Why you should eat less meat: for your health and for the planet.

First off, I want to take this discussion from the standpoint of an environmentalist, and a self proclaimed healthy eater, rather than an animal rights activist. While I – of course  – believe that no animal should be inhumanely treated, I also realize that humans have evolved to incorporate meat into our diets, and I do not want to shame anyone for doing what our bodies were built to do (more commentary on what to eat if you do eat meat below, though!). I personally eat less meat/a predominantly vegetarian diet for the reasons I get into below; I often go months without eating a single meat product, then cheat when I go home for my Papa’s famous from-scratch meatballs. I also never turn down a home cooked meal someone has prepared for me if they don’t know I am a semi-vegetarian (if there is such a thing), nor do I send back food that a restaurant accidentally put meat on; I do not want to create more food waste, nor do I feel the need to be a “perfect” vegetarian. I want to convince everyone that leading a (mainly) vegetarian lifestyle is something that is easy, healthy, affordable (if not cheaper), and, my main point here, so much better for the environment! In fact, much research suggests that cutting animal products out of your diet is the single most impactful way that you as an individual can reduce your carbon footprint, and therefore the most impactful thing you can do to help the environment. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains apparently only make up a measly 3% of food related emissions in the US; legumes are even less, at 0.03% of total food related emissions. Meat and animal products, on the other hand, make up a whopping ~84% of the carbon emissions associated with food production in the US. 

Now, I’m not asking you to give up your entire lifestyle, or culture, or heritage. What I am hoping is that you might read this and realize that there are easy swaps that can be made that can actually make a big difference in your impact on the planet. You could exchange oat milk for cow’s milk in your breakfast smoothie or daily coffee order (I bet you won’t taste the difference!), or order something absolutely delicious and meat free next time you go out to dinner and are looking for some meatless food inspiration. Think about it! There are so many delicious meals that are vegetarian. Some of my favorites include risotto, various pastas, gnocchi – but then again my favorite cuisine is italian. But you could try vegetarian burrito bowls, for example, as rice and beans together form a “complete protein” that provides you with all 9 of the essential amino acids. There are also many healthy, every day meals that fully balance your nutrient intake and hit the mark on all the food groups (while I would love to live off of risotto, it is certainly heavy on the carbs and missing everything else!). I also encourage you to experiment with recipes; don’t get down on the “vegan/vegetarian meals taste worse” trope; the more I experiment with recipes, the better they get. Don’t get me wrong, when I first stopped eating meat I was disappointed that the vegetarian options were never as tasty as I hoped. Now, I realize that ordering a vegetarian meal at a restaurant that specializes in steaks is of course not going to be as delicious, and oftentimes vegetarian meals while eating out are simply not filling, nor do they complete all the categories of nutrients or food groups we all need to consume, because the restaurant does not specialize in vegetarian options. For example, getting fries from a fast food restaurant just because they’re vegetarian isn’t always it, nor is getting a fully iceberg lettuce salad with your takeout. While there are some little bumps along the way, I promise you it is so rewarding in the end – I’m here to tell you more about why I eat less meat, and why you should too.

10 Easy Vegan Food Swaps - The 200 Year Project

The thing is, our bodies are in no way made to eat the amount of meat that we do today in the United States. While protein is critical to allowing our bodies to function, “meat” is not inherently healthy, especially in the large quantities we are accustomed to eating them in. Just like other foods, everything (natural/whole/unprocessed) is good – in moderation! If I ate whole wheat pasta every day in order to meet my carbohydrate needs, even though it’s a “healthier” option, I would likely see some unfortunate side effects to my body like weight gain, lethargy, etc. However, if I were to mix in the appropriate amounts of brown rice, barley, and other whole grains into my diet I would get a variety of nutrients; this variety might help balance out the downsides that might come with eating only one individual grain. 

Vegan portion plate! | MY VEGAN LIFE | Vegan food pyramid, Becoming  vegetarian, Vegan nutrition

I believe that the same goes for protein. If you eat red meat, like beef, lamb, and pork, every single day, it becomes unhealthy. Red meats are much higher in saturated (bad) fats than other meats. Saturated fats can lead to a variety of serious ailments like heart disease and high cholesterol. Plus, red meats are the worst of them all from an environmental standpoint; cows alone are responsible for almost 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions. And while red meats are bad, they are still “whole” foods; processed meats like salami, bacon, deli meat, and jerkeys are even worse for your body… Processed meats can significantly increase your risk of cancer, and are actually federally labeled as carcinogens: they often contain less than healthy chemical preservatives. The American Institute of Cancer Research actually recommends you avoid them all together. Didn’t know that? Why would we live in a billboard world of Big Macs and sausage links if these things were bad for us? I would encourage you to be a little more skeptical of the traditional views on diet and health; there is a lot of money to be made in the meat and dairy industry. 

