Try a Flexitarian Diet for Better Health and a Better Food Budget

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Spaghetti Alla Carbonara uses a small amount of meat to provide big flavor.
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Runoff from cattle feedlots often pollutes nearby waterways.
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The manure from grazing animals actually enriches the ground they inhabit and prevents desertification.
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Sows kept in farrowing crates don't have room to turn around.
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Pigs raised on pasture can root in the dirt and cool off in the mud.
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Keeping laying hens in "battery cages," where the birds don't even have room to spread their wings, has been called the most inhumane of all industrial management practices for animals.
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Meat consumption has begun to drop after decades of steady rise. These levels are for all meats combined and were calculated by the USDA Economic Research Service.

Ten years ago in America, you could eat meat — all 203.2 pounds of it per capita per year — without drawing much attention from your fellow diners. After all, eating meat defined who we were as Americans. As historian Roger Horowitz writes in Putting Meat on the American Table, “Eating meat has been an integral part of the American diet since settlement,” and our daily habit of 6 to 8 ounces of animal protein “has been a defining feature of our society.”

Just a decade ago, vegetarians were outliers and vegans a rare curiosity. The notion of choosing plants over flesh was often the signature of coastal health nuts and the spiritually inclined — not Middle America. From 2004 to 2007, per capita meat consumption (beef, lamb, pork and poultry) remained steady at well above 200 pounds per year. A “flexitarian” diet wasn’t yet in our lexicon. (The word was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2012.)

And then a recession happened on the way to the dinner table. In 2008, Americans ate less than 200 pounds of meat annually for the first time in seven years. Although steadily waning since the 1980s, per capita consumption of the quintessential American meat — beef — dropped to a 50-year low, to 62.1 pounds. By 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported per capita meat consumption was down to 186.6 pounds.

Still, the economy is not the sole reason behind the challenge to the meat-y status quo. The past five years have witnessed a collective shift in perception and attitudes about meat for sundry reasons, including concerns about animal welfare, food safety, personal health and environmental impact. Some celebrities — Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres and Mike Tyson among them — have publicly given up meat. Vegetarians and vegans have “come out” (how Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan described his dietary shift) and are a slowly growing demographic. According to the results of a 2012 Gallup poll, 5 percent of those surveyed described themselves as vegetarian. For the first time, Gallup asked respondents whether they considered themselves vegan. Two percent did.

A 2012 NPR-Truven Health Analytics poll showed 56 percent of respondents said they eat meat no more than one to four times per week — a striking shift from the American tradition of meat three times a day, seven days a week.

We’re hardly breaking up with meat — at the current rate, we’re still eating 8 ounces a day, substantially more than the American Heart Association’s recommended 3 to 6 ounces of daily lean meat consumption per day. But bite by bite, our appetite for meat is tapering off.

Until about five years ago, the prevailing argument for reducing the meat on our plates was dietary — to cut back on saturated fat, lower cholesterol, and reduce the risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. But meat eaters have many additional factors to consider as they decide what’s for dinner, and wonder whether that conventional health advice is still sound. Industrial meat, in particular, has been at the center of a growing debate because of environmental impact, inhumane animal conditions, and its contribution to the spread of antibiotic-resistant foodborne illnesses.

Environmental Impact

Nearly all supermarket beef, chicken and pork — the three most consumed types of animal protein in this country — are produced on enormous industrial-scale farms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines these huge farms as “agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. [Such operations] congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing in pastures, fields or on rangeland.”

The EPA considers 15 percent of these industrial farms “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). The number of animals on a given piece of land is part of the definition — a large chicken CAFO, for example, houses more than 125,000 birds; a large CAFO for beef cattle can house more than 1,000 head.

On these factory farms, animals eat commodity crops — primarily corn and soybeans — that are subsidized by taxpayers via the Farm Bill. Half of all North American cropland — about 149 million acres — produces animal feed from genetically modified (GM) crops designed to resist weedkillers such as Roundup. These crops have spawned an epidemic of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” In 2012, superweeds infested 61 million acres of farmland growing GM crops. The result: An increase in herbicide use rather than a reduction, as well as “stacking” of genetically modified traits in seeds to allow cocktails of potent herbicides to be used on crops.

Beef cattle are given anabolic steroids as well as estrogen, androgen and progestin — commonly called “growth hormones” — to make them put on weight more quickly. Although the European Union banned the use of these hormones in 1988, they’re still commonplace in the United States. “Measurable levels of…growth-promoting hormones are found at slaughter in the muscle, fat, liver, kidneys and other organ meats,” says the Organic Consumers Association in a position paper. “Every beef-eating American for over 50 years has been exposed to these hormones on a regular basis.” Pigs, too, are fed growth hormones. The use of growth hormones in poultry, however, has been illegal in the United States since the 1950s.

