Pop Culture

The Book That Changed the Way We Eat Is as Timely as Ever

Author Frances Moore Lappé reflects on the 50-year legacy of Diet for a Small Planet, which argues that plant-based eating can save us and the planet.

A delicious and colorful massive bowl of fruit surrounded by colorful faces.

Illustration by Simon Abranowicz

In 1971 Berkeley, California, a 26-year-old new mother and researcher named Frances Moore Lappé was preoccupied with the idea of ending world hunger. After realizing that meat production was a major contributor to food scarcity, she set out to spread her message. What started as a DIY pamphlet became Diet for a Small Planet, a book that went on to sell millions of copies and popularize vegetarian diets, veritably changing the way many Americans eat. The 50th anniversary edition is being released on September 21st, into a world where its message is more relevant than ever. (The recipe section has also been updated to include additions from some of the most exciting chefs working today, like Bryant Terry and Brooks Headley.)

“I keep thinking, How many people are still alive and still able to do a 50th anniversary of their first book? So I’m really psyched about it,” Lappé tells me from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you want an example of Frances Moore Lappé’s influence, you don’t even have to look beyond the pages of GQ. Consider that our wellness columnist is plant-based. Or that we named a veggie patty the best burger in America, sent our food critic on a tour of decadent animal-free restaurants, and recently hit up Travis Barker about his vegan diet. Hell, that Travis Barker is eating a vegan diet at all.

Now 76, Lappé has cropped grey hair and, over the course of our conversation, energy so unflagging that it serves as living proof of what she’s selling. Since Diet for a Small Planet first came out, she’s written nearly 20 more books, branching out into the topics of democracy and political action, and runs the Small Planet Institute with her daughter, Anna Lappé. And, of course, she’s still deeply focused on how we eat. “You don’t buy a new computer every day, but you do choose your food every day,” Lappé says. “It’s directly related to the farmer’s wellbeing, the farmworker’s wellbeing, the soil’s wellbeing, and the species. I just like it as an act of empowerment.”

Frances Moore Lappé.

Michael Piazza / Courtesy of Random House

GQ: I want to go back to 1971 for a second. How did you think we would be eating in 2021?

Frances Moore Lappé: I don’t think I really thought about the future in that way. I can only talk about what was my hope. I was so shocked with what I was learning as a newbie. I wasn’t a trained person in this field of nutrition or development economics. Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb had just come out. A book called Famine 1975! came out. And people were saying, “Oh my God, we’ve hit the limits.”

My intuition as this 26-year-old was that if I could understand that most basic question of what causes hunger, then that would open up my pathway. I’d start to understand the economic and political pieces and I could really make intelligent choices about how to use the rest of my life. I thought if I could just tell people that hunger is needless, that would be the big wake-up call. It’s not about hitting the limits of the Earth, which felt so disempowering. I knew women who were saying, “I’m not going to have a child because we’ve hit the limits and that would be unethical to have a child if there’s not enough to go around.”

And now we have people saying they don’t want to have children because of climate change. The primary concern has changed, but the problems haven’t. In fact, the very first words of this edition are about how you went from thinking that eating this way was a “great choice,” but have since evolved to believing that it’s a “a no-contest necessity.” What was the breaking point for you?

Well, I have to start with climate change. In 1970, we read Rachel Carson and learned about pesticides. But clearly I did not forecast the climate crisis and the impact. Now the official estimate is that 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are from some piece of our food system. That was the biggest shock, and to realize how much of that can be addressed through what I was advocating in a very different frame in 1971.

All I had to prove in 1970 was that eating a plant-centered diet wouldn’t kill you. There’s just so much more evidence now around the health benefits and the climate benefits. Often, my friends would say to me, “Frankie, you helped me so much with my parents. They thought I couldn’t survive if I didn’t eat meat and so I gave them your book and they took a deep breath.”

What do you have in common with the younger version of yourself who wrote the book?

My parents taught me to always question and to be a learner. To have burning questions. My favorite compliment I’ve ever been paid, a friend of mine said, “Frankie, you ask the question behind the question.” And I thought, “Oh, what a nice thing to say. Yeah. I kind of try to do that.”

Lappé in 1971. 

Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

Is there anything that you felt really strongly about back then that you don’t necessarily adhere to anymore?

The science has changed. For example, I was so offended when somebody put it in my Wikipedia page that “she admitted that she was wrong about complementary proteins.” I thought, “Wait a minute, I wasn’t an expert on that. I was just telling people what the science said at the time, that there is protein that is more or less usable by the body because of its amino acid balance, and therefore we had to eat a range of plant sources together to get a protein that our body could use that was equivalent to eating meat.”

So that’s one thing that has been changed from the original edition and made even clearer in the 50th anniversary, that as long as you’re eating healthy foods, a variety of foods, then we don’t have to worry about protein consumption.

It is funny that people have such dire health concerns about plant-based eating, especially when you compare it to the state of the standard American diet.

Well, that’s the other thing I didn’t predict. I could never have anticipated the extent of food processing to what now has to be called ultra-processed food. The latest figure is that 60 percent of our calories are now derived from ultra-processed foods that deliver virtually no nutrition to us. So no wonder we have these health problems that we do.

That’s why I keep jumping back to democracy. Because I don’t think in the ‘70s we could have imagined how much private, concentrated wealth could dominate and warp our political system so that kind monopoly power could take over in the food system and then be untouchable. The number of lobbyists in agribusiness are vast. Do you know the phrase “revolving door?”

Yes, when politicians go on to become corporate lobbyists. That’s exactly what I was just thinking of.

