You Don't Have to Go Completely Meatless to Eat More Sustainably—Experts Actually Advise Against It
It's no secret vegan and vegetarian diets are on the rise, as many of us are becoming more educated about and concerned for the state of our planet. Research shows our current food system is vastly contributing to climate change and the degradation of our environment, and people are beginning to vote with their forks by opting for a more plant-based diet.
For example, if cattle alone were their own nation, they would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases behind the U.S. and China. But eating sustainably is not as simple as us all banding together to ditch meat for good and calling it a day.
Former New York Times columnist and best-selling author Mark Bittman explains this problem is much bigger than us, and our personal health is suffering just as much as our planet because of it.
"We just don't think of agriculture as a way to grow the most nourishing foods to feed the most people—it's about accumulating as much wealth as possible," Bittman says.
According to Bittman, we are growing cheap crops—like corn and soy—which make cheap junk food. That's then constantly being marketed to us—whether we're watching TV, driving or even at a sporting event. These crops are also feeding our cattle and chickens, which we're fattening up for burgers and nuggets at record levels.
While constant food advertisements, our hectic schedules, lack of access to fresh food and an impaired food system all help facilitate the consumption of more meat and highly processed products than ever before, we aren't completely doomed to fail. We can all make important individual choices every day about what goes on our plate—a plate that even has some room for our favorite animal foods.
You Don't Need to Go Vegetarian to Eat Sustainably
New research from Johns Hopkins University found that it's not enough to just cut out meat altogether to eat sustainably—and there's actually a more balanced approach we can take if we want to do so. This study found eating a "flexitarian" diet inspired by Bittman's VB6 model (vegan before 6)—consuming meat for one meal each day and eating vegan for the other two—is actually a more sustainable way to eat than going full-on vegetarian. According to the study, this is mainly because dairy and egg production also has a major impact on the environment and becoming a vegetarian typically requires increasing your consumption of both.
We reached out to nutrition expert Dr. Marion Nestle, to get her take on the matter and whether or not this study lines up with the other research out there. Luckily, Nestle agrees that we don't have to nix meat and other animal products entirely to eat for a healthier environment.
"Fortunately, the diet best for sustainability is the same as the diet best for health and longevity—a largely, but not necessarily exclusively, plant-based diet," Nestle says. "The Mediterranean Diet is one example."
The Mediterranean Diet was awarded the year's best diet by a panel of experts from U.S. World & Report this year. This style of eating is pretty non-restrictive, with no limitations on calories, carbs or fat—rather focusing on the best sources of the three for optimal nutrition and enjoyment. Fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, olive oil, fish, eggs, meat—and a little dairy if you wish—are all welcome to the table on a Mediterranean Diet plan. Putting your emphasis on whole foods is key here, which Nestle says is also important for those looking to build a more sustainable plate.
Looking Beyond Animal Foods
Besides lowering our meat consumption, Bittman calls out carbs specifically when it comes to eating for a healthier planet and body—just not for the reason you're thinking. He says that carbs really aren't the enemy—it's just the type of carbs we are eating that's killing us. And those carbs are most readily available in ultra-processed foods.
A new study out of Tufts University found that low-quality carbs (many from those cheap crops mentioned earlier) make up 42 percent of a typical American's daily calories. Whether it's white bread, french fries or sugary beverages, all of these foods have something in common—they are high in calories and low in nutritional value. We are producing and consuming more food than ever before, but we are less nourished and depleting our natural resources because of the type of food we eat.
"With an average of 4,000 calories available per capita per day—more than twice the average need—food companies must work hard to sell products, make a profit, and grow profits every 90 days," Nestle says. "Food companies are not social service or public health agencies; their first priority is to return profits to shareholders. Unsustainability is just one result. Externalized costs are another."
Additionally, Nestle says it is more sustainable for us to cook most of our meals at home, as scratch-made meals are less processed than a standard restaurant or takeout dish. Cooking a meal allows us to take control of the health and environmental impact we're making. And bonus points if you save leftovers and compost your food scraps.
So, now that we know we don't have to cut out meat—just cut back, watch our processed food intake and start dabbling in some plant-based cooking—how do we load up our plates at home for truly sustainable eating?
How to Build a Sustainable Plate
Bittman says building a sustainable plate doesn't have to mean filling up on the "foods of the future," or weird obscure grains and tubers that you've never cooked with before—or likely seen in the grocery store. He says we simply need to look back at traditional diets—such as Mediterranean and Okinawan—to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and achieve optimal health.
"The science hasn't changed," Bittman says. "I really don't see veganism as the goal, and it can cause 'perfect' to be the enemy of 'good.' We do need to be eating less meat, but we don't need to cut it out entirely or be eating foods we've never heard of."
Related: This Man Wants You to Eat More Meat
Nestle offers three rules for eating sustainably that can guide us in building a nourishing, conscious and delicious plate.
"As the USDA puts it, make vegetables and fruits half your plate," Nestle says."Eat more vegetables. Eat less red meat. Avoid ultra-processed foods. Really, this advice is so simple that Michael Pollan can do it in seven words: 'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.'"
While this message is a little simplistic, and may not be an appropriate guide for every meal or food choice, it can help you set up a framework for building a more sustainable plate.
"Eat food" means one should consume real, whole foods that are organic and sustainably sourced when possible. Load up on whole grains, fresh and frozen produce, beans and nuts. Then, you can slide in your meat, eggs or fish as more of a side than the main attraction, along with some dairy and healthy sources of fat, like olive oil. This practice will help with the next step.
"Not too much" means listening to your body's needs and not gorging yourself. Like Nestle said, there's more than double the amount of calories we need available for consumption out there, but most of us don't need 4,000 calories (However, professional athletes and dedicated marathoners might need even more!). Filling up half your plate with fruits and veggies helps you load up on fiber, vitamins and minerals without consuming a lot of calories. These nutrients help keep your body full and properly functioning. Proper nourishment will also help your body give off the right hunger and fullness cues to tell you both when you need to take your lunch break and when you need to put the fork down.
Finally, "Mostly Plants" means just that. The Johns Hopkins study does indicate that following a vegan diet was the most sustainable for the environment—but that's just not realistic for most of us. And that's OK!
Enjoying meat or dairy once per day is a healthy compromise that is enough to satisfy your cravings and nourish your body without leaving you feeling deprived. This is also a healthier option for the body and planet when you choose wholesome animal products over processed foods. You might even save some money, too, as whole, plant-based foods are some of the least expensive items in the supermarket.