Meat is getting a lot of bad rep, as it should- it’s pretty resource intensive and we definitely eat too much of it on average. So this new flexitarian word is now coming up everywhere. But what does it mean? Well, people saying they’re flexitarian are typically trying to reduce their meat consumption.
But is “flexitarian” just an excuse for meat eaters to continue on their merry way? Well, not if you can actually stick to cutting back. The issue with eating a flexitarian diet though, is that you have to practice more due diligence than anyone less if you’re trying to eat sustainably. So, you can’t give up meat? Fair, but saying you’re cutting back on meat while diving into that burger sounds like getting the best of both worlds- eating what you want AND sounding like you care. We don’t want that, right?
So here’s an individual’s weekly shopping list (with some numbers) to help hold your inner wolf accountable. Toggle for more info/tips.
*disclaimer: while this shopping list should meet your nutritional needs, its best to consult with an expert if you’re worried about nutrition.
Get locally if possible. Organic if not, and look for farmer cooperatives or companies sourcing from small farmers. Choose poultry most of the time, occasionally pork or pasture-rased beef (once every 1-2 months).
Not eating the report of course- that would be far from ideal, nutritionally.
I spent one week eating a new diet that -according to recently published guidelines- claim to be both good for your health and the planet. Published in mid-January, the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report Food in the Anthropocene opened the floodgates for the debate on what a sustainable diet would mean in terms of both planet and nutrition.
Commended by some and heavily criticized by others, it nonetheless has sparked a critical conversation: how do we eat so that we meet our nutritional needs but don’t destroy the planet in the process (and die)? Important question.
Well, I decided to take these guidelines (given in grams by category) and try it out for a week. It’s been a week of counting, calculating, and cleaning measuring cups, and let me tell you- it wasn’t easy.
From the start I realized this diet is theoretical, and far from practical. It makes sense for academic report writing but it does not for real life. From the top, I had struggles in trying to translate these guidelines into something doable for the week. For example, eating 6 forms of animal sourced food (beef/lamb, pork, poultry, eggs, fish, dairy) in one day is ridiculous, and impractical. I chose to stick to only one type of meat for the week. Second, I had no concept of what a gram was…blame ignorance, or being American, or both for that matter. Also, not everything had a category i.e. what do I do with my precious coffee? I also had to adjust the numbers down because the 2,500 calorie diet is given for an adult male, of which only one of those is true.
After some serious number crunching and brainstorming, I came up with a shopping list that wouldn’t make me run to the store everyday, or break the bank. Still, it wasn’t easy tracking things for a week. I took to an excel spreadsheet to make sure that even if I went over the limit for a day, I stayed within the limit for a week. This is because eating 1/4th of an egg a day not only leaves you wanting more, its also inconvenient. Thankfully I was able to figure out the quantities for the week and stock my fridge with exactly what I needed. This was made it a lot easier for 1) cooking and 2) the anxiety.
However, no one’s perfect and I went over my week’s worth of eggs, fish and legumes. Turns out that the increase in legumes is really not that much. And buying cuts of meat or fish to stay within the limit was difficult, which demonstrates how hard it is to make this thing practical. And finally eggs. According to the guidelines, it’s about 2 large eggs every 10 days. As a vegetarian who was eating a lot of eggs before going on this adventure, this was probably the hardest part. And also unusual, because I always considered eating eggs to be more “sustainable”. This highlights a major flaw of the guidelines…how you source your food is critical when it comes to sustainability. This diet is far from being a “catch all”. Where I live, I know buying eggs produced locally and sustainability is a lot easier (and cheaper) than buying meat sourced the same way.
Another drawback of the report is not offering substitutes, or offering different “diets” generally. While, giving a decent framework for flexitarians, vegetarian and vegan diets exist and are growing in popularity. Also, there are a lot of coffee and tea drinkers out in the world… and to our collective dismay coffee does take resources to make…and is it better to buy processed plant milk or locally produced, sustainability raised dairy? These are tough questions, and made for substituting things like milk challenging, and had me questioning many of my food choices and their respective “sustainability”.
