I still remember the look of worry on my parents’ faces when I told them I was becoming a vegetarian in high school. “But what will you eat?” they asked, utterly confounded at the prospect of a life sans meat. These days, vegetarianism is a much more accepted and understood practice, and my parents and many other former skeptics now embrace the versatility of beans and soy.
In fact, there’s an increasing popular movement supporting the prospect of going vegetarian, even if only for a day. Meatless Mondays encourages Americans to give up meat at least one day each week. (Preferably Mondays, since people have more success beginning their weeks with a goal.) Some still balk at the idea of a meal without beef or chicken, but going meatless for even one day can cause hugely positive environmental, physical, and financial changes. With so many benefits at stake, everyone should consider giving meat the heave-ho on Mondays.
Why Go Meatless?
Meatless Mondays, a joint effort by The Mondays Campaign and the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was started in 2003 with one goal: to lower everyone’s meat consumption by 15 percent. That sounds like a small aspiration, until you consider that the average American eats almost 200 pounds of meat, fish, and poultry in just one year. We get way more protein than we need on average as well—about 110 to 112 grams per day (a 2,000-calorie diet needs only about 50 grams), the majority of which comes from animal products.
Livestock: One of the Worst Environmental Offenders
The United States is not alone in its meat excess; meat consumption has gone up worldwide, putting a heavy burden on the environment. A groundbreaking report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2006 revealed some startling statistics about the meat industry’s environmental effects—namely, that the industry is a leading cause of water pollution, biodiversity loss (30 percent of the earth’s land not covered by ice is used for livestock), and rising greenhouse gases. In fact, livestock is responsible for 18 percent of the global warming effect. By that number alone, livestock produces more harmful gases than every country’s transportation industry combined does. But a more recent report published by the Worldwatch Institute estimates that livestock produces over 50 percent of manmade greenhouse gases.
It also takes a ton of resources to maintain the livestock. A 1991 report created for the Water Education Foundation says that it takes 615.9 gallons of water to produce just 4 ounces of ground beef. Chicken requires less (165 gallons), but a serving of tofu only takes 60.5 gallons. An egg, also a good serving of protein and fat, needs 62.7 gallons of water. According to the Meatless Mondays Web site, it takes 40 calories of fossil fuel energy to create 1 calorie of livestock beef, whereas the same amount of plant-based protein requires only 2.2 fossil fuel calories. Clearly, meat-based diets necessitate a great deal of our energy and resources.
Too Many Hamburgers Lead to Health Problems
This global love affair with meat affects our public health as well. Obesity is on the rise all over the world, especially in the United States, and meat-heavy (and therefore saturated-fat-heavy) meals certainly factor into that. A 2009 study published in Diabetologia found a correlation between processed- and red-meat consumption and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Processed and red meats have been linked to higher cancer risks as well. A 2007 study jointly conducted by the National Institute of Health and the AARP showed that eating red and processed meats increases the chance of colon and lung cancers. The results also suggested that eating too much red meat could raise chances of esophagus and liver cancers.
Fortunately, even changing your diet a little is enough to make a difference physically. Recently, researchers at Harvard University had volunteers add more polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils, nuts, etc.) to their diets in lieu of meat, full-fat dairy, and other primary sources of saturated fat. Their risk of coronary heart disease went down by as much as 19 percent when they ate more polyunsaturated fats. Even increasing the amount by as little as 5 percent yielded a 10 percent decrease in heart disease risk.
All That Meat’s Not Free, You Know
Not only is heavy meat consumption costly to the environment and to our physical health, it hurts our wallets, too. Because meat is expensive to produce, it’s expensive to eat, too. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ food price data for June 2010, it costs consumers $3.51 for a pound of beef on average. Chicken’s not much better at $3.32 for one pound, especially when compared to dried beans, which cost only $1.34 per pound. Beans are an excellent source of protein, fiber, and other essential nutrients. They’re one of the healthiest staples you can get for your buck.
Even if you don’t spend a lot on meat, you end up paying for others’ excessive consumption by way of medical care costs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that we spent around $147 million in 2008 on obesity-related issues. From 2007 to 2009, the number of obese individuals in the United States rose by 2.4 million. While obesity is not solely caused by eating meat, eating too much of it definitely contributes to the problem. Even eating less meat than average would help—a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that “semi-vegetarians” were less likely to be overweight or obese than omnivores.
Increasingly, companies and schools in cities all over the world are embracing Meatless Mondays in one way or another. For instance, meat hasn’t been on the Monday cafeteria menu in Baltimore public schools since 2009. That same year, Ghent, Belgium, became the first city in the world to enact Veggiedag (Veggie Day) each week on Thursday. In April 2010, San Francisco made Meatless Monday an official resolution. And perhaps in the future, more countries will follow Israel in its country-wide declaration of meat-free days.
Only time will tell what the effects of this fairly new initiative will be. But considering how current meat consumption trends are affecting our well-being and our world, any meals that we choose to make meatless any day of the week could only help.