Good for Your Waist – Good for the Environment

Anna Amelianchik and Glenis George-Alexander

Veganuary is long over, and you may need a little push to continue to reduce your meat consumption. Sustainability science is here to help. A recent study published by researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Minnesota considered the health and environmental impacts of fifteen food groups, including chicken, fish, and processed and unprocessed red meat. First, they evaluated the impact of these foods on people with type II diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, and colorectal cancer, and then compared it to the average risk of each of these diseases. In addition, the study looked at the overall risk of mortality associated with different food groups. The researchers also considered environmental impacts of producing one serving of each food group on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and two different forms of nutrient pollution.

Unsurprisingly, minimally processed whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and olive oil reduced the risk of one or more diseases and mortality. However, it turns out that good news for your waist means good news for the planet as well: the same foods that improve your health and help you live longer also have a lower average environmental impact. In contrast, processed and unprocessed red meat is associated with an increased risk for all four diseases included in this analysis. An additional serving (about 100 grams, or 3-4 ounces) of red meat per day also increases overall mortality. And if burgers and steaks seem worth it when it comes to your own health, consider the health of the environment. Producing a single serving of unprocessed red meat has nearly double the environmental impact of producing dairy, nuts, olive oil, and even processed red meat (because of the smaller serving size). In fact, the environmental impact of producing a serving of unprocessed or processed red meat is ten to one hundred times larger than that of plant-based foods. This translates to increased land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water acidification and eutrophication (a dream come true for algae, but bad for the rest of us). Overall, foods associated with an increase in disease risk and mortality (unprocessed and processed red meat) also have the highest environmental impact, which adds (vegan) brownie points to a plant-based lifestyle.

Not ready to go full vegan? Good news: scientific research found no negative health outcomes associated with the consumption of dairy, egg, and chicken. The negative effect of these foods on the environment, although highly variable, is also lower than that of red meat. Although it is difficult to estimate how consumption of fish impacts the environment since production methods vary greatly, fish has widely been praised as a health food. Research suggests that in order to avoid further damaging the environment with greenhouse gas emissions, we should avoid consuming fish farmed in bottom trawling fisheries and recirculating aquaculture systems.

Reducing the consumption of red meat and opting for whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and olive oil has multiple health and environmental benefits. However, before you cut all animal-based products from your diet, consider the nutritional composition of the foods that you would consume to beat your meat habit. For example, one serving of red meat contains 23-28 grams of protein and one serving of chicken—19 grams of protein. Protein is an important macronutrient needed to build and repair body tissues, muscles, and organs, which also helps combat infections and illnesses. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein varies depending on the age and sex of the person. For example, a female aged 31-51 years needs 46 grams of protein per day, while a male of the same age needs 56 grams. Therefore, about half of the recommended daily protein intake for an average sedentary man or woman can come from a single serving of meat. This means that if you choose to not eat meat, you need to select plant-based foods that can fill the nutritional void left by its absence from your diet.

Fortunately, protein can be obtained from plants as well as animals. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that a plant-based diet can be nutritionally adequate and provide healthful benefits for preventing and treating certain diseases. Keep in mind that non-animal sources of protein or plant-based proteins may lack some of the essential amino acids (organic compounds that cannot be made by the body). However, one can get all the essential amino acids by consuming a variety of plant-based protein foods throughout the day. In addition to including a variety of plant-based sources of protein in the diet, one can also consume slightly more protein than the RDA, which would make up for the lack of the essential amino acid lysine in plants.

The guide below will help you identify plant-based foods that can fulfill your nutritional goals while lowering your impact on the environment (and helping you lead a healthier and longer life!). Some of the best plant-based protein sources are:

  • Quinoa: Quinoa is an “ancient grain” that is eaten as a starch but is actually a seed. Quinoa is a complete protein that has all the essential amino acids that the body cannot produce.

One serving of cooked quinoa (1/4 cup): 6 grams of protein.

  • Soybeans & soy products: Soybean is a legume that originated in East Asia and is now widely consumed throughout the United States. Soy is also an excellent source of complete protein.

One serving of steamed soybeans (1/2 cup): 4 grams of protein.

One serving of tofu (1/2 cup): 6 grams of protein.

One serving of soy milk (1 cup): 7 grams of protein.

One serving of edamame (1cup): 8 grams of protein.

  • Hummus: Hummus is a thick paste or spread that originated in the Middle East and is usually served with bread or vegetables. This dish is a complete protein when made with garbanzo beans and tahini.

One serving of hummus (1 tablespoon): 1.1 grams of protein.

Note: Some other plant-based high protein foods are beans (black, kidney, lima, pinto, snap peas, lentils, split peas, and chickpeas), nuts (walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts, and pistachios), seeds (pumpkin, sesame, flax, hemp, chia, and amaranth), seaweed, spirulina, potatoes, and spinach.