All in all, I realized I was absolutely eating healthier- mostly because I was paying extremely close attention to hitting the marks for all food groups. There are critics that say this diet isn’t nutritionally perfect. And you know, maybe it isn’t. But whose diet actually is? Trying to eat a diet that is nutritionally perfect is just as theoretical as it is impractical. There is no doubt that if everyone ate according to these guidelines, or any well-meaning guidelines based on nutritional science, diet-related health issues would dramatically decrease. Because, what is a healthy diet anyway? Try googling it, and dig yourself a deep internet rabbit hole while you’re at it.
The biggest downside of this EAT-Lancet report is that it seems to recommend a diet built on our current, highly destructive, food system i.e. a specific recommendation for palm oil. And while the approach the authors took makes sense for academia…it still fails to embark on the question: what kind of food system could we have instead? Which, admittedly, is probably a whole different kind of study. The authors do recognize the importance of context and the need for diverse production systems and solutions- of course, sustainability is highly context specific. Yet they recognize this, while giving a highly prescriptive diet with limited ranges and no substitutes. This diet is hardly sustainable if not applied in context, and as it stands it does not provide enough room to adapt.
The diet is only a first step for sustainability. What you buy and how it’s produced matters. There’s much more to it than just keeping your meat intake to 300 grams a week, or switching to vegan. Those highly processed vegan corn dogs are probably not great for the environment…you’d be better off buying sustainably produced, pasture-raised beef from your local farmer. These extra steps like buying local, buying within season, paying attention to certifications like organic or sustainably sourced, humanely raised, etc. all are critical steps for sustainability. It’s not just about what you switch your diet to, but how you go about it that counts.
For example, let’s say a country’s agricultural wealth was in its grasslands. The whole western US is covered in rangelands that are suitable for grazing cattle (since we killed off all the buffalo). Would it not make sense then, to get our small portion of meat from grass-fed beef, instead of getting it largely from poultry…which would likely use large amounts of grain that directly competes with human diets? Its important to emphasize a small portion is key here- only 5% of the US beef market is grass-fed. That means we still need to greatly scale back consumption while increasing sustainable forms of production. The verdict is not yet out on small forms of red meat consumption, which the report admits to. Furthermore, a recent study shows that mixed-diets may actually be very beneficial, as long as you stay away from processed meats.
As a flexitarian diet, the diet is doable: 2/3 lbs of meat, a half gallon of milk. 2-3 frozen fish fillet’s a week. 2 eggs every 10 days (still unsure about this last one). But overall, for someone that wants to eat meat and fish 2-3 times a week, or not give up cheese, they’re decent guidelines. But only if summed up at category level and then applied to context- not as currently written. And while it’s great modeling exercise providing a framework, the report is still rooted in a global context- which is not how diets should work. Diets should be based on what you have available, what’s in season, what’s local, and obviously on your nutritional needs.
So should nutrition drive what we produce? Or should our resources? A huge gray area lies in between those two questions. And the answer lies in the gray, meeting both human and environmental health goals. Finding that sweet spot? Well, that one depends on context. And sooner or later we will find it- thankfully we humans are extremely innovative and adaptive… But let’s find it sooner, rather than later.
A lot of it is due to stricter regulations. A lot of it is due to only a tiny amount of USDA slaughter houses. Some of it is due to loopholes that allow blatant ignorance of transparency. “Product of USA”? Misleading. As long it was processed here, it can be labeled at such, even if the chicken came all the way from China.
Eating 6 forms of animal sourced food (beef/lamb, pork, poultry, eggs, fish, dairy) in one day is ridiculous, and impractical (just imagine your weekly shopping list…getting anxiety just thinking about it? yeah me to).
I had no concept of what a gram was (blame ignorance, or being American, or both for that matter).
I straight away ignored some things (for sanity purposes). i.e the authors gave no category for coffee (but they also didn’t for water so… same thing?).
I lumped things together and tried to stay within the limits for the week (eating 1/4th of an egg a day? unenjoyable and inconvenient)
I adjusted the numbers to bring it down to around 2000 calories a day (ball park). i.e. not everyone is an adult male.
