Did you know that switching to a diet free of meat, dairy, and eggs saves 50% more carbon emissions than driving a Prius. Imagine choosing a diet that is not only healthy and tastes great but helps to protect our planet. The first study to look at a plant-based diet and estimate both its health and climate impact supports the idea of moving toward the elimination or reduction of meat in the diet. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlights the fact that what we choose to eat greatly impacts the global environment and our personal health. Choosing a diet that provides less meat and more fruits and vegetables could help to prevent 5.1 million deaths per year by 2050 and substantially decrease planet-warming emissions.
Oxford researchers modeled the effects of four different diets: A diet in which no guidelines are adopted; one that follows minimum global guidelines, a vegetarian diet, and a vegan diet. They found that in a world where everyone consumed a vegan diet 8.1 million fewer people would die due to complications from chronic disease per year, and food-related emissions contributing to climate change would be cut by an astonishing 70%. This was compared to a 29% decrease in emissions from a diet following dietary recommendations and a 63% reduction from a vegetarian diet.
What’s more, if the population were to adopt more vegan-based eating habits the countries that would have the greatest impact are the developed nations due to higher rates of meat consumption and obesity. Raising animals for food now uses a staggering 30% of the Earth’s land mass, in addition to using almost 80% of deforested land in the amazon as cattle pasture. So next time you are reaching for a meat-based protein do your body and the planet a favor and try substituting soy instead, as producing just one pound of meat compared to one pound of soy requires 12 times as much land, 13 times as much fossil fuel, and 15 times as much water.
Special thanks to Dietetic Intern Amanda Cravinho for her contributions to this post.
In nutrition, we often learn about the hazards of under consuming certain foods or nutrients:
- The typical American only eats 12-15 grams of fiber per day instead of the recommended 25-38 grams
- Americans fall short of intakes of nutrients of concern like potassium, vitamin D and calcium
- Eating too many refined grains with added sugars and fats is crowding out optimal fruit and vegetable intake
But what about the upper limits? When it comes to fish, perhaps you have wondered how much is too much?
With fish, the notion is for every fish meal you’re having means you are in turn likely not eating a high saturated fat meat or other animal protein meal. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say to eat fish 2-3 times per week. But what if you eat it every day?
That was the question recently posed to Harvard researcher and professor Eric Rimm in a Today.com article. He posits that it’s probably ok for most people to eat fish every day – certainly moreso than beef or other types of protein.
Rimm and other dietitians and healthcare professionals warn against high or daily fish consumption for some high risk populations: namely pregnant and breastfeeding women and small children. Although the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish are essential for brain and growth development, high levels of fish in those populations could increase risk for mercury toxicity.
Instead, pregnant and breastfeeding women and children are recommended to follow the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2014 revised guidelines of consuming 8-12 ounces of fish per week. That’s 2-3 regular sizes of fish or roughly 1.5-2 cans of tuna per week.
For the rest of you not in those populations: the benefits of eating more fish likely outweigh any potential drawbacks…so eat up!
If you live in California, no doubt you are getting seriously concerned about our drought. But regardless of where you live, water is a precious resource and all consumers can make small changes to be more water wise when it comes to food buys.
According to the LA Times, 80% of California’s water use goes to support agriculture. Individuals have become increasingly conscious of water usage as water conservation regulations continue to tighten. Typically we hear about water saving strategies like cutting sprinkler use or only doing full loads of laundry. More and more individuals are becoming aware of their diet’s impact on water usage.
The most water requiring protein is beef. An 8-ounce piece of steak requires 850 gallons of water (that’s like flushing your toilet 530 times!). Other examples of foods that require a lot of water include pork, lamb, goat, chickpeas, lentils, mangoes and asparagus. More water-wise foods include cabbage, strawberries, onions, lettuce, carrots, eggplant, grapefruit, and tomatoes. Producing chicken uses 10 times less water than beef making chicken a more water-conscious protein.
Hungry for more details regarding water-conscious foods? Check out this fun interactive plate graphic from the LA Times to learn more about how much water your favorite foods actually require to produce.
Here are some additional tips to help you make water-wise food choices:
- Reduce the number of animal products from your diet to conserve water.
- Shop consciously and only purchase what you know you will use. It is easy to let a bag of lettuce rot in the bottom drawer of the fridge and go wasted. Plan meals and purchase foods intentionally.
