On April 22nd, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated to raise awareness of the efforts of environmental protection agencies and the need to protect our beautiful planet. We can help protect the Earth in so many ways, one of which is by making sustainable food choices.
Sustainable nutrition is food that meets our dietary needs without compromising the needs of future generations. Efforts to support sustainability in terms of food are focused on making sure there will be access to healthy foods even as the population continues to grow. While it may seem counterintuitive, farming is actually one of the largest drivers of climate change due to greenhouse gas and the large amount of land and water farming requires. Two main concepts have been proposed as potential solutions to this overwhelming problem. The first is a change in how we eat. The second is a change in how we farm. For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on the food side of this.
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission came up with the “planetary healthy diet”. Contrary to what the name suggests, this is an eating pattern rather than a standard diet. The overall goal of this environmentally friendly eating pattern is to increase plant-based proteins and reduce red meat and sugar consumption. While this may sound simple, when taking a longer look at current eating habits there is a lot of room for improvement. Per the EAT-Lancet Commision, “this shift will require global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar to decrease by 50%, while consumption of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and legumes must double”.
As a Registered Dietitian, I have never advocated for large or abrupt diet changes. When attempting to change too much, too quickly, it can be overwhelming and difficult to adhere to. Unless someone is already following a plant-based diet, reducing meat consumption by 50% is a big diet change. This is where the concept of Meatless Mondays can be incredibly beneficial. Meatless Mondays are a global initiative intended to reduce meat consumption by following a vegetarian diet every Monday. To truly appreciate the positive effect this can have, take into consideration the resources required to produce the meat bought in the grocery store. Per the University of Colorado Boulder, having just one meatless day out of the week reduces your carbon footprint by eight pounds each week, and each meatless meal you partake in saves 133 gallons of water. It also reduces the amount of emissions equivalent to driving 348 miles in a standard car. There is no question that even just one day without meat can go a long way in terms of bettering the planet. A plant-based diet can also help improve overall health and has been associated with decreased morbidity and longer lifespans.
There is a plethora of imitation meat products on the market today, but not all of them are as healthy as they appear. Many meat substitutions are actually highly processed, higher in sodium, and lower in nutrients. It is important to check the ingredients of a food item before purchasing it. To start, check and see if the ingredients are whole foods such as black beans, vegetables, jackfruit, and pea protein. If the ingredient list is full of long, difficult-to-pronounce, and unfamiliar words, this could be a sign that it contains a lot of “filler ingredients” with minimal nutritional value. A general guideline is that a longer ingredient list tends to be associated with a more processed food item. Studies have compared whole plant-based proteins like black beans, tofu, and tempeh, with imitation meat products (vegetarian chicken tenders, imitation beef, etc.). They found that individuals relying heavily on imitation meat products tend to be over the recommended allowances for sugar and sodium, yet under on nutrients such as zinc, calcium, potassium, and vitamin B12. Those that obtained their protein from whole foods like quinoa and lentils, met their micronutrient and fiber needs without having an excess of added sugars and sodium. The graphic below provides some excellent sources of plant-based proteins.
While imitation meat products may not be the healthiest foundation for a diet, they can still be used in moderation. When looking at these options try to choose products that are low in saturated fat (<1g). When looking at sodium, ideally a portion should have less than 140 mg of sodium. The Dietary Guidelines recommend <2300mg for the average person, even less if you have conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease. The optimal amount of protein in a meal is around 20 grams. If imitation meat is meant to be a meal substitute, aim for a product with 10-15 grams of protein as you will likely obtain protein from other components of your meal as well.
No matter how you choose to do it, incorporating more plant-based foods is better for you and better for the planet. If you'd like help incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, PUSH511's nutrition coaches can help! Happy Earth Day!
am a Licensed Registered Dietitian with experience in critical care, cardiology, weight loss, allergy services, and food service. I graduated from Penn State University with a BS in nutrition and finished my RD training at University of Maryland. I am currently in PA school and am looking forward to combining my love of nutrition with medicine. After moving to Baltimore in 2019, I did a trial class at PUSH511 Fitness as I was looking for accountability and to meet new people. When I walked into the gym for the first time, everyone was congregated on one side cheering on a member who was struggling with ring muscle-ups at the end of the workout. It was such an uplifting moment to witness. I left the gym that day in dire need of ginger ale, but also very excited about this amazing and supportive community I had stumbled upon. I am grateful for this opportunity to give back and share my love of nutrition!