My Very Undramatic Month Without Meat
I opened the fridge today and spotted some leftover chicken. I was hungry. So I checked the calendar and, sure enough, I’d just finished 30 days without eating meat. The chicken tasted like, well… salt, garlic and oregano. It wasn’t any better than the protein-packed black bean veggie burgers I’ve been making from scratch for oh, maybe a buck or two apiece, and enjoying very much.
My month without meat, a simple commitment made to self and announced to Facebook friends, was utterly undramatic. I didn’t lose weight. My blood pressure didn’t change. I don’t feel any better. I don’t feel any worse. And I can still do my age in push-ups.
Anecdotes like this prove nothing, of course. For all I know, my hemoglobin levels are all messed up and my fingernails will fall off next week. Or I could die tomorrow from meat withdrawal syndrome.
But here’s one big fat fact that came from the experiment: I didn’t miss the meat.
I’m not a vegetarian. I’ve eaten fish, chicken or beef daily all my life. I love a good barbecued steak. I’ll probably have another before too long. But I’m not rushing out to stock up on meat right now because, I’ve found, it’s not that big a deal. It’s just what I was used to.
Here’s another fact: For the price of one good steak at the supermarket, I can make a plant-based, satisfying, filling, nutritional meal for four.
And here’s why all this really matters: Much less land and water was used making the food I ate during my meatless month — mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains, along with a few eggs, a bit of cheese, and some late-night brown-sugar toast. Nobody’s perfect. (Further confession: I had sushi one evening as part of a lovely family meal, but that was the only animal flesh I ate for the month.)
What it takes
About three-fourths of agricultural land around the globe is devoted to producing animal-based foods, including crops grown to feed the animals, according to the World Resources Institute. Yet these animal products provide only about 37% of the protein humans consume.
This chart shows the amount of land and water used to grow various foods, along with the greenhouse gases emitted by each:
As the global population climbs, food and water shortages loom. Based on some math related to current water and land use, production capabilities, and the available resources left to exploit, humans won’t be able to feed themselves in a few decades, unless we change the way we eat. This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report concluding that shifting to more of a plant-based diet is one way to help meet not only the looming food crisis but to help curb global warming.
“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, with the IPCC. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat.”
But wait, you say, meat provides protein, which is vital to a healthy diet. In fact, most Americans get a lot more protein than they need. The average U.S. male between ages 20 and 49 eats more than 100 grams of protein a day. The USDA suggests an active 40-year-old man who is 5’-10” and 160 pounds should eat about 58 grams of protein daily, according to the USDA calculator. An active 40-year-old woman who is 5’-5” and 130 pounds should consume about 47 grams. If you live in this country and have anything approaching a typical diet, and you’re not training for the World’s Strongest Man competition, you do not need to worry about protein.
If you’re still worried about protein, try bugs. Insects are high in protein and are being touted as another way to help feed the world more sustainably, I wrote recently.
The beef with beef
Beef, as it’s typically grown in the United States, is the worst environmental culprit among animal products, using 28 times as much land, 11 times as much water, and 6 times more fertilizer than the production of dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs (all of which are pretty close to one another in the resources they require), according to a 2014 analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Since red meat comes with known health risks, subbing a veggie burger for a beef burger is rather like trading in a Hummer for a Schwinn, but without being slowed down one bit.
You may also have heard that you’ll wither and die without red meat, which does pack high amounts of important nutrients like vitamin B12 and zinc. One of its most critical nutrients is high-quality heme iron, which the body absorbs better than the iron found in plants or dairy products. Other dark meats can help replace the iron, as can turkey or shellfish, but experts say replacing heme iron can be a challenge for vegetarians. Here are foods that can be chosen and avoided to help with this.
Meanwhile, the benefits of the so-called Mediterranean diet appear to be significant. This is not really a diet but a way of eating that research suggests can lower the risk of cancer, heart disease and dementia. It’s based on, you guessed it, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans, along with olive oil, fish, poultry and eggs, and small quantities of cheese and yogurt. Red meat isn’t banned, but is rare.
I think I miss jerky. But pecans are amazing. And I’ve rediscovered the incomparable sweet tang of peaches, the delight of a crisp apple, the jaw-jarring joy of carrots, and … It’s no longer a reflex for me to choose animal products over food that comes out of the ground. And if I go a few days, a week, a month without meat, I’m pretty sure nothing terrible will happen, and I know some good things will.