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Federal Guidelines Just Might Tell Americans to Put Down That Cheeseburger

Words by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Energy & Environment
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The federal government just may recommend that Americans eat less meat when new guidelines are released in the fall. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has outlined recommendations that include reducing red meat and processed meat consumption and eating more fruits and vegetables.

The 500-page report suggested that a “healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.” In other words, a healthy diet should consist of more plant-based foods than meat. The report stated that “higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake.”

Note that the report is not suggesting that Americans adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. While those diets work for some people, they don’t work for others. I tried being a vegan for a short period of time. I just couldn’t stick with it. I adopted a mostly vegetarian diet for years, but realized I missed eating certain ethnic foods. The key is to find what works for you and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting red meat and processed meat. It’s called a balanced approach to a healthy diet.

Meat consumption is incredibly high in the U.S.


Meat consumption in the U.S. has almost doubled in the last century, and Americans are among the top per-capita meat eaters on the planet, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The average Americans eats three times more meat than the global average. That’s sure is a lot of steaks and cheeseburgers.

While meat consumption has increased, so have obesity rates. Over a third (34.9 percent) of American adults are obese, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. A number of health conditions are associated with obesity, including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Obesity is costly for the health of Americans and the health industry: The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008. The medical costs in 2008 for obese people was $1,429 higher than for people at a normal weight. Studies have linked high meat consumption to obesity and even a higher mortality rate.

The environmental costs of high meat consumption


Health costs are not the only ones associated with high meat consumption. It also comes with environmental costs, including increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agriculture in the U.S. accounts for 9 percent of GHG emissions and worldwide accounts for almost 15 percent of GHG emissions.

A chapter in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report links the average U.S. diet with increased GHG) emission. “Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased [greenhouse gas] emissions, land use, water use and energy use,” the report states. “This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower.” The chapter concludes that Americans should eat a diet “higher in plant-based foods” and “lower in animal-based foods.”

High meat consumption also means more water is used to grow crops for animal feed. An estimated 27 percent of humanity’s water footprint is for meat and dairy production. California is well into the fourth year of the state’s worst drought on record. So, by eating less meat we can help the environment by reducing our carbon and water footprints. It's not a bad trade, and it is something even meat lovers can do.

Image credit: Flickr/The Culinary Geek

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman