I have an autoimmune disease – Hashimoto's. I've had it for awhile and been in denial, but a series of health events (and the associated costs of doctor visits and testing, testing, and more testing) caused me to go on the Autoimmune Protocol, a highly restrictive diet that is closely related to the Paleo eating style.
Many people think Paleo and visions of bacon pops into their heads. Yet for at least a decade, the green community has become more and more aware of the environmental devastation wrought by meat production. So Paleo has a bad reputation for vegans and vegetarians.
I chose the diet for two reasons: one, I was feeling really sick and was a bit desperate to feel better, and two, well, I was feeling really sick and was a bit desperate to feel better.
So, I stopped eating all grains, dairy, legumes, soy, and nightshades (think – yummy late summer veggies like tomatoes and peppers) as well as refined sugar and alcohol. All of these things had been mainstays in my semi-vegetarian lifestyle (I only gave up fish for a period of a couple of years and ate meat previously about twice per week.)
With the new diet I started eating more meat. At first, it seemed like quite a lot of meat, and though I bought humanely raised, and local, my greenie conscience was stricken. Never a very dedicated cook, suddenly I was also preparing three meals a day and two out of three of them contained some animal protein. To help my pernicious anemia, I even made homemade liver paté (yuck).
Yet as I went along I started to feel better, not quite so desperate, and I started to see that while not enjoying summer ice cream and tomato mozzarella salads was a drag, there was some simple wisdom to be gained from such a massive diet shift. And it really didn't need three meats a day – far from it.
Disclaimer: Am I saying this is the diet for everyone? No, I am not. If there's one thing I've learned it's that every body is different just as every disease is (there are over 200 autoimmune diseases). What I am saying is that in demonizing meat eating for its huge carbon footprint we may have overlooked some other equally important, though perhaps nuanced truths.
So with a huge grain of salt and a dash of pepper, here are some greenish perspectives I gained from a month of being, more or less, a Paleo eater.
1) Packaged food isn't very eco-friendly On my first week of cutting out everything I knew and loved to eat, I scoured the shelves of my local store for packaged and prepared foods that would help me construct quick meals, because I really don't like to cook that much. This was an exercise in frustration, because even if something was grain free, soy free, and dairy free, (and legume free) it tended to have preservatives or spices that I couldn't have. At first this was very demoralizing, but after the frustration had settled I realized that eating what is more or less a Paleo diet automatically confined me to the outer rings of the grocery store. And though my grocery bill did rise when I began eating meat and fish regularly, when all of the packaged foods (and expensive, gluten-free grain products that I used to eat) weren't in the cart anymore, the overall uptick was not significant. I was forced to eat so many more vegetables – not canned, not packaged, but fresh – and that made my grocery bags heavy with watermelons, squash and sweet potatoes, and my compost bucket heavier with peelings and seeds and rinds, while my trash can load got lighter.
2) Takeaway drops away. Ever wonder why the grocery store seems, on each visit, ever more packed with takeaway/prepared foods in too much plastic packaging? It is not only very lucrative for grocers, its also ever-more popular with consumers. A recent report from NPD Group found market growth in prepared foods and takeout at 30% (since 2008); meanwhile, the annual food takeout and delivery in the U.S. is a $70 billion market. Yes, billion! But takeout /delivery isn't inherently green, and not just for the massive amount of disposable packaging; it's also a big source of food waste and imparts extra transport costs to whatever we're eating. All of that is pretty moot when on a paleo/AIP diet, as it is so limited that restaurant fare, whether eat in or dine out, is pretty much a thing of the past. This has its green points, both in terms of going out less (though I don't have a car and mostly bike, getting to far flung restaurants did entail car sharing on occasion) AND in terms of spending less...a lot less.
3) Spiralizing is a fabulous, green foodie trend. Certain rich-tasting root vegetables have suddenly become my best friends. Sweet potatoes and yams in particular give me much-desired sweetness in my diet. But when I'm hungry, waiting 45 minutes for a single sweet potato to roast in the oven? It doesn't seem like very green or very realistic eating. Enter a hand-held spiralizer for making oodles of veggie noodles. Many people have heard of zoodles, or zucchini noodles, and it's true that these summery squashes are excellent candidates for quick, delicious, and easily prepared pasta-like dishes. While I still haven't introduced tomatoes, I'm looking forward to one day trying a classic fresh tomato sauce on top of zoodles. In the meantime, there are my favorites – 'poodles' or sweet potato noodles – which can be sauteéd in just minutes, topped with snipped greens or basil and a dash of olive oil for a five-minute meal. Spiralizing vegetables has made me miss pasta less and has widened my culinary horizons which had shrunk so drastically at the start of the diet. My favorite sweet potato dish is an adaptation of this stir-fried recipe from Mark Bittman. Try it!
4) The wok and the co-op = BFFs. To deal with all the cooking I've had to do at home, I dusted off the well-seasoned stainless steel wok that I had inherited from a nearby neighbor but used only sporadically. The wok heats up so fast and cooks so quickly I'm re-converted to its appeal. I used to hate chopping up all the veggies for stir fry – now I see it as the quickest route to making my stomach happy with a solid, colorful meal, and as a good way to use meat as a lovely, appreciated condiment rather than a chunk on the plate. Without dairy in my diet I don't really make casseroles or long-cooking stews (maybe that will return with the winter) so stir frying is the go-to method of preparation. I can get many meals and nutritious bone broth from a single roasted and then picked chicken and the stir-fry possibilities are endless. Stir frying in stainless steel is so much faster and that makes me use mushrooms more because I can get them just a bit browned, and quickly, as lightly cooked 'shrooms are not my thing. Am I also now a slavish devotee of my local co-op and it's year-round farmer's market.
5) Raw is rad. I like variety in my diet. At first I tried to substitute everything I used to eat – such as yogurt and butter, and toast and tortillas – with something paleo-approved. Once I calmed down a bit and started to feel better, I could experiment more and needed those substitutions less. I also became more open, especially with the spiralizer, to stranger combinations and outlandish, createive chopped salads. My current favorite is chopped apple, celery, parsley, and spiraled carrots with lemon and a little maple syrup. I feel more open to raw foods than in the past and more satisfied after eating them, especially if a few nuts are thrown on top. That seems like a positive diet step to me, because I'm eating far fewer chemical additives and preservatives than previously. It seems a greener way to go, though that's not proven conclusively by scientific studies, or evidence either health-wise or in terms of carbon footprint.
And, there's the meat thing. Now that I've settled into a one-meat-meal per day routine, I figure I'm consuming about a pound of meat/fish every four days. That's 84 pounds a year, still higher than recommended in this calculation by Vaclav Smil, who estimates world eaters will need to drop their consumption to between 35-66 pounds per year so that everyone gets their fair share.
Wherever you fall on the meat/no meat spectrum is probably a function of your beliefs and ideals, accumulated knowledge and cultural practices. In finding a diet that works for my body I've had to examine what I used to do and what I do now and find some sense or meaning to it while also trying to tread lightly on our gorgeous planet. And so I come back to the words of Michael Pollan, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."