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Sustainable eating — Simple steps for getting healthier and greening the planet

By Robin Robinson

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Oct. 3 2010 3:46 p.m. MDT

Paul McCartney felt this way, but instead of doing nothing he took action by starting a "Meat Free Monday" campaign on his Help the Planet website.

His primary goal is to help reduce individual and family carbon footprints — the amount of carbon dioxide required to sustain a lifestyle — through voluntary changes, particularly by reducing meat consumption.

Small individual choices do indeed have significant impacts. While going vegetarian one meal a week for some families might be fairly easy, a meal without meat is no meal at all for other families.

So, where is the happy medium?

The answer seems to lie in a balanced approach many call "mindful eating." Instead of making drastic changes to eating habits, one can instead focus on small and easy alterations that can make a big difference. What follows are five simple steps for helping the planet — one bite and meal at a time.

1. Educate yourself about the methods of meat production in the United States. Although the U.S. meat market raises and sells tremendous quantities of beef, chicken and pork, it does not always do it well. The ground beef in your take-out burger or chicken in your tender nugget might well have come from unhealthy animals raised in inhumane conditions. New York Times food writer, Mark Bittman, blasted the industry and America's eating habits in a fiery 20-minute lecture in 2007 at a Technology, Entertainment, Design conference.

"We don't eat animal products for sufficient nutrition, we eat them to have an odd form of malnutrition — and it's killing us," he said.

"I do think that for the benefit of everyone the time has come to stop raising (animals) industrially, and stop eating them thoughtlessly," Bittman continued. "We have to take matters into our own hands, not only by advocating a better diet for everyone — that's the hard part — but by improving our own, and that happens to be quite easy: less meat, less junk, more plants.?It's a simple formula: Eat food.?Eat real food."

2. Reduce meat consumption, overall. "There is no good reason for us to eat as much meat as we do," Bittman said. "Experts … recommend that adults eat just over a half a pound of meat per week. … We (currently) eat half a pound a day."

Instead of making meat the focus of the meal, use cuts of fish, chicken, pork or beef (in that order) that will strengthen the other ingredients. Ground meat is ideal for this, and can be used to create stir-fries, casseroles and any number of dishes based on a tortilla. Meat eaters can still be satisfied — but with a little less meat than usual. If you opt for fish, choose wild or check out the sustainability of your choice. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, a non-profit, science-based organization, helps ocean-conscious consumers choose fish that are fished or farmed in ways that don't harm the environment. (See www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_recommendations.aspx).

There are simple recipes available on the Internet to help you stretch your meat dollars. One easy idea is to cook up a batch of ground meat once a week, freeze in small batches and thaw in the microwave as needed.

3. Use unprocessed grains. Make it a goal to cook up a batch of dried beans or whole grains each week. The beans will store in the refrigerator. The grains can go in the fridge too, but — as a bonus — can also be frozen and easily reheated. If you have them on hand, it is easy to make a complete meal by combining a reduced quantity of meat protein combined with an already-cooked bean or grain, rounding it out with a quantity of fresh or frozen vegetables. Bittman's cookbooks offer great ideas, or browse through Martha Rose Shulman's Recipes for Health at topics.nytimes.com/top/news/health/series/recipes_for_health/index.html?ref=nutrition.

4. Pay more attention to labels. While it's awfully hard to read that fine print when conceptualizing dinner in the grocery store aisles midway between the office and the dinner table, it nevertheless pays to know what you're using to fuel your human engine. Value your long-term health enough to make conscious choices. Choose items with lower fat and sodium levels and with higher amounts of dietary fiber. Also, try to avoid purchasing items with corn or corn-based substances (corn oil, cornstarch or especially corn syrup) as main ingredients. For a quick and easy guide to reading food labels, check out www.healthcare.uiowa.edu/fns/nutritional/foodlabel.htm.

5. Add more nutrient-dense foods. The abundance and affordability of highly processed foods today make for dietary choices that are calorie-rich but nutrient-poor. Make it your business to find out which foods deliver the biggest bang for — almost invariably — the smallest buck. Dark leafy greens are high on the list. Ice cream and soda pop, sadly, rank near the bottom. For a guide to choosing foods with high nutrient density, check out the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index scoring system online at www.drfuhrman.com/library/article17.aspx, or visit your local health food market.

"The evidence is very clear that plants promote health," Bittman said. "Overconsumption of animals, and of course junk food, is the problem, along with our paltry consumption of plants. … Our demand for these things … drives us to consume way more calories than are good for us, and those calories are in foods that cause, not prevent, disease."

Harness the power of your own kitchen and shopping cart and make a difference with every choice you make.

As Michel Nischan, author of "Sustainably Delicious" said, "You really can be a hero one product at a time."

English graduate Robin Robinson is full-time mother of four, part-time editor and the author of two young adult books on the U.S. Civil War.

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