Mar 17, 2020
Page Count
280 pages

Sophie Egan

Sophie Egan

About the Author

Sophie Egan, MPH is director of health and sustainability leadership as well as the editorial director for strategic initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America. Based in San Francisco, Egan is a contributor to The New York Times’ health section, and she has written about food and health for The Washington Post, EatingWell, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, WIRED, Edible San Francisco, and other publications. Her first book, Devoured: How What We Eat Defines Who We Are (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016), is a journey into the American food psyche. Egan holds a master of public health, with a focus on health and social behavior, from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was a Center for Health Leadership fellow. She also holds a bachelor of arts with honors in history from Stanford University. In 2016, she was named one of the UC Global Food Initiative’s 30 Under 30. In 2018, she earned a certificate from the Harvard Executive Education in Sustainability Leadership program at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment.

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