What difference would it really make if I or any other individual decided to try to save the planet one forkful at a time?

We know that giving up meat, dairy and all animal products make an enormous impact on our personal health and wellbeing. Studies have found that plant-based or vegan eaters live longer, have a 32 percent lower risk of heart disease, and a 25 percent lower risk of premature death from any cause. But can we really make an impact on the planet? Just by ourselves?

For that matter what difference does my plastic straw or plastic bag make? These are the kinds of things that we wonder, even as we here at The Beet have given up meat, dairy, and all animal products for the sake of our health and the health of Mother Earth. We want to benefit our bodies, the planet and for that matter animals, but when you ponder the impact of our food choices on climate change, the question is daunting.

Consider this: Meat production increases carbon emissions, water use, and land usage, and is exponentially more costly on our natural resources than any other type of food production. We also know that climate change is accelerating at an alarming rate.

If one person gave up meat and dairy for a year, how would that impact their carbon footprint? How would it slow global warming?

Here Is How Going Plant-Based Is Healthier for You and the Planet:

If one person gave up eating meat or dairy for just one meal a day for an entire year that would have the same impact as not driving 3,000 miles, or LA to New York, according to Suzy Amis Cameron, who launched One Meal a Day For the Planet. She famously enlisted Oprah to try it for a month and the media maven found it easy to do.

If one person eats just one plant-based meal a day they will save 200,000 gallons of water, Cameron continues. Multiply that by three meals a day and the savings grows to the equivalent carbon emissions as driving nearly 10,000 miles and not needing to use up 600,000 gallons of water in one year.

A new study also shows that people who get their proteins from plants have healthier bio-markers for heart disease, are slimmer, and have more antioxidants in their bodies, a result of eating more fruits and vegetables. These are all indicators of overall health and wellness.

Going plant-based for just one month can make an impact.

If one person goes vegan for one month, they can save 620 pounds of harmful carbon emissions, and save 913 square feet of rainforest (since these get caught down to raise beef cattle) and 33,481 gallons of water.

If you simply skip one pound of beef, you are saving 1799 gallons of water, says The LA Times, which is equivalent to flushing a toilet 514 times. The average American man eats 4.8 ounces of meat a day, and the average woman eats about 3 ounces per day, according to the CDC. So if you average it out, if one person gave up meat for one year, that would mean saving 328,500 gallons of water saved. or 93,857 flushes.

“Food is one of the biggest impacts an individual can have,” says nutrition scientist Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., professor of medicine at Stanford. “If you add up all the greenhouse gases from the miles you drive and the electricity you use, food has a bigger impact."

"You change a lightbulb once every six months, but you eat every day. When can you start eating differently?" he asked. "Now, this afternoon, tonight, and tomorrow.”

Food production is the fourth-largest producer of Greenhouse Gases and makes up 11.1 percent of global emissions, and meat is the most impactful on our natural resources, according to the landmark EAT-Lancet Commission, published in 2019.

Eat Plants, Live Longer. And Yes, You Will Get Enough Protein

Protein from plants is now believed to be healthier than any other source, according to a new study that shows people who get most of their protein from plant sources live longer. Gardner notes that most Americans—97.5 percent—are getting more than double the recommended daily allowance (RDA), which is actually not healthy. Just because you need protein does not mean that you need a firehose of it, and many of the fruits and vegetables you're eating contain enough protein by themselves to supply your body with the healthiest levels. In fact, he says, you can get all of the amino acids from plants and grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes that you can from animals. Plus, a more plant-based diet can combat obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, making eating mostly plants a healthier choice.

In a paper published in Nutrition Reviews, Gardner and his colleagues posited this hypothetical scenario: If Americans ate 25 percent less protein overall,m and shifted 25 percent of our animal-protein intake to plant-based protein, we would meet 8 percent of the Paris Agreement climate-change goal. “That [50 percent] shift would lower greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 percent if you’re just thinking of the contribution from food,” he says.

Think About How Social Norms Shift. Meat is the New Smoking.

Gardner believes that this is where your individual contribution can have an even greater impact: to help change social norms. How? Just think about something like smoking or not wearing seatbelts, he says. Years ago, they were common practices, but today, things are very different.

“Right now, it’s a social norm to go to a summer barbecue and have hamburgers and steak,” he says. “But if a bunch of people were eating grains and beans with a Moroccan flavor—other people would start to think, ‘Wow, a bunch of my family and friends are eating differently. Maybe I’ll try that.’ It’s not that we have to get everybody to change—it’s about getting enough people to make a change.”

 The Protein Flip Starts When Food Is "Unapolgeticallhy Delicious"

He stresses that everyone doesn’t have to go vegan to make a significant difference. Any shift toward more plants is beneficial. In fact, Gardner has been working with the Culinary Institute of America on a program called Menus of Change, which includes something called “the protein flip.” It’s basically an extension of what he describes above, where restaurant chefs focus on legumes, grains, and vegetables as a meal’s “unapologetically delicious” focus. Meat, if there is meat, is just one small component.

“We would get more people to eat a lot less meat if we focused on taste and how great it was going to be and a global fusion of flavors,” he says. Menus of Change even has a spin-off that focuses on university dining halls, where “you retrain the taste of young adults who aren’t yet parents and aren’t yet in the workforce, but then they leave and that’s their social norm for the rest of their lives. If that becomes a social norm, I think we’ll get the shift.”

While chefs have the power to change palates, each of us can individually choose what we order, or buy, or eat. Every meal, or month, or year makes a difference in our health and the health of our environment.

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