For The Flexitarian – The Environmental Sustainability of Eating Meat

Flexitarian Diet - How To Eat Meat Sustainable

The new Canadian Food Guide is set to be released early this year. It has spiked a lot of interest, especially with the presumed removal of the Dairy Food Group, and the focus on Plant-Based Proteins over meat. The benefits of a plant-based diet for general health and environmental sustainability have been discussed in previous posts, and if you have landed on my blog you are likely interested in eating for a healthy planet (see What Your Health Care Professional Should Tell You About Food Sustainability). For those who wish to consume meat sustainably and consciously, and follow more of a ‘Flexitarian” approach, here are some tips on how to make the right choice for environmental sustainability, and your health.

How to Be A Flexitarian. How Much Meat Is OK?

For some people, poultry and red meat may be their main source of dietary protein, minerals and B vitamins. I always encourage aiming for least one vegetarian day per week, and a legume meal at least 2 times per week (see 5 Reasons You Should Be Eating Lentils and a Simple Prep Guide ). Seafood also provides many of the nutrients that meat does, but it also comes with its considerations (see 5 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Seafood Foodie). Choose red meat no more than once per week; a 3 to 4oz serving is all the protein you need in a sitting.

Intake of processed meat including ham, bacon and sausages has been linked to colorectal cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of World Health Organisation (WHO) states that with each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily comes an 18% risk of colorectal cancer. It is important to note that this is a relative risk which really translates to a 1.18 increased risk of developing bowel cancer with each 50 gram serving of processed meat. You can read the World Cancer Research Fund report here. Bottom line – best to avoid it.

Environmental Sustainability  - What Your Health Professional Should Be Telling You About Food Sustainability
What Your Health Professional Should Be Telling You About Food Sustainability

Flexitarian Health Point – Choose Grass-Fed or Pasture-Raised Beef

Grass-fed cattle have a healthier fat profile compared with conventional beef with higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids including EPA and DHA. Grain fed cattle have increased levels of omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory, and reduce levels of omega-3 utilization in the body. Studies have documented an omega-3 to omega-6 ratios in grass-fed beef in the order of 1:1 to 1:3, whereas in animals that spend the last portion of their lives on feedlots, the ratios found in their meat can be between 1:5 and 1:7 (see Omega-3s in Vegetarians on why the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is important for chronic disease prevention). Some researchers attribute the pro-inflammatory state of the human body, and a ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 at 1:10 as a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and any disease with roots in inflammation; this would include dementia and the mental diseases of ageing.

Flexitarian Environmental Sustainability – Grass-Fed Verses Pasture Raised Beef

Grazing of cattle helps build the soil and will consume much less energy than conventional farming. Feedlot beef requires extra input into the growing of the feed (which includes water), making feed into pellets, use of fertilizers, and transporting the pellets. We also know that crops are grown to feed livestock use 33% of total arable land globally and necessitate land clearing on a large scale. This high need for land for growing feedlot cattle’s grain should be considered when arguing the point of increased land requirements for the grazing of grass-fed beef farming versus feedlot cows. Some farmers see grass-fed beef as a potential inroad for the next generation of farmers because it doesn’t require as much capital as other farming methods.

Environmental Sustainability - Cows In Bellingen, NSW

Flexitarian Health Point – Choose Chicken More Often But Don’t Eat The Skin

Chicken does contain less saturated fat than red meat. Although the new trend is to not concern ourselves so much with saturated fat, we need to consider that fatty tissues in the animals we eat are where toxins, hormones and antibiotics are stored. These unwelcomed additions will be stored in higher amounts in the skin of a chicken, as well as the fatty tissue of red meat. Choose the leanest cuts, and organic if possible.

Flexitarian Environmental Sustainability Point – Why Chicken Is A Better Choice

The methane emissions from the digestion in cows and sheep represent a massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Game meats including Bison, Venison or Moose are better choices as they release less methane and Chicken even less. Chicken is also the most efficient terrestrial meat you can eat, with just 2 kilograms of feed input required to produce 1 kilogram of meat. This is significantly less than the 7 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of beef. Chicken is also fairly efficient in terms of land usage, requiring only a small area for a short amount of time. A free-range chicken will be allowed to roam outside during daylight hours, have a lower stocking density than conventional chicken, and are free from antibiotics and fed natural foods. Organic is better still – better conditions for the animal and a minimum of 95 per cent organic feed (which includes non-genetically modified material).

Making Environmentally Sustainable Food Choices - Chicken Versus Beef

Flexitarian Health Point – Choose Antibiotic-Free Meat

Antibiotics are not only used to treat sick animals but also used in meat production to promote growth in otherwise-healthy animals by giving them sub-therapeutic doses. This has contributed to the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli, which have caused difficult-to-treat human infections.

Flexitarian Environmental Sustainability Point – Antibiotic Use and Environmental Impacts

Antibiotics from animal feed and waste are released into the environment and leach into soil or drinking water. Many larger and smaller meat production operations have gotten on board with limiting the use of antibiotics. Some producers are looking into the use of probiotics for their animals to produce healthy gut flora and increase disease resistance.

Mixed Bean Winter Warming Soup
5 Reasons You Should Be Eating Legumes Plus A Simple Prep Guide

Flexitarian Health Point – Limit High-Temperature Cooking of Meat

BBQing or grilling meat can produce the inflammatory Advanced Glycation End Products (AGE). AGEs have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, skin ageing, and rheumatoid arthritis. They are formed when the protein in meat is exposed to prolonged thermal heating (or sterilization). This is commonly found in fried, BBQ’d, broiled, pan-fried, deep-fried and microwaved foods. To reduce exposure to AGEs, grill using a marinade and do not char the flesh food. Cook at temperatures less than 350F – baking, roasting, poaching and stewing are best. Garlic, mustard, cider vinegar, melon juice and dry wines may slow AGE formation (as well as an increase in antioxidants such as vitamin A, C, E, Selenium which can further delay AGE formation).

Flexitarian Environmental Sustainability Point – Plant Foods Contain Less AGEs

Carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking. Legumes also contain less AGEs then meat and can be included as a more environmentally sustainable meat alternative (see 5 Reasons You Should Be Eating Lentils and a Simple Prep Guide). For more information on which foods contain AGEs see here.

Environmentally Sustainable Meat Choices As A Flexitarian – In A Nutshell

We have considered some of the major issues surrounding meat consumption – rampant antibiotic usage, contamination of local land and water by fertilizers used to produce feed, the devastation of the world’s forests cleared for land on which to raise more livestock (or for their feed), and water usage. Above all of this, the more important issue is the creation of greenhouse gas. Livestock produces more greenhouse gas than the emissions caused by transportation or anything else except energy production. In the end, it just makes sense to eat less.

If you do eat meat, choose organic, free-range or grass-fed where possible. It will come with a higher price tag but will also come with health benefits and a smaller environmental footprint. Eating less of it will help manage any price difference, and will leave room for other healthy plant-based alternatives including legumes, hemp and fermented soy.

References of the Environmental Sustainability of Eating Meat

World Health Organisation – Processed Meat and Cancer
World Cancer Research Fund: Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer
Todays Dietitian: Grass-Fed vs Conventional Beef
Todays Dietitian: Antibiotics in Meat
Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet
Mark Bittman: Food Matters

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