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Sustainable Eating in the 21st Century

Author:

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Dairy cows

Dairy cows

What Is Sustainability?

David Tamarkin is the chief editor of Epicurious magazine and the author of Cook90: The 30-Day Plan for Faster, Healthier, Happier Meals. In his book and online he advocates a philosophy that I have embraced for many years. Making your meals at home is not only faster, healthier (and will make you happier), but it also rewards you with tremendous savings in your pocketbook.

Ever since I discovered David and his book, I have followed him and his Epicurious team. Their plan for the year 2020 is to interject sustainability into the Cook90 plan.

Sustainability is a word that gets kicked around a lot, but what does it really mean? If you are vegan, or if you adhere to a raw diet, you have earned your angel wings to sustainability Heaven. But David recognizes that both of those eating choices are more extreme than many of us want to follow. So he interviewed Richard Waite, an associate in the food program of the World Resources Institute, for guidance.

According to Dr. Waite, the biggest impact on sustainability is reducing food waste. He says that wasted food is wasted land.

A third of all food grown in the world is lost or wasted between the farm and the fork. It’s even higher in the United States. If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S.

— Dr. Richard Waite, World Resources Institute

But There's Even More to the Problem

The problem of food waste is even greater than the knowledge that the land that supported those discarded foodstuffs could have been used for something else. Consider this:

  • The manufacture of chemical fertilizer creates emission of carbon waste into the atmosphere. The land that supported that wasted food was probably laced with chemical fertilizers.
  • Excess chemical fertilizers infiltrate streams and rivers. Reduce the amount of land being fertilized, and you will reduce the impact of chemicals in our waters.
  • There are emissions involved in the processing and transport of wasted foods. Waste less food and you will decrease the need for so much processing and transportation.
  • When food becomes garbage in the landfill it emits methane gas. (Do you see where we're going here?)
  • Cow “burps,” flatulence, and manure contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; fewer cows equals reduced gas emissions.
  • Most importantly, if there was less food waste, we wouldn’t have to produce as much food. That's truly the bottom line.

It takes 20 times the amount of land to produce a calorie of beef as it does a calorie of beans.

— Dr. Richard Waite, World Resources Institute

So beans are 20 times more efficient than hoofed animals as a source of protein. But between beans and beef, there are a lot of other protein sources.

Another consideration is the type of food put on your plate. There is no doubt that ruminant meat (beef, lamb, mutton, venison, or goat) imposes a greater impact on land use than poultry or swine. Dr. Waite calls it the "Hierarchy of Problematic Meats (Proteins)." Here's what that means.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the Proteins We Eat

Different Proteins, Different Impacts

In Dr. Waite's explanation of the "Hierarchy of Problematic Meats (Proteins)," he says that there are basically three categories of proteins—high-, medium-, and low-impact.

High Impact: On the high end are the hoofed animals. They need the greatest amount of land, the highest amount of feed, emit the most methane and require the highest percentage of processing. In the grand scheme of things they are tasty, but at a very high price. They are grossly inefficient.

Low Impact: At the opposite end of the chart are plant-based foods (potatoes, rice, peanut butter, nuts, broccoli, tofu, legumes) and dairy products. Are you surprised to see an animal product on the list? The reason for the contrast between beef and dairy is that once cattle are slaughtered that is the end of the story for that protein source, and you have to start over again. On the other hand, a dairy cow can provide nutrients for many years.

Middle impact: Obviously these are "all the rest." Turkey, chicken, and eggs require land, but not as much, processing, but not as intensive, and so on.

Beef livestock

Beef livestock

The Highest Meat-Consuming Countries

CountryPer Capita Consumption of Meat in Pounds, 2013Per Capita Consumption of Beef, in Pounds

Australia

205.00

65.0

United States

200.60

79.3

Israel

189.60

48.4

Argentina

186.70

120.2

Uruguay

182.80

124.2

Brazil

172.20

78.9

New Zealand

162.00

39.1

Chile

159.80

52.5

Canada

155.40

57.7

Malaysia

121.00

18.9

South Africa

111.80

36.2

Saudi Arabia

111.30

15.5

Russia

110.70

29.4

South Korea

110.70

34.2

China

107.60

12.2

The Highest Beef-Consuming Countries

It should not be surprising that Argentina is one of the largest consumers of beef; they are also one of the top beef producers in the world. To illustrate the ranking of beef production in the world as of 2017 I'm going to contrast the per capita beef consumption in the above table with production.

