An older couple has a vegetarian dinner, choosing to eat less meat for their wallets, health and the earth.
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Sustainable Menu: How to Have a More Planet-Friendly Diet by Eating Less Meat

Montana Denton
September 13, 2023

Sustainability on the Menu: How to Have a More Planet-Friendly Diet

When it comes to making climate-friendly choices, cows may not be the first thing you think of. And yet, the amount of beef your household consumes is absolutely impacting the planet.

A recent study reveals that 12% of Americans are responsible for consuming half of all beef on a given day, with a focus on the potential implications on personal health and the environment. These individuals, primarily made up of men aged 50 to 65, significantly exceed the recommended daily meat intake of four ounces, according to the Dietary Guidelines of America.

Not only are these protein enthusiasts facing potential health risks from consuming so much beef — which has a high saturated fat content — the beef industry has long produced disproportionately high greenhouse gas emissions, compared to other protein sources like chicken and beans.

The Meat of the Matter

The meat industry has long been a substantial contributor to climate change. Cows are ruminant animals, which means that they emit methane, a greenhouse gas, as they digest grasses and plants. Greater demand for beef means the need for larger quantities of land on which to raise cattle. Industrial-scale meat production requires vast amounts of pastureland, which often requires deforestation — and with it, the release of carbon dioxide stored in trees.

This increase in emissions and decrease of carbon sinks to store it in causes greenhouse gas emissions from the meat industry to grow exponentially. Coupled with the use of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that can be found in cow waste and fertilizers, and the emissions from the energy-intensive processing, packaging, refrigerating, and transporting of beef products to markets around the world, the industry itself is a major factor in rising global temperatures.

With the global food production system responsible for some 17 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, comprising a third of all planet-warming gasses produced by human activity, humans actually have the potential to significantly reduce their carbon footprint, starting with what’s on their dinner plates.

The Power of Plants

From start to finish, plant-based foods are better for the planet. They require significantly less land, water, and energy to produce, reducing pressure on ecosystems and conserving valuable natural resources. Thanks to photosynthesis, plants actually take in carbon dioxide gas (the most common greenhouse gas) and sunlight in order to grow, releasing fresh oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct.

A greater demand for plant products would actually require less land than is needed to farm animals, streamlining our energy efficiency and global greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.

A little girl holds freshly picked carrots, including one in her mouth
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Eating for the Planet

Even if the global population became vegetarian or vegan overnight, it wouldn’t entirely stop climate change. But studies conducted by the World Resource Institute show that if beef consumption in high-consuming countries (like the U.S.) declined to about half of current levels, it would nearly eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion and associated deforestation, reducing potential climate impacts.

While beef consumption in the U.S. has already been on the decline for decades, the drop in demand needs to happen faster for the climate to reap the benefits. And said benefits aren’t just for the planet — scientists have found that diets higher in healthy plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes are associated with lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and certain types of cancer. If that weren’t enough reason to head to your local farmers’ market, eating sustainably is also better for your wallet, reducing food costs by up to one third in high-income countries.

The difference can be substantial! One study found that an average meal including meat cost $2.36 per person, while an average meal without meat cost $1.41 per person.

Cutting down your meat and dairy intake doesn’t mean you’ll have to make a sacrifice for your taste buds or your protein intake — here are a couple of tips for reducing your impact on the climate deliciously!

  • Mindful meat eating: Eating sustainably doesn’t have to mean making significant changes to your diet — try the “Meatless Monday” method — select one or two days per week that your family’s menu is entirely made up of plant-based dishes!
  • The beauty of beans (and seeds and nuts): Nuts and seeds are packed with healthy mono-and polyunsaturated plant oils as well as protein. Beans are a part of the legume family, which are filling and contain lean protein, vitamins, and minerals. These foods aren’t only filling but incredibly versatile in the kitchen, and are packed with essential nutritional components for a well-balanced plant-based diet.
  • New places for protein: Transitioning away from meat products means that you’ll have to look elsewhere for sources of protein. Fear not, because ample amounts of a variety of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) can be found in all sorts of plant-based places, from tempeh and tofu to quinoa and lentils, which are also high in fiber.
  • Ease the transition (with plant-based alternatives): If you have the budget for it, one way to slowly transition to meat-free meals is to pick up some vegan meat alternatives. Many brands have created plant-based substitutes that are similar to your favorite burgers and hot dogs, but made with planet-friendly ingredients! While meat alternatives aren’t the most cost-effective choice (oftentimes more expensive than their animal-based counterparts due to the relative newness of the industry, but just as tasty!), they can be a great starting point to reduce your meat intake while still enjoying some of your favorite carnivorous dishes.
  • Take control of your plate: Keeping your pantry stocked with basic ingredients for home-cooked meals like canned beans, high-protein grains, and plain tofu can be a great way to maintain your plant-based diet. Not only are the ingredients you have on hand more cost-effective than dining out or purchasing pricey and perishable meat products, creating your own plant-based dishes offers an opportunity to exercise your own creativity in the kitchen and reap the nutritional benefits!

The Beef with Beef

If you want to alter your diet to reduce your impact on the planet, moderation is the name of the game. Take your time in incorporating new foods into your menu, and don’t feel guilty about enjoying the occasional morsel of good old-fashioned animal protein. But your eating habits impact the Earth. By prioritizing plant products, the climate and your body will thank you!

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