A couple months ago I read this article from Outside Online, Eating Right Can Save the World, and have repeatedly read it since then, analyzing and processing. Recently, I decided I needed to alter my meat consumption. However little it is, even the smallest change in favor of sustainable eating can have a favorable effect on the environment. And, I hope, that sustainable eating and running will go hand-in-hand, especially once I return to harder training.
I have always been deliberate in not wasting food, but I now want to expand the sustainability of my diet to the choices I make in what I purchase and eat. It’s nearly impossible to be 100% perfect in this, so I’m not striving for perfection and stressing myself out. There’s no need for self-deprivation in sustainable eating, or in eating for athletic performance.
Sustainable Eating and Meat
I know that I’ll still buy bell peppers from Mexico and bananas from South America. I avoid diet cults that forbid particular foods, so I’m not going to forbid anything in my diet. Rather, I’m striving for improvement, which for me manifests in eating locally sourced meats as much as possible and eating less meat overall. Little efforts here and there make a bigger difference compared to an all-or-nothing attitude (true for running, as well).
By no means am I adopting a completely vegetarian diet, as my body does not respond well to a completely meatless diet. Ryan and I still eat meat, preferably local, antibiotic/hormone free, and grass fed. Yes, meat costs more this way, but a larger grocery budget is worth a more sustainable meat industry and a better environment. I want to be able to enjoy a burger in forty years, not bewail the extinction of cows.
Meat, however, has shifted from being the main course for every dinner and into being balanced with grains, vegetables, and legumes. Sometimes it’s even more of a garnish, like bacon added to a red lentils and wild rice dish or a bit of chicken with a mushroom risotto.
Sustainable eating has also lead us to opt for meatless meals more often, with lentils, eggs, and cheese-based dishes like risotto and pizza being regular features on the weekly menu.
Meat, particularly beef, comes with a hefty carbon footprint. High-meat diets, like the typical American diet or the trendy Paleo/Whole30/low carb diets, have been found to produce twice the greenhouse gas emissions as vegetarian diets. By cutting down your consumption to a low meat diet, you significantly reduce your carbon footprint – arguably, more than you would be reducing how much you drive.
This doesn’t mean I won’t ever eat beef again; that’s an unrealistic declaration. But cutting back on beef and overall meat consumption, shopping local (less carbon emissions from shipping), and eating grassfed beef are drops of water in the bucket that add up over time.
However, I am incorporating more plant-based meals into our weekly meal plan and experimenting with more sources of plant-based protein. Lentils, quinoa, potatoes, and mushrooms are making a bigger appearance in our diet and I try to serve at least one vegetarian meal a week (in addition to a weekly meal of fish, preferably wild caught). Meanwhile, most days I eat meat only at dinner time, usually with the exception of weekend breakfasts (I have a weakness for bacon).
Sustainable Eating and Running
It would appear almost contradictory to logic for an endurance athlete, particularly a runner, not to care about the environment. The fresh air, the vitamin-D boost from sunshine, the oxygen-giving trees, the long trails ambling for miles through the woods and along rivers and lakes: the theater in which our daily runs take place is that of nature. Part of why we love to run is because the mood-boost that nature gives us.
Could we continue to run in a ruined planet? As a runner and a hiker, it’s impossible for me to divorce my sport, hobby, niche, passion from the environment. And, despite what so many of the presidential candidates proclaim, science offers irrefutable evidence of climate change.
Sustainable Eating for Athletic Performance
Beyond the issue of sustainability, I want to improve my diet quality. As I stated previously, I do believe meat has improved my athleticism and overall health. Meat offers iron, vitamin B12, lean complete protein, and numerous other essential nutrients. But I’m a distance runner; my body needs more carbohydrates and healthy fats, and a moderate amount of meat combined with eggs, yogurt, and plant-based protein sources offers plenty of protein along with those complex carbohydrates and essential vitamins and minerals for my dietary needs.
Too much meat can have a detrimental effect, particularly in our day and age when the virtues of moderation and temperance have been lost. Studies regularly pronounce that that high-meat diets lead a whole host of chronic diseases, particularly if those meats are grain-fed and full of antibiotics as most meats are nowadays. A meat-free diet has previously caused low iron levels for me in the past, but there is always a happy medium: less meat consumption and higher quality meat. It’s not just sustainable eating for the environment; it’s sustainable eating as an athlete.
I’m a proponent of varying carbohydrate sources: rice and other grains, whole grain bread, potatoes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and so on. Likewise, I believe there’s significant nutritional value in varying your protein sources: eggs, Greek yogurts, nuts, seeds, quinoa, lentils, and beans in addition to chicken, fish, pork, and beef. Too much of one food often leaves out essential nutrients from your diet.
This New York Times interview with top sports nutritionists, including renowned nutritionist for runners Nancy Clark, discusses in-depth considerations for athletes when eating meatless meals. The article is geared towards vegan athletes, a la Scott Jurek, but the advice is still pertinent if you are shifting towards a lower-meat meat.
Meredith wrote a great post a few months back about shifting to a high-carbohydrate, vegetarian diet improved her running.
In the words of Michael Pollen: Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much. It’s better for your health and your running, and it’s better for the planet.
Next week I’ll share some tips on how we’ve been eating less meat without adopting a full vegetarian diet!
As always, my discussions of dietary choices and nutrition are never an attack on any individual or their dietary choices. Each individual’s body and metabolism are different, as well as their priorities.
Are you a meat eater, vegetarian, or balanced omnivore?