Basically from day one I realized this diet is theoretical, and far from practical. Makes sense for academic report writing but does not for real life. So, it took some brainstorming and number crunching to translate this thing into something doable. For example, I choose to eat only one type of meat for the week (shopping for one here). And I tried to come up with a shopping list that wouldn’t make me run to the store everyday , or break the bank (because I’m a working woman with a life and an expensive travel obsession).
This diet is only a first step for sustainability. What you buy and how its produced matters. There’s way more to it than just keeping your meat intake to 300 grams a week. Even if you do eat more meat, if its produced sustainably and you’re supporting those systems and local farmers in the process, that’s just as important. So, in addition to a shopping list, below are some links that take these extra steps.
I was already stocked on things like whole grain rice, lentils, olive oil. I also already had some veggies from Hungry Harvest . Waste not, want not, right?
Also for food waste- compost! As an urbanite, thankful for companies like compost cab.
Now, while day 0 consisted of me trying to figure out what a gram is (not to be confused with your mother’s mother), I did eventually get the hang of it. Good, because washing measuring cups was starting to take its toll.
You’re days worth of legumes (black beans), nuts (cashews), and cheese.
Still, it wasn’t easy tracking things for a week. Which is why I whipped out my handy excel skills to make sure I didn’t go over my weekly limit (you say nerdy, I say smart). The stuff in red? Had a pretty hard limit, with a strict range, and unhealthy if eaten in large amounts. The green stuff? I wasn’t worried about going over because the range was pretty wide. The yellow items were those that needed to be watched.
Thankfully I was able to stock my fridge with exactly what I needed for the week. Shopping and stocking up in this way made it a lot easier for 1) cooking and 2) the anxiety.
Still, no one’s perfect, and I went over my weeks worth of eggs, fish, and legumes. Really? Legumes? Turns out while many are saying that this diet dramatically increases your intake of legumes- if you’re used to having them as part of your diet, it’s really not that much. I didn’t even eat them everyday.
For fish…the flounder fillets I got (sustainable sourced obviously) were prepackaged separately (yes, I know, plastic pollution… not everything is a win-win). For me, I needed about 2-3 fillets a week… so you either overeat your weekly amount or under-eat. Which just shows how hard it is to make this thing practical.
Finally, the most shocking thing about this diet was the amount given for eggs. As a vegetarian, I was eating a good amount of eggs. This diet? It’s about 2 large eggs EVERY 10 DAYS. See, I would much rather eat less meat, and have more eggs. Which is something I always considered more “sustainable”, especially since eggs are fairly easy to find locally compared to meat- where locally produced often comes with more stringent regulations in the US (and a hefty price).
On that note, one thing the authors could have done is offer a few different “reference diets” for different dietary trends: flexitarian (current), vegetarian, and vegan. These other diets exist, and are becoming ever more popular. Ya girl needs her protein, and what if I want to get all of it from plants?
And what about substitutes? (Step away from the almond milk, that stuff takes up SO MUCH WATER). So oat milk? Or coconut milk? Is a coconut actually a fruit or a nut? The internet can’t even decide. Quinoa is apparently a seed? What do I do with that and these other popularized millennial items? Specificity comes with obligations, EAT-Lancet. See Critiques and Solutions for more.
Some of these decisions I avoided. I put aside the coconut milk and quinoa and stuck to the classics, like cheese, bread, and rice. Other things I ignored, like coffee/tea and spices. A couple other things I tried to adhere too or incorporate, and failed…. But did you know that there is about 30g of grain in a pint of beer, or 200g of grapes in a glass of wine? At least I tried. See this post on... sustainable alcohol consumption? To our collective dismay, alcohol does take resources to produce.
All in all, once I moved past the quizzical looks of my roommates as I obsessively measured every ingredient, or shooed away wandering hands trying to cut into my perfectly measured amount of cheese (my tolerance for sharing definitely went down), I realized I was absolutely eating healthier. Mainly because I was actually paying attention to the amount of servings I was getting of each food group.
There are critics that say this diet isn’t nutritionally perfect. And you know, maybe it isn’t. But whose diet actually is? Trying to eat a diet that is nutritionally perfect is just as theoretical as it is impractical. There is no doubt that if everyone ate according to these guidelines, or any well-meaning guidelines based on nutritional science, diet-related health issues would dramatically decrease. Because, what is a healthy diet anyway? Just try googling it, and dig yourself a deep internet rabbit hole while you’re at it.
