Americans are eating so much excess meat, their pee is poisoning the water.

I’ve known for a while that the American diet tends to have too much protein. A lot of emphasis is placed on meat, in our culture, and the focus on making U.S.ians lose weight has often guided people to eat fewer carbohydrates, but as much protein as we want. For me, that was compounded by the knowledge that muscle burns more calories than fat, so in my mind, anything I could do to ensure my body could build muscle easily, would also help me burn calories.

The reality is that we humans tend to be fairly efficient creatures, and when we consume too much protein, our body just pisses it away.


 Balancing how much protein you eat with the amount your body needs could reduce nitrogen releases to aquatic systems in the U.S. by 12% and overall nitrogen losses to air and water by 4%, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.

Protein consumption in the United States, from both plant and animal sources, ranks among the highest in the world. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, said that if Americans ate protein at recommended amounts, projected nitrogen excretion rates in 2055 would be 27% less than they are today despite population growth.

The study is the first to estimate how much protein consumption contributes to excess nitrogen in the environment through human waste. It also indicates that coastal cities have the largest potential to reduce nitrogen excretions headed for their watersheds.

“It turns out that many of us don’t need as much protein as we eat, and that has repercussions for our health and aquatic ecosystems,” said lead author Maya Almaraz, a research affiliate with the UC Davis Institute of the Environment. “If we could reduce that to an amount appropriate to our health, we could better protect our environmental resources.”

The human body requires protein. But when a body takes in more protein than it needs, excess amino acids break it down into nitrogen, which is excreted mostly through urine and released through the wastewater system. This brings additional nitrogen into waterways, which can result in toxic algal blooms, oxygen-starved “dead zones” and polluted drinking water.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that eating too much protein can also cause health problems. Kidney stones are first on the list, which makes sense, given what our bodies do with the excess, but when it comes to eating red meat, too much can also increase your risk of colon cancer. We already know that cows in particular are major methane emitters, and livestock in general are more energy-intensive to raise, simply by virtue of being animals, and not plants.

In fact, for all I downplay individual action in favor of systemic change, this is one case where there’s almost certainly no downside. The exception to mention up front is that some people simply need meat to be healthy. That’s one reason I want it to be available, even in my “ideal world”, and why food in general should be free at the point of access, so that those with uncommon restrictions don’t have to pay more just to live. That said, eating less meat would benefit the health and the finances of most U.S. residents.

This is one of those times where a country that valued human life would be funding a PR campaign to this end, but at the very least we can spread the word on our own. This is an easy answer, and honestly it’s one we’ve known for a very long time. As with all dietary advice, your exact needs are going to vary person to person, and the whole reason I like this as a form of individual action is that it’s something that will make people’s individual lives better, and possibly more affordable. That would be nullified if you were to make your diet less healthy.

I also want to say that as someone who’s struggled with his weight for his entire life, I get that changing your diet – especially eating less food – is not always an easy ask. Our bodies make us suffer for losing weight, even if doing so makes us more healthy, and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about that beyond developing ways to cope.

But personally, I’ve found the combination of environmental impact and overall concern for my health to be a pretty good motivator in getting me to eat less protein in general, and less meat in particular.

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  1. Katydid says

    There’s a lot of waste going around, period–at least in the USA. I was pleasantly surprised to see a PSA on tv about easy and economical green things people can do (this was presented as a way to save money during inflation). For example–not wasting water by letting it run down the drain while someone brushes their teeth. Taking shorter, cooler showers, washing clothes on cold,and being mindful about how much laundry detergent is being used. Not wasting food: if you buy it, eat it. Being thoughtful about items brought into the house, and not driving unnecessarily.

    There are a lot of food deserts in the USA where people live on potato chips and french fries and processed foods–not meats.

  2. says

    Yeah, I’m not one to judge someone for how they survive in any kind of desert. That gets us back to the need for systemic change, especially since the government would probably subsidize the beef industry to keep mass-producing cowflesh even if most of it ends up rotting.

  3. Katydid says

    In the USA, the gov’t supports Big Ag–corn first, then soybeans. My best friend is a farmer who pastures around 10 – 15 cows at any one time, plus maybe 30 chickens (meat and egg-layers), some sheep. They also grow hay for themselves (winter) and some odds-and-ends crops for their own use, and lives on 800 acres. Her family is getting zero subsidies beyond the slightly-lower property taxes for having a land in farm vs. McMansion.

    I’d rather eat an egg from her pastured chickens or beef from her pastured cows than corn and soybeans from Big Ag.

  4. says

    Does your friend represent a majority of beef production? I don’t know how factory farming breaks down, I just have the impression that most cattle aren’t pastured. As I’ve said, I’m not demanding we eliminate animal agriculture, I’m saying we need to dramatically decrease it, change how we do what remains (it sounds like your friend is closer to what the goal should be), and make sure that any change in production cost that comes from that doesn’t interfere with access for those people who need meat.

    As to the rest, consider the context of the blog on which this is posted? Do you think my desire to end capitalism stops when it comes to Big Ag?

  5. says

    Addendum: I think this may be similar to a landlord problem I’ve encountered – a majority of landlords are small – they have maybe one other home to rent out. But a majority of renters have to deal with the minority of landlords who own dozens or hundreds of homes.

    It may be that a majority of people who farm cattle do so responsibly, but if they account for a minority of cattle actually farmed, then the problem remains the same, yes?

