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Plant-Based Eating: Get Healthy While Going Green

 Authored by Bob Wright, M.A.T. – Director of Education at Hilton Head Health

Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth. So says a report published in 2019 by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health. The commission convened 37 leading scientists from 16 countries from various disciplines including human health, agriculture, political science, and environmental sustainability. The group was co-chaired by Walter Willett MD, former chairman of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and Johan Rockstom Ph.D., Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research & Stockholm Resilience Centre. Their task is to develop global scientific targets for healthy diets and environmentally sustainable food production, and there is little time to waste. The report stated that without a radical transformation of the global food system, today’s children will inherit a planet that is seriously degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from preventable diseases. As Dr. David Katz puts it “there are no healthy people on ruined a planet and we are blundering in that direction”. 

Planet-Based Eating Can Help the Environment 

As a grandparent, that is frightening. The good news that the same dietary patterns that support a healthy planet supports human health as well. What does that diet look like? One that is based on a wide variety of minimally processed whole, mostly plant food. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes. The new, plant focused guidelines call for consuming significantly lower amount of animal products especially beef, because our current consumption patterns increase our risk for many chronic diseases and its production is jeopardizing the future health of our planet.   

Protein ScoreCard

Contamination from Meat Sources

You may be aware of the significant health benefits shifting towards a more plant-based diet, but what does that have to do with the environment? What we eat and how that food is produced influence the environment in a number of ways. The Harvard School of Public Health states that food production, especially animal food sources, places an enormous demand upon our natural resources as agriculture is a major contributor to deforestation, species extinction, and freshwater depletion and contamination. But it’s most significant effect is how it influences air quality. When it comes to air quality and what impacts it, most people think cars, not cows. It’s true that getting us where we want go by car, truck or plane generates a lot of greenhouse emissions, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation doesn’t come close to what is generated producing food, and roughly 80% of those emissions come from dairy and beef cattle. The graph below shows the emissions cost of raising beef compared to other food sources.  Lamb is also very costly but because it is consumed at much lower levels than beef, it has a smaller total impact.    

Why are cattle so costly environmentally? Because the way that they digest food produces a lot of methane and as a result, they belch and pass a lot of methane containing gas. In addition, the decomposition of their manure generates a lot of methane as well. Methane along with other greenhouse gases are largely responsible for the climate changes we are experiencing now.  

If we can reduce our reliance on beef and other animal food sources it would have major positive effect on our environment, and that is one of the major objectives of the EAT-Lancet Commission mentioned earlier.  

Plant-Based Eating is More Sustainable

Their goal is to find a way to feed all people around the world and do so in healthy for people and environmentally sustainable ways.  

That goal only is met by moving towards a plant-based diet that reduces our reliance on animal-sourced food and beef and other red meats in particular. Their so-called “planetary healthy diet” calls for greater reliance on plant-based proteins such as legumes and nuts and less so on animal sources. They recommend only about 4 oz. a week of red meat, about a 90% reduction from current levels.  7 oz. per week for each of poultry and fish and about 2 eggs per week. 

How to Start Eating A Plant-Based Diet

 If you, like many of us, have included red meats in your diet on a regular basis, achieving the goals above may seem unrealistic. If so, start slowly moving in that direction. 

If you have been having red meat 4 times a week, start by going to 2. If you have been averaging 8 oz. portions reduce that to 6.oz- then to 4oz. In recipes that call for ground beef, use half  

Substitute heathier and less environmentally damaging animal proteins for red meat. Pan fry or grill marinated chicken or salmon instead of steak or burgers. Cut back on deli meats by substituting tuna or slices of fresh turkey or chicken. Substitute ground turkey breast for ground beef in pasta sauce. 

Think of animal-based proteins as playing a supportive role. Have a stir-fry with lots of vegetables with a small amount chicken. Complement with whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, faro etc.  Enjoy a large salad with greens, tomatoes cucumbers, etc., topped with garbanzo beans. 

When dining out, try a meatless burger or a vegetarian entrée. 

Go meatless one day a week. 

Plant-Based Foods Will Give You Enough Protein

If you are concerned about getting enough protein as you cut back on meat, there is no need to be. First of all, some plants like legumes are excellent sources of protein, and other plants including vegetables, are better sources than once thought. Secondly, on average both men and women in the US consume almost double the recommended protein intake. Christopher Gardner Ph.D., professor at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, summarized by saying “given that many if not most, Americans eat twice the amount of protein they require, there is substantial room to consume less protein and still meet individual needs. Most people could choose a vegetarian or even a vegan diet and still meet their protein needs. I would recommend two things: eating less protein in general and shifting the source of some protein from animal to plant foods”. 

At Hilton Head Health, our Healthy Kitchen follows this formula with great results for our guests. Most guests will assure you that despite the meat reduction, they actually don’t feel any less “full” and can even go longer without being hungry!

Bob Wright
Director of Education at Hilton Head Health

Click here for more information about the wellness and weight loss programs at Hilton Head Health, recently named the #1 Wellness Resort the Country by USA Today

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