I keep hearing about the Paleo diet, which from my understanding promotes eating fresh fruits, vegetables and lots of meat. From an environmental standpoint, what is your opinion about this diet?
— Lindsay, Frisco
Thanks for the question, Lindsay. For those who may not have heard of the Paleo diet, as the name suggests, the diet mimics what our Paleolithic ancestors ate. The hunter-gatherers foraged for nuts, fruit, root vegetables and wild game. Loren Cordain, founder of the “Paleo movement,” suggests that we would be a lot better off avoiding legumes, grain and dairy products that require food cultivation, not foraging. His argument is that our bodies have not adapted quickly enough to process such foods. Other nutritionists maintain that we have evolved to process these foods, but that the problem is how they are cultivated and processed.
The Paleo diet has a lot of good things going for it. For one, eating less processed food and more fresh fruits and vegetables is never a bad thing. Yet, the Paleo diet advocates consuming large quantities of meat, which can be detrimental from an environmental standpoint. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Administration, 18 percent of greenhouse gases come from raising animals for food. Others, like Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang from the World Bank, say it is more like 51 percent.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone should become a vegetarian. Each person’s diet is inevitably based on lifestyle factors, health, genetics, income, etc. Frankly, the argument between whether one should eat meat or not is outdated. What I am suggesting is that we as Americans should start thinking about a cultural transition to reduce our current consumption of meat. According to a study by the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American eats over 200 pounds of meat a year. Meat consumption is rapidly increasing across the globe, especially in the developing world as income levels increase. Accordingly, this will require more resources as raising animals for human consumption requires far more water, land and fossil fuels than cultivating plants.
Let’s be honest, it would not be feasible for 8 billion people in the world to enjoy the Paleo diet. Furthermore, as Michael Pollan states, the meat we eat today is very different from the meat consumed by our Paleolithic ancestors. Free-range or pastured animals are somewhat closer to what our ancestors ate versus those raised on a factory farm with an artificial diet of corn and grains. Yet, raising free-range animals requires considerably more land, which is a finite resource on a planet with 8 billion people and growing.
So how do we reconcile eating healthfully while also being conscientious of our natural resources? Consider eating meat once a day, three or four times a week instead of a serving of meat every single day with multiple meals. This is more akin to how our Paleolithic ancestors ate anyway. It’s not like they had a regular store of meat they ate every day; they ate meat when they could get it. The rest of the time, they supplemented their diet with whatever else was available.
Bear in mind that the cultivation of other food crops, such as soybeans or sugarcane, can also be detrimental to the environment. We should take into account how all of our food is raised and the agricultural practices in place to grow it. This most often means paying more for food, especially meat. Grass-fed beef and free-range chicken can be considerably more expensive.
With the money you save eating less meat, you can buy higher quality meat that comes from pastured or free-range animals versus feed lot. Or, try substituting that hamburger for a black bean burger or a fresh salad.
Even though the Paleo diet may have its advantages, my worry is that too many people may jump on this newest fad-diet bandwagon justifying more consumption of meat. Sound familiar? Is this not what occurred with the Atkins diet?
What we should be focusing on is how our food is cultivated and what resources were required to cultivate it. A more healthful diet will surely follow.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.