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Reduce, Reuse, Upcycle: Connecting the Dots Between Healthy People and a Healthy Planet

Aug 13, 2019

Margarita beef with orange salsa

This post is coauthored by myself and Dr. Keith Ayoob, EdD, RDN, FADN. This post is a collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner., on behalf of the Beef Checkoff, as part of my role as a compensated member of the Beef Expert Bureau. As always, opinions are my own, and Dr. Keith Ayoob’s opinions are his own.

Sustainable nutrition is at the intersection of environmental health and human health. There are some emerging synergies that can prove beneficial to both.

You may have heard of the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” in discussions about the environment. These terms have always applied to materials (think plastics, metal, glass, paper), and they’re about not wasting resources. Wasted food is a wasted resource, as well.  If these terms were applied to food, we might change the wording to, “reduce, reuse, and UPCYCLE.”

Upcycling is the process of “producing something that’s often better than the original.”  Ruminant animals, like cows and lambs, are incredibly good at this. They take inedible plants (think forage and plant leftovers) that humans can’t eat, and that are grown on land unsuitable for growing edible food, and turn these inedible plants into food that is edible and nutritious, having a higher protein quality than any of those inedible plants originally had.

REDUCE

We know that one of the best ways to reduce waste is through reducing our consumption of products. Reducing “overconsumption” of food products not only has environmental benefits, but also has health benefits. Overweight and obesity rates continue to climb with more than 2 in 3 adults in the United States considered overweight or obese. Reducing portion sizes and our intake of empty calorie foods (like soda, candy and pastries), while emphasizing nutrient-rich foods in our diets (such as fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy and lean proteins like lean meat, fish, and chicken), can help prevent or manage overweight and obesity.

REUSE

Did you know that landfills are the third largest source of methane in the United States and that food waste contributes to greenhouse gasses in landfills? Reusing leftover food helps decrease food waste which decreases food sent to landfills, thereby decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Reusing leftover food also saves money and time, and it can help boost the nutrients in our diets.

All too often we see large portions served at restaurants. If you’re not taking leftovers home, it’s a missed opportunity. My motto “order it once, eat it twice” helps you extend the restaurant experience a day longer, saves some meal prep time, and best of all, helps prevent delicious food from going into the trash.

However, bringing leftovers home isn’t always an option – maybe you’re traveling or heading to an event afterwards. If that’s the case, consider splitting an entrée with someone else at your table or keep the meal light by ordering two apps instead of an app and an entrée. Some menus offer small plates that are meant to be shared.

Eating at home?  There’s even more you can do.

Meal planning and meal prep are all the rage, but you don’t have to be a culinary expert to make healthy meals easy. One of the simplest and most effective meal planning strategies is to see what perishable foods you have on hand and plan the week’s menu starting with those foods. Don’t be afraid to try new combinations such as using leftover produce or meat as pizza toppings or serve them up in the popular “food bowl” style.

Sometimes we waste parts of food that we don’t think is edible:

  • When I learned the radishes I buy at the farmer’s market have greens that are edible, I stopped throwing them out. Now I stir-fry them in a little olive oil and they’ve become a favorite side dish. The same is true for those carrot tops everyone throws out!
  • Potatoes? Think carefully about peeling them – you don’t have to. Even mashed potatoes are now prepared in restaurants with the peels on. They just call them “smashed potatoes” and keep them a little chunkier.

UPCYCLE

Choosing more foods that upcycle is good for the planet and also for our health. For example, legumes (beans and peas), leave the soil better than they found it. Beans do this especially well – they’re called “nitrogen-fixers” because they can take nitrogen out of the air and bring it to the roots. They get help with this from bacteria that colonize the roots and help attract the nitrogen. Then, when the bacteria are done with it, the nitrogen helps further fuel the growth of the plant. This results in much of the nitrogen remaining in the soil, making it better for the next crop. Indeed, farmers will often plant a “cover crop” of beans when their fields are fallow during the winter, both to prevent soil erosion and to help build the soil for spring planting.

Eating beans is a great way to support the production of plant foods that improve the soil. As already mentioned, animals have the ability to upcycle, too.  Ruminant animals have stomachs with four compartments. The four compartments have a variety of purposes, but one is to take low-quality protein and nitrogen sources, and “upcycle” them to make it a higher-quality protein than it was when they ate it. In fact, the protein in dairy foods and beef is among the highest quality protein available.

What about plant-based meat and dairy “alternatives”?  Some dairy alternatives contain little to no protein, while meat alternatives have many added ingredients, including added fat and sodium – and both are considered processed foods.

These are a few examples of nutrient-rich, upcycling foods that support human and environmental health.

Putting it All Together

Farmers and ranchers practically originated reducing, reusing, and upcycling. The advances of 100 years of animal research and science have made animal agriculture so efficient that it now constitutes a mere 4.2% of our GHG emissions in the U.S.. All farmers deserve credit as efficient land stewards.

When we are considering what is best for the health of the planet, we should not discount what is best for human health. We should also keep in mind the value of reducing, reusing and upcycling – this approach can make an impact on our own health and the health of the planet.

These examples and synergies show that when we choose a diet for health we can also consider what is healthy for the planet. It’s not necessary, or necessarily healthful, to think about plant-based diets as ones that exclude animal products. It’s important to note the power of plants and animals – together – in both environmental and human health.

Resources for More Information

About the authors:

Keith AyoobKeith Ayoob, EdD, RDN, FADN is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He works with children and families to improve their health by improving their diet, lifestyle, and eating behaviors.  He writes his Edible Rx blog on his website: www.cuttothechasenutrition.com.

Melissa DobbinsMelissa Joy Dobbins MS, RDN, CDE is known as The Guilt-Free RD® – “because food shouldn’t make you feel bad!” As a dietitian and diabetes educator, Melissa helps people digest food and nutrition information so they can make their own well-informed food decisions based on facts, not fear, and ultimately – enjoy their food with health in mind. Melissa hosts the popular Sound Bites® Podcast where she interviews experts on a variety of topics ranging from fad diets to farming and delves into the science, the psychology and the strategies behind good food and nutrition.

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