- Don’t stop eating vegetables because they require water use! Instead try to make water friendly choices like carrots, tomatoes, and lettuce. Purchase vegetables that require a lot of water more sparingly.
Special thanks to dietetic intern Brittany South for her contributions to this post.
Most people enjoy cooking outdoors on the grill during the warm summer months. This activity appeals to the prototypical human omnivore as well as to others with more restrictive dietary approaches. Many foods are great grilled, from steak to poultry to fish and veggies. Have you ever considered how grilling foods may alter the nutrient content of the cooked foods? How about when certain foods become black and charred from direct contact with open flames or high temperatures? How does this affect the health benefits of foods we typically cook on the grill? Great questions! Let’s take a closer look at these issues.
Many years ago, scientists discovered that meats (in particular red meat and chicken) cooked at very high temperature over open flames formed heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and aromatic hydrocarbons. It turns out that these chemical compounds have toxic and potential mutagenic effects when consumed by humans. Animal studies also confirmed that both compounds are carcinogenic (i.e. cancer-causing). Moreover, observational studies have linked higher intake of these compounds with increased incidence of colorectal cancer in humans. Sounds quite scary, especially for those home grill masters. The good news, however, is that you can take precautionary steps to decrease the production of these compounds and still enjoy grilled foods.
Here are some tips to make grilled meats healthier (and some alternatives to grilling).
1) Grill vegetables or seafood. These foods typically produce much less of these toxic compounds.
2) Marinate meats prior to grilling. What you use to marinate the meat and how long seem to not matter.
3) Microwave food before cooking and pour off the juices. 1-2 minutes in the microwave significantly reduces HCA levels.
4) Flip foods frequently. Doing so every 1-2 minutes keeps the surface temperature lower and reduces the production of HCAs.
5) Keep grilled foods moist. Drier and more well done foods produce more HCAs and other toxic compounds. This may explain why grilled hot dogs and sausages form less HCAs, since they are encased with an outer layer which prevents the meat from drying out during cooking.
6) Don’t eat the drippings from grilled meat and poultry, as HCAs and other toxic compounds may be more concentrated here that in the meat itself.
7) Consider alternative cooking methods. The cooking methods that produce the most to least HCAs: grilling and barbecuing (most), broiling and pan-frying (still on the higher side), baking, roasting and stir-frying (less) and boiling, steaming, poaching or stewing, and microwaving (least).
The Bottom Line: Enjoyed grilled foods, but keeping these guidelines in mind will lead to a healthier experience that can be just as tasty as the old “burn it to a crisp” method.
There are myriad factors that determine what we eat: taste, cost, convenience, culture, education, weight management goals, disease risk, etc. In addition, do you ever consider the impacts of your food choices on “planetary” health? After all, without our wonderful planet Earth, there would be no wonderful you or me! Before you slap your forehead and exclaim just how complicated food choices are, do you think it’s possible that one “diet” could satisfy your needs as well as those of Mother Earth? The answer is, unequivocally (and refreshingly), yes! It’s called the Mediterranean Diet.
A while back (October 2013) my colleague Jamie wrote about the human health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet (MD): “The modern MD is high in beans, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, fish and nuts, and low in red and processed meats, added sugars and saturated fats with moderate alcohol consumption. Studies have consistently shown that this dietary pattern is associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and may also decrease the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.”
Research studies from the field of ecological sustainability indicate that that the Mediterranean Diet is good for the planet, too. In short, agricultural production of beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables utilizes significantly less energy and generates significantly fewer greenhouse gases than production of meat. For a detailed analysis of these data, check out this report from the Environmental Working Group.
The Double Pyramid
The personal and ecological health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are nicely summarized in the graphic below. Created by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, the Double Pyramid shows that what’s good for us is also good for the planet.
Food for Thought
Were you already aware how detrimental meat production can be for the planet? Take this quiz offered by the Environmental Working Group to shed further light on the issue. Then, after the quiz, consider what modifications you could make to your diet that would be “doubly” beneficial for both you and the planet.