  6. Katydid says

    There are more and more small organic meat and/or veggie farmers in the USA; 20 years ago they were hard to find, but now it’s not hard at all (at least where I live–can’t speak for “the heartland”).

    OTOH, where I live is downstream from a huge Amish settlement, and their practices are very polluting.

    Something to keep in mind:

    Thirty-three members of Congress and their immediate family members collected a total of nearly $16 million in federal farm subsidies between 1995 and 2020, according to updated data from EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database.Oct 8, 2020

  7. Katydid says

    So, reducing protein intake could reduce nitrogen rates by 12%…but how much would reducing fertilizer run-off from golf courses and Big Ag fields reduce?

    Wouldn’t it make sense to go after the big polluters first?

  8. says

    All of the above?

    I don’t see this as “going after” anyone, just pointing out a health problem that is also an environmental problem, that is likely to be under the control of average people in a way things like solar panels are not.

  9. lorn says

    Down here, in the land of hurricane, and stand-by dictators, if the power goes out the wells don’t work and the toilets flush only once. Then stop. If you have water in a bucket you can flush by simply pouring water in rapidly. (I’m always amazed at the number of people who don’t know this.) This can work until the lift stations back up. A few days. (More if most people don’t know the manual flush method.)

    A viable alternative is to avoid flush toilet altogether and poop in a bucket. The difference between a stinking, rancid bucket and a pleasant experience is the use of an absorbent material (I prefer sphagnum moss but there are many alternatives), the strict exclusion of urine, and ventilation. You poop on a bed of absorbent material a couple inches deep and cover your contribution up with another inch. You then ventilate, no lids not adapted to allow copious air flow, and allow the pile to dry. Two people defecating 1.5 times a day only half fill a five gallon plastic bucket after a week.

    Surprisingly the smell of the bucket is barely noticeable and dropping the contents into a hole dug in live dirt is not unpleasant. The smell is very much like rich garden soil. None of this is true is you don’t exclude the urine. Add even small amounts of urine and the bucket will reek.

    Urine, the major excretion of nitrogen and phosphorus, has to be handled separately. My recommendation is a largish funnel and a hose leading to a one gallon jug. I highly recommend the Lady-J, and similar, for distaff campers.

    When mostly full this is capped and stored. Disposal is a matter of finding plants needing the nitrogen, perhaps diluting it a bit for the more tender varieties, and pouring around the drip-line. Urine is best thought of as a middling-grade fertilizer. Avoid waterways and wet ground. It is entirely possible to cause an algae-bloom and fish-kill pouring even a few gallons too near a body of water.

    Please note that urine from vegetarians is usually as bad as omnivores and urine from vegans is still problematic. Nitrogen (mainly as ammonia) is a natural byproduct of animal metabolism and seems largely independent of diet. Both potassium and phosphorus are common to vegetarian diets. I note that unwashed vegetarians smell less ‘goaty’ than unwashed meat-eaters but their urine seems about the same.

    These methods are useful for emergencies, generally conserving water, zero-discharge travel by boats, and low-impact camping where you take everything with you. That later activity is where I found out about the vegetarian and vegan aspects.

  10. John Morales says


    Please note that urine from vegetarians is usually as bad as omnivores and urine from vegans is still problematic.

    Dunno, really. Those faddish diets that emphasise ketosis? Bad.

    Anyway. Urine, maybe. Feces, not-so-much.

    World of difference between herbivore, omnivore, and carnivore feces.

    (Your nose knows)

  11. Katydid says

    I was musing on this topic this morning, and here’s a thought I had: whenever you get civilizations near water, they want to dump their waste into the water. Think about the times when the Tanach (later used for the Old Testament of the bible) was written: people were told not to eat shellfish. Why not? Because Bronze-Age humans dumped their sewage into the water. Shellfish live off that stuff.

    Did Bronze Age coastal people eat too much meat? No, their diet was mostly seafood and vegetables.

    P.S. I worked with a vegan once who swore he didn’t have to bathe because his vegan diet changed his body chemistry. He was wrong. You also didn’t want to go anywhere near the common bathroom after he’d used it.

  12. says

    Honestly, I think we should be fully processing and recycling our waste and the water in it. Generate biogas to deal the carbon, and separate out the water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other stuff for use as fertilizer, or industrial applications. There’s no need to be putting anything into rivers other than just plain water.

  13. Dunc says

    Think about the times when the Tanach (later used for the Old Testament of the bible) was written: people were told not to eat shellfish. Why not? Because Bronze-Age humans dumped their sewage into the water.

    Are you sure about that? I would have thought it was because of the risk of the various forms of shellfish poisoning, which are related to concentration of toxins produced by the algae they feed on.

  14. Katydid says

    @Dunc: what’s one major cause of the algae? Pollutants from sewage.

    There was just a feel-good story on the news (can’t find a link to it) about a coastal town in Florida that was killing off the manatees because they were dumping their sewage into the water. They hired a team to put on diver gear and hand-pull the algae, and then hand-replant the correct sea grasses. Then they hooked up to a municipal sewage system. PROBLEM SOLVED! Now other coastal towns are considering the same thing.

  15. says

    Better sewage systems feels kinda like another one of those “why haven’t we always done it this way?” moments.

    Except now we should have them all generating biogas.

  16. Dunc says

    @Dunc: what’s one major cause of the algae? Pollutants from sewage.

    Today, yes. I’m not convinced that was the case with Bronze Age population densities.

  17. says

    If they’re collected around rivers, and they’re putting raw sewage in? Even with a few hundred people, that can add up very quickly.

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