Meat production uses a considerable amount of resources. When compared to the production of vegetables and grains, meat requires large amounts of water, grain, and land to feed and support livestock. In fact, a 2011 analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that the production of certain meats produced up to 40 times the greenhouse gas emissions of certain vegetables and grains.
To be more eco-friendly with our nutritional choices, we can reduce our meat consumption. Limiting the amount of meat we eat also provides a host of benefits for our own health. But doing so can be easier said than done; eating habits are difficult to change.
Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and adjunct assistant professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, suggested steps meat-eaters can take to reduce their ecological footprint if they’re not ready to fully give up meat yet:
- Flip the makeup of your meals. For many of us, meat is the main part of the meal, with non-meat foods as our side dishes. Instead of eating meat at every meal or using it as your main course, consider cutting back on portion sizes, substituting non-meat foods for meat, and “flipping the plate.” Instead of half your plate being meat, for example, make half your plate vegetables and a quarter or less of your plate meat.
- Be mindful of your soy, corn, and wheat consumption. While not nearly as much as with meat, it takes significant resources (fertilizer and water) to grow certain crops such as soy, corn, and grains (much of which goes to feeding animals or to bio-fuels). Incorporate more vegetables and legumes into your diet in their place when you can.
- Eat algae and other omega-3 filled foods. When it comes to getting enough omega-3s, most people immediately think of eating fish. While fish are packed with omega-3s, many fishing techniques used today are harmful for marine environments and disrupt the ecosystem of our oceans as a result of overfishing. Algae and other vegetarian sources are great ones for getting omega-3s that everyone should get familiar with.
- Substitute dairy products for alternatives. Many dairy products can be harmful to the environment, but there are a number of foods we can substitute for dairy. Replace some of your dairy intake with alternatives, such as almond milk, soy milk, or pea-protein milk for milk, or avocado, nut, and vegetable oils for many of the uses of butter.
- Consider where your food comes from. Locally-sourced, minimally processed foods tend to be a lot better for the environment – and your health – than other types. By knowing about the source of your food, its nutritional quality, and its ingredients, you’ll know what kind of impact it has on both the environment and your health.
Considering all of the above, Hunnes notes that reducing meat consumption is overwhelmingly the most effective thing we can do to make our diet more eco-friendly. And in addition to the benefits of plant-based diets for the environment, she stresses their benefits for our health. To find out how a plant-based diet could be healthy for you, read Hunnes’ recent column in SELF.