Doctor’s Tip: What you eat affects the planet — meat is heat

Dr. Greg Feinsinger
Doctor’s Tip

The goal of many of these weekly columns is to give readers the information they need to take control of their own health destiny by optimizing their lifestyle. Today’s column is about how we can eat to improve the health of the planet.

Many medical journals are now recommending shifting from an animal-based diet to a plant-based whole food diet not only for human health for also for the health of the planet. Physician concern about global warming is appropriate because the greatest health challenges of the 21st century are related to climate change. In early September, more than 230 health and medical journals worldwide simultaneously published the same editorial, titled “Call for emergency action to limit global temperature increases, restore biodiversity, and protect health.”

The editorial emphasizes that the main threat to human health in the 21st century is global warming; the following are examples: 1) Excess heat is linked to dehydration, impaired kidney function, spread of tropical infections (malaria in Colorado some day?), mental health problems, pregnancy complications, and heart and lung disease. 2) Extreme weather events will continue to cause stress, injuries and deaths. 3) Desertification in certain regions of the world will lead to starvation and major human migrations.

If we are going to stop climate change and other environmental degradation, one of the things we must do is to move from a meat-based to a plant-based diet. Following are some pertinent facts from a recent issue of Nutrition Action, published monthly by the Center for Science in the Public Interest; and an article titled “How a Meaty Diet Destroys the Planet,” in the summer edition of Good Medicine, published by the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine.


Globally, livestock systems are responsible for 11-15% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Beef is the worst offender: Cattle have a much higher carbon footprint than nonruminant animals because they eat grass, which makes them expel, from both ends, methane — a greenhouse gas that is the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide.

The third most important greenhouse gas is nitrous oxide, which comes from manure and fertilizer used for animal feed.

Trees absorb CO2. Forests, including the Amazon rain forest, are being cut in order to grow more grain to feed cattle.

If we grew food such as grains to feed people instead of animals, we could feed 4 billion more people.

China produces 10.2 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. 5.3 gigatons, and all the beef and cattle in the world 5.0. So if all the beef and dairy cattle in the world formed a country, they would be No. 3 in greenhouse gas emissions.

A calorie of meat protein requires 11 times more fossil fuel to produce than a calorie of plant protein.

The world’s five biggest meat and dairy producers emit more combined greenhouse gases than Exxon Mobil, Shell and BP combined.

A leading source of agricultural greenhouse emissions is factory farms, known as concentrated animal-feeding operations.


Livestock systems occupy 80% of global agricultural land and use around 30% of agricultural water.

One quarter-pound hamburger requires 460 gallons of water and 65.5 square feet of land — in part to grow crops to feed the cow.

Growing huge quantities of grain to feed livestock, plus the manure generated, pollutes water with nitrogen and phosphorus that cause problems such as algal blooms in Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

Concentrated animal-feeding operations reduce air quality and pollute lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

A large concentrated animal-feeding operation can produce 1.6 million tons of waste a year, one and a half times more than the annual sanitary waste produced by Philadelphia.

The Good Medicine article notes that “current federal agricultural subsidies focus on financing production of food commodities, a large portion of which are converted into high-fat meat and dairy products and other items that increase the risk for cardiometabolic risks in American adults.” Furthermore, in spite of the harm they do to our health and to the environment, large meat and dairy producers are poorly regulated. Not only that, they receive government subsidies.

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment or email

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