CountryPer Capita Consumption of Beef, in PoundsMetric Tons of Beef Produced and % of World

Australia

65.0

2,065,000 - 3.35%

United States

79.3

12,086,000 - 19.63%

Israel

48.4

75,000 - 0.12%

Argentina

120.2

2,760,000 - 4.48%

Uruguay

124.2

605,000 - 0.98%

Brazil

78.9

9,500,000 - 15.43%

New Zealand

39.1

610,000 - 0.99%

Chile

52.5

220,000 - 0.36%

Canada

57.7

1,160,000 - 1.88%

Malaysia

18.9

28,000 - 0.05%

South Africa

36.2

885,000 - 1.44%

Saudi Arabia

15.5

60,000 - 0.10%

Russia

29.4

1,310,000 - 2.13%

South Korea

34.2

285,000 - 0.46%

China

12.2

7,070,000 - 11.48%

American meat-heavy diets are spreading around the world. By 2050 there will be 9.6 billion humans. At current rates, there will be 3 billion more meat-eaters—double what we have now. Massive expanses of forests will need to be cleared to create pastures to raise the animals and to grow the grain to feed them. Managing their waste will become an even bigger problem.

— Scott Faber (Senior VP, Environmental Working Group) and Michael Pollan (Professor, UC Berkeley)

How Does Chicken Compare to Beef?

If we refocus our high-impact food desires to a more land-friendly diet, not only will we be doing our part to help the planet, we will also be healthier. Extensive research supports a plant-based approach to dining and/or consuming proteins that are lower in saturated fat. Here's a quick comparison of chicken vs. several cuts of beef.

Based on 3.5-ounce serving
Source: Healthline

Type of proteinGrams of Saturated Fat

Chicken breast

1.0 gram

Beef brisket

2.5 grams

Sirloin steak

5 grams

Beef flank steak

13 grams

Beef ribs

18 grams

However, on the sustainable-protein scorecard, poultry still falls somewhere in the middle. Wild-caught (as opposed to farmed) fish score "low-impact" but demand is beginning to push the limits on not overtaxing this resource.

Best Proteins in a Sustainable Diet

Protein SourceBenefits

Garden peas and legumes

They fix nitrogen in the soil, meaning that there is no need for synthetic fertilizer

Quinoa

A complete protein

Rice

Although considered a carbohydrate only, it is also a vegan/gluten-free source of protein

Lentils

Combined with a carbohyrate (such as rice) they make a complete protein

How to Craft a Healthy Sustainable Diet

As I've shown above, the type of protein you choose has a dramatic impact on our environment. But there is still another consideration—the amount of protein that you consume in a day. The typical American diet is protein-heavy; we eat much more protein than we really need.

The website Very Well Fit has two interactive charts; the first helps you ascertain how many calories you burn every day based on your height and weight, age, and level of activity. The second gets a little more close and personal, assessing your body fat percentage. It may be a humbling experience, but it's definitely worthwhile and valuable.

That website goes on to explain that:

  • Protein is important, not only because it supports your muscles, internal organs, and nervous system, but also it can help you manage your weight because it keeps you feeling "full" for a longer period of time (it takes longer to digest).
  • Of course, there are other benefits too; i.e., omega-3 fatty acids and the fiber and phytochemicals in legumes for instance.

It is possible to eat too much protein. Yes, some excess is excreted in urine but some is converted to glucose and stored as fat.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Finding the sweet-spot of protein consumption depends on several factors—it varies from person to person, depending on age, activity level, weight, and whether you are male or female.

According to WebMD.com:

  • Babies need about 10 grams a day.
  • School-age kids need 19-34 grams a day.
  • Teenage boys need up to 52 grams a day.
  • Teenage girls need 46 grams a day.
  • Adult men need about 56 grams a day.
  • Adult women need about 46 grams a day (71 grams, if pregnant or breastfeeding)

What Does a Protein-Balanced Sustainable Diet Look Like?

Here are some suggestions of the types of meals one could assemble to eat sustainably yet receive your recommended daily requirement for protein. Let's strike a balance and set our goal as 50 grams per day.

Sample daily menu for a protein-balanced sustainable diet

Breakfast

Lunch

Dinner

2 slices whole wheat toast with 2 tablespoons natural peanut butter, fresh fruit in season, 13.1 grams

1 cup finely shredded kale, 1 cup finely shaved Brussels sprouts. 2 tablespoons roasted hazelnuts, 3 tablespoons of lemon cream sauce (below) plus 1 teaspoon whole-grain mustard, 7.2 grams

Buddha bowl of 1 cup wild rice, 1 cup garbanzo beans, 1 1/2 cups roasted cauliflower and broccoli and 3 tablespoons lemon cream sauce (recipe below) 28.3 grams

1 cup cooked rolled oats with 1 tablespoon organic honey, 1 glass of soy milk 12.0 grams

2-egg omelette with 1cup spinach and 0.5 ounces feta, 20 grams

Lebanese lentils and rice (link below), 1 cup steamed lima beans, 18 grams

Berry purple power smoothie (link below) (7.6 grams with soy milk in place of coconut water)

Taco salad of 1 cup local lettuce, 1/2 cup tomatoes, 2 tablespoons grated cheese, 1 cup black beans (canned or cook your own), fresh cucumber, and frozen corn, 19.5 grams)

Miso-glazed barramundi (Asian sea bass) 19.6 grams

Lebanese Lentils and Rice

Lentils and rice is a traditional Lebanese dish that can be served as a side dish with roast fish or chicken or a light dinner with a salad or green vegetable. Don't hurry the onions; allowing them to caramelize is what makes this dish so special.

