It’s increasingly difficult to decide what to eat these days. Between factory farming, overfishing, mercury contamination, and issues with soy production, it’s frustrating to figure out how to feed your body in a way that will keep it healthy, without hurting the planet.
It’s a given that we should all be eating lots of fresh, organic, responsibly-produced fruits and vegetables, that we should stay away from processed food and fast food, and that we should eat a varied, balanced diet with healthy fats and sufficient protein. The protein is where the equation gets sticky and we start to see a wide diversity of opinion.
Not all experts agree on how much protein a body needs. One thing is certain, though – most meat-eating Americans get more than enough protein. A typical steak or burger is 6 to 8 ounces, and that’s just one meal. Most experts say a body needs only 1.75-2.5 ounces of protein per day.
When trying to get enough protein, vegetarians have it a little tougher, but a balanced and varied diet can ensure plenty of protein easily enough. A cup of yogurt contains about 12 grams or .43 ounces of protein, 2 eggs, about the same. A half-cup of nuts will get you around a quarter of an ounce of protein or less. Beans weigh in similarly to nuts. A half-cup of tofu will provide almost 3/4 of an ounce of protein. If you’re a vegetarian, you should try to eat something that contains protein at every meal and combine grains and vegetables with nuts and beans. For vegans, it’s not impossible to get all the protein you need from combinations of legumes, nuts, grains and vegetables.
To learn out how much protein you need, here is a handy calculator to figure out protein requirements by body weight.
I don’t think there are hard and fast rules, though. Every body is different and you should listen to yours. Heed your cravings (as long as they are healthy ones). Pay attention to how your body, mood, and energy level responds to the foods you eat. If you’re bodybuilding, working out a lot, or pregnant, you’ll probably need more protein. And keep in mind that our bodies change over time. Some people can be vegan or vegetarian for life and be healthy, full of energy and fully satisfied. Others find that they feel well for a few years and then desire meat again, noticing that they feel better when they eat it. Remember, we evolved as omnivores and there’s no one healthy diet right for everyone.
Once you’ve figured out how much protein to eat, what type of protein should you eat? Here’s a run-down with pros and cons of each one, as well as tips for making sure you get enough protein if you don’t eat animal products.
Meat from Ruminant Animals: This includes beef, lamb and goat.
CAFOs (or concentrated animal feeding operations) are a real problem for the environment and the animals that live in them. Runaway waste problems, air pollution and non-therapeutic use of antibiotics (and the resultant strains of superbugs), are just a few of the problems. The solution would seem to be to avoid factory-farmed meat in favor of grass-fed and grass-finished meat from smaller farms. There is evidence that such meat is healthier (containing higher levels of Omega-3s and micronutrients), it certainly tastes better, and most people feel better eating it. But, for the environment, eaters should know that ruminant animals emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and that meat production is inherently inefficient because it takes many pounds of plant matter to produce one pound of meat.
While the above is true, farms that combine livestock and vegetable crops can be nourishing to the environment because the animal waste provides fertilizer for the crops that feed both animals and people, reducing the need for petroleum based fertilizers. Also, pastured animals raised responsibly on land that is well suited for livestock can help sequester carbon.
The problem is one of scale and cost. Animals raised this way cannot be raised in large quantities and as quickly as the mass market requires, which raises the cost of meat. I think that proper portioning can take care of this problem. If I only need 2 ounces of protein a day, it’s conceivable that maybe only 2-6 ounces a week might come from a ruminant animal. Not only can I easily afford that much meat, but I’m lowering my impact on the environment by eating a proper portion. (While being fully aware that plenty of people in this country do not even have this luxury, but that’s another post.)
Pork production comes with all the same factory-farming issues of ruminant animal production. Pigs are raised in very crowded and cruel conditions and hog farms are a huge source of waste. Pigs are slightly better for the environment strictly from a global warming standpoint because they are not ruminant animals. My advice for meat eaters is to eat all meat, including pork and poultry, very sparingly and to only buy from small-scale, responsible producers who don’t administer antibiotics, use gestation crates, or crop tails. Pastured pork, like pastured beef, lamb, or goat, is best.
Chicken and Turkey:
Oh, the styrofoam chicken breast. Large-scale chicken and turkey production is problematic for some of the same reasons as above-though slightly better from an environmental standpoint. Poultry converts feed into edible tissue faster and more efficiently than large livestock, requiring fewer resources to produce. Also, chickens and turkeys are not ruminants so they don’t emit methane. When buying, know that free-range is a term that can mean next to nothing, as it simply requires the birds have “access” to the outdoors. Look for fully pasture-raised poultry, which can usually only be found directly from local farmers, or through a CSA, meat buying club, or farmers’ market.
Dairy products come from animals, so if you care how those animals were raised, you should buy certified organic dairy from animals raised on pasture. Go easy though, because dairy animals emit methane, so you don’t get an environmental pass for eating dairy instead of meat. And if you eat dairy but not meat for reasons of animal cruelty you need to know that dairy animals are often treated no better than animals raised for meat and they don’t get to retire to Florida, if you get my meaning.
Eggs are a great and economical source of protein and super versatile and easy to cook. I buy pastured eggs, which can cost anywhere from $6-$8 a dozen. That might sound expensive, but good quality eggs provide a lot of nutritional bang for the buck. Conscientious vegetarians should know that eggs carry the same cruelty baggage as dairy products. I like to buy the big stewing chickens from a farmer at my market who slaughters his spent, pasture raised laying hens and sells them frozen. They’re not too expensive and I can make great soup with them. It makes me feel better than thinking about those poor chickens being ground up for animal feed or fertilizer.
We’re told by medical professionals to eat more fish for the heart-healthy Omega-3s it contains, but the whole subject of fish is like opening up a can of worms. Instead, I suggest opening up a can of sardines. Seriously, they’re eco-friendly because they’re low on the food chain, abundant, and don’t result in by-catch or harm to the ocean floor. They’re also chock-full of those coveted Omega-3s. To see how truly delicious they can be, try them fresh if they’re available in your local area. They can be daunting to clean, but here are some instructions I wrote for my personal blog. Some fishmongers will even clean them for you. In addition to the problems of overfishing and aquaculture, many fish that are higher on the food chain are known to contain high levels of contaminants that can be harmful to your health. Plenty has been written here on EcoSalon about eating seafood sustainably (see here, here, and here.)
Plenty of vegetarians think that eating soy instead of meat makes their environmental footprint smaller. This is not necessarily true. Depending on how or where it’s done, soy production can be very hard on both the environment and the people in soy-producing countries. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that soy products (especially highly processed soy products) are not as healthy as we’ve been told. I treat soy the way I treat meat. I eat it once in a while in small quantities and stay away from highly-processed soy products. Fermented soy products like miso and tempeh are healthiest.
Combining vegetarian forms of protein:
Some people think that animal products are the only foods that contain a full complement of amino acids to provide the body with complete protein requirements. It used to be widely recommended that vegetarians and vegans practice careful food combining at each meal to ensure proper protein requirements. This view has largely gone by the wayside with most experts recommending that vegetarians and vegans eat a wide variety of different fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds every day for optimum health. Here’s an article that summarizes the basics on amino acids and tells which foods provide complementary proteins.
All of this is an extremely long way of saying what Michael Pollan so famously summarized in very few words: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” I’d just add don’t worry so much about the quantity or type of the protein you eat as you do its quality and how it was produced.
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.