To Meat or Not to Meat?

illustration by Maggie Wehler

Meat, despite past conceptions, is not as necessary to a person's diet. Excessive meat consumption can actually have negative effects on the human body, as well as the planet. However, with the increasing number of meat alternatives and sustainable food options available, these side effects may be reduced.

Save Some for Later

The concept of sustainability surrounds the preservation of the present and the future. For something to be sustainable, it has to meet the needs of the current society, while refraining from causing problems for a future society. A growing example of this is sustainable food, which normally consists of non-meat products.

Sustainable food is any food product that has minimal to no negative repercussions for the environment, while also providing consumers with healthy meal options. The majority of sustainable foods are normally plant-based products because they use less natural resources and produce fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than livestock.

However, there is more than just one component that contributes to the sustainability of a resource. These components are the product's production, the product itself, the type of packaging used, the method of product distribution and the disposal of product remnants. To produce a sustainable food option, each step in this process should produce minimal GHGs, reducing its negative impact on the environment.

Food production is currently the cause of 30 percent of GHGs, with livestock agriculture producing nearly half of those emissions. Livestock influences this GHG increase through the production of large amounts of methane. However, by producing more plant-based foods, the largest cause of GHGs in food production can be eliminated, thus decreasing the overall pollution caused by food production.

Liz Ruder, an associate professor in RIT's Institute of Health Sciences and Technology, commented on the environmental importance of sustainable foods and the actions that can be taken by different groups.

“It’s apparent that we’re in a climate crisis right now,” Ruder said. “I think it’s important to examine sustainability on a wide scale and then also in our individual eating patterns so that we can make food choices that can perhaps mitigate some climate change.”

By choosing to eat sustainable foods, both the environment and the consumer will benefit.

To Meat or Not to Meat?

Meat alternatives are more than just meat imposters: they can be any form of food that contains protein. Protein is one of the main nutrients people gain when consuming meat. However, meat is not the only source of protein available.

Master of Science and RIT’s registered dietician, Marisa Bellanca, provided her own definition of meat alternatives.

“Anything that provides a substantial amount of protein that doesn’t come from an animal is considered a meat alternative,” Bellanca explained. “Tofu, tempeh, even quinoa can be considered a protein source that is a plant-based alternative.”

“Anything that provides a substantial amount of protein that doesn’t come from an animal is considered a meat alternative.”

A positive attribute of meat alternatives is their lack of saturated fats and their emphasis on unsaturated fats. Compared to meat, non-meat products normally contain less saturated fats, which are considered to be unhealthy because they can increase the consumer’s risk of heart disease. However, they do normally contain unsaturated fats, which can improve the consumer’s blood cholesterol levels.

“There’s a couple [of] different kinds of fats that our body needs to function ... If your diet is more emphasized in unsaturated fats that typically come from plant proteins and plant products, then your HCLs — your healthy cholesterol — will rise and it will lower your risk of heart disease,” Bellanca explained.

Meat alternatives may not always be able to fully replace meat products. There are some plant-based foods that do not have the correct type of protein in them, thus denying the consumer an important nutrient. They lack what are called complete proteins, which contain all the amino acids needed to function

“Sometimes plant-based foods don’t have all of [the amino acids], but meat, because it comes from an animal, it has all of those essential amino acids,” Bellanca said.

However, there are many examples of plan-based products that can fulfill the body's need for complete proteins, buckwheat, quinoa, and soy. Regardless, diets centered around plant-based products tend to be healthier than others. However, Ruder explained that the health of a diet is mostly based on the contents, rather than the type.

“When planned well, [plant-based diets] have such a beautiful variety of foods and tend to be higher in fruits and vegetables, which bring in more vitamins, minerals [and] fiber,” Ruder said. “It’s all about what the diet looks like rather than just the label of what it is.”

Eating meat alternatives or plant-based products does not have to be a strict commitment; there are ways to balance the consumption of meat and non-meat products in a healthy manner. A low commitment option that can be molded to any preference is the act of eating non-meat products for one day each week. Bellanca explained more about the benefits of this option she calls "Meatless Monday."

“It’s kind of an encouragement to try plant-based proteins and have them in your diet,” Bellanca said. “Committing to that on your Meatless Monday can mean a big difference in your nutrients and the way you get your nutrients.”

“Committing to that on your Meatless Monday can mean a big difference in your nutrients and the way you get your nutrients.”

What Did I Eat?

RIT is continuing to move towards a more inclusive dining experience by adding meat alternatives and plant-based products to their dining locations. Some examples include the grain bowl station at Gracie’s, as well as various meat substitutes and vegetarian entrees, which are offered at several dining locations.

Additionally, RIT provides students with a meal tracking website called NetNutrition. This website provides a way to track daily consumption and view the nutrition facts of foods from any on-campus dining location.

“I am confident that there are healthy choices available. I’m also really impressed with the services through NetNutrition, where students can go online and look things up,” Ruder commented. “I do feel like RIT provides good options to students.”

Using available resources, students are encouraged to leave their comfort zone, try new foods and explore healthy eating. Remember: to meat or not to meat? That is the question.