By Ivory King
Greenhouse gases from agricultural sources are a major contributor to climate change. While there are many arguments to be made for specific crops, at a basic level plant crops contribute less of these gases than farmed animals do. But if you decide to cut meat out of your diet, and especially if you stop eating other animal products concurrently, people are going to have questions. Some will be worried about you, especially if they eat the Standard American Diet. Other people, differently motivated, may be asking questions - but for whatever reason they ask the most common question will inevitably be: “How are you going to get enough protein?”
Roots of the protein question
Historically speaking, it’s been hard to get enough protein for the lower economic classes. Meat and other animal products were more expensive than grains and vegetables traditionally, until the US (and other governments) began subsidizing certain crops. Before subsidies, protein was more expensive and people with lower incomes had less than they needed. In the US in particular, this is no longer the case, since farm subsidies greatly lean towards corn and other animal feed crops - these farms get most of the $20 billion per year spent on agricultural subsidies. In contrast, fruit, vegetable and tree nut farmers get no direct subsidies. Animal producers get access to cheap feed and separate dairy subsidies, leading to a lower cost at market, though we pay the full price with our taxes whether we eat these products or not.
Farm image with tractor Photo by Xavi Moll on Unsplash
Ironically, research has been released that rising carbon dioxide levels are responsible for decreasing the nutritional value of global staple crops. These elevated levels are lowering the concentration of protein, iron and zinc in rice, wheat, soybeans and more. By far the adverse effect will rest on developing countries - 18 countries may lose more than 5 percent of dietary protein by 2050, the study says. India alone will lose 5.3 percent of protein, and millions will be more likely to suffer mineral deficiencies. So not only is animal agriculture hard on the environment, it could impact our dietary health no matter our choice of diet.
Eco-friendly, vegan sources of protein
The most commonly eaten animals in the US are raised on plant-based diets - as are many of their non-domesticated counterparts. Cattle and sheep in particular grow to huge size and strength just from grass and vegetable-matter based feeds, so clearly protein is readily available. But we don’t need to eat grass - we have literally hundreds of other choices.
Beans, lentils, nuts and seeds - all of these plant foods have more protein per calorie than their animal counterparts. While not all of these foods are guaranteed to be zero-polluters or fair trade, they do not create carbon dioxide or methane like animals do. A CNN list of the most climate-damaging foods had only one vegetable - asparagus! Animal agriculture is intensive on the environment in terms of emissions, biological waste and and other reasons, but most of the plant crops are resource intensive because of large-scale farming practices that strip the soil, as well as international products that must be transported large distances - as is the case with the aforementioned asparagus. But buying from local independent farms cuts out most of that waste, and keeps your grocery dollars invested in your own community.
Vegetarian vegan taco platter Photo by Edgar Castrejon on Unsplash
As for what protein content translates into real food, it’s pretty easy to visualize. A cup of beans contain about 17 grams, lentils have 18 grams, and walnuts contain about 12 grams - plus Omega 3s as a bonus. When you start looking at plant foods by their protein content, you’ll see some surprising entries - even fruit and leafy greens have some amount of protein.
But we don’t even NEED as much protein as we think we do
Despite our culture’s obsession with protein, the average American gets more than they need. But there’s not just one number to gauge everyone with - and everyone has different metrics for estimating. Depending on your size, weight and lifestyle choices, you’re going to need a different amount of protein per day than other people - even genetics has a role.
But the most aggressive measurement of protein needs estimated in Men’s Fitness was 110 grams per day - and this was for a 160 pound guy who works out intensely 5 to 6 days a week. For people with more moderate fitness regimens, the RDA is 71 grams per day for men and 60 for a woman - that’s for average weight in the US (196 pounds and 166 pounds respectively). Despite the title of the article, “You’re not eating nearly enough protein,” the average man eats 102 grams and the average woman eats 70 grams per day - way more than they need. For more information for athletes, the No Meat Athlete’s article Protein for Vegetarians is helpful.
Animal-based protein sources are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, so one of the disadvantages of upping protein intake is that it puts you at risk of other health concerns. But besides weight-related issues, high-protein intake acidifies and stresses the body, leading to complications like osteoporosis, cancer, or impaired kidney function, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. So not only is eating more protein than you need not doing your body any good, it can even harm your health.
But tracking nutritional intake can be challenging, and one way to put your concerns to rest is using a nutrition app. There’s several great free options, and it takes the guesswork away from your dietary choices. But as long as you eat a varied diet with minimal amounts of processed foods, you’re sure to get the protein you need, along with nearly everything else - just take a B12 supplement.