Go Green Get Lean is the perfect eating plan for our time. Revealing easy-to-follow steps anyone can take to eat for a healthy body and planet—and drop up to 9 pounds in the first 2 weeks—Kate Geagan helps readers see the questionable value of "convenience" foods, and explains why going green doesn't require a drastic vegan overhaul. Because there are many nutritional benefits to be drawn from some non-plant-based food choices, she points readers to the best selections, including occasional splurges they can enjoy in good conscience.
In learning to make truly LEAN choices, Kate offers the following straightforward formula: Before eating food, ask yourself: Local or global? What was the Energy used to bring it to my plate? (Include processing, packaging, transportation, and temperature of food.) Animal or plant? (Plant foods are greener.) Is this Necessary? (Is this food critical to my health and weight goals?) This trailblazing work—the first to offer a specific weight-loss plan along with the promise of a lowered carbon footprint—makes it possible for readers to help the environment and their waistlines at the same time.
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AN INCONVENIENT TOOTH
Our Food Choices Are Making Us Fat and Hastening Climate Change
"You eat. Willingly or not, you participate in the environment of food choice. The choices you make about food are as much about the kind of world you want to live in as they are about what to have for dinner. Food choices are about your future and that of your children."
Marion Nestle, What to Eat
The American diet is in an energy crisis.
Whether we're talking about food calories or energy use, our penchant for overconsumption is what has defined us both here and abroad as the American Consumer. More than two out of three Americans are overweight; one in three Americans is obese; and we use 25 percent of the world's oil though we represent only 5 percent of the world's population.
Like a giant snowball, Americans have tried to push the consequences of our choices as far off into the distance as we could, be they poor eating habits, an energy-intense lifestyle, or even poor money management. Unfortunately, those snowballs are beginning to collapse under their own weight and come to a creaking halt.
Experts tell us that Americans' food choices reflect what is easy, cheap, and tasty, and brings us immediate pleasure. Such a dietary lifestyle is one of the reasons our health-care system is saddled with chronic disease; heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity have become so commonplace and are thus such an integral part of our health-care costs and drug regimens that it's easy to forget that these diseases are largely preventable. In many parts of the world that practice different eating habits, their incidence is dramatically lower. These diseases are, for the most part, a direct result of the daily food and lifestyle choices we make as the American Consumer. These are diseases of affluence.
On the other side of the coin lies the paradoxnamely, that the heaviest nation on the planet is also the most weight obsessed. We seek easy, fast, painless solutions to our weight woes, with Americans spending the most money per capita on losing weight; in 2005 alone, we shelled out more than $35 billion in search of quick fixes. Each year we flock in record numbers to weight-loss centers and the supplement aisle in search of a cure. Yet despite these efforts, our bathroom scales continue to creep steadily upward.
In contrast to the rest of the world, where local food pathways and national cuisines have grown out of deep cultural underpinnings, the United States is unique in that its food landscape has been shaped in large part by marketers and food companies. Much of this cultural shift began after World War II, on the heels of advances made in food processing, packaging, and distribution during the war, and with the explosion of Madison Avenue to direct our food choices and our relationship to the kitchen. The message was clear: Hurry out of the kitchen, and let Betty Crocker (or some other equally friendly persona) do the cooking for you. Processed food was the future. What could be more convenient?
As a result, the typical Western eating pattern that has emerged is heavy in red meat and processed meats, refined grains and sugars, and animal fats such as butter, cheese, and ice cream; it relies on processed food products and convenience foods; and it's overflowing with high-calorie sweetened beverages that are basically liquid candy. It is also low in whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, and fish. This diet not only makes us fat but also leads us directly to numerous chronic diseases; it saps our energy and vitality, but it also turns out to be a Hummer of an eating style.
Therein lies the double energy crisis of our current food situationfar too many food calories brought to us in foods that are extremely energy intense to make. Americans, it is becoming clear, have an inconvenient tooth. A big one.
Our SUV-style diet is warming the planet. All of the steps it takes to bring that fast-food burger, that low-carb frozen dinner, even that organic asparagus from Argentina to your plate require fossil fuel. And while we've begun to realize the physical consequences of our diet choices, the global warming consequences of our choices are no less serious. Over the past 20 years, we have been steadily marching toward an American diet that is more drenched in fossil fuel than any key nutrient.
