Moving Toward a Sustainable Diet
When it comes to thinking about what to eat, it's usually a personal decision. Yet with every meal, we can consider not just our own wellness but also the health of the planet.
For some the answer is clear: Eat less meat and more vegetables. Eat organic and locally sourced whole foods whenever possible. And if you can grow your own food, even better.
But questions remain. Should we be exclusively vegetarian or can we eat some pasture-raised meats? Should we buy local or organic?
A recent story in the Boston Globe pointed out that even the researchers disagree.
“Harvard nutrition guru Dr. Walter Willett says he eats red meat only once or twice a year," it said. "New York Times food writer Mark Bittman doesn’t eat any meat products for breakfast or lunch, and only sparingly later in the day. Dr. Neal Barnard believes all animal products, including fish, are bad for both the heart and the brain, so he doesn’t eat any at all.”
What these health experts have in common is a thoughtful approach to their diet and a leaning toward less meat. How can you bring this same kind of awareness to your own diet?
Gallup polls still show a rather small number of people identify as vegetarian (about 5 percent) and vegan (about 2 percent).
If you are part of the 95 percent, you don't necessarily have to take an all-or-nothing approach. You could start by becoming a "flexitarian" or "semi-vegetarian" by adding more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to your diet and choosing to eat less meat.
“There’s research to suggest that vegetarians and vegans are generally healthier than the rest of us; however “flexitarians”—carnivores who eat meat once or twice a week—are just as healthy,” according to Michael Pollan on his website.
One reason why people opt to go meat-free is that much of the world’s cattle are raised in feedlots—confined areas where large amounts of animals are fed an energy-rich diet of grains, soy, and supplements. These conditions are hard on the animals and on the environment. The animals produce a lot of waste in a small area, which has a big impact on the environment.
In the United States and other parts of the world, cattle feeding operations present one of the greatest potential environmental threats of the beef industry, according to the WWF.
Another path to consider is pastured-raised meats. In this case, ranchers allow animals to forage the land, where they can eat a natural diet and grow at a natural pace. These animals tend to be healthier than those raised in feedlots and don’t need antibiotics or hormones.
Additionally, “their manure is spread over a wide area of land, making it a welcome source of organic fertilizer, not a ‘waste management problem,’” according to Jo Robinson, at eatwild.com.
A 2011 report from the Environmental Working Group found that animal products are the highest producers of greenhouse gas of all the food we eat.
The Standard American Diet (SAD), also called the Western Diet or the meat-sweet diet consists of a lot of processed, packaged foods and a myriad of chemical flavors and artificial ingredients. This style of eating creates a huge "food footprint" and uses excessive fossil fuels and packaging, creating a lot of waste.
If you want to help decrease the impact of this diet on the planet, you can start by thinking about your food choices more closely today. Go for whole foods instead of packaged foods next time you're in the grocery store. And if you can, try growing a small herb or vegetable garden and experience the freshness of food.
Or commit to buying one organic item each week when you shop. Researchers have found that organic diets “expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease” and that “organic farming has been demonstrated to have less environmental impact than conventional approaches.” In addition, organic farming practices mean fewer chemicals in the soil and water, and the growers get less exposure to chemicals, too. Use a tool like Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to find out which organic products are best to buy.
Ultimately, the best diet is the one that works for you and hopefully considers generations to come.
Which Diet Do You Choose?
Standard American Diet (SAD)
This diet is typically high in processed food, factory-farmed meat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar. Typical foods include burgers, hot dogs, pizza, cakes, cookies, and soda.
Pros: Convenience, low cost.
Cons: Lacks many nutrients; linked to chronic diseases and obesity; meats typically come from environmentally destructive feedlots; and chemicals are used for everything from coloring to flavor.
This diet focuses on plant foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and occasional animal proteins. Typical foods include lentil soup, salads, veggie or fish tacos, and berry smoothies.
Pros: Great for someone that’s not ready to be fully vegetarian or vegan, but still wants to get the benefits of plant foods and disease prevention.
Cons: Takes more to prepare food; can be hard to know when to be flexible—not always straightforward.
A vegetarian diet eliminates meat, poultry, and fish, while vegans exclude all animal products, including dairy and eggs. These diets require reading food labels more carefully to ensure you are avoiding animal products.
Pros: Straightforwrad and relatively easy to follow; helps prevent chronic disease.
Cons: Be careful of becoming a junk-food vegetarian or vegan who relies on processed food products, mock meats, and snacks; watch nutrient levels in the body and use supplements if necessary.