Still, the biggest downside of this EAT-Lancet report is that it seems to recommend a diet built on our current, highly destructive, food system. A specific recommendation for palm oil? Really? And while the approach the authors took makes sense for modeling, frameworks, academics, yadda yadda…it still fails to embark on the question: what kind of food system could we have instead? Which, admittedly, is a whole other report and modeling exercise in itself. The authors do recognize the diversity of contexts, and the need for diverse production systems and solutions- of course, sustainability is highly context specific. Yet they recognize this, while giving a highly prescriptive diet with limited ranges and no substitutes? This diet is hardly sustainable if not applied in context, and as it stands it does not provide enough room to adapt.
For example, let’s say a country’s agricultural wealth was in its grasslands. The whole western US is covered in rangelands that are suitable for grazing cattle (since we killed off all the buffalo). Would it not make sense then, to get our portion of meat from grass-fed beef, instead of getting it largely from poultry…which would probably have to use large amounts of grain that directly competes with human diets? Even if all your meat for the week came in the form of unprocessed red meat, the total is so small that it probably won’t impact your health, even long term (any nutritionists out there? help?).
Wait, hold up…I’m saying beef is ok? Well, at current levels of production- it’s not. Unfortunately only 5% of the US market for beef is grassfed, and the rest emit A TON (see post on exactly how many tons).
So, I think the totals are totally doable (.5lbs- 2/3 lbs of meat a week). A half gallon of milk. 2-3 frozen fish fillet’s a week. 2 eggs every 10 days? still a little testy about that one. But overall, as a flexitarian diet for someone that still want’s to eat meat/fish 2-3 times a week, or not give up cheese, its great. But only if summed up at category level and then applied to context- not as currently written.
And while it’s great modeling exercise providing a framework for flexitarians, the report is still rooted in a global context- which is not how diets should work. Diets should be based on what you have available, what’s in season, what’s local, and obviously on your nutritional needs.
So should nutrition drive what we produce? Or should our resources? A huge gray area lies in between those two questions. One thing’s certain- the answer lies in the grey, and it will meet both human and environmental health goals. Where in that gray area? Well, that one depends on… you guessed it, context. And sooner or later we will find it- thankfully we humans are extremely innovative and adaptive…
During my journey of Eating EAT-Lancet, I watched just about every documentary on food and diet that Netflix has. I also dived into the #carnivorediet trend (its real, its scary, and sounds incredibly unappealing).
Nutrition and the way that nutrition is produced is often talked about in isolation. There’s food production, and then there’s the nutrients we need. But food production currently comes with a hefty environmental impact, therefore so do our nutrients. So is there a way to get the nutrients we need without destroying the planet that produces said nutrients (…and ultimately leading to our own self-destruction)? There has to be. Which is what a “sustainable diet” should be all about. But before getting into that, what is even a “healthy diet”? How is that defined? What are the arguments? Is it paleo? Vegan? Should our brain run on glucose (carbs), or should it run on ketones (fat)? (i.e. the keto diet).
There’s been a lot of push back from the EAT-Lancet report. Especially from the meat industry, but also from a lot of meat-friendly US citizens. This is not surprising of course, and it makes sense- their industry and way of life is under attack, and it’s natural to get defensive. Often, the argument goes that the United States beef sector only contributes a small percentage to US emissions. However, there’s already several faults in that comparison.
EAT-Lancet is a global analysis, not focused on the United States (guys, its not always all about us)
EAT-Lancet focuses on all environmental impacts of the food system, not just GHG emissions, and not just livestock (i.e, land degradation, deforestation, biodiversity loss, nutrient pollution, water use, over-fishing, etc.). Though livestock is a big part.
Here’s a sentence from EAT-Lancet: “Food production is the largest source of environmental degradation, and has the greatest effect on the Earth System.” Period. Talk about a wake-up call.
And while the report has some major drawbacks, the main message of “eat less meat, eat more plants” couldn’t be more clear. And correct. Emissions aside (14.5% of global carbon emissions), livestock- of all agricultural sectors- is the largest contributor to deforestation (land conversion to pasture), biodiversity loss, and nutrient pollution. This is both directly, and indirectly through crop production used to feed livestock.