On a global scale, food transportation is now among the biggest and fastest- growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Overall, more than 800 million tons of food are shipped around the planet each year, four times as many as in the 1960s. Just stop and think about the considerable miles our food travels, much of the time in either a cozily refrigerated or frozen truck bay. Here in the United States, food is traveling 25 percent farther than it did just 20 years ago (the average trip hovers somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table). The 2005 EPA report on US greenhouse gas emissions noted that the combustion of fossil fuels (which makes up 94 percent of national CO2 emissions) has climbed more than 20 percent since 1990. One of the fundamental factors driving this is our globalized supermarket.
Need more data? Consider the following. Experts estimate that with our current food habits, it now takes roughly 7 to 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to bring 1 calorie of food energy to the American plate. That translates into 14,000 to 20,000 calories of fossil fuel per person per day if we're talking about the 2,000-calorie "standard intake" printed on nutrition facts labels everywhereeven more if you consider all that's wasted.
Most of my clients are shocked when I tell them our food system consumes nearly 20 percent of all petroleum that's burned annually in the United States. Sure, we may be thinking about energy- efficient fleets or energy- efficient buildings, but energy-efficient pantries? That's a new idea for most people. Fortunately, greening your pantry is a surprisingly easy change to make, and it will reap as big if not bigger savings to your personal carbon footprint as many of the other changes being put forward.
In fact, in terms of impact, your dietary lifestyle sits right up there with the type of car you drive. A 2005 study from the University of Chicago found that the greenhouse gas burden of a typical red meat diet compared to the diet of a plant eater equals the difference between driving a Camry and an SUV. If you're not ready to become a vegan, that's certainly okay (you're not alone), but you can still significantly cut back on our national warming trend by realigning your diet a bit. This same study found that simply ratcheting down the portion of animal-derived calories you eat each day can get you out of the SUV and into a more efficient sedan (while a vegan diet is the equivalent of an ultra-efficient hybrid). How fantastic, because this advice also overlaps exceedingly well with a clear and easy strategy for losing weight, reducing inflammation, and increasing your energy level, resulting in a fresh, lean and green cuisine that gives new meaning to the idea of "energy efficient."
Perhaps never before has the call been so strong, so clear, that we need a paradigm shift away from maximum efficiency and productivity toward sustainability. A shift away from extolling shelf life and convenience, because these "improvements" are actually undermining our quality of life. And to rediscover clean, simple nourishment in the form of clean, simple foods.
Now, if you're like most people, this carbon thing is something you probably haven't been considering while shopping the supermarket shelves, sampling the sundries in the vending machine at work, or sneaking into that fast-food burger joint on your way home. After all, our food system's role in the climate crisis hasn't been a central part of the discussion. Until now.
While the past decade has brought a rush of frankly written exposes, documentaries, and editorial pieces about our environment, as well as the deplorable state of our health and weight, we have been slow to see how the two crises intersect.
The question is, How much petroleum did your food require to get to your plate? The following chart outlines the steps that virtually all food goes through before landing on your plate; however, as the next several chapters will show, your choices can make an impact because the amount of fuel needed at each phase varies enormously; an apple from your local farmers' market (even a local apple that is sold in your local supermarket), for instance, requires far less oil on average than an apple shipped in a refrigerated cargo plane 3,000 miles from New Zealand.
How Much Fossil Fuel Did Your Lunch Require?
Our modern food system is built within the framework of an industrial economy. As a result, many foods drift through a river of petroleum before landing on your plate; consider the typical path in this chart and how fossil fuels are associated with each step in the process:
Fuel is required for many agricultural inputs (including growing feed and producing fertilizers and pesticides) as well as for cultivation and irrigation, labor, and equipment.
To ensure food safety and preservation during transport, most foods are brought to some ideal temperature/humidity immediately after harvesting. Just like heating and cooling a house, this step requires energy.
The vast majority of harvesting today is dependent on fossil fuel- powered equipment, whether in field, feedlot, ocean, farm, greenhouse, or slaughterhouse.