Berry Purple Power Smoothie

This berry smoothie can be made with frozen berries from the grocery store or your own berries that you were blessed with during the summer and popped into the freezer for safekeeping. There's no banana, so this is definitely a sustainable breakfast treat.

Miso-Glazed Barramundi

Barramundi is a mild, flaky white-fleshed fish, sustainably produced without hormones, antibiotics, or chemicals added to their diet. This miso-glazed fish is brushed with a sweet-salty glaze and can be ready in just 15 minutes.

Dairy-Free Lemon Cream Sauce

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup raw hazelnuts
  • 1 1/2 cups soy milk
  • 4 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest
  • 1 clove raw garlic
  • 2 tablespoons yellow onion
  • 2 teaspoons organic apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • 1/4 cup tarragon

Instructions

  1. Place all ingredients except fresh herbs in the jar of a blender. Process until smooth.
  2. Add fresh parsley and tarragon and blend.

Yield: Makes 2 cups

Have I Convinced You?

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 16, 2020:

Denise, thanks so much for commenting. Although it's true that each of us contributes just a fraction of an impact, there are roughly 7.8 billion of us on this planet. Every little bit adds up.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on May 16, 2020:

I used to believe that nothing I did really affected the planet in a positive or negative way. I have since changed my mind and try to do things to cut back on the use of plastic and even utilize boxes wherever I can instead of contributing to the landfill.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 11, 2020:

Pamela, I do think it is important but will confess that I do not totally practice what I preach. I don't eat beef or pork (and NEVER lamb) but I do favor chicken--a lot. That said, my husband, daughter, and I are eating more vegetarian meals, relying on plant-based proteins. When we do eat meat (chicken or turkey) we use it more as a garnish rather than the main focus of the meal. I think even that subtle change would be better for for the planet and our health.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 11, 2020:

This ineresting article is packed full of great information. I do think we need to be responsible but I do like my hamburgers. I can make some more changes, which is not always easy. I will say you I think this is an important issue, Linda.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 11, 2020:

Maybe if we each raised our own cow, allowed her to graze on the lawn instead of using a gas-powered lawnmower, and used the manure to fertilize our flower beds we could be "sustainable?" I'm kidding of course (kinda).

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 11, 2020:

Thanks for the information, Linda. Just when I was thinking of trying oat milk, the article below states that the oats are sprayed with Round Up just before harvest. Yikes!

I'll keep my eyes out for hazelnut milk and give that a try.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 11, 2020:

Hi Shauna. I don't use almond milk because almonds are one of the thirstiest crops on earth and their impact on the growers in California is substantial, especially when you consider that they have been enduring a drought for 3 years.

Is there an alternative? Not yet. Here's an interesting article on the topic.https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/2...

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 11, 2020:

Interesting information, Linda. However, I would not be able to stick to the plan every day of the week. I like my dairy. I don't eat a lot of red meat, but do indulge occasionally. I can live with fish or chicken for protein intake, although I get bored with chicken.

I would replace soy milk with almond milk because soy is the USA's number one GMO crop. Ninety-four percent of the soybean crops were GMO in 2019. I know it takes a ton of water to produce almonds, but it's better than eating or drinking something that has been modified to tolerate herbicides.

I will however, make an attempt to make some of the healthy choices you offer above.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 11, 2020:

Eric, I love a good steak or hamburger once in a while (maybe twice a year?) and we have prime rib on New Years, so I'm not making you give it up entirely, but it sounds like you've already done your part in cutting back. Now, for the rest of the readers. Let's see what response I get.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 11, 2020:

Thank you Flourish; I'm certain that many studies have been done.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 11, 2020:

Linda, nobody talks trash about my red meat! LoL I think I need it about 6 times a month. I would say a fast food kind about 1 every two months. Probably 2 steaks per month is it.

Now just a fact, over a few years you have given so many great alternatives the issue is just not there anymore. Thanks.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 11, 2020:

Great info here Linda. I will be making changes...kale goes out the window.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 11, 2020:

Honestly, all of that beef consumption makes my heart hurt emotionally. I would love to see obesity rates and heart disease/death rates juxtaposed with those beef consumption rates. I would bet there’s a pattern. Behavior/consequence. Great article.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 10, 2020:

Thank you dear friend. You encourage us to live simply. I think we're on the same page.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 10, 2020:

All you can do is give people the information. Whether they drink the KoolAid is always the big question. I can't imagine Americans cutting back on beef, but I've been amazed before. Great message, my friend!