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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