Going Vegan in 5 Easy Steps: How Changing Your Diet Can Save the World

Kathy Stevens with her friend Tucker.For the last decade, I've resided on the grounds of Catskill Animal Sanctuary with hundreds of close friend—pigs, horses, chickens, sheep, goats, and cows—all saved from disastrous fates, now living out their lives in peace with me and others who know their names.

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I wasn't always this way, though. A plate of scrambled eggs was my go-to breakfast, cheesy pizza was a lunchtime staple, and my summer Saturday nights didn't feel right without burgers searing on the grill.

Now a committed vegan, I encourage sanctuary visitors make the connection between what they eat and how it affects not only the animals but the desperately ailing planet we share. I invite you to read about the animals I call my friends and the life changing lessons I've learned from them in my newly revised book, "Animal Camp." In the meantime, though, I offer you five easy steps toward changing the way you eat, and, in turn, saving the planet.

1. Switch to Non-Dairy Milk
I love our cows dearly. But cows emit methane, which, in terms of its contribution to global warming, is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. In fact, because of this, climatologists believe that the only real way to put the brakes on global warming is for humanity to go vegetarian. And people wanting to take that a step further could simply stop drinking cows' milk. With so many choices of non-dairy milk, ranging from soy to coconut to almond to hemp, why not give the Earth a break?

Almond milk.My favorite is almond milk. To me, it tastes even better than cow's milk. But we all have our own taste preferences. So either try your new milk outright, or switch gradually by getting a quart of your regular milk and a quart of the one you're going to try. On the first morning, mix ¾ cup cow's milk, ¼ cup new milk in a cup and pour it over your cereal. The following morning, make the ratio ½ and ½, and on the third morning, make the ratio ¾ cup new milk and ¼ cup cow's milk. By the fourth day, voila! You're an almond (or soy or coconut) milk connoisseur.

2. Throw a (Veggie) Burger on the BBQ
Nothing says summer more than burgers on the grill. But there's more bad news, folks: Growing cows to feed humans uses enormous quantities of water. In fact, the amount of water you use in an entire year of showers (approx. 5,000 gallons) is the amount it takes to create one pound of beef. We're using so much water for beef production-13 trillion gallons a year from the Ogallala aquifer, the largest body of fresh water on earth-that many leading environmentalists predict that Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico will soon be virtually uninhabitable. Once that water is gone, it's gone.

So this July 4th, on behalf of the only planet we have, certainly fire up that grill-but make your burger is veggie-based. There are hundreds of variations made of delicious and low-impact foods. Some of my favorites are here; let me know what you think!

3. Fast Food: Have It Your Way
So we've touched on cows' impact on energy and water. Now let's consider land use. Plenty of folks in the know call cows "food factories in reverse"-because cows actually deplete available food, as 16 pounds of grain fed to a cow translates to only a single pound of beef.

If you're a fast-foodie, you can still honor your tastes-as well as your health and that of the planet-when making your choices. How? Ditch McDonald's, and try Loving Hut or Chipotle, which offer healthier options, instead. If you're a real junkie, start with one replacement day a week. Loving Hut is 100% vegan, with 200 locations around the world (including in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Diego) and yummy items like burgers, quesadillas, and burritos, affording you the same satisfaction as from a Big Mac, sans the cruelty.

4. Sweeten Your Life with Vegan Baking
Think you're in the clear as long as you steer clear of beef? Sorry. All animal agriculture takes a staggering toll on the environment. Take eggs, for instance. The hens that lay 75 billion eggs annually in the U.S. alone produce a staggering amount of waste, which pollutes waterways and contains ammonia that poisons our air. Whole bodies of water, in fact, and much of the Chesapeake Bay, are considered dead zones—the result of runoff from giant chicken factories like Purdue.

So, while it may be harder to wean yourself off a weekend omelet habit, it's a cinch to find vegan substitutions for eggs when it comes to baking cookies, breads, pies and cakes. Vegan baked goods should be every bit as good as traditionally baked items—and if they aren't, then maybe the baker needs a few tips! Try PETA's "Ultimate Vegan Baking Cheat Sheet" to get started.

A young sanctuary visitor with Ozzie the piglet5. Join the Meatless Mondays Movement
OK, so far, so good: You've gotten into almond milk, adore vegan brownies, and discovered those eggplant burgers were as good as I promised. Now try going vegan for a whole day. Much of America has heard of the Meatless Monday movement, which seeks to reduce every American's meat consumption by 15%. Its website features supportive blogs, articles, recipes, a long list of celebrity participants and more.

So what's the impact of every American being vegan just one day a week? Profound. In fact, it's the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road--permanently. Yep, you read that right. Feeling inspired now?

Kathy Stevens is the founder and director of the 110-acre Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties, New York, where she also runs a new guesthouse, the Homestead. She's the author of two memoirs: "Where the Blind Horse Sings" and "Animal Camp," a newly revised version of which was published in May. Kathy welcomes feedback and questions via Facebook or email, at kathy@casanctuary.org.