Summer 2017 has officially started, despite the 90 degree days that already occupied much of June before the kickoff. Along with summer heat from above, we can expect plenty of heat from grills down below, as Americans cook up deliciously sauced and cheesed meats from all backgrounds…pigs, cow, chicken, lamb, bison, turkey and even goat. Indeed, what would be a 4th of July celebration without grilled steak and burgers? And perhaps that is too grand of a thought to consider at this point…a summer holiday without meat? Perhaps we can scale it back a bit: how about a few days each week without meat?
Enter Flexitarian Eating. No, it’s not about flexing your biceps doing the beer can curl; nor is it about increasing your flexibility so you can reach forgotten food in dark corners. Flexitarian Eating involves an eating plan that focuses on increasing consumption of plant-based meals, while still allowing for consumption of meat on a periodic basis. For people who want to improve their eating habits, it provides a wealth of health benefits, and for people who desire to transition to vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, it makes the transition easier because it’s not a total sacrifice at one time. In a word, it’s flexible.
And it’s resourceful. Even if you aren’t a believer in global warming at this point, it’s not hard to see why eating plants is more economical and much more energy efficient than raising livestock.
Consider, for example, that according to the USDA Energy Research Service, a whopping 95% of animal feed is composed of corn. In addition, more than 90 million acres of land in the US grows corn, primarily for use as feed and for ethanol. Even admitted by the Iowa Corn Growers Association in their “Corn Facts” website, a puny 1% of corn grown in the US is actually human edible. Sweet corn, the nostalgic summer food prominent at every reunion and cookout, is by no means the farmers’ cash crop.
Another important fact to consider is the volume of space and water supply needed to raise livestock and grow feed for them. For example, one acre of land can grow up to 61,000 pounds of potatoes (for humans), while it takes 1-2 acres of land to sustain one cow and calf for a year (approximately 1200 lbs). Furthermore, at least 30% of water usage in the US is for livestock production, with beef requiring 1847 lb/gal (in comparison, broccoli requires about 34 lb/gal).
All of this does not even include the energy costs of slaughter, transportation, processing and packaging. In comparison, production of fruits and vegetables requires much less energy and processing when sold as whole foods.
So it’s easy to see why eating plant-based makes environmental sense.
But if you’re like most of my family, those numbers barely fazed you as you munched on your beef jerky stick. So let’s talk about you. Why does plant based eating benefit you? You might be surprised by the reasons.
- Weight Loss. If you resemble 70% of the American population, then you might have a few extra pounds to shed. Part of that problem is due to an over consumption of animal products and protein. According to Sanna Delmonico (MS, RDN), in “The Protein Shift: Plant-Based Options” from Idea Fitness Food and Nutrition Nov-Dec 2016 Issue, “Evidence suggests that American’s protein intake ranges from 1-1.3 g/kg per day, well above the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) [of .8 g/kg].”
In addition, some research indicates that the average American consumes 62% of their diets from animal products, at more than 3x the global average. Consider that animal protein can often carry more calories per ounce than plant based products. For example, 3 oz of 85% lean ground beef carries about 197 calories, while tofu packs just 77 cal for the same amount (Robinson, Dorene. “The NEW Healthy Eating & Weight Management Guide.” 2012.)
So if you a person who eats meat at every meal, consider dropping to one meal a day, and substitute lower calorie plant products to decrease your overall caloric consumption, which may help with weight loss.
2. Live Longer. If you possess a competitive streak, and hope to outlive your peers, then here’s what you need to know: Compared with vegetarian eaters in various study groups, meat-eaters tend to die sooner, and part of that reason may be linked to chronic conditions often associated with eating animal products. In fact, I found in fascinating to learn that the people group in the US with the highest life expectancy are Seventh-Day Adventists, a Christian and vegetarian cohort, living approximately 10 years longer than their American counterparts.
3. Save Money. When I first got married in 2009 and finally started my own real grocery shopping (meal planning vs snack planning), the sticker shock of the meat section hit me fairly hard. At that time, my husband and I were also “broke as a Kenyan joke” (as my husband says), and living on a single, part-time income. Fairly quickly I learned to start making meat-less meals, borrowing ideas from the Internet and also from international cuisine, from countries with people facing similar money plights as myself, where food had to go a long way.
Both of us cooked up some pretty stellar meals, and continue to do so, on a limited budget. So I’m usually somewhat perplexed when I hear, “It’s so expensive to eat healthy!” If you consider only organic food to be healthy, then that may be so. But when you shop for seasonal produce and buy from wholesale shops, that’s not necessarily the case.
4. Improve your Palate. Another memory from our first married year involves understanding my husband’s taste buds. He grew up on fresh food from market and slaughter, and would frequently comment on the quality of food in a meal (old produce, cheap meat, cheap oil, etc). I grew up with a typical American quasi-healthy, mostly processed food, consumed the same meal with no complaints. Fast forward a few years, and I began to realize that (gasp!) my husband might actually be right. The same Sloppy Joe, Mac n Cheese or typical church potluck of ham buns didn’t pack the same satisfying punch as our multi-ingredient and spice laden meals at home. I began to experience a shifting palate in my mouth, heightening my awareness of quality food.
Interestingly, many restaurants noticed this type of consumer shift in reformed palates, and as such, have begun adding fresh and sustainable ingredients to the menus to enhance the dining out experience.
5. Improved Nutrient Profile. I think it goes without saying that fruits and vegetables improve your health…it’s an instinctive parental command to children: Eat your vegetables! But beyond those food groups, meat-less meals offer so much more to the eaters. As pointed out by Christopher Gardiner (PhD at Standford), in Delmonico’s article, “plant foods are also rich in fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and keep your microbiota and digestive tract healthy, and they’re rich in phytochemicals, the biologically active compounds found only in plants.”
Since fiber can only be found in plant foods, it makes sense to consume higher quantities of it, as fiber consumption is also linked to deceased risk for chronic conditions.
At this point, hopefully your interests shifted even slightly to consider meat-less meals. While I have a few recipes I can recommend, I think you may find increased benefit searching for some yourself, using ingredients you know that you like. But if you absolutely need suggestions, I’ll list a few titles from my recipe collection book that sparked a fire in my own kitchen. In the meantime, I hope this summer finds you firing up the grill to test out the latest garden and bean burgers on the market!
The Eat Clean DIET Cookbook, by Tosca Reno
Seven Secrets Cookbook, by Neva & Jim Brackett
Students Go Vegan Cookbook, by Carole Raymond