Cattle represent 65% of livestock sector emissions, according to FAO. This is a global estimate but let’s say that reigns true for the United States. This puts total US livestock emissions at 374 TgCO2e, or 5.7% of total US emissions.
Yes, true, that seems small..but don’t forget, the US emits a lot. TONS. 6,511 tons CO2eq to be exact. With a population of 325.7 million, that’s 20 tons per person a year. That’s almost 3 times the global average: 7.2 tons per person. If the average US citizen emitted the same as the world average, that 5.7% would increase to 16%. Pretty significant.
Now these are rough estimates, but it shows how the story changes depending on how you look at the numbers. Sure, 5.7% of US emissions seems small but not when you compare to how much the United States emits in total.
Another argument is that cattle can do great things, especially in the United States where we have huge amounts of grazing land. And when sustainably managed, they can restore the soil, promote biodiversity, and provide valuable forms of nutrition where crops wouldn’t be able to grow. All facts, and good things. This is especially true of developing countries, where a lot of poor would greatly benefit- both in livelihood and nutrition- from increased production of meat, especially these kinds of systems.
However, since grass-fed beef only constitutes 5% of the US market, this “cattle do great things for the environment” argument cannot be used in favor maintaining levels of US beef production. Cattle can do good in theory, yes. But at current numbers, the destruction far outweighs any kind of environmental or health benefit.
So for now, skip the beef. And if you just have to have that steak, buy in small quantities and most importantly from local farmers and ranchers who are using sustainable grazing methods and maintaining the health of their land- they need the support.
First of all, the diet given is for 2,500 calories. This is too much for a majority of the population, aka all women and children. 2500 calories is the average intake for adult men, who also likely requires a different combination of nutrients compared to women or growing children.
Variations should be given for women, children, and men.
So, adjusting it to my needs was pretty much a shot in the dark. Any nutritionists out there? Help?
Another huge drawback is that it gives a very diversified flexitarian diet. The idea behind this is great, and for the purpose of the modeling behind the report, it makes sense: what highly diverse diet can the entire world eat and in what quantities to remain within planetary boundaries? However, translating this to an actual shopping list? OMG. It’s a headache. For an individual, try and shop for 7g of beef, 7g of pork, 29g of poultry, 28g of fish a day, 13g of eggs? Come on. Translating this into something that’s doable for a week is difficult as is. Yes yes, diversity of diets is important- but this is a bit extreme.
Condensing into simpler forms, like per week, per month, or per year. When people obtain their food, its not in this kind of diversity all in one day. Sometimes its chicken one week, beef the next. Sometimes it’s no meat at all.
Going further, it doesn’t give options for vegetarian or vegan diets which is a diet that many people in the world eat- whether its for religion, cultural, ethical, environmental, or other reasons. What if I don’t eat meat? I should be able to eat a lot more legumes, eggs, and dairy. What if I’m vegan? Proposing this kind of reference diet for all, even with ranges, does not address other diets that exist and will continue to exist.
Offer simple substitutes, chart form or otherwise. If no meat, how much can you substitute with eggs? If no dairy, what’s the plant based substitute? How much can my consumption of soy products/legumes increase if I choose to forego all animal sourced foods? Ya girl needs her protein, and I might not want to get it from meat.
Finally the whole dairy recommendation. Seriously EAT-Lancet? Do you not know that 65% of the global adult population have a reduced ability to digest lactose? Someone failed to do a quick google search on that one. I get you gave a range beginning with 0…but 500 grams of milk a day as the end range? That’s two glasses of milk a day…you would have a lot of people running to the bathroom, flushing a lot of water. Also not sustainable.
I don’t really have one. A good portion of the world does not do well with dairy, so in the model they would be at zero. Does this mean those that can consume dairy can have more? That’d be great. Bring on more cheese.
Not the first thing you typically want to do but let’s just really quickly go over a couple definitions.
Local food: grown close to where you buy and consume it.
Sustainable food: low impact on the environment, respects workers
The two are not always the same. Local food can also be produced with harsh chemicals and environmentally destructive practices, while “sustainable” food may not be produced close to where you are.