Animal feed includes low-level (sometimes called “sub-therapeutic”) doses of antibiotics to promote growth and offset unsanitary, overcrowded conditions. About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are administered to livestock, a figure acknowledged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2010. These drugs pass through manure and leach into the soil and groundwater, ultimately polluting neighboring rivers and streams.

In its 2004 Water Quality Report to Congress (the last year such a report was released), the EPA cited industrial agriculture as a “major pollutant source,” poisoning some 94,000 river and stream miles (40 percent of all river miles surveyed).

To address the use of growth-promoting antibiotics on livestock, the FDA in late 2013 issued new guidance for drug manufacturers and industrial livestock farmers. The guidance is voluntary, however, and thus lacks regulatory teeth.

Animal manure is another major pollutant. According to the EPA, U.S. livestock on CAFOs produced about 500 million tons of manure in 2007 — triple the amount of human waste generated by the country’s population at that time, and far more than soil surrounding the CAFOs could absorb as fertilizer. Manure is thus typically stored in giant outdoor pits known as “manure lagoons,” which sometimes leak and overflow.

In stark contrast, manure from pastured livestock is an asset in building healthy soil. Increasing research in recent years has pointed to the benefits of grazing livestock not just on farmland but on abandoned and eroded grasslands. In 2011, the USDA published a study linking the grazing activities (and manure-manufacturing) of pastured livestock to the restoration of nutrient-starved soil in the extensive area of the Southeast known as the Piedmont, which stretches from New Jersey to central Alabama. “From an environmental standpoint,” the USDA wrote in its report, “grasslands have traditionally been viewed as best managed by leaving the land unused. But the team found … that the grazed land produced more grass than the ungrazed land and had the greatest amount of carbon and nitrogen sequestered in soil.”

These findings coincide with those of Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean biologist who, in a widely viewed 2013 TED Talk, argued that we can reverse desertification — land turning to desert — with managed herds of grazing livestock. Their manure and urine, says Savory, create a layer of mulch that helps the degraded soil absorb rain water and store carbon; the mulch also regulates soil temperature and breaks down methane gases. In Savory’s estimation, if we bring grazing livestock to just half of the world’s remaining grasslands, “We can take carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years.”

Animal Welfare

CAFOs are not only characterized by an enormous volume of livestock, but also by extremely confined and inhumane conditions. Animals are often housed indoors, with little or no access to sunlight. For decades, factory farms have kept egg-laying hens in tiny cages — sometimes called the most inhumane of all industrial management practices for animals — and sows (pregnant female pigs) in gestation crates, which are so cramped that the sows can neither stand nor roll over. Although still permissible on a federal level, several states have banned gestation crates. There has also been some progress on a corporate level. Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer (now owned by a Chinese firm), has pledged to phase out gestation crates on its corporate-owned facilities by 2017, and is campaigning to end its suppliers’ use of them. Dozens of global food corporations, including Costco, Sodexo and Sysco, have announced their timelines to eliminate gestation crates in their respective supply chains.

Some restaurants are taking action, too. Since 2001, Tex-Mex chain Chipotle has sourced 100 percent of its pork from producers who follow humane husbandry practices, allowing pigs outside or raising them in deeply bedded pens, never giving animals growth-promoting antibiotics, and feeding them a vegetarian diet. Chipotle calls this “naturally raised,” and applies the same standards to its growing network of suppliers for beef, chicken, cheese and sour cream.

Public Health

The public has become accustomed to mass-scale foodborne illness. From the deadly 2008 salmonella outbreak in peanut butter to the recall of half a billion eggs in 2010, food-safety scares have become bigger and more commonplace.

An additional twist on foodborne illness is antibiotic resistance. In 2013, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report describing the public health threat caused by the widespread use of antibiotics in raising livestock. According to the report, antibiotic-resistant infections (which are a serious problem in hospitals) result in 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses annually. The number of antibiotics available to treat infections — including the sometimes-deadly Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — continues to dwindle, even as those bacteria evolve to become more deadly. The CDC’s “Threat Report 2013” lists Clostridium difficile, Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, and drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae as “microorganisms with a threat level of urgent,” and notes another dozen bacteria that possess a “threat level of serious.” (See the full Threat Report 2013.)

Two examples of antibiotic-resistant bacteria showing up in our food supply:

• A 2011 study revealed that nearly half of all supermarket meat and poultry samples tested positive for Staphylococcus aureus (commonly known as “staph”). Of those tainted samples, more than half were contaminated with MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant version of staph, researchers at the Arizona-based Translational Genomics Institute found.

• In January 2014, a Consumer Reports study reported that 97 percent of supermarket chicken breast samples were contaminated with foodborne pathogens. Nearly half of the 316 samples tested positive for multi-drug-resistant bacteria. What that means: You eat chicken that makes you sick, you take an antibiotic, but the antibiotic doesn’t work. And eventually, maybe no antibiotic will work, as journalist Maryn McKenna points out in Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future on the crowd-sourced literary website Medium.

