Sustainable Eating – Good for Your Health, the Environment & Your Wallet

In a few weeks I will be celebrating a very important anniversary – five years of eating a mostly vegetarian diet. My reasons for this change in my diet and the main reason for keeping it for as long as I have is simple. I did it for my health, the environment, and to cut back on my grocery bill.

In 2006 I made the decision to cut all “land animals” from my diet after spending a week at a yoga retreat in Massachusetts. After eating an all-vegetarian diet for that week I could not believe how good my body felt, and how good the food tasted. On the long drive home I told my wife that I was never going to eat meat again and five years later I’ve stuck to that promise I made to myself.

To be clear, my diet is not the “vegan” diet that former President Bill Clinton recently adopted. The technical term for my diet is “Pescetarianism”, but to most people I just say that I’m “mostly vegetarian”. What I have excluded from my diet are all pork products, poultry, beef and any other animal that “breathes air”. I decided to keep eggs, cheese and fish in my diet because I still enjoy going out to eat on occasion, and as most vegans will tell you, your choices are very limited at most non-vegetarian restaurants but that is slowly changing. So while I would call my diet at home as “mostly vegan”, I won’t starve to death if my friends want to go out to a local bistro for a quick bite. I also don’t have a problem preparing meat products for friends and family, but I always make sure that the meat is not the main attraction for the meal.

On this anniversary of my own lifestyle choice, I would like to share with my readers my reasons why I have chosen to do this and why I will likely continue to do this going forward. Whether you think my reasons are compelling for you to make the same choice makes no difference to me, I won’t judge you either way. However, if you were already thinking about changing the way you eat, perhaps you will find this column compelling enough to make the decision for yourself.

Veggies for Health

There are several good reasons why a pescetarian or vegetarian diet is good for my health. My family has a long history of digestive issues including colon-rectal cancer, diverticulitis, diabetes, gallstones, and kidney stones. My family also has a long history of high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. I have seen what a lifetime of eating a meat-laden diet has done to my parents, grandparents and my uncles and aunts, and the meat that they consumed for most of their lives was a lot better for you than the stuff you find at your local Sam’s Club today.

To meet the ever-increasing demand for meat at America’s kitchens and restaurants, today’s livestock is subjected horribly inhumane conditions, despite the numerous claims to the contrary by the meat lobby. There are numerous exceptions to the factory livestock model, but the majority of Americans do not shop for their meat at Whole Foods, and instead purchase meat that is high in fat, laden with carcinogens and chemicals, and are regularly contaminated with all sorts of germs. The below is just a quick snapshot of the case against maintaining meat in your diet.

Fat and Cholesterol:  We all know that the fat contained in meat has a direct link with the amount of “bad cholesterol” in the body. Every good chef knows that the “fat is where the flavor is” in meat, so most carnivores prefer their meat to contain as much fat as possible.

Carcinogens:  Carcinogens are known to cause cancer, and as meat is grilled the amount of these cancer-causing agents goes up dramatically. The skin of poultry captures the most carcinogens as it’s grilled

Chemicals: As lifetime residents of factory farms, animals raised for food are exposed to millions of cancer-causing chemicals from pesticides and heavy metals to antibiotics and growth hormones. These dangerous chemicals are inside the very tissue of the animal so they cannot be “cooked away”.

Germs: Due to cramped living conditions on factory farms, today’s livestock are bringing more dangerous bacteria and viruses than ever. Salmonella, anthrax, campylobacter, E. coli, and countless others are finding their way onto your kitchen counter every day.

But Bill, what about those times when people got sick from eating bacteria-laden spinach? If you recall, a 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach was most-likely caused by cross-contamination in irrigation water with water used to feed livestock. The cows infected the water, and the water infected the spinach. If the farms in Southern California did not use the same water for crops and livestock, and they did not use “fresh” manure to fertilize their fields, then it is likely that the outbreak would not have occurred.