This facet of the process may also occur at multiple stages. For example, corn may be transported to a storage facility, then to a processing plant where it is made into corn syrup, which is then sent to another factory that uses the corn syrup as an ingredient in a frozen dessert that is shipped frozen to a freezer aisle near you. Or consider something like sushi, which may be caught fresh and airfreighted to the buyer so as to be as fresh as possible.
Processing can occur at several points throughout the chain, and the amount of energy required varies widely (e.g., a fresh fish fillet requires very little processing, while a frozen fish dinner requires signifi- cantly more). Factors at play include labor and equipment, waste management, and packaging.
Few grocery stores receive all their products directly from manufacturers. Most have regional warehouses where products are pro-cessed for distribution. More equipment, heating, and cooling costs accumu-late here.
FINAL DELIVERY AND PURCHASE
A New Paradigm: Determining Your "Dietary Lifestyle"
When you start to calculate all the hidden costs involved in the food system, it's easy to see your "dietary lifestyle" emerge. And given our vast geography and access to tens of thousands of foods, your lifestyle might look more like either an SUV or a hybrid in terms of how much carbon your choices put into the atmosphere. Diets heavy in red meat, dairy products, processed foods, foods that require refrigeration to travel long distances, and imported ingredients are the Hummers of eating styles. So go ahead. Ask yourself, Does your diet resemble a Hummer or a hybrid?
Wherever your present diet leaves you on this continuum, here's the new reality: Your food choices are no longer just about you. This isn't about willpower or about fancy tricks to fool your biology into thinking you're full on cabbage soup. This is about an inconvenient tooth that America has collectively acquired, and how it's undermining our future, our health, and the planet. If you are looking for real answers to your weight problems, if you are passionate or concerned about global warming and want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, you need to start changing your eating habits. And collectively, we need to expand our thinking as to what is "healthy food" beyond simply the ingredient list or calorie count.
From what I have seen firsthand in my work as a corporate wellness dietitian, I think Americans are ready to change their food choices. Across the country I see people who are tired of being tired (oftentimes a direct result of poor eating habits), who are tired of worrying about their children's weight problems (oftentimes a direct result of poor eating habits), and most of all, who are tired of being overweight. Another benefit? Eating green is cheaper. In fact, the economic decline of 2008 has already moved some people back to a greener dietary lifestyleyou'll see precisely how in the upcoming chapters.
My mission is to help you look better, feel better, and eat better and, in doing so, to create a ripple effect that will help ensure we leave a better planet for our children. It's time to be frank about the state of our plate; the idea of "farm to plate," for most consumers today, is little more than a quaint notion or a reassuring sound bite. In reality, "package to palm," "microwave to couch," or "farm factory to drive-thru" would be a much more accurate description when it comes to Americans' relationship to food.
So what does the flip side of the coin look like? A lean and green eating pattern is a primarily plant-based diet rich in whole grains, seasonal and local fruits and vegetables, moderate amounts of chicken and fish or wild game, and very limited red meat. Organic foods are emphasized where it matters most, and sustainable splurges such as chocolate and wine are still deliciously included. This diet is lower in calories, packs far greater amounts of protective nutrients, is higher in fiber, and is much more energy efficient in every sense.
To get a stronger taste of just how vast our current global food system is, take a look at the map on page 10 from a project underway at Middlebury College in Vermont. It is a snapshot of just one meal served in their dining hall on one day. In one of the first projects of its kind, students used GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to track an entire supply chain from farm to college dining plate. Even the map of a college such as Middlebury that is at the forefront of sourcing locally (hey, they have all those great cows and dairies at their disposal) still looks like one of those confusing maps you find in the back of an in-flight magazine that shows all the different flight plans. The college's geography department is currently working on the next extension: How did the food get to the suppliers? What were those inputs? Where did the packaging come from? No doubt that version will be far more complicated.
"A food map is a stunning interactive representation of just how vast the global food system is," said Chris Howell, the Middlebury alum who developed the project after attending a "slow foods" event in Italy in 2006. "Food mapping helps people understand how our individual and institutional food choices play out environmentally, economically, socially, and politically. Imagine if your fast-food meal or shopping cart had such a mapwhat would it look like?"