Actor and talk show host Drew Barrymore remembers her reaction to reading “Eating Animals” — Jonathan Safran Foer’s seminal book that details what it means to eat animals in our modern society.
That was 13 years ago, and the experience stuck with her.
“Well, it ruined chicken for me!” Barrymore told Healthline in an interview over Zoom.
Barrymore was raised vegetarian as a child before adopting a vegan diet by the time she was 26. She said embracing veganism, or abstaining from consuming animal products, two decades ago was more challenging than it is now.
“It was so hard to find anything to eat, and the world has really changed in incredible ways in the last three years,” she said, describing the greater accessibility of vegan-friendly options from then to now. “Then, I tried meat and dabbled and became a ‘flexitarian.’ “
This approach to food, of trying to avoid meat products all while seeking sustainable, healthy, and tasty options has also been a challenge for Barrymore when selecting meals for her children.
Mom to two kids — Olive and Frankie — Barrymore said after cutting out chicken from her life all those years ago, she was struck that “chicken tenders are everywhere” when going grocery shopping.
“[Chicken tenders are] everywhere for kids and they get used to them and they want them and you are trying to prevent a meltdown,” she said.
This is why her latest brand partnership has brought everything full circle for her.
Barrymore joined Quorn last year. The company is a maker of meat-substitute food items that use mycoprotein, a protein that comes from a naturally occurring fungus called Fusarium venenatum.
Barrymore spoke with Healthline about why she’s enjoyed stepping in as the brand’s “Chief Mom Officer,” her ever-evolving approach to food, and suggestions for other parents like her who are looking for the best options for their kids.
Barrymore stressed that she believes making more options available more broadly is an important part of helping people make healthier choices for their diet.
She stressed that philosophy applies more broadly to how she’s thought about her own personal evolution in how she approaches nutrition and handles it with her children too.
“For me, the plight here is to make things as accessible to people as possible, as an option at retailers…to go in school lunches, to just have [meatless foods] be something that is available as a choice at the end of the day,” she said.
However, opening people’s minds to try alternatives to the meat-heavy traditional American diet can be intimidating.
Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD, senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding school of Public Health, and author of the book Recipe For Survival, told Healthline that contemplating a change to one’s diet can be intimidating, but isn’t impossible to achieve.
“People may feel intimidated if they feel like they will be walking around hungry all the time, or that they will be eating nothing but steamed vegetables and cut up fruits. However, it doesn’t have to be intimidating at all. In fact, it can open your palate to so many new and different flavors and ways of preparing foods,” said Hunnes, who is not affiliated with Barrymore or her campaign with Quorn.
“But, for the novice who really has no idea where to begin, substituting animal-based products with a plant-based analogue is a great way to start,” she added.
Hunnes said one way to start for those who are curious is to choose a plant-based burger instead of one that is meat-based.
A burger might not be a “health food,” as she called it, but it can “be a great way to dabble in a plant-based direction that also happens to be environmentally friendly.”
Hunnes also pointed to substituting dairy milks with non-dairy milks as another example.
“Another thing to try is roasting vegetables and buying bean-burger patties. Roasting vegetables — especially root vegetables, like beets, parsnips, rutabagas, potatoes, or cabbages and Brussel sprouts, gives them caramelization and a depth of flavor that steaming cannot do. It brings out their natural sweetness,” Hunnes added. “Piling your plate with these roasted vegetables, adding in a side of pasta with a tomato sauce or spicy arrabiata-type sauce can also make the transition easier and less intimidating.”
Amber Pankonin, MS, LMNT, a registered dietitian and personal chef unaffiliated with the meatless food company’s campaign, said that trying to go meatless is intimidating since “many of us were raised to plan meals with meat as the center of attention of every meal.”
This can cause a huge mindset shift where you have to essentially retrain yourself to think of meat as “more of a supporting cast member instead of the main character.”
“This might help create a little more balance on the plate and make it easier as you transition to eating less meat. Going completely meatless is not realistic for most people or certain cultures, but many people are open to the idea of meat blends,” she said.
“For example, you can make a burger with half hamburger meat and half mushrooms. Or, a sausage blend with half pork and half peanuts. This can still provide a lot of flavor but might help reduce overall calories and fat,” she added.
For her part, Barrymore said that finding alternatives to traditional meat-based foods doesn’t mean you have to seclude yourself from options that others find delicious.
You enjoy “trendy chicken sandwiches?” Well, Barrymore said you can still do so by finding items that have chicken substitutes.
For her, it has been less about subtracting items that she enjoys than it is about finding substitutes to fill the void that cutting out beef or chicken, for example, might make you feel.
What are the health benefits of going meatless?
