Article originally printed in The New York Times “Opinionator” blog, penned by food writer Mark Bittman.
Like every day in America, the Fourth of July is a celebration of protein. But the Fourth is a special day for burgers and ribs, not beans and rice, a day with contests to see who can eat the most hot dogs, not the most veggie patties. If you’re anti-meat, the Fourth of July can feel anti-you.
We’ve always been told that our bodies need protein, and lots of it, and in the U.S.A., “protein” is synonymous with “animal products.”
Think about the resonant food slogans of the past few decades. “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.” “Pork: the other white meat.” (Now it’s “Pork: be inspired.”) “The incredible edible egg.” “Got milk?” We’ve never been inundated with “Beans for proteins” (sorry) or “Got kale?”
It could be that way, though; billions of humans have thrived and continue to without animal products dominating their diets and protein dominating their minds. (Many plants contain more protein per calorie than many animal products.) The recommended daily allowance of protein has been fairly liberally fixed at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for a while (some experts believe 0.6 to be completely adequate).
T. Colin Campbell, author of “The China Study” (a long-term study linking animal-based diets to chronic disease), insists that our protein quota can be met very nicely by a whole food, plant-based diet, and that it’s when we exceed the recommended amount (usually by eating a disproportionate amount of animal-based foods) that we can begin to see adverse effects, like increased risk of heart and kidney diseases, cancer and osteoporosis. Campbell suggests that in the past century we’ve had such a reverence for protein that we’ve mindlessly focused on the idea that we need as much as we can get. Consequently, we consume too much, at least twice as much as we need, and most of that from animal products.
Our insatiable appetite for animal protein is as much of an agricultural liability as it is a nutritional one. We raise and slaughter nearly 10 billion farm animals in the United States every year (and that’s not counting fish or dairy animals.) It follows, then, that a significant percentage of our corn and soy crops are used to feed the animals that give us our much-wanted (and less-needed) protein. The intensive system of animal and crop production that is fueled by our demand for meat and milk and cheese leads to all manners of abuses: animal, environmental, farm-worker — you name it.
But hold on a second. July 4th is a Monday this year, and in the great tradition of American slogan-ocracy, Mondays are now “meatless.”
The “Meatless Mondays” campaign, jointly launched by the Johns Hopkins and Columbia University schools of public health in 2003, is potentially the latest greatest food slogan to gain traction in the U.S. According to a survey conducted by FGI research (paid for by Meatless Mondays), awareness of the program has reached 50 percent among adults (up from 30 percent six months earlier), with 27 percent of those aware saying that Meatless Mondays had influenced their decision to cut back on meat. The campaign started small, but according to Peggy Neu, its president, Meatless Mondays is now focusing on bigger national institutions like large-scale food-service providers, food manufacturers, chain restaurants, supermarkets and school systems.
The temptation to go meatless (Monday, or any other day of the week) is by no means ubiquitous in the U.S., and the notion that you can get all the protein you need from plants is even less so. But the fact that Meatless Monday’s star is rising holds some promise for rethinking the way we eat. The Fourth of July may not be the day to trade in your hot dog, but the following Monday is a good one for beans and rice.