Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.
This week, I look at the second staple on my grocery list: soy.
Up until last year, even though I barely ate any meat, it didn’t mean I was doing the planet any favors. I was eating a lot of junk, sometimes wrapped in plastic (both transparent and neon). I had to find some accessible and affordable protein options that was easy to modify. Your dietary staples are like the Little Black Dresses of your closet—an easy base that you can jazz up or down without much effort.
As I wrote earlier, I settled on tofu because it was easy to get on this side of the world. I actually grew up eating taho, a Philippine snack made of soybean curd. I still remember when I was around eight years old and there was a guy who usually goes around yelling “Taho!” so the neighborhood would come out and get some as an afternoon snack. On its own, taho is quite healthy, but it usually comes with several tablespoons’ worth of sugary syrup and tapioca balls, sooo I guess that negates it. (I still like it, but now I hold the syrup and find something other than a plastic cup.)
Soy may seem a better protein alternative to meat, but again not always. Unsurprisingly, organic soybeans are way better, both in terms of your health and farmers’ lives. Soy can also be the opposite and actually do the planet more harm than good, as forests often have to make way for soy plantations.
I don’t look at soy as the food that will save the planet—just another dish that’s a better alternative than red meat and that I can easily add to my list of basics and will take off my list if I find a better option.
A nutrition audit
In the beginning of the year I was consuming soy in large amounts which I hadn’t realized until I did a nutrition audit of all the things I was feeding myself. I had stopped drinking animal milk (a choice not for everyone, but I don’t miss it), so soy milk was in my overnight oats and in my post-taekwondo smoothies.
I was concerned about the number of servings I was taking, which turned out to be about five a day. There is such a huge debate on whether soy is good or bad. For me, too much fuss means either I strive for balance or I find another alternative altogether. A planetary diet doesn’t just aspire for zero-waste, but zero-drama. And so I make my own cashew milk (with a box of soy milk in my pantry in case I forget). I also took my soy intake down to two to three a day, sometimes every other day when I alternate with fish.
My godmother, who is a doctor, also told me I should take fermented soy, which I can find in some Asian dishes and condiments I like, such as jajangmyeon (black bean noodles), gochujang (chili pepper paste), miso, and tempeh. There are others that I don’t love yet, such as (yikes) natto, but hey, at this point I’m up for anything. Sadly, the little soy milk I eat and the blocks of tofu in my fridge are not made from fermented soy, so perhaps I’ll take it as a challenge to learn to make some later this year. After all, my tofu blocks still come in plastic and I haven’t found a way to get around this yet.
One of the many great things about growing up in Asia is that tofu-based dishes are easy to come by, and I realized that what made tofu taste from “ok” to “wow” were the sauces it was marinated in. And one great thing about being so East-meets-West is that one often finds recipes that blends many cultures together, and I love finding recipes for tofu marinades online. You can never have too many of these on hand.
As I keep re-learning and will keep saying until even my junk food-eating family starts listening to me, the best way to like something that initially tastes unappetizing is to find a way to make it taste awesome. And the more I look into diet from a more environmental perspective, the more I’m learning to be optimistic. Cook with spices, people! Despite how bad things may seem in 2017, I’m thankful we don’t have countries waging war about spices anymore, and it’s easy to buy them or you can learn how to grow them yourself from eager gardeners on the internet. And be flexible with cooking methods. If you hate tofu that’s steamed (like me), maybe try roasting it. I’m sure our cavemen ancestors were relieved when they finally learned how to cook with fire.
Moving like water
In taekwondo, my coaches taught me the importance of changing up our training sessions. We never did the exact same thing every day. Our bodies were going to plateau, and there were other muscles we were going to neglect. Sometimes we needed to train harder, such as on Mondays since we had the weekend off or a few days after we got back from the holidays because our bodies were beginning to wake up again. Sometimes we needed to take it easy, such as when my coaches knew I was having a rough day. I was taught to adapt, and the less I resisted, the more I was able to accomplish. My mind and my body were in sync.
So here is another thing I learned so far: to have consistency in health (both personal and planet-wise), you actually need variety in your diet. I think the monotony of eating the same fast food takeout, or the same unhealthy portions (whether too much or too little), made my health go completely awry.
But when you eat with the season, with what your body actually needs, and with a diversity of flavors, everything recalibrates itself. I haven’t used a plastic bag in weeks, I don’t make as many purchases, I have much more energy, and I actually look forward to tasting new things. I’ve also dropped a dress size and feel a lot less bloated. Had I known this was going to happen, I would’ve done this years ago. Who knew that nature, not annoying internet ads, held the secret to a flatter belly.