Last week, the Lancet health journal published a report that suggested a global dietary overhaul is necessary to ensure the health of the planet as well as people in communities all across the globe. For most Americans, this means consuming way less meat and eating many more plants than we’re accustomed to.
The authors of the report made very clear that these planet- and life-saving changes require much more than collective, individual efforts to moderate red meat consumption. Livestock currently accounts for almost 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, while food production accounts for nearly a third of all emissions overall. In order to reduce emissions to environmentally tenable levels while fighting hunger and malnutrition at a global level, agricultural sectors and governments around the world will need to initiate major shifts in food production that produce more and better plant-based foods while scaling down the production of polluting livestock.
That being said, there are a few changes you can and should make based on the recommendations from the Lancet report if you want to support your personal and planetary health.
Limit Red Meat to One Serving Per Week
Populations in some developing countries don’t get enough protein in their diets today, only consuming about half the study’s recommended amount of animal protein. North Americans, on the other hand (mostly Americans and Canadians) eat 6 times the amount recommended by the researchers. For your health’s and planet’s sake, aim for one serving over the course of the week, whether that amounts to one modest steak on the weekend (about the size of your palm) or shifting your meat consumption habits so that you’re using it more like a “condiment” that adds richness to plant-based dishes.
More than simply reducing the amount of meat you consume, opt for hormone-free, grass-fed options if those are accessible to you at your neighborhood grocery store, local butcher, or farmer’s market. Online grocery services like Fresh Direct also have expanded their offerings to include these sustainable options. Grass-fed red meat contains lower levels the inflammatory fatty acids that are a driving factor in the rising rates of chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Sure, you’ll be paying more per ounce by purchasing higher-quality product; conventionally-raised meat is less than half the cost of the sustainable stuff because government subsidies help keep the market price of feedlot beef low. For comparison, a quarter pounder with cheese costs approximately $4 per serving, while a serving of grass-fed beef from Whole Foods will run about $10, not including the cheese or the bun. Buying beef from a grocery store also requires you to make free time to cook rather than just rolling up through the drive-thru at McDonald’s.
Ultimately though, instead of spending $25 each week on quarter pounders, by following the dietary recommendations from the Lancet, you’d be cutting your meat bill in half each week by consuming a single serving of quality, red meat. In the long run, there are also incalculable savings to be had for your health bills when you are eating in way that supports optimal health.
Eat More Beans, Greens, and Grains
Eating less red meat means you’ll automatically need to fill up on other satiating food sources, but don’t just opt for poultry or giant bowls of white pasta. Instead, reach for high-quality carbohydrates and healthy fats. “It’s all about the replacement,” said the lead author of the study in an interview with NPR. “If we replace red meat with a lot of white starch, [such as] white rice, white bread, potatoes and sugar – then that’s not going to be a win.”
Replacement is a key theme of making the Lancet diet work for your health. For example, the report recommends that you eat no more than four eggs per week. It’s not that they’re harmful to your health on their own — the connection between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol has long been debunked. Rather, having an egg for breakfast means that you’ve lost an opportunity to instead have a bowl of oatmeal, fresh fruit, and nuts.
Consider that the average American gets way more protein than they need through meat, but meanwhile is starved for fiber. Less than 10 percent of the population meets current nutritional recommendations (not included in the Lancet study), getting a measly 16 grams of fiber per day. The average adult should be getting at least 25 to 30 grams in order to prevent and even treat some of the very same chronic conditions that the average American diet exacerbates.
Beans and lentils are great sources of protein, fiber, and iron and cost less than 50 cents per serving, as do pantry staples like whole-grain oats. Even “designer” ancient grains like quinoa or spelt ring in at about $1 per serving. The environmental cost of beans is also drastically reduced. According to some estimates, replacing red meat with legumes will reduce agricultural emissions as well as land requirements by about twentyfold per gram of protein.
Apply the $10-15 dollars you’ve freed up by lowering your weekly meat consumption to plant-based foods like vegetables, whole grains, legumes, pulses, fruits, and nuts in order to help you reach the Lancet’s recommended intakes.
Cut Food Waste
The authors of the report also suggested that consumers and producers need to work together to reduce food waste in order to reduce emissions and feed the world’s population. According to a statistic released by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly a third of food produced never makes it to the dinner plate. This waste contributes to 8 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. In a developed nation like the United States, most of this waste occurs in the hands of the consumers and consumer-facing markets.
Making a concerted effort to cutting food waste on your end will help to take the edge off of your grocery bill and make a significant dent in your personal carbon footprint.