Shifting Diets to Conserve Water and Improve Health


The average American eats 270.7 pounds of meat per year (Barclay 2012). That’s almost a pound per day for every adult and child in this country. To consume a pound of meat each day, you’d have to eat a massive ½ lb. burger for lunch, and then eat another one for dinner. Is this too much? It seems like the answer is “yes”.

Eating less meat actually provides two major benefits at the same time – it helps the environment and it improves human health.

Meat production has a lot of environmental impacts, but one underappreciated environmental cost is that its requires a lot of water. Fresh water is a critical but finite resource. As of right now about 65% of the freshwater on this planet is being used for agriculture and that percentage is likely to increase as agriculture continues to expand (CDC 2016). There are several ways to reduce the amount of water used in agriculture, but maybe the most straightforward is to encourage shifts in diets from a highly meat-based diet to a more plant-based diet. Think about it: one hamburger takes about 2400 liters of water to produce, while one potato only takes about 25 liters of water to produce and one tomato only takes about 13 liters of water to produce (USGS 2016). Just one person shifting from eating hamburgers to a more plant-based diet could save hundreds of liters of water each day. Although it is unlikely that everyone will go completely vegan, just limiting the amount of meat you eat can have a serious impact on fresh water conservation.

But water conservation and other environmental benefits aren’t the only reason to shift to a more plant-based diet. Every year about 610,000 people in the United States die from heart disease alone, which results in about 1 of every 4 deaths (CDC 2017). Many studies have associated excess meat consumption with heart disease. One study points out that consuming 100 grams of red meat increases your likelihood of death from cardiovascular disease by 15%. This same study also pointed out that eating 100 grams per day of processed meat increases your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 18% (Tilman and Clark 2014). Another study showed that an “omnivorous”, red-meat heavy diet is associated with higher rates of several chronic diseases compared to Mediterranean, pescatarian, or vegetarian diets (Clark and Tilman 2017). For example, a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 16% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a 7% reduced risk of developing cancer, and a 26% reduced risk of coronary mortality compared to an omnivorous diet, while a vegetarian diet had a 42% reduction in risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a 10% reduction in risk of developing cancer, and a 21% reduced risk of coronary mortality. These findings suggest that switching from a conventional omnivorous diet to a diet with more vegetables and less red meat can significantly decrease your chances of developing diet-related diseases.

In the end the decision of what you eat will remain completely up to you. There may be benefits to eating meat – maybe it’s part of your culture, maybe it’s cheap and easy to prepare, maybe you just like the taste. But keep in mind, if you choose to eat meat there will be negative consequences for the environment AND for your health. As a society it is time for us to step up and make a positive change for the generations that follow us.

References

Barclay, E. (2012) A Nation Of Meat Eaters: See How It All Adds Up. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/06/27/155527365/visualizing-a-nation-of-meat-eaters

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2017) Heart Disease. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2016) Other Uses and Types of Water. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/other/agricultural/index.html

Clark M, Tilman D (2017) Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters 12: 064016

Tilman D, Clark M (2014) Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515: 518-522. doi:10.1038/nature13959

United States Geological Survey (2016) The Water Content of Things: How much water does it take to grow a hamburger? Retrieved from https://water.usgs.gov/edu/activity-watercontent.php


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