Last week, I went out to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. Inevitably, the food was a bit Americanized, but still, it was filling, unglamorous and full of flavor. Consisting mainly of a flat, pancake-like bread, lentils, potatoes, carrots, split peas and greens, the simplicity of the meal spurred my thinking.
Since transitioning to a high-carb, low-fat vegan diet, I’ve noticed that most of what I eat is cheap and unsophisticated: rice, beans, quinoa, peas and vegetables. I’ve also realized that, despite buying most of my food from fancy, organic supermarkets, the way I eat is similar to the way most of the world eats.
Indian food is heavily focused on starchy foods like peas and lentils. Many Asian diets are centered around rice and tofu. Greek cuisine emphasizes greens, grains and garbanzo beans. A Mexican diet incorporates corn and beans. Each of these are included in CNN’s ’10 healthiest ethnic cuisines.’
In other words, starchy, nutrient-packed plant foods are the biggest components of the best diets on the planet. Not only are these foods fulfilling, but they are cheap and not resource intensive. These foods are sustainable for our health and our planet.
These primitive, bare-bone diets are notoriously reserved for the “poor.” When we think of foods like rice and beans, we think of skinny families living in huts and wearing tattered clothing. But if we ate these same foods in calorically-sufficient quantities, we would be healthier, richer and safer.
To understand the potential benefit of adopting a “poor” diet, it’s important to analyze the current eating habits on an average American person. According to the USDA’s profile of food consumption in America, the average American consumes 113.5 pounds of red meat annually. A pound of beef costs about $4.50, meaning that an average American family of four spends about $2,043 yearly on just red meat.
Imagine if we replaced that level of red meat consumption with lentil consumption. Lentils cost about $1.80 per pound, meaning that a family of four would spend about $817 early on lentils. Not only is this significantly less expensive but lentils contain more protein per calorie than red meat does. According to a study by North Dakota State University, eating lentils “may help lower your risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.” On the contrary, “consuming red meat regularly may increase your risk for dying of cancer or heart disease.”
Aside from the financial and health benefits, the replacement model above would also save incredible amounts of water. As mentioned earlier, a family of four consumes about 454 pounds of red meat annually. Since it takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of red meat, the average American family of our indirectly consumes 908,000 gallons of water annually, not including the water value of other resource-intensive products like chicken, eggs and dairy.
On the other hand, lentils require about 700 gallons of water per pound to produce. For a family of four, this is a yearly indirect water consumption of about 317,800. Just by replacing red meat with lentils, a family of four could save 590,200 gallons of water per year.
It’s also crucial to note that “poor” diets yield little food waste. As noted in The Washington Post, American wastefulness when it comes to food is getting out of hand–we throw away more food than we do paper, plastic, metal and glass. This implies that we buy more food than we need, therefore upping the demand for the products we consume and wasting more resources. Shockingly enough, almost 40% of the US food supply ends up in the garbage, according to the Natural Research Defense Council.
If we ate more like the “poor,” we would make an effort to consume our food before purchasing more, simply out of lack of resources. Our current “supermarket” mentality of everything always being available to us in abundance is dangerous. If we viewed food as not just a product but a resource-intensive entity, we might be more hesitant to toss out large quantities of our meals and the contents of our fridges.
I understand that McDonald’s drive-thru windows will continue to serve an endless line of hungry Americans and that the meat counter will continue to be the busiest station in the grocery store, but I hope that once our nation’s health issues and water situation become dire enough, we will turn to a more simple, more healthful and more sustainable way of living.