They pursue those same interests, whether they’re in Congress or in the corporate suite. And I think it’s really important for Americans to understand that we rank very, very low in international rankings—I think we rank behind 60 countries by the quality of our democracy. I want Americans to grasp that, because we have this false notion of ourselves as, “We may have problems, but we’re still the best.” And that’s not very motivating. If you want a system change, you’ve got to believe that it’s really broken. And it’s humiliating.

I want to talk about the idea of personal responsibility, because you have this great quote: “Why are we together creating a world that as individuals none of us would choose?” Convincing people to change their behavior is pretty difficult. And I’m not even talking about your typical red state “get your hands off my meat” attitude. In left-leaning spaces you’ll hear arguments like, “There’s no use in changing your personal habits, recycling, and not eating meat, because no matter what, the corporations are ultimately responsible.” How do you reach those people who should, in theory, be on your side but don’t think that it’s worth taking individual action?

I was just hearing something like that on the radio, actually, that making individual choices about climate change makes people feel they’re off the hook. But everything we do that aligns our choices with the world we want makes us more convincing to ourselves and others, and then empowers us to go further. I mean, I’m looking now at the solar panels on my house. I’m sitting out in a cottage in the yard and in no way did those solar panels make me feel less committed. It made me feel a little less horrified at my individual output, but in no way more off the hook or anything.

I think it’s just as likely it goes the other way that, if you feel powerless, then you just want to shut out everything. You don’t want to even follow the climate news, because it’s just too horrible. I’d love to talk to psychologists about this, because I think powerlessness breeds powerlessness. If you feel powerless in one area of your life, it spills over. And I have to believe the opposite is true.

With so many difficult issues in the world—I mean, it would take us a minute to get through the list of just this week alone—how do you get people to care about something as “simple” as the food they’re eating?

What I’m hoping is that in this terribly difficult time, when every part of our lives are affected and it’s frightening, that the book will communicate the sense of possibility. I want it to help you encounter this troubled world with new energy. You don’t have to just shut down or just cry at night or turn off the TV. But you can understand the root causes, so you don’t feel too overwhelmed. As well as show something we can do every single day that brings beauty and health in our lives and we can share that with others. It’s not throwing people something sweet when they’re down, but it’s offering something that can help them to face it all. Food, because it is so basic, it’s so personal. We share it with our family and our friends, it can restore us and literally can make us stronger.

You touched on the masculinity aspect of meat-eating briefly in your book. One of the reasons why I was interested in interviewing you for GQ is because I think the magazine’s evolved approach towards plant-based eating is actually a great example of progress on this front. Have you personally seen that attitude change at all since you wrote the book?

It certainly has evolved. I think of my own partner I’ve been with for 23 years and he just ate the standard American diet. And then I moved in and it all turned to plant food. Within a couple of years, his doctor said, “Richard, what are you doing? Your blood work looks so good now, your vital signs look so good now.” And he said, “Frankie moved in.”

But I really do feel that has really changed as these super chefs have come forward. And unfortunately the super chefs are still largely men. I also think that men are human too, right? They’re seeing role models of male chefs who are leaders in the plant-centered diet. I think that there has been a big shift from any sense that, “Oh, plants are just too a feminine way to eat.”

I’m glad you brought up the chefs, because I’ve been curious: What did you think of the news that the Michelen-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park went plant-based?

I don’t really pay any attention. It’s not where my attention is. We have this world with extreme inequalities and if they want to do this and charge a lot, whatever. It’s just totally not my thing.

Diet For a Small Planet has been called a “hippie cookbook” and definitely has some crunchy associations. Do you reject or embrace that label?

My kids tease me, “Mom, you missed the ’60s. You missed the sex, drugs and rock and roll. You were too serious.” I got married when I was 23! I got serious and started writing a book. So, yeah I certainly was never a “hippie.” I was always very driven. It’s true that Diet for a Small Planet came out in that beautiful era of questioning so much, whether it was racism or foreign intervention in Vietnam. There was so much that was being challenged. There was so much going on, including people going back to the land. “This hyper-industrial consumer society is not for me.” The hippies weren’t just feel-good people, they were rejecting a very materialist and destructive worldview. And I admire that. So I don’t really mind being associated with that.

What’s your opinion on the rise of tech meat companies?

It’s still concentrated corporate power. They are still using the same system to generate these products. There are a lot of additives in them and we are not getting the fiber and all that we need. And it’s just still so much hidden from us about what we’re actually eating.

I just find it a huge distraction and not really going to the heart of our addiction to processed foods and our intense concentration of power in the food system, and lack of accountability and real transparency in what we’re eating. I’m so convinced that it doesn’t address the multi-faceted dimensions of the climate and health crisis and species extinction crisis.

As you said and even outlined in the first chapter of your book, everything is worse and plainly getting worse if you look at the statistics. So how do you stay hopeful on a personal and spiritual level?

Goodness is not good enough right now. Just being a good person is not enough. What we need is courage. And how do we become more courageous? We’ve got to surround ourselves with people more courageous than we are and count on being emboldened by them. I think that’s the key, choosing carefully who we bring into our lives. If we have people in our lives who are sending signals that it’s all over and there’s nothing we can do, then we—I’m not saying leave your friends but, you know, just bring others into your life who are taking risks and who are loving the thrill.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I think the main thing I want my granddaughters to carry forward is this idea that if you care enough, you can do anything you want. I didn’t have the credentials to become a book writer and all the things I’ve done. That’s why I love to tell college students that I made a D on my first English paper in college. That’s so encouraging, right? You know, that you never know what’s possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Lappé in the late 1960s. 

Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

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