Diets are popular among Americans, although most fail at sustaining long term weight loss. They are however big business and some folks are becoming quite wealthy off of them. Of the most popular diets, Google recently reported that the most searched-for eating plan of 2013 was the Paleo Diet (Daily Mail Google Diet Searches 2013). This ranked ahead of the ‘Juice Cleanse Diet’, the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ and the ‘Master Cleanse Diet’. In contrast to its popularity among average Americans, however, U.S. News and World Report recently ranked the Paleo Diet tied for last on its “Best Diets Overall” list for 2014 (CNN Best Diet Rankings). This report was developed through consultation with a panel of health experts from top academic institutions around the country, including nutritionists and specialists in diabetes, heart health, human behavior and weight loss. This panel of experts rated each of 32 diets diet in seven categories, including short- and long-term weight loss, ease of compliance, and safety and nutrition. How could such a popular diet be ranked so low by scientific experts? There seems to be a clear disconnect between the American public’s view on dietary eating patterns and what is recommended by health experts.
Let’s take a closer look at the Paleolithic dietary pattern and explore why it is not recommended by nutrition experts. The premise of this plan is to “consume everyday modern foods that mimic food groups of our pre-agriculture, hunter-gatherer ancestors” (Paleo Diet). This includes lots of meat protein, low carbohydrate, high fiber from fruits and non-starchy vegetables, and moderate to higher fat intake, with a focus on mono- and polyunsaturated fats. This dietary pattern restricts cereal grains, legumes and dairy foods. The purported benefits include decreasing risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disease and osteoporosis, among other stated benefits. The Paleo Diet web site states that these diseases were typically very uncommon among our early ancestors, and suggests that mimicking their diets should provide the same benefits to modern humans.
If this is all true, then why don’t the experts agree? First, it’s important to consider that prehistoric humans had shortened life spans (probably less than 35 years). In fact, as recently as the mid-20th century, the average human life span was less than 50 years. Another factor to consider is whether we really know how these early humans died and what diseases they suffered from, or exactly what they ate. Other aspects of the Paleo Diet were however considered negatives by the expert panel that ranked the diets. Their criticisms of this dietary pattern included a lack of scientific evidence that the Paleo Diet promoted weight loss or prevented cardiovascular disease, and its restrictiveness. In fact, most nutrition experts recommend consuming more grains (particularly whole grains), legumes (as an alternative protein source to meat) and low-fat dairy products (which on a population-wide basis are amongst the best sources of calcium and vitamin D). So who will you believe, scientific experts or those selling a product on a popular web site?
How many folks use energy efficient light bulbs? Anybody drive a hybrid car? Who makes efforts to reduce, re-use, and recycle? Good, because we need all the help we can get! Climate change is official and we’re all responsible and/or affected to some degree (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013).
This topic is related is related to food in two distinct ways: crops and meat. With regard to the former, rising temperatures are expected to negatively impact global production to the tune of 2% per decade for the rest of this century (Gillis, 2013). This at a time when food prices and availability are already critical issues. The good news is that it’s not too late to take action.
That’s where meat comes in. No matter how many energy efficient light bulbs you use or hybrid cars you drive, eating less meat may be the most environmentally-friendly action you can take part in. From the inputs required to produce livestock feed (e.g., diesel fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, water, and land) to the greenhouse gases emitted from the manure that comes out the other end (e.g. methane), meat takes a significant toll on the climate. According to the Environmental Working Group (2011), here’s a summary of how eating less meat stacks up against other climate-saving actions over the course of a year:
- If you eat one less burger a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles or line-drying your clothes half the time.
- If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for five weeks – or reducing everyone’s daily showers by 3 minutes.
- If your four-person family skips steak once a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for nearly three months.
- If everyone in the United States ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
It’s not necessary to become a vegetarian in order to save the planet, although that certainly wouldn’t hurt. Other positive actions you could take part in include eating fewer meat and dairy products, eating “greener” meats, eating more plants, and wasting less meat.
Food for thought
Would you and your family consider taking part in Meatless Mondays? What types of meats are better or worse for the environment? What types of plants are considered complete and/or complementary proteins? What are some health benefits associated with eating less meat? Check out the report by the Environmental Working Group for answers to these questions and more.
Environmental Working Group (2011). “The Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health”. Accessed November 2, 2013: http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide
Gillis, Justin (2013). “Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies.” The New York Times, November 1. Accessed November 2, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/02/science/earth/science-panel-warns-of-risks-to-food-supply-from-climate-change.html?hp
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013). “Fifth Assessment Report: The Physical Science Basis”. Accessed November 2, 2013. http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/#.UnUHlBDAbIU