Historically, besides the Inuit, humans subsisted on more plants and less meat. "Diseases of affluence" are what Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of the largest human health study in history, The China Study, calls the rampant cases of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke and cancer that began plaguing Americans as our intake of meat and dairy products skyrocketed. Not only do we eat more meat than any other country (60 percent more than Europeans), but we also eat cheaper, genetically modified corn and soy fed animals laden with pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and super bacteria resistant to conventional antibiotics. It's not just in that greasy you-know-you-shouldn't fast-food burger or burrito, but it's in gosh-darn nearly all the conventionally raised meat consumed in America.
Millions of people have been influenced and many have become vegetarian after watching the highly effective viral video staple "Meet Your Meat" created by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which looks at the unsanitary and unbelievably inhumane common industry practices including birds crammed in tiny cages, untreated infected cow udders (despite the diets high in antibiotics), routine beatings and zero access to fresh air or sunlight. And a new poll indicates that a startling number—50 percent—of Americans have at least heard of "Meatless Monday" if they're not one of the millions actively participating in it. Could this be the tides of a sea change?
Certainly, to be idealistic is human nature, but on a practical level, even if 100 percent of Americans have heard of "Meatless Monday" or viewed just a glimpse of the horrifying life a factory farm guarantees a cow, chicken or pig, there would still be a demand for meat, eggs and dairy. It's why advocacy groups such as PETA and HSUS (The Humane Society of the United States) work to create better standards of living for the animals; and now more than ever, it's easier and important for you to choose 'humane' and healthier meat options, because, yes, every single bite does make a difference.
The Environmental Working Group, perhaps best known for their "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists of the most and least pesticide sprayed fruits and vegetables, has recently added a "Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health" to its recommendations. Like pesticide exposed fruits and vegetables, eating conventionally raised animals comes with great risks. According to the guide, "Americans' appetite for meat and dairy—billions of pounds every year from billions of animals—takes a toll on our health, the environment, the climate and animal welfare. Meat and dairy production requires large amounts of pesticides, chemicals fertilizer, fuel, feed and water; and generates greenhouse gases, toxic manure and other pollutants that contaminate our air and water."
Regardless of where you stand on the many issues of eating meat (note the author of this article is vegan)—the meat you're eating now is not what it once was or what marketers who use words like "natural" or "farm-raised" and pastoral images of happy hens or talking cows would have you believe it is. Nor is it what it could be—and that's a big could, because a whole lot is riding on our food habits. You know, those things we do every day that we hate having to change? Well, change is a good thing. It keeps our brains healthy (it's even linked to reducing the risk of Alzheimer's), it can be exciting, and in this case, it's necessary because meat as it stands today is the most harmful factor in the degradation of our environment, and our health.
So, what changes does the EWG recommend you should be making to your meat eating? Let's have a look:
Eat less: Meatless Mondays are a great way to start, and the new food pyramid recommends eating less meat too. There are lots of things you already eat that are vegetarian; see if you can notice which of those bring a smile to your face and make those the main course and make your meat the side.
Buy greener meat: What does that mean? The EWG recommends looking for the following when buying meat:
• Grass fed or pasture-raised meat: Fewer antibiotics and hormones and in some cases may have more nutrients and less fat; livestock live in more humane, open, sanitary conditions.
• Lean cuts: Less fat will likely mean fewer cancer-causing toxins in your body.
• No antibiotics or hormones: Reduces unnecessary exposure and helps keep human medicines effective.
• Certified organic: Keeps pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified foods off the land, out of the water and out of our bodies.
• Certified humane: Means no growth hormones or antibiotics were used and ensures that animals were raised with enough space and no cages or crates.
• Unprocessed, nitrite-free and low-sodium: Avoid lunchmeats, hot dogs, prepackaged smoked meats and chicken nuggets.
• Sustainable Seafood: Avoid air-freighted fish and farmed salmon; consult Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of the most sustainable seafood choices.
Add more vegetables: Here's a not-so-secret secret: Farmers markets offer cheaper and much tastier fruits and vegetables than most supermarkets. It's almost impossible to hate a fresh summer peach or creamy avocado. As you add these yummy fresh fruits and veggies to your diet, you'll find you might not have as much room for that rib eye as you thought. And it's not just produce, but whole grains, legumes and beans are also filling, inexpensive and really tasty.
Decrease waste: Nearly 100 billion tons of food end up in landfills every year while millions of people go hungry in our country. And, it is sad enough that animals suffer a great deal before winding up on your plate—don't dishonor their lives even further by scraping what remains into a dumpster. Make just enough (or a little less) for your meal and store the rest so not to create waste.
Get active: Changing your diet is a great start, but you can also make a difference by speaking with your representatives to strengthen regulations on CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), enact comprehensive climate policies and ensure fresh fruits and vegetables are served as part of every school lunch program in the country.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
image: Environmental Working Group