Just as obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are on the rise, so are concerns about the environmental impact of food production. Our Western, meat-centric diets are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and climate change. Animal food production occupies 70% of all agricultural land and requires the greatest amount of water of any protein source to produce, accounting for roughly 27% of our total water footprint. What's more, the livestock sector is estimated to generate more greenhouse gas emissions than the transport sector, with ruminants, such as beef and lamb, producing the most. Replacing meat with plant-based alternatives even one day per week can reduce your carbon footprint. A 2014 European study showed that if we replaced up to 50% of animal-derived foods with plant-based foods, we would cut up to 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions and use nearly a quarter less land. So embrace more meatless meals. And don't worry, we'll help: Here, we show you fresh, innovative ways to swap out meat for nutrient-dense plant-based alternatives. Viva la plant!
More Plants, Less Meat
Plant-forward eating has become the model for healthful sustainable living—perhaps thanks to the Mediterranean diet, which had it right all along. This way of eating emphasizes the need to move nuts, legumes, and whole grains to the center of the plate; let produce take precedence; and shrink portions and frequency of animal-based protein. A plant-forward diet has been linked to a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, and certain types of cancer, and it has even been shown to contribute to longer life spans in Mediterranean and Asian regions. Eating more plants also helps you get more of vitamins A, C, and E, folate, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, nutrients which are frequently underconsumed.
Because of this growing interest in plant foods, when you shop at most grocery stores now, you'll see more and more faux meat products. Crafted with the intent to replicate the meat experience, these products are often highly processed; look for ones without artificial flavors and colors and less than 20% daily value of sodium. Also, try experimenting with more whole-food ingredients or traditionally prepared forms of soy, such as tempeh or tofu.
Shedding Light on Soy
Despite misconceptions, current research suggests two to four servings of soy foods per day can have positive health benefits, such as lowering LDL cholesterol and improving LDL cholesterol and improving bone health. Experts attribute much of soy's health benefits to its rich amount of isoflavones. Soy also contains all nine essential amino acids, making it nutritionally equivalent to animal protein. Plus, 1/2 cup of cooked soybeans, contains 15g protein, approximately twice that of other legumes. Soy also delivers soluble and insoluble fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.
Soy foods aren't just good for you: They're environmentally savvy, requiring 88% less water than cattle production and delivering the highest protein density for fossil fuel usage. In 2016, 94% of all soybeans grown in the United States were genetically engineered (a process used, in this case, to make soy more herbicide-tolerant), according to the USDA. Research shows genetically engineered soybeans and soy products (think tofu, oil, etc.) are safe to eat, but if you're concerned, choose soy foods that are certified organic or labeled non-GMO.
This story originally appeared on Cookinglight.com.