Running, Diet, and the Environment

The final installment in iRunFar’s Earth Week series is a simple plea to consider what you eat. There will be no call for you to become a raw food vegan. No preaching that you steak lovers must forsake meat of the hoof forever in favor of tofu and tempeh filled life. Nope, just read on to see ways small changes in your diet can improve the environment.

Some of the biggest things you can do reduce the environmental impact of your eating are:

  • Eat less meat or no meat at all
  • Eat locally sourced foods
  • Eat organic

Beat the Meat
It’s truly amazing how much less harm a plant-based diet can cause than a animal-based diet. Plant-based food production results in less carbon emissions, less water use, and less land used towards agricultural production. Someone correct us if we’re wrong, but the efficiency of producing calories for human consumption roughly goes like this in order from least to most efficient: red meat, fish and poultry, eggs and dairy, fruits and vegetables. Every time you move one step down the efficiency line you are likely reducing the use of land, water, and energy.

The article that may best explain why some folks (like me) are vegetarian or darn close to it is an article entitled Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler run in the New York Times a few months ago. For a more entertaining, though still very informative article check out Can Peanut Butter and Jelly Save the World?

While beyond the scope of this post, it’s necessary to briefly touch on the issue of being a vegetarian athlete. Many trail runners and athletes are concerned that eating less meat may negatively effect their performances. Here are three quick responses to those concerns. First, you might just try eating less meat rather than no meat at all. Carefully consider the amount of protein you need in a given day and go from there. Second, while some essential nutrients are less common outside the animal kingdom, you can usually find excellent alternative sources for those nutrients if you try. Third, it’s hard to ignore the fact that many top trail runners and ultramarathoners are low meat eaters, vegetarian, or even vegan.

Eat Close to Home
Try eating foods that haven’t been shipped from Israel, Spain, Chile, Mexico, Hawaii, or elsewhere. This might mean that you have to eat seasonally – gasp! Folks lived very well until the 1950s eating food that was either currently in season or that stored well. Perhaps we need to move backwards to go forwards.

Another blast from past worth considering is the kitchen garden. Why not raise a small plot of fresh veggies in your yard? Do you really need an expansive green lawn with nary a tomato plant or apple tree in sight? We don’t think so either. Kitchen gardens are great in that you know they are locally sourced and can control what chemicals, if any, are applied to the plants. There’s also the joy of raising the crops and the unbeatable taste of just picked produce! The Wall Street Journal has even picked up on kitchen gardens gone to the extreme with its recently printed article Green Acres II: When Neighbors Become Farmers.

You should also keep your eyes peeled for locally sourced foods at the grocery store. (Mmm… Jersey fresh!) However, you are much more likely to find locally sourced foods, including eggs, meat, and dairy, at your local farmers market. (Just don’t go driving too farm to get there!) Consider joining a co-op or community supported agriculture program (CSA). With a CSA, you buy a share of a local farm and weekly you either pickup or have delivered fresh fruits and vegetables for a set number of weeks.

Organic Schmorganic
Another benefit of CSAs is that they tend to either be organic farms or farms that use chemical treatments in minimal amounts for only a small number of the most pest-prone plants. We here at iRunFar aren’t completely convinced that organic produce is healthier in that it’s less toxic for the consumer (wash your produce!); however, there are plenty of other benefits to organic produce. Without writing another treatise like yesterday’s Greening of Trail Running Gear post, organic farming is healthier for the soil, results in less toxic run off, is healthier for farm workers, is better for wildlife, and might just lead to more nutrient rich produce.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma
For an excellent look into how meat-based diets, long distance supply lines, and industrial farming come together go read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While it might not get you to change your lifestyle or eating habits overnight, it is likely to get you thinking.

The iRunFar Eat Green Challenge
We’ll close out this post and the iRunFar Earth Week series with a challenge for the iRunFar community. Once during the coming week change one aspect of one meal to make it more environmentally friendly. Try eating a grilled cheese with a vegetable-based soup instead of a burger, leave out the Israeli tomatoes from your salad, splurge for some organic produce, or finally check out the local farmers market you never seem to have time to visit. Afterwards, please stop back and let us know what you did for the iRunFar Eat Green Challenge!

Please share any ideas/thoughts you have regarding lessening the environmental impact of what we eat or steps you’ve taken to green up your eating. Anyone else out there vegetarian or eat less meat primarily due to environmental reasons?