In addition, consumers have grown wary of red meat after decades of counsel from the government and the medical establishment to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol, instead turning in large numbers to chicken and to pork, the so-called “other white meat.” But today most research indicates that the cholesterol in the food you eat has no impact on the amount of cholesterol in your blood. While experts still believe that too much saturated fat raises serum cholesterol, many studies have shown that the fats in pastured meat and dairy products are different than those in their industrial counterparts, and are not only heart-healthy, but may actually protect your heart — another compelling reason to switch to meat and dairy products from pastured animals. For more, read The Fats You Need for a Healthy Diet.

A New Relationship With Meat: Meatless Monday, Flexitarian Diet and More

As meat lovers blur the lines between vegetarian and carnivorous diets, they’re referring to themselves as weekday or part-time vegetarians, or vegetarian or vegan before 6 p.m., or, of course, flexitarian. If these facts have persuaded you to eat less meat, and to choose pastured or grass-fed when you do, then you’re on the brink of becoming a flexitarian. There are many paths to eating less meat.

A change in frequency. Reduce the number of meals you eat with meat each day, and take at least one full day off from meat each week. The public health campaign Meatless Monday is arguably the best-known effort advocating an incremental, one-day-off-from-meat approach to benefit both personal health and the environment. Now in its tenth year, Meatless Monday has grown into a global phenomenon.

A new ratio and portion size. Rather than taking just one day off from meat, some dial back their total weekly intake. Both the American Heart Association and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend a weekly maximum of 18 ounces of lean meat, which translates to six 3-ounce servings. Some people choose to use meat as a condiment, selecting beef or cured cuts of pork to top salads and pasta, fold into a frittata, or as an ingredient in a sauce or a stew. A few pieces of beef or chicken atop a salad, or over polenta, can make a satisfying entrée. And what’s old is new — traditional specialties such as the Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple and the goetta of Cincinnati, both made with scrap meats and various grains, are making a comeback among a new generation of curious chefs and home cooks.

Choosing Pastured Meat

Industrial meat is so cheap and ubiquitous that it’s more feasible to feed oneself on greasy fast food patties than on a bean burrito or a head of fresh broccoli.

In contrast, meat from grass-fed animals, while more expensive pound-for-pound, possesses an amazingly healthful nutritional profile, rich in omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Both omega-3s and CLA have been linked to powerful health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health and protection against some forms of cancer. In his first weekly “Flexitarian” column of 2014, The New York Times writer Mark Bittman compiled a list of “Sustainable Resolutions for Your Diet” in which he challenged readers: “Buy half as much meat, and make it better meat. Thinking of eating meat as an indulgence lets you buy tastier, healthier, more sustainable meat without breaking the bank.”

Humanely raised pastured meat is becoming more readily available and consumer demand is growing, says Andrew Gunther, program director of Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), which works with 1,500 producers that have earned the group’s highly esteemed food label. Gunther notes that even though pastured meat represents just a fraction of the overall market, he’s seeing annual sales growth of 10 to 20 percent. Grass-fed beef, which represents about 3 percent of all beef produced in the United States, is slowly expanding from boutique specialty venues to the mainstream marketplace; for example, some Costco stores now stock grass-fed beef, Gunther says.

The Butcher’s Revival

As demand for pastured animal products has grown, so has a network of farmers markets and local and regional marketplaces. According to the USDA, 8,144 farmers markets operated in 2013 — more than double the 3,704 markets in 2004.

A revival of the local butcher — thanks in part to the Butcher’s Guild, a network of independent butchers and chefs — has made finding high-quality meat easier. Founded in 2011 by two women butchers in the San Francisco area, the Butcher’s Guild says in its mission statement that “good meat can change the world.” Find a Butcher’s Guild member near you.

Getting Culinary

As home cooks have broadened their culinary boundaries, so, too, have chefs and cookbook authors.

The past few years have seen plant-forward cookbooks penned by meat eaters, among them River Cottage Veg by British farmer and TV personality Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; Plentyby London restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi, and my The Meat Lover’s Meatless series. Meanwhile, books such as The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook by Shannon Hayes and Tender Grassfed Meat by Stanley A. Fishman can guide you in preparing that humanely raised, grass-fed or pastured meat so that it’s succulent and full of flavor.

At Eat Wildor Local Harvest, you can find meat and dairy products from grass-fed animals near where you live. (And check out our individual state and province pages on Facebookto connect with people near you to exchange information about local food. — MOTHER)

Veteran food journalist Kim O’Donnel is the author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook and The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations. She has written for The Washington Post, USA Today, and Culinate.