Hunnes said a “plethora of studies” exist that “demonstrate health benefits from plant-based diets.”
She explained that focusing your diet around plant-based foods can result in less inflammation and help manage or lower your risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease, among others.
“There are also significant environmental benefits to cutting meat, dairy, and other animal products out of the diet – so much, because animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all the cars, trains, planes, and ships around the world,” Hunnes added.
Pankonin said while meatless, plant-centric diets can be healthy, it’s important to keep everything in perspective. Just because something is labeled “meatless” doesn’t always mean it’s nutritious.
“There could be benefits but it all depends on what you’re eating. Eliminating meat doesn’t necessarily mean your diet is healthy. However, when done right, vegetarian diets can be higher in fiber, lower in saturated fat and contain a lot of phytochemicals from fruits and vegetables which are beneficial for heart, eye and brain health,” Pankonin explained.
When asked if there are any downsides to cutting meat out of one’s diet, Pankonin said meat is a great source of protein, iron, and B vitamins.
“If you are eliminating meat, it’s important to make sure that you’re obtaining these nutrients from other sources,” she added. “Many foods like cereals, breads and plant-based beverages are fortified or enriched with some of these nutrients but double check the nutrition facts label when making purchasing decisions. I would also encourage meeting with a Registered Dietitian if you’re looking for help and meal ideas.”
Hunnes said that negatives of going on these kinds of plant-based diets exist when “people rely too much on processed plant-based products. An example of these are “Impossible or Beyond burgers.”
Similarly, people who eat “too many plant-based cookies, cakes, chips, and other highly processed foods” aren’t necessarily choosing the most nutritious options.
“It’s important that a plant-based diet be nutritious and filled with nutrient-dense foods, and these include whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, vegetables,” she stressed.
When asked what people should do who might be unsure of how to cut meat out of their diets, or even simply experiment with veggie-friendly options, Barrymore said “don’t stress yourself out about it.”
“The good news is you can literally go into more restaurants, fast food chains, and grocery stores and find more alternatives than ever before. You don’t have to be at exclusive expensive health food stores to have that organic option,” she said.
She cited that you can even walk into Walmart stores today and find organic options on the shelves because the demand for such products has grown so much in recent years.
Barrymore said it’s also about being kind to yourself. It’s hard to put a lot of pressure and guilt on your shoulders over whether you are consuming the “right” foods.
She said as parents “we’re everything all the time, every day” and it’s important to set realistic goals for yourself and your kids.
Hunnes’s own child’s diet is plant based. She said that “a lot of what children eat comes from what they see their parents eating.”
“So, if we want to have our children be accepting of more plant-based choices, we need to lead by example. On top of that, it’s important to have your children involved in the process. Is there a fruit or vegetables they see in the grocery store they’ve never tried but want to? If so, give it a try. You might find a new food you love and had never known about,” Hunnes added.
She also explained school lunches can be a challenge for sure, but “setting the foundation at home can help students navigate their way through the lunch line.”
“Our son will sometimes get the school lunch, but he picks the sides, such as fruit, salad, and/or rice and beans. Thus, we also pack him a small lunch each day – a simple lunch: Peanut butter and jelly with an apple; and then he can pick and choose what he wants to eat – parts of school lunch plus home lunch, just one or just the other, whichever combination he chooses,” she added. “Fast food restaurants are beginning to offer more plant-based options, and that is a good thing.”
“Supporting your child, if they want to eat those, is a good thing to do. It can help them have a healthier relationship with food and help them feel autonomy and self-efficacy with their choices. Doing these things as a family are very helpful. My son is 8, so by giving him some choice in what he eats, he feels more efficacious in his decision making,” Hunnes said.
“Children need nutrients like protein, iron, and B vitamins for healthy growth and development. If you decide to eliminate meat from a child’s diet, it will be very important to consider alternatives for how to meet those nutrient needs,” she stressed.
Thinking back to her own approach with her kids’ nutrition, Barrymore said it’s important to “start slowly and be a flexible person about it.”
Barrymore said she understands firsthand how challenging it can be. That’s why she makes sure that while she loves to encourage other parents to try new approaches to nutrition, she also urges them to be kind to themselves when it comes to their own progress and that of their kids.
“Honestly, I wasn’t feeling great about what I was giving my kids to stop a meltdown. And I finally found something that was so delicious and comparable that they love eating and I felt good feeding them it, and you feel good as a parent when you get something healthier in your kid,” she said.
“Not every day is going to be like that and not every circumstance is going to lend itself to that,” she added, noting she has to remember to be kind to herself on this journey as well. “I’m still climbing on the mountaintop and trying to get there. I’m a student, not a teacher, so I’m just trying my best, too.”