Study: Vegetarians About to Become Even More Smug

New research reveals that meat eating takes a toll on the environment as well as your health.

April 8, 2009

Want to help the environment while you improve your health? Favor vegetables over meat.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—OK, odds are we’re not all going to give up burgers and steak sandwiches. But that vegetarian friend of yours who keeps nagging you to give up meat has some new ammunition, based on findings from a study published in April’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And even if you don’t want to abandon your carnivorous ways, you can still lengthen your lifespan and do your part for the environment by rethinking the role of meat in your meals.


THE DETAILS: Researchers from Loma Linda University analyzed data from the Adventist Health Study, a look at the dietary habits and long-term health of 34,000 people living in California. Approximately 50 percent were vegetarians (defined as eating meat less than once a week) and 50 percent were nonvegetarians (they ate meat more than once per week). The research team also compared production methods for the foods consumed by the study subjects. They found that the nonvegetarian diets required the use of 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more energy, 13 times more fertilizer, and 1.4 times more pesticides than the vegetarian diets.

WHAT IT MEANS: There have been a slew of studies recently that make the case that overdosing on meat—especially red meat—raises your risk of death from cancer or heart disease, and affects your health in other ways. This study adds to the evidence that meat-centric eating takes a heavier toll on the environment as well. “Almost everyone has some knowledge that it costs less environmentally or is healthier to be a vegetarian, but there’s no understanding yet of really what that means until you put some numbers behind it,” says lead author Hal Marlow, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Loma Linda University. The differences found in the study would likely be even more striking for the general U.S. population, he adds, since even the nonvegetarians in this study consumed less meat than the average American.

You don’t have to give up meat entirely to be a good steward to the environment, despite what your vegetarian friend might say. But cutting back could help you live longer, as well as help the planet you live on.

Here are a few ways to green your diet without sacrificing the occasional burger:

• Commit to “Meatless Mondays.” The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has set up a website that provides healthy vegetarian recipes that you can try once a week. The Rodale Recipe Finder has tons of healthy, tasty, meatless recipes for every occasion.

• Get your protein from eggs, poultry, and whole wheat. A separate paper published alongside Marlow’s study analyzed the greenhouse-gas impact of various foods eaten in Sweden. As with Marlow’s study (and many others), beef was found to cause the most greenhouse-gas emissions by far. Eggs, poultry, and milk production emitted much less. The real protein powerhouse in that study turned out to be whole wheat, which provides the highest amount of protein per kilogram of greenhouse gases emitted.

• Eat beef just once a week. Marlow’s study estimated that switching to a completely vegetarian diet is equivalent to cutting your average weekly indoor water use (washing dishes, taking showers, etc.) by 54 percent. But the environmental impact of cattle farming extends beyond just energy and water. The Swedish analysis of greenhouse-gas emissions and agriculture found that between the nitrous oxide emitted from feed production and manure and the methane emitted by manure and digestive processes, cattle emit nearly five times more greenhouse gases than hogs. Plus, eating less red meat is better for your eyes, and it keeps you from dying early.

• Buy local, organic produce. Another interesting finding of the Swedish paper was that tropical fruit, shipped by plane from far-off places, was second only to beef when it came to greenhouse-gas emissions. Stick to seasonal produce grown organically and locally to get the most out of your climate-changing diet and perhaps offset the consequences of your favorite roast beef sandwich. (Growing methods have a bigger environmental impact than transportation, so choose organic even if you can’t find a local source.)

• Buy organic, humanely raised meat. Whether it’s your daily egg or weekly beef, animals raised organically don’t eat feed that was doused with pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, two of the major energy drains in non-vegetarian diets in Marlow’s study. It’s also healthier. Organic, grass-finished beef contains 60 percent more omega-3s, 200 percent more vitamin E, and two to three times more conjugated linoleic acids, which help ward off heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. You’ll probably find it tastes better, too.