Bacon, salami and sausages: how does processed meat cause cancer and how  much matters? - Cancer Research UK - Science blog

In fact, the meat industry alone is a two trillion dollar industry worldwide. The largest meat corporation makes around 50 billion dollars in revenue every year, and the industry as a whole in the US is actually responsible for almost 6% of the US GDP. Because of this, the US actually spends 38 billion dollars every year subsidizing the meat and dairy industry. All of these huge sums of money circulating the industry also contribute to more money spent on campaigns and advertisements that suggest these products are the “healthiest options” for you, even though there isn’t updated science to back it up, convincing you to keep spending your money with these companies (interested? Read more on why milk isn’t all that good for you with the NYT here). And, clearly, these marketing approaches are working! The US is the biggest consumer of meat per capita out of any other country in the entire world. And while other countries, like Australia, are huge meat eaters as well, the US is so behind the times on regulating the meat industry in terms of chemicals, feeds, antibiotics, animal rights, and growth hormones used in the production of these products. In fact, did you know that meat is not actually regulated by the FDA? It is instead regulated by the US Department of Agriculture, which has the primary responsibility of regulating the US agricultural economy, not ensuring that your foods are monitored for chemical levels like the FDA does. And, as many of us have come to understand, the US FDA is significantly more flexible, more lax, more lenient on hazardous chemicals and dangerous products than equivalent departments in other countries. In fact, there are so many articles out there that explain why much of the food we eat in the US would not actually be legal to consume in the EU, for example, due to the lack of regulation the FDA has on questionable or dangerous substances. The US takes a much more “reactive” approach to questionable substances like additives and artificial flavors, while other more progressive countries eliminate questionable substances from their food supplies. We have seen this time and time again in the US, where we only prohibit the use of dangerous substances after they have been on the market long enough for us to realize their long term hazardous effects. Good to know we are being used as test subjects (I encourage you to read Silent Spring by Rachel Carlson). But, I digress!

Should governments subsidise the meat and dairy industries ? | by Ethics  Insiders | Medium

Personally, when I cut meat out of my diet I lost 10 pounds; and I didn’t realize I had weight to lose! I am a competitive athlete, 5’9, and weighed 146 pounds, but cutting excessive amounts of meat out of my diet allowed me to get back down to a natural, sustainable, leaner weight for my body. I realized I had gained nearly 20 pounds since coming to college, which seemed unusual considering my exercise regime. But, looking around the all you can eat dining halls I found myself surrounded by football athletes and teammates who were eating three plus hamburger patties per meal in order to bulk up; while this might be one approach to gaining body mass, it is not a sustainable or healthy lifestyle long term. I want to state that there are at least 6 full to part time vegetarians on my Division I sports team; if competitive athletes can survive, compete, and thrive while eating less meat, so can you! 

The Vegetarian Athlete – A successful Combination | Tennessee Soccer Club

I also want to clarify and emphasize that you should not cut meat out of your meals to “diet.” You should not eat less when you cut out meat, in fact, you need to be eating more as a vegetarian. On the other hand, this is not an excuse to pile pasta, carbs, breads, or processed snack foods onto your plate; an unbalanced diet does not a healthy vegetarian make. There are so many ways to get your balanced protein in, and so many opportunities as a vegetarian to energize and fuel your body. Lentils, beans (beans for all occasions! Garbanzo, black, pinto, butter, white, etc), quinoa, and meat alternatives are great options for protein. As someone who has always tried to eat healthier (minimize ultra processed snack foods, chips, candies, etc), I found my diet and my fitness better than ever while eating plant based more often. I found myself eating more whole, healthy foods, more vegetables, and feeling so much more energized than before! While I admit training 20-30 hours a week as an athlete made it hard to maintain a vegetarian diet, during COVID times it has been a breeze. Don’t get me wrong, I am still very active, averaging 5 plus mile runs multiple times per week, and exercising every day with HIIT workouts and weight lifting, and I have still never felt better.

If you do choose to eat meat though, I highly recommend that you pay attention to where your meat comes from, how these animals are treated, how they are raised, what they are fed, and what their living conditions were like. Please pay the extra money if you can to ensure that the animals you consume were treated right – this will be beneficial not only to the animals while they are alive, but also to the quality of the meat and the health benefits that you can get from them. For example, you will get more nutrients from eating a chicken that spent its life eating its natural foods (i.e. picking through a real grass field for worms, grubs, seeds, and various plants) than from a chicken that spent its life confined to a inhumane feedlot, where it was pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones and forced to eat neverending corn meal.

Grass-Fed vs Grain-Fed Beef www.eathealthybeef.org  www.americangrassfed.org/about-us/faq/ | Organic meat, Types of meat, Grass  fed beef

I want you to read this and think not only “I should do this,” but also “I can do this!” I suggest you start by cutting out meat from one meal a week. Swap your Taco Tuesday for a vegetarian burrito bowl night, or make a nice Sunday brunch without bacon. Work your way up to Meatless Mondays, or begin to pack yourself vegetarian lunches for work. Cut out one thing that you can live without, for me it’s lunch meats and bacon – I personally can live without these, but you might want to cut out salami or pepperoni for your pizza night, for example. If going fully vegetarian isn’t in the cards for you, maybe just order fish next time you eat out instead of steak; this will help reduce your environmental footprint. Or maybe consider going pescetarian; this means that you only eat seafood (fish, shellfish, etc). This was a great stepping stone for me, personally. There are so many options! If you need advice or recommendations, feel free to ask in the comments section below! I would literally make you a personalized meal plan or send you some of my favorite recipes, and I encourage you to share yours as well!

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