There are 9 comments

  1. Argentine Rocket

    Thank you for all these wonderful postings, Goat.I'm a vegetarian for many reasons, one of them being the environment… although I often wonder if cattle raised back home isn't so bad, since the grasslands are so vast there and seem almost made for grazing, and very organically.Concerning eating close to home, I have mixed feelings. There are so many benefits from agricultural trade (speaking as an economist now) especially to less developed countries that have a lot of land to cultivate exports and not many other sources of income… Plus, variety is the spice of life! Where are you going to grow pineapples, kiwis, and bananas in the DC area?I'll keep getting most of my fruits and veggies from Eastern Market, but you can't beat Chilean grapes and Argentine Bartlett pears!

  2. Kay

    I have really enjoyed the green series and particularly this one. I read the Omnivore's Dilemma and would recommend it highly for information the food industry and a great discussion about how food gets to our table. And the "Can PB&J Save the World?" article was great! I recently started doing this to save $$ and to eat less meat. It was fun to see the other positive impacts.After reading Omnivore's, etc., I have considered the sources of my food much more carefully. I live in Thailand where there is a budding organic movement and most foods can be purchased from local sources. So that's good.Thanks again for a great series of posts!K

  3. Meredith

    What a great post! I am vegan and the better i eat, the better my running gets. For the past 5+ months i have been on a macrobiotic (still vegan) diet and i think it has positively impacted my running and well being. Eating lower down on the food chain is one of the easiest things people can do. We have a HUGE vegetable garden, all organic, in our yard, and hope to harvest all my vegetables there this summer and fall. I have been buying more locally grown produce, tofu, and seitan from the local natural food store, because it cuts out all the energy wasted in transporting my food, as well as bringing money back into my local community.People make a lot of negative comments about my diet, but i have been vegetarian or vegan since i was 13! It is just a way of life for me. It is hard to rely on my own food for races, but i am getting better with it. At Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler, i had an entire suitcase full of my race food and food for the weekend! lol. :-)

  4. Trail Goat

    First off, y'all are awesome. So many quality thoughts! Rocket,What's cool about good grazing of grasslands is that it is a necessary component of grasslands and improves the fertility of the grass lands. I wish that we here in the US would get rid of couple states worth of corn farms but some buffalo back in the midwest. Heck, I might even have a bison burger or two every year if that were the case. Can you point out some of these lesser developed countries with lots of land but few non-agricultural resources. Since we're talking big picture, could it be that the world wouldn't be better off with fewer people in those countries? Regardless of that, first we need to have petrol products used for air and oceanic freight taxed like all other petrol to put local and international transport on an even playing field. As an aside, isn't a bigger problem with agriculture in lesser developed countries the subsidies that developed nations give to their commodity farmers… and I'm not talking about just cash bonuses, but also cheap water and subsidized petrol. The whole of the American economy is pretty messed up. Ha – variety may be the spice of life… but how many varieties of heirloom tomatoes, apples, pear, and even potatoes have you tried. Lots of variety in my backyard. At least ten varieties of beans, half a dozen types of tomatoes, five varieties of peppers (for now), two kinds of eggplants. Sure, there's nothing horrible to treating yourself to a slice of Hawaiian pizza every once in a while, but does one need to eat a couple bananas a week?BTW, I'm not attacking anyone's thoughts with my counterpoints – just trying to push all of our thoughts and discussion! :-)Kay, Thanks for joining the discussion. Even though the Thai organic movement may just be catching on, it's likely that you can find a huge amount of local produce. As for Omnivore's Dilemma, I'm still reading it and the 20 or so minutes I read it every night are among the favorite parts of my day.Mike of Banff,Thanks for the heads up on the book. I'll be sure to check it out. (I should check it out of the library… that's one thing that I'm horrible about!)Meredith,That's great that your running gets better the better you eat. I can't say the same thing, only because the periods during which I tend to eat better are also usually the times I'm running more, relaxing more, and sleeping more. Therefore, it would be unfair of me to pin it on running.Wow – you're a long time veggie. Although I have a rare indulgent bite of meat, I'd say that I've been vegetarian since just after my first 100 in the summer of 2004. However, I had eaten a relatively small amount of meat through most of college and post-collegiately considered myself a social meat eat. That is, I never cooked meat at home, but would enjoy some buffalo wings at the bar and some sushi or other meat dish when I was out at a restaurant.I had no idea one cold buy local tofu or seitan. I want to find a local natural food store. I'd also like to find a place with more bulk foods to which I could bring my own containers.

