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Green Your Protein: Can Good Nutrition Also Be Environmental?

By Russ Klettke

It’s a short line that connects personal fitness and a healthy earth. Start with the fact that we run, bike, ski and play team sports outdoors, so naturally we want clean air to breathe. To fuel that exercise, we'd like the foods we eat to complement our fit lifestyle—quality proteins, fruits and vegetables should not come loaded with chemicals. And on the broadest scale, because a fit lifestyle translates, more or less, into a longer lifespan, there’s that whole global warming crisis to consider.

Regardless of where your eco-consciousness comes from, there are plenty of reasons to worry about how our diets affect the planet. And there's plenty of evidence that our food choices matter: our industrialized food system consumes 16 percent of total energy use (growing and feeding, processing, transportation and storage). Most of this boils comes down to protein production. Americans eat about eight ounces of meat every day, double that of the rest of the world. Worldwide, the majority of corn and soy that is grown is feed for cattle, pigs and chickens, which is a much more energy and resources-intensive way to produce edible protein. Because factory farming is the only efficient means to satisfy increasing world demand for animal protein, antibiotic use in animals is at an all-time high, with implications for human health that are only partially understood (i.e., it may adversely impact those of us at the top of the food chain in significant ways).

Yet, the fitness lifestyle places so much emphasis on protein. No one is suggesting that we all become vegetarians, but a little shifting of our protein sources can make a big earth difference—and perhaps help build bigger muscles and better health as well.

Protein’s Carbon Footprint
Determining the eco-fitness of food are the resources and waste produced through its full “lifecycle”—that is, what it takes to grow or raise (feeds, fertilizers, land removed from nature), harvest, process and package the food, how much is spent transporting it from farm to fork, and what resources are needed to dispose of packaging. Also, factor in unconsumed food, because between 35 and 40 percent of food in the U.S. is thrown away—while 800 million of the world’s humans go to bed hungry, notes British food author Joanne Roach, of The Foodies Book Project, which seeks to promote healthier food in British schools.

The RealJock reader may not be so wasteful—anyone who is disciplined about his fitness life is likely to be similarly regimented about his refrigerator management, right? Still, we all need to think about where we get our protein, and how much protein we really need.

It’s conventional wisdom that the active, exercising individual needs protein to build and repair muscle. However, there is much debate on where intake optimally meets exercise intensity: my squats may be very different from yours, with very different results and different nutrient needs. That said, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (Vol. 100: 1543-1556) recommends that endurance athletes consume 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (1 kg is 2.2 pound), and 1.6 to 1.7 grams for resistance and strength training athletes. You have to do the math relative to your own size and activity levels.

So, very active guys are going to need to eat a lot of protein—and depriving your muscles of necessary fuel in order to save the planet really isn't going to work out for you in the long haul. So, in your pursuit of protein, how can you choose the most earth-friendly options? Nutrition writer Kate Geagan offers a full review of this subject in her book Go Green, Get Lean: Trim Your Waistline with the Ultimate Low-Carbon Footprint Diet (Rodale, 2009). “Studies show that red meat and dairy typically account for about 50 percent of a person’s ‘food footprint,’” she says. She urges us to consider alternatives, providing these troubling numbers to chew on for each of the major meat proteins:

  1. Beef: It takes 6 kg of plant protein to produce 1 kg of protein in beef.
  2. Pork: Pork requires about 2 kg of plant protein for a single pork kilogram.
  3. Chicken: Even chicken, the universal protein, takes a little more than 1 kg of plant protein to get a kilogram of meat protein.
So among the big three, chicken wins—so long as you don’t fret too much over their short, caged, factory-farm lives.

The Fish Option (Think Small)
The largest proportion of seafood raises itself in rivers, lakes and oceans, and therefore doesn’t provide a usable comparison to farmed meats on land—if we don't farm it, we don't feed it. However, bigger fish in deeper waters (tuna, salmon) require a great deal of energy to catch, since boats have to trawl the water for them. Farming them is similarly demanding on energy resources. But there are some very healthy, energy-friendly fish out there. Anchovies, sardines, mackerel and herring—these are all coldwater, Omega 3-rich fish lower on the food chain and thus containing less mercury. Geagan describes them as “lean and green superfoods,” because they swim closer to shore and therefore demand less energy to catch and bring to market. A downloadable, tri-fold wallet guide to sustainable seafood from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium helps you sort through specific varieties of fish.

Lest you think that Omega 3s are just about heart health, listen to Elizabeth Brown, a registered dietician and certified personal trainer (and “Kitchen Vixen”) who tells us, “Omega 3s are critical for optimal energy during exercise and recovery, denser in the muscle cells which allows for quick delivery of nutrients into the cells.”

Many Americans are loathe to eat the smaller fish like anchovies and sardines, though their consumption is common in European coastal areas. So, in my research for this article I tried sardines right out of the can with a side of mustard. This was surprisingly tasty, and it took only 30 seconds to prepare. There’s no need to be afraid of the little fish. I hope to make this a twice weekly habit, one of the five smaller meals I eat daily.

Green Grains
Protein is also found in grains, and most abundantly in legumes and nuts. They are your most sustainable foods, as it takes two units of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of plant protein, versus 20 units for chicken and 80 for beef, according to Geagan.
What about protein shakes and bars? Meal replacements are poor substitutes for real food, and not the least bit green. These are processed foods, most based in dairy production (whey is from milk), processed, packaged and shipped. All processed foods are resource hogs—on top of the energy used to raise the cow to provide the whey, you need a factory to then process that whey and turn it into a finished product, plus packaging and shipping. They are also arguably a nutrition blunder because of all that is removed in processing. Complete, intact protein is a complex of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen that also repairs red blood cells, facilitates hair and fingernail growth, regulates hormones, aids digestion and transports nutrients and oxygen. Denaturing it into a processed food likely robs it of that pure potential.

The Final Analysis
When it’s all said and done, a guy’s gotta eat. Achieving the perfect, sustainable-planet diet may not always be possible. Try eating local-only in a Minneapolis winter and you get the cabbage-and-potato diet, perhaps with moose. But all of us can alter our habits as they affect the environment. We can bike to the gym on weekends, recycle at least half the time, drink tap water at home and mix more beans into our meals.

Gracia Walker of Yum Yum in New York—recognized as the city’s Best Green Caterers by Greenopia (a sustainable business blog/directory)—shares these general rules of thumb:
  1. Use local and organic ingredients. Local means transported within about 500 miles.
  2. Drink filtered tap water. It’s usually just as pure, if not more so, than bottled.
  3. Eat vegetarian once a week. In a year’s time, you will divert 84,000 gallons of water from animal farming, in addition to the fossil fuel expenditure detailed above.
Joanne Roach sums it up for us: “I think everyone has to strike a balance which they can maintain with good grace, in order to keep up the enthusiasm and momentum of your general principles. Any diet based more on fruits and vegetables is better environmentally than majority meat diets. Just reducing the meat can give you some peace of mind.” And a little peace of mind goes a long way.

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a Chicago-based business writer, ACE-certified fitness trainer and author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004). His blog explores the connections between exercise and energy conservation.