Veggies for the Environment

In this country alone, over 80% of agricultural land is used for raising livestock and the crops to feed them. Every day, giant swaths of rainforest are bulldozed in South America in order to create more pasture for livestock, which many scientists believe further contributes to climate change. In the United States, a single pig can consume up to 21 gallons of drinking water per day and it takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef whereas it takes about 180 gallons of water to make one pound of whole wheat flour.

Whether you believe that human activity is the cause of climate change or not, the fact remains that change in the climate is upon us. As such, the combination of a warmer planet and increased global population is going to place increased stress on already scarce agricultural resources. According to a recent study, as the planet gets hotter, crop yields will be decreasing worldwide. By 2035, yields are expected to be 20-30 percent lower. By 2085, yields could be cut by as much as 80%.

It does not take a mathematical genius to see that our insatiable appetite for meat is unsustainable at its current level of production and demand. As crop yields go down, the impact on the price of food will be dramatic for everyone, as more resources that should be devoted to feeding people are instead used for feeding animals.

Veggies for Your Wallet

This brings us to my final rationale for the vegetarian lifestyle, your wallet. For this, we turn to the economic concepts of Short-Run and Long-Run in order to demonstrate both the immediate and long term benefits of changing the way you eat.

Short-Run Benefits

Are you likely to see an immediate benefit to your grocery bill by cutting your trip to the butcher? It depends on the type of meat you usually purchase. If you normally purchase high-quality, grass-fed, free-range meat products, the answer is a definite YES. However, if you restrict your meat purchases to the low-quality or “day-old” shelf, not-so-much. When you cut the meat from your diet, you will also be cutting a lot of the choices from the pre-packaged food isle as well, which should have a dramatic impact on your grocery bill. Due to the general lack of prepackaged vegetarian choices, you will find yourself cooking more of your own meals, which will not only cut your grocery bill, but it will have the added benefit of cutting your sodium and preservative intake.

At restaurants, the “vegetarian menu” tends to be 10-20% less expensive than the non-vegetarian options, but this varies depending on where you go. You will also find that you are not as hungry as you used to be. This is because vegetables take longer for your body to digest than meat, which will help you maintain a healthy weight, invigorate your sex life, and improve your overall mood.

Long-Run Benefits

The long-run economic benefits are too numerous to count, so I will simply highlight the ones that are most important to me.

Healthcare Costs: It stands to reason that if you are more healthy now, you will spend less on healthcare as you get older, plus you will have a much better quality of life. Too many people over 50 years-old in this country suffer from chronic health conditions that have been mostly brought upon them due to their poor choices when they were younger, including their diet. By making good choices now, the less likely you will need to burden your children as you get older.

Career: It stands to reason that the more healthy you are, the more productive you will be. You will get sick less often, requiring fewer days off work, and you will be more productive, which will benefit your career. Your mind will be more clear and focused, which will enable you to explore new interests, which may turn into entrepreneurial opportunities.

Family: What’s the sense of having a family if you are not around to enjoy their company? My wife and I decided to start our family quite late in our lives when compared to our peers. By the time my son is ready to go to college, I will be in my late 50’s. If he waits as long as I did to start a family of his own, I’ll be in my 80’s before I see my first grandchild. I would very much like to be around, and in good health when that happens. When put into that context, eating that rare piece of prime rib feels like the most selfish and short-sighted decision I could make.

Challenges for the Future

Our world is changing rapidly and in order to survive, we have to change with it. We either have to find a more sustainable path of existence, or we run the risk of burning ourselves out in a brilliant, yet foolish fire of our own making. As a practical person, the choice I made five years ago took my love of food and married it with my long view of where we are and where I think we need to go in the future. It is my belief that eventually, we will have no choice but to eat either an all-vegetarian or mostly-vegetarian diet, but do we have to wait until we have stripped our land of all its available resources before that happens?

Why not make the choice to change our behavior now and enjoy our planet in all its beauty a little while longer?


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