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The impact would be dramatic for the planet as well, Popkin writes in an editorial that accompanies the study. Popkin, whose recently published book The World Is Fat examines the global trends driving the obesity epidemic, joins a growing cohort of researchers, environmentalists and foodies clamoring for an overhaul of the American diet. Currently, the average American consumes more than 200 lb. of meat a year, a habit that comes at considerable environmental cost, Popkin says. He cites a recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization finding that livestock account for 18% of global greenhouse-gas emissions more than transportation and underscores the fact that the livestock industry uses up to five times the water necessary to cultivate crops. (See the top 10 food trends of 2008.)
What's more, the developing world seems to be falling in step, Popkin says. In India, meat and dairy intake more than doubled between 2000 and 2005. In 2006, the average diet of 67% of the Chinese population comprised at least 10% meat and dairy products, up from about 39% of the population in 1989. "We truly did this to the globe changed the way the world eats," says Popkin.
But our diet can be changed back, says Mark Bittman, a cookbook author, New York Times contributor and deity in the world of foodies. He started by cutting back on meat and dairy and says he now consumes roughly one-third the animal products he used to, adhering to what's become known as the Vegan Before Six (or VB6) diet: vegan foods for the first two meals of the day, then anything you want for dinner.
In his new book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, Bittman makes the case for limiting meat, eggs and dairy; increasing fruits and vegetables in our diet; and making small steps to eat healthier, rather than obsessing over terms like sustainable and organic. He advocates an incremental approach to tapering the whopping 600 lb. of animal products the average American eats each year. "I'm not looking to encourage people to do something that they're going to do for two weeks and then say, 'To hell with that!' and go back to eating their regular diet," Bittman says. That would be like trying to jump immediately to an all-bicycle transportation model. "Let's move toward eating less meat," he says, "and then in five years we can re-evaluate."