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The Attenborough Challenge: Plant-Based & Mindful Eating

by Maureen McAllister, E-RYT 200, RYT 500, YACEP

It is not logical that millions of modern adults and children around the world are suddenly becoming insulin resistant." -John M. Poothullil

I decided to make one of the more contentious points of Attenborough's plan, (and arguably the hardest given the lure of emotional eating,) the second part of the challenge. This way I have eleven months to work on it, as opposed to one or two. How successful I am will come down to a shift away from perfection-based eating and thinking towards growth-based [insert pun here].

Why is this important? Essentially, “we must change our diet. The planet can’t support billions of meat-eaters." We are a species of carnivores who have hit exponential growth in population models. Attenborough explains it rather simply with cheetahs: "large carnivores are rare in nature because it takes a lot of prey to support each of them. For every single predator on the Serengeti, there are more than 100 prey animals. Whenever we choose a piece of meat, we too are unwittingly demanding a huge expanse of space. The planet can't support billions of large meat-eaters. There just isn't the space."

This premise extends directly to how much land we utilize in our current farming practices with animals. A Life On Our Planet broke it down for us: "Half of the fertile land on earth is now farmland. 70% of the mass of birds on this planet are domestic birds. The vast majority, chickens. We account for over 1/3 of the weight of mammals on earth. A further 60% are the animals we raise to eat. The rest from mice to whales, make up just 4%." Although most people accept that cows specifically are major contributors to global warming through their release of methane and the supporting science, it is not surprising that some in the farming industry are still struggling to accept this reality as their livelihoods have so far depended on these practices. However, change drives innovation, and we learned as much about that in 2020 as we did during the Industrial Revolution--industries and the people behind them are capable of creating new paths forward to keep pace with the modern world.

"A rotary milking machine which milks up to 150 cows an hour at Wageningen University’s Dairy Campus."

If we as a species were to move towards a largely plant-based diet, we would need only half the land we use at the moment, and could also drastically increase the yield that comes from that soil. The Netherlands in particular, a very tiny country, has become notorious for its ingenuity in farming practices as the world's second-largest exporter of food --second only to the United States-- with a fraction of its land. It is an interesting read if you have the time, and inspiring! I'll settle with sharing one quote:

"Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent."

"A sea of greenhouses surrounds a farmer’s home in the Westland region of the Netherlands. The Dutch have become world leaders in agricultural innovation, pioneering new paths to fight hunger."

Over the last ten years, I have dabbled with going vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based (though I stick with a primarily Mediterranean diet now). All have failed with varying degrees of success. I will tell you what I have realized during the months I have gone mostly plant-based:

  • I have more energy.

  • I am more easily able to maintain my weight; for many years I struggled with bouncing up and down like a yo-yo (I will say regular movement and eliminating alcohol also helped substantially here).

  • I feel more clear-minded and have more sustained energy through the day (not as many 3 pm slumps).

  • My skin clears up and I have fewer digestion issues.

  • I've learned how to make food with more taste, using herbs and spices instead of relying on sugar, fat, and oil.

  • I saved a lot of money on groceries!

Why did I stop? I am a creature of comfort and old habits die hard. There are food scientists who make a living in purposefully designing food that is meant to be addictive and leave us feeling strung out when we haven't reached our sugary "bliss-point" in a while. I used to work for a food addiction expert where I learned quite a bit about nefarious tactics from the food industry--but having that knowledge didn't change anything. I probably ate worse when I worked there because it was stressful. I think it is important to note that when making any biochemical changes in the body, it feels weird the first few weeks while your body adjusts. It's probably best to accept this upfront, and not expect to feel suddenly, magically better overnight.

For anyone with a regular yoga practice, you may also notice that the longer you practice, the more attuned you become to your emotions, thoughts, energy levels, and how your body is affected by your environment. When I eat better, I feel better. I also would like to start expanding theYama (social ethic) of Ahimsa into my life through my food practices--to keep respect for and avoid violence towards other living beings.

Some of you may have heard me talk about my fascination for Blue Zone culture in my classes, as well. Blue Zones, is a term coined by Dan Buettner, to describe geographic locations on the globe whose elders defy age and often live to be over 100+ years old. You can learn more about it in his TED talk here. Now, this is not to say that everyone has to go 100% plant-based immediately to participate in this challenge! Easing in works. Figuring out what is manageable and will work personally for you.

Four lifestyle lessons I learned from Dan Buettner:

  1. Choose whole foods and a plant-based diet (naturally low in fat and sugar, and strive to eat until you feel about 80% full).

  2. Practice stress management techniques (including yoga and meditation).

  3. Enjoy moderate exercise (such as walking).

  4. Maintain social support and community (love and intimacy, meaning, and purpose).

Now for the Challenge:

  • Avoid perfection-based thinking - when I screw up I'm not going to stop what I'm doing altogether, I'm going to acknowledge it and keep going. Maximizing on learning the lessons instead of giving up has been a big one for me in 2020!!

  • Try to eat mostly fruit and vegetable-based meals (I'm not against carbs!). If I have a craving, I try to sit on it for a few hours or days before giving in.

  • Practice elements of mindful eating to mitigate emotional eating.

How to manage emotional eating:

Tips from Sarah Romotsky, RD & Director of Health Partners at Headspace (probably my favorite meditation service provider ever!):

  • If feeling overwhelmed by life right now, don't let this become an extra source of stress. Start small--perhaps just aiming for extra fruits and vegetables this month.

  • If you find yourself engaging in a specific eating behavior you're not too thrilled about, simply notice it and acknowledge if you want to modify that behavior and how you might adjust it.

  • When you find yourself upset about a food decision like what you ate or how much, practice self-compassion and talk to yourself from a place of kindness and self-forgiveness.

  • When going to sugary and salty foods to self-soothe, listen to your body, and its natural hunger cues. If you want to snack, let yourself snack, but pre-portion the food out ahead of time before sitting down.

  • Sometimes feeling hungry is also a sign of thirst. Try a cup of water or tea and see how you feel after.

  • One of the core principles of mindful eating is to turn off distractions. So especially when you find yourself emotional, let yourself sit and just enjoy the taste of your food. (Eating slowly also helps us to start gauging when we actually feel 80% full, since it takes time for those cues to travel to the brain.)

  • A lot of the research on cravings show it's not a physical thing, it's a mental one. You can rewire your brain by offering new emotional connections and memories in place of the ones associated with food. Aromatherapy or smelling something different can help with some of these cravings.

My friend Keegan Abernathy, MS, CNS, LDN, who is a nutritionist and completed the Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) model with Andrea Lieberstein, will also be giving a free virtual session for Guided Mindful Eating on Jan 30th, 2021 from 12-1 PM. Keegan is a yoga teacher and owns his own nutrition practice, True Nature Wellness, which has been a wonderful resource to many people in our community! You can sign up for the session here. Clarksburg Yoga and Wellness students who are interested in receiving more tailored and personalized nutrition consulting this month will also receive a complimentary promo code to True Nature Wellness!

Keegan and I went on a walk recently where we discussed this project and the vast amount of misinformation that is currently circulating out there about food--especially in Netflix documentaries! If you are interested in learning more quality information, he recommends following best-selling author Michael Pollan and checking out his documentary on Amazon, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.


For anyone who would like to take this challenge a step further and give vegan-based living a try--Francia Groman will be following up in a couple of weeks with a guest blog. She will be identifying common pitfalls that she ran into when making the transition to a vegan lifestyle and how she overcame them.

This will be a hard change to make, especially in 2020 +1! I look forward to discussing and hearing how you all handle it, as well! Expect more food posts this month. ;)

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