The Gallons of Water on Your Plate: Your Food Choices and the Environment

Did you know the food choices you, your family, your community, your town, your country, the planet — all of us — could dramatically make a difference on the environment? Most of us don’t understand the immediate, measurable impact what we choose to eat can make on water usage. It can be hard to look past the oranges, pasta, rice, and beef on the plate in front of you and see all the water that has gone into making it. But this cool visual from the L.A. Times makes it possible. Load up the virtual plate with foods you frequently consume and the program will show you just how much water it took to grow, process, and get the food to your plate.

As you put the different foods on the plate, you’ll quickly notice that all of them require water, maybe even more than you initially would have guessed. The protein choices, especially beef, can take an incredible amount of water to produce.

Do you know that an 8-ounce steak takes an estimated 800 to 1000 gallons of water to produce? That’s a crazy number, but it’s the things you don’t think about right way, such as the water it takes to feed the crops the cow will eat, the water the cow will need to consume during its lifespan, and the water it takes to process the meat and get it to your plate.

On average it takes about 90% more water, food and resources to produce flesh protein of any kind than other foods: a huge energy expenditure and environmental strain. Unfortunately, large amounts of protein do not translate into greater health so there’s no upside. Our culture has gotten protein crazy without acknowledging the true amounts of protein our bodies need. I write about this in the chapter, “The Protein-Fat Myths: Too Much of One Good Thing, Not Enough of Another,” in my book, “SuperLife: The 5 Forces That Will Make You Healthy, Fit, and Eternally Awesome.” We don’t need that much protein to be strong and healthy. We never have, yet consuming large amounts puts a strain on the environment and on your body.

I have traveled around the world and been with many indigenous cultures as well as my fellow Minnesotan and University of St Thomas graduate, Dan Beuttner, who has traveled and researched the people around the globe that have lived the longest and healthiest. In his book, “The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who Live the Longest,” he found that most healthy and longest living, highly functional people consume 65% carbs from whole foods and lower amounts of protein (20%) and fat (15%), with a majority of their foods coming from plants. (Note: he has a new book, The Blue Zones Solution, out as well.)

Water and Food

My philosophy is to eat more plants—much more—and at the same time eat less meat and dairy— much less, if at all.

Eating meat at every meal is not only extremely demanding on the environment and your body, but it is NOT necessary for optimum health in most of us. I talk more about the protein myth here in this podcast. By cutting down on the animal protein you eat, you stand to not only make yourself healthier, but you also stand to change the culture of over consumption of meat. While not all meat and animal protein is factory farmed, a large percentage of it is. Factory farming is not only generally inhumane for the animals , but it also consumes most of our fresh water and contributes more of the total greenhouse gas emissions (18%) that are destroying the ozone layer than the entire transportation sector (14%), which is all cars, planes, buses, trains, and trucks – all of them. To learn more about the environmental impact of factory farming, check out Cowspiracy.

Back to the plate. The high amounts of water are not just limited to protein. Other foods, including lentils, almonds and chickpeas, take large quantities of precious water to produce. We are all busy, but when we become thoughtful consumers, our choices collectively can make a difference.

Next time you sit down to eat a meal, take a closer look at all the gallons of water sitting on your plate and try to make the best, more conscious decision you can to nourish your body and the planet.  We can all really make a difference on the environment and you can get healthier by doing so! How great is that?!

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