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?
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