  5. Meredith

    Yeah, I am really lucky to have a nice local natural food store near me. So much of the food is local, from the produce to the tofu, seitan, hummuses, etc. It is really neat! I am off to read your caffiene post now, looking forward to that. Being a veggie for so long, it just comes naturally. People ask me questions about it all the time, like "how do you resist meat, etc" and really, i have been eating this way for so long, it is a way of life, i really do not remember life before being a vegetarian!

  6. Bryan

    Bryon,Really great posts here!I recently set out to eat more vegetables and fruits and less red meat, both to be faster and healthier and because red meat is so environmentally burdensome. At the moment it's been a couple weeks since the last time I ate any red meat. Personally I have nothing against eating meat, but I do think we should eat far less red meat than is typical in the American diet — besides being healthier, that would free up an incredible amount of farmland to be returned to natural habitat. That's extremely important because habitat conversion is by far the single greatest cause of wildlife decline, far greater than global warming, pollution, or invasive species.As for local foods, I'm with argentine rocket on the mixed feelings. On one hand, I love shopping my farmer's markets in the summer and fall, and I grow my own apples, strawberries, rhubarb, basil, and sunflower seeds on my land, and I'm looking to expand that this year.On the other hand, what with the law practice, family, and running, I don't have a whole lot of time to tend my gardens; as rocket said, there are just plain a whole lot of great foods you can only get from faraway locales, in the off season or at all; and to consider economics and global poverty reduction, most poor nations rely on agricultural exports as their primary source of income, and a really successful locavore movement in the OECD countries would be a horrible setback to the cause of reducing global wealth disparity. They and I would both be much worse off if I stop giving them my money in exchange for their delicious cocoa beans and kiwis. There's room for a lot more reliance on locally and self-produced foods, but the answer should also include greener and more energy-efficient transportation of food products over long distances.As for protein, I have been eating more plant-based proteins such as soy milk, tofu, and hummus, as well as dairy, seafood, eggs and poultry. There's no denying that some runners do amazingly well without any animal-product proteins, though — look at Scott Jurek: enough said.

  7. Bryan

    A couple more thoughts (wow, this is a really thought-provoking discussion!)…As for different eating regimes, there is solid evidence for the health benefits of eating less red meat and more fruits and vegetables. However, I have to point out on the other hand that there's really no scientific evidence that being a strict vegetarian, a vegan, a raw eater, or a macro eater are healthier than eating a well-balanced diet with lots of plant products and some seafood at least; and there's no solid evidence, as far as I've seen, that it's less healthy also to include some poultry, dairy, and eggs. A lot of people still rely too much on popular press accounts, fads, and word-of-mouth instead of investigating the results of scientific studies in the first-hand sources and professional commentary and analysis. Eliminating dairy, poultry and eggs from one's diet helps the environment and is not necessarily detrimental to one's health, but it also requires that the individual be more careful to get enough protein from plant sources. As for seafood, the health virtues of some forms such as salmon are so compelling that I'm not convinced it is possible to achieve optimum health without it.The subsidies for agriculture and fossil fuels are indeed insane and produce horribly inefficient market distortions, in a whole lot of countries both rich and poor, and a lot of agricultural ventures would collapse without them. Fundamentally though that doesn't change the equation that many developing nations rely on agricultural exports for much of their income; that would remain the case for at least the next generation or two even if all subsidies were ended next year, until modern economic, educational, and technological development have a chance to finish proliferating throughout the world — and that still won't happen at a decent pace or at all in countries that are gripped by civil war (e.g. Congo-Kinshasa, Somalia, Afghanistan, etc.) or gross misgovernance (e.g. Zimbabwe, Nauru, etc.) until well after those fundamental barriers to growth are resolved. In an abstract view, the world might be better off with fewer people in those countries or in any countries, but as a policy question or even moral question, how do you pursue that goal, and wouldn't the world also be better off if the ecological impact of all people were reduced? In practice, the primary drivers of reducing population growth have been economic growth and education. Restricting agricultural exports from developing nations would restrict one of their currently primary means of economic growth, so would likely inhibit the longer term interest in reducing population growth in those countries.That's my story anyway, and I'm sticking to it, pending further evidence.

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