Plot twist: while “sustainable” food, even when travelling far, can sometimes still be sustainable, local farms will almost always be the more sustainable option.
Let’s rephrase: Local is almost always more sustainable, while food labelled with certifications might not always be.
This is for two different reasons.
One. Local farmers are usually produce on a much smaller scale, and even if they have no certifications or may use some harsh chemicals, they are not likely using them to the extent that there is great harm done to the environment. Also, small-scale farmers, especially those who produce a diverse number of products, are tied closely with the land- often understanding these systems far better than we ever will. Also, investing in small scale farms promotes the kind of scaled back farming systems we want to see more of. This supports the incomes of farmers who are working hard, doing what they love and are passionate about. Still not sure? Have a talk with the farmer who produces your food.
Two. “Sustainable” labels are not a thing. There is actually no way to control or regulate the word “sustainable” because it is a complex and dynamic concept, and so too many definitions exist. So, while you can purchase products that are labeled with different certifications, it’s extremely hard to determine where it falls on the “sustainability” scale. This is something the project will aim to tackle at a later stage.
Of course, when lacking access to farmers markets, a good practice to follow is that certified products are typically better for the environment compared to the same product produced conventionally. This is simply because certifications hold farmers and their production practices to higher standards.
So, here’s a recap with two rules of thumb:
Local is almost always more sustainable, while labelled food might not always be.
When you can’t buy local, a certified product is typically better than its conventionally produced counterpart.
As with anything though- not always, and not everywhere. Number 2 is especially dicey and goes back to the issues of labels. Hence, why it’s a rule of thumb, and not a rule of law. Also a question that you may have- what is the difference between a certification and a label? Post to follow.
Note, a huge exemption: fish. You’ll have to be careful with this one, because the rules for fish are always changing. A future post will look at this issue.
ANNOUNCEMENT: In the works is an updated map of all Washington, D.C. farmers markets including days they’re open, times, when the season ends, and forms of payment and benefits they accept. This will help make it easier to track down that local farmer for all your questions 😉.
This first post explains the inspiration and thus mission of project.
Healthy, nutritious food that is good for your body, the environment, and the animal should be something that everyone can access. It should be something we can all talk about.
However, we have overwhelmed ourselves with labels: organic, fair trade, natural, hormone-free, grass-fed, gluten-free, sustainable, environmentally friendly, ecological, fresh, local, raw, eco, etc.
Even worse, we have gone even further, putting these labels on ourselves: vegetarian, vegan, omnivore, carnivore, pescatarian, freegetarian, and others that we can’t even keep up with.
What is most bothersome is that while we’ve been label-izing everything, we’ve lost sight of the one goal we’ve had since the beginning: changing our food system.
Moving from label to label ignores the fundamental and dramatic shifts that need to happen- it perpetuates an old system by simply replacing one product with hopefully a better one.
And yes, “sustainable” is a word that gets thrown out a lot, and put on labels without a second thought. However, above all others- this is the one word we should stand by. Because it implies a system that is holistic, resilient, and cyclical. It implies systems that are intertwined environmentally, social, and economically. Three legs of a stool which when missing one, topples over.
Yet, for all the critically beneficial things sustainability could do for us, our food system is far behind from achieving the fundamental changes that need to happen. The reasons can be boiled down to one:
We have been investing in the wrong kind of food system.
And while markets have been slowly changing, organic food has gotten cheaper, farmers markets are popping up everywhere in urban areas, these emerging products remain out of reach for billions of people (yes, billions), due to lack of access either financially or physically. This is because we continue to put subsidies, investments, policies, and incentives into systems that are not environmentally, socially, or economically sustainable in the long run.
Capitalism has allowed us to overrun ourselves with confusion, making it impossible to really understand what a sustainable diet and food system could really look like.
This is what this project aims to do- bring us all to the table. By offering a tool to make the most of your purchasing power and knowledge, you can help invest and steer the ship towards a sustainable food system. This, through the farmers, companies and politicians that are actively building it for us, and not just labeling that they are.
It’s time to put an end to all the confusing labels, and really bring to light the changes that you can easily make to contribute to the kind of food system that will work better for all of us.
Keep a look out for the next blog post that will outline this project!