Meat. In America, the suggestion that our health and the Earth's might benefit from our eating less of it is almost as hot-button a topic as religion or politics.
But I'm not here to pry the hamburgers out of anyone's cold, dead hands. I just want to clear up some misconceptions about the Meatless Monday program caused recently by Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. She was so concerned by even the suggestion that the U.S. military consider adopting this long-established program promoting going vegetarian once a week that she has introduced legislation to prevent it.
"Our men and women in uniform should have the option to consume the protein they need, including meat, on a daily basis," she said in an emailed statement to Time.
I'm not a soldier, nutritionist, or a vegetarian, so I turned to the experts in my contacts list to help me explain all the many problems with that sentence.
Myth #1: Running a Meatless Monday program means there is no animal protein to be found anywhere on the menu that day.
Wrong! We hear this one frequently on the couple dozen college campuses where we participate in Meatless Mondays. While the goal of the program is a simple one, to get people to "once a week, cut the meat," as they put it, no one is being forced to do so. There is still meat to be found on the menu that day. There are just a lot more vegetarian and vegan dishes focused on plant-based proteins than usual -- from the many global cuisines that don't fetishize meat and cheese the way Americans do -- in order to tempt carnivores to try something new. The official Meatless Monday program's how-to kit for food service actually says "Meatless Monday is a campaign about adding options, not taking them away. ...[B]usinesses that offer choices to their customers tend to have greater success."
So, to be clear, even if the U.S. armed forces were to adopt Meatless Mondays, soldiers could still have the option to consume whatever form of protein they chose.
Myth #2: Soldiers (and athletes) need protein more than the rest of us.
Nope, but this one's a little more complicated, so I asked Terri Brownlee, our director of nutrition and wellness, to explain it. (She has all those expert acronyms like MPH, RD, and LDN after her name.) Protein is just one of the macronutrients (including fats and carbohydrates) that all animals need for their bodies to function properly. "How much protein you need is calculated based on body size, with the standard recommendation 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram daily or 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight," she said. In case you're as metric-math challenged as I am, that means 2.8 ounces for the average 195-pound man and 2.3 ounces for the average 166-pound woman. Men tend to need more than women only because men tend to be bigger than women. "Protein needs are based on lean body weight vs. actual," she adds, explaining that although a larger muscular person needs more protein than will a smaller muscular person, "a larger person with more body fat does not need more protein than a smaller muscular person, generally speaking."
You don't need animal protein to bulk up: just look at the gorilla, hippo, rhino, and elephant -- all herbivores!
So yes, soldiers and athletes may need more protein than us couch potatoes. I said "may." A 2014 report from a national-security group found that obesity among active duty personnel rose 61 percent between 2002 and 2011.
As I've already mentioned, choosing not to eat meat one day a week is not the same as giving up animal products entirely. However, there are plenty of elite athletes who are vegetarian or vegan, including these 14 huge, vegan, and "probably immortal" bodybuilders. You don't need animal protein to bulk up: just look at the gorilla, hippo, rhino, and elephant -- all herbivores!
Myth #3: Protein from animals is different and somehow better than protein from plants.
It is different, based on the amino acid makeup, but it isn't necessarily better, Terri explained to me. Animal sources of protein are more easily broken down by the human body and deliver all the amino acids we need in one food, while plant-based protein sources, such as vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds, all lack one or more essential amino acids. But you can get all the ones you need just by eating a mixture of plants, which don't have the other health baggage meat carries (harmful fats, processed meats' link to carcinogens, often high sodium content, etc.) and do offer important things like fiber to aid digestion, carbohydrates for energy, and vitamins and other nutrients.
Myth #4: Americans need to worry about getting enough protein daily.
Pretty much everyone -- outside the meat industry and politicians from the big meat-producing states -- agrees that this is the one aspect of the American diet we don't have to worry about. The average American eats around 130 pounds of meat and poultry annually, according to the Wall Street Journal's analysis of USDA data, or 5.9 ounces daily.
That number doesn't count seafood, and it doesn't count protein from plants. Thanks to the Paleo diet and other low-carb crazes, we're eating more meat as well as high-protein plant sources like nuts and seeds like quinoa than ever before. Remember the 2.8- and 2.3-ounce recommended daily allowances for our average man and woman above? That's a portion size smaller than a bar of soap. Chances are good you're getting triple or quadruple the amount of protein you "need" from multiple sources without even trying.
Myth #5: Big Meat is just looking out for our best interests and good health.
So we're back to the point I made at the beginning. Why do Americans love their meat so much?
Partly it's our history as a country. Meat has always been plentiful here. Colonial America was teeming with wild game and fish. Domestic animals thrived and fattened. Historians have noted that for centuries, even the poor in the United States could afford meat or fish for every meal.
We've come to believe that we have a right to cheap meat, even though there are many hidden costs -- both environmental and to public health -- not reflected in the price-per-pound sticker. "Most people like eating meat -- it's what desperately poor people most want when they first get some money -- and lots of people want to believe that what they eat is entirely a matter of personal choice," says New York University nutrition expert Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and many other books, when asked why Americans are so attached to our bacon and hamburgers. "But the fight about Meatless Monday is much more about meat industry fears of loss of market share."
The meat lobby is one of the most powerful in America. For years, as Marion, Michael Pollan, and many others have chronicled, it has fought to prevent the US Dietary Guidelines from specifically telling people to eat less meat. Yet consumption is finally slowing.
Iowa, the state that Senator Ernst represents, is No.1 in pork production as well as in growing corn and soy for animal feed. Banning Meatless Mondays under the pretense of protecting our soldiers is just the latest salvo in a losing war.
So don't believe all the hype. No one is going to take your hamburger away. But choosing to forgo meat one day (or more) a week would be a good thing for all of us to do.