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Protein check: Food choices impact your health, the environment

Patricia Conte has a background in marketing communications and works as an independent writer. In 2010, she was given the opportunity to combine her love of writing and food when she started as a contributing writer for the Food channel...

How to avoid the gunk we eat

The folks who brought you Meatless Monday have reasons for their initiative. Cutting back on eating meat even one day a week makes a significant health-related and environmental impact. Whether or not you participate in Meatless Monday (or Tuesday or Wednesday for that matter), there is a new study out that can help you determine the best and worst proteins to eat – meat and otherwise – for the good of your health, and that of the environment.

dary products and cow on farm

When did eating get so complicated?

These days, as you make your way through breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are many things to consider – gluten-free, peanut allergies, organic options, and vegan and vegetarian options. Something else to mull over: the best and worst sources of protein – in terms of your health and that of the environment.

If you're a meat-eater (and even if you're not) you should check out the latest report from the Environmental Work Group (EWG), whose mission is to "use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment." The group has tackled the topic of protein and its impact on your bodies and your world.

From plant-based protein to different types of meat, the group has revealed its findings and provided them on its website in an easy-to-understand format. A great source of information, its FAQs describe the "which and why" of foods that are best -- and worst -- in terms of health and environment.

There's something in the air. And water. And our bodies.

EWG partnered with CleanMetrics, an environmental analysis and consulting firm, for its study. The findings are significant. Included in the research, the groups studied the lifecycle of a particular food's carbon impact – or its effect on the environment – from the water and fertilizer used to produce the food to transportation of the food and even waste processing. This chart that compares the greenhouse gas emissions of 20 different foods, plant-based, meats and other.

When we eat large quantities of beef and processed meats it does damage to our bodies, too, via obesity, some cancers and heart disease.

With a focus on meats, EWG notes that, "all meat is not created equal." Its "Meat Eaters Guide" is an overview of what they researched and their findings.

EWG findings about different meats

  • Lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon generate the most greenhouse gases. With the exception of salmon, they also tend to have the worst environmental impacts, because producing them requires the most resources.
  • Meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging (although a few studies of the impact on climate show mixed results for grass-fed versus confined-feedlot meat).
  • Discarded food accounts at least 20 percent, on average, of the emissions associated with producing, processing, transporting and consuming meat and dairy products. Plan to buy only as much as you will eat to most easily reduce greenhouse gas and other environmental impacts of food.

Don't fret – just eat more responsibly

It's not the intent of EWG to discourage you from eating meat or other proteins, but rather, to provide Americans with a guide to help determine how to eat more responsibly for yourselves and for the environment. Cutting back on red and processed meats can help curb several health concerns affecting many people today.

EWG tips for meat eaters

  • Eat less meat and dairy
  • Eat "greener" meat when you do eat meat
  • Eat more plants
  • Waste less meat
  • Eat lower-fat dairy products
  • Speak out about the findings

Chew on this

According to EWG, if a family of four skips meat and cheese one day a week, it would be like taking your car off the road for five weeks.

If everyone in the US skipped meat and cheese one day a week, it would be like taking 76 million cars off the road.

Try these meatless recipes:

More about Meatless Monday

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