Have you ever altered your diet for environmental, ethical, or health reasons?
I think one of the great beauties of living where you do is the amazing access to sustainable and environmentally conscious food resources. Here in Chicago, we have access, but for a price, and even so, you are still either pay for the sustainability (which gets really expensive) or requiring a huge carbon footprint to get them here. I will just about always go for the more sustainable option if it is made available to me, but I am regretfully pretty guilty of just buying what is in front of me! But after living in Charlottesville, it is something that I am much more aware of.
Shopping and eating sustainably is significantly easier in Seattle than when we lived in NW Indiana – and cheaper as well. Being near water helps and then there are so many farms once you’re out of the Seattle metro area. It was so much harder to purchase sustainable foods in the Midwest, which in part was why I ate a heavily vegetarian diet then. It’s sad how much farming in the Midwest goes to corn, soy, and feed for cows instead of opening up more farmland for pasture animals and other crops.
I’ve definitely cut back on the meat (particularly red meat) that I eat in the past few years. One thing that I do like about Whole30 is that they emphasize eating more sustainable/organic/etc foods. I now get my meats at a local butcher shop that sources the meat locally and I feel a lot better about what I’m eating and who I’m supporting! Like Susie said, you do get it at a price and my bills are definitely higher, which is helping me cut back on my meat usage and only eating it occasionally.
That’s great you can shop at a local butcher shop! The bills are higher, and I totally worry about that also (like you, we’re saving for a house), but there’s that bigger picture of what matters more: budget or the greater good of the environment and community. It’s hard and I definitely slip sometimes but it’s about those little steps, not perfection 🙂
SO INTERESTING! I don’t eat very much meat, but it’s just how it works out. I don’t do it intentionally. The only time I’ve ever been a vegetarian was when I was in high school and I did it to be cool. I pretty much survived on chips and coffee crisps. When my dad was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I did a raw food diet for a month and that was WHOA. Life changer. Otherwise, I don’t eat enough veggies, I eat way too much chocolate and I probably drink too much wine!
Does anyone eat enough veggies lol? I always feel like I need to eat more veggies also so I get you there. I don’t get this too much chocolate and wine thing you’re talking about though 😉 I imagine a raw food diet was a huge life changer – and difficult – and I’m sorry to hear that your dad had such a scary diagnosis.
I’ve been a vegetarian on and off several times over the years, but I really think my body responds better to some meat consumption, like you mentioned. Very interesting post!
Thank you! It really is interesting how different bodies respond to meat. Even though vegetarian diets can get enough iron and protein, sometimes the body just prefers it from animal sources – I wonder why.
I am certainly a meat eater, BUT…. I eat grass-fed/grass-finish humanely raised red meats… Wild caught fish and free-ranged poultry! That is the only way I will have it!
That’s the way to go! I’m working on shifting more there, and living on the coast makes it easier to have wild caught fish!
My body also responds better to an omnivore diet. I’m trying to cut back on – and hopefully one day, cut out – red meat and pork though. I like lean meats like chicken and fish and always feel better-fueled with them in my diet.
I wish I were more conscious about eating meat sustainably. We don’t buy red meat often but when we do, we’re definitely guilty of just buying the cheap stuff at the local grocery store and not thinking about where it came from – although that does make me feel guilty. I’d love to shop more at our local co-op, because it’s great, but it is really pricey. I know it’s worth it to pay a little more for better impact on the environment but when you don’t make a lot of money, that price difference can be hard to just set aside. I think a good compromise, to start, is to do some but not all of our shopping there. Buy our meat and some produce at the co op and go to the regular grocery store for other essentials like bread, pasta, olive oil, nuts, etc. It’s less convenient than one-stop shopping but it seems to be the best of both worlds. Plus, we almost have to buy produce at the co op because the produce at our big box grocery store SUCKS. It’s so bad.
Chicken and fish are the best options for runners, both in terms of fueling and sustainability. It is difficult, especially on a budget – that was a major reason why I ate a primarily vegetarian diet in college and grad school. Legumes and grains are so much cheaper than meat, and fortunately they’re nutritious and sustainable as well. I think that sounds like an excellent compromise – it’s actually what I do for grocery budgeting as well: meats, coffee (fair trade), and some produce at the organic market, the rest of the produce and oils, legumes, grains, etc from the other.
So interesting! I have become much more conscious of the quality of meats I buy, but we definitely eat meat every day (well, except for Fridays during Lent). This is so thought provoking, and while challenging to make improvements in these areas I think that every little bit helps so its definitely something to work towards.
Thank you! It is very challenging to shift from eating meat daily – I found that just reducing the portion of meat or making an almost all vegetarian meal with a bit of meat makes it easier. Going meatless one day per week for Lent definitely caused me to think about this a lot!
I agree with everything that you are saying, Laura! I, too, think that a small change in ones diet can make a difference. We’ve talked about this before, but I do think that we are really lucky to live in a place where the demand for local, fresh fruits, veggies, and meats is high. As much as I would prefer a 100% vegetarian diet, my body also does not handle it well!
We really are lucky with the emphasis on sustainable, local, and natural foods where we live! When I went to grocery stores in the Midwest after living here for a while it surprised me how really different the availability of things were. My body needs meat also, but it’s nice to know that I can get high-quality meat out here.
I definitely try to balance my meat intake. I don’t need to have it every day, but I know that I feel better when I have some. I love that you highlight the parallels between eating sustainably and more quality running!
I agree – some but not every day/every meal is the best balance for me as well. And thank you!