Protein-Rich and Plant-Based Alternative: Improve your Health and Reduce your Carbon Footprint

Mitzi Collinsworth February 9, 2021

The Meat Tradition

The act of eating beef, including all meat sources, has become behavioral in nature. People consume meat for a host of psychological reasons. Meat is the centerpiece for social gatherings throughout the year. My own family looks forward to the traditional turkey at Thanksgiving. Beef is regarded as an indulgence at home and in fine dining. Individuals in the United States believe that meat is their main food source to consume the daily recommended amount of protein.

Meat is a good source of energy and nutrients like protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12, but it is possible to find a sufficient protein source with these nutrients in a wide variety of other foods that are available for consumption (Godfray et. al.). In the article, I will introduce a new alternative protein source the U.S. should implement to make a positive impact on our health and environment.

Negative Health Implications

Meat consumption takes a toll on our health and the environment. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates the amount of food consumption compared to previous years to update the Dietary Guideline’s recommendations. Based on the bar graph below, the U.S. consumes more meat and grains than recommended in 2016.

Individuals who consume higher intakes of red meat are more likely to be more affected by common carcinogenic, inflammatory, and cardiovascular diseases. Studies generally show that "total mortality rates are modestly higher in participants who have high intakes of red and processed meat," with evidence showing high intakes of processed meat leading to increased risk of colorectal cancer (Godfray et al.). In recent years, there is more discussion regarding Neu5Gc, a non-human sialic acid sugar molecule, as a possible connection to high meat consumption and an increase in carcinogens.

“Neu5Gc, is common in red meat that increases the risk of tumor formation in humans, is also prevalent in pig organs, with concentrations increasing as the organs are cooked, a study by researchers from the UC Davis School of Medicine and Xiamen University School of Medicine has found” (UC Davis, 2016). There is some argument by some universities like University of California, San Diego (UCSD) claiming the genetic makeup of humans compared to lab mice and chimpanzees vary enough to put these claims to the test.

However, there is new research testing this theory further. “While most mammals commonly express the two forms of sialic acids, N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac) and N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), humans cannot synthesize Neu5Gc due to a loss-of-function mutation in the CMAH gene, which encodes the enzyme responsible for its synthesis. Consequently, Neu5Gc is immunogenic in humans, leading to generation of antibodies against various presentations of Neu5Gc-glycans” (Soulillou, J. P., & Padler-Karavani, V., 2020). This means that humans a long time ago were able to break down this sugar molecule chemically to use it for energy. However, as humans evolved, they didn’t keep this gene. Modern day humans can’t break this chemical down like before which causes an immune response with side effects like inflammation. Too much of this chronic inflammation will lead to disease.

Environmental Impact

It is true meat is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids needed by the human body. If individuals switched to a plant-based diet, proper protein and iron levels to maintain a healthy diet would be affected. Plant-based proteins come from sources such as tofu, beans, soy, nuts, seeds, and grains. All are good sources of protein, but most are incomplete proteins on their own. The plant-based proteins must be combined to form a complete protein to be used by the human body. However, to save the impact on the environment and cost, lower impact meats can also be incorporated into the plant-based diet.

Two years ago, while researching for an environmental impact statement, I came across findings regarding elements that contribute to greenhouse gases. I always thought plastic, coal, and automobile exhaust were the largest contributors. However, “livestock production is found to be a major source of greenhouse gas along with other pollutants and can exacerbate soil erosion” (Godfray et. al.).

We already see massive dead zones in our soil from tilling practices, but now we are seeing an increase in burning vast amounts of forest land to make room for meat production. The land is then used to house the livestock to produce dairy and meat for their surrounding areas. However, the practices used are not sustainable and contribute to greenhouse gases. “Manure effluent and extensive over-use of fertilizers for feedstock production [...] pollute many waterways and are significant contributors to the more than 400 dead zones that exist at river mouths worldwide” (Machovina, Feeley, Ripple).

These unsustainable meat production practices are also destroying our tropical forests that help absorb the carbon emissions preventing global warming. During farm growing seasons, NASA has imagery that visually describes how carbon is absorbed more during growing seasons compared to off season dry uncovered land. Not only are we increasing greenhouse emissions by destroying forests, but we are driving wildlife to extinction. "Livestock production is the predominant driver of natural habitat loss worldwide,” and agricultural expansion is the leading cause of tropical deforestation (Machovina, Feeley, Ripple).

Not all meat has an equal impact on the environment. Some fair worse than others depending on resources needed for production. Out of all meat sources, “the high rate of consumption of beef has been shown to be the largest driver of food-borne greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land occupation in the U.S. diet,” according to the authors of the research article Potential to curb the environmental burdens of American beef consumption using a novel plant-based beef substitute (2017).

The bar graph below shows how severe ground beef effects the environment with pork coming in second. To provide the entire U.S. with ground beef, the amount of production and processing is staggering when you see how much it contributes to greenhouse gases.

Figure 3: Embodied GHG for different foods. GHG emissions in kg CO2e/kg protein produced.

“It has been long known that reducing meat intake, alongside improved production and management of food waste, can play an important role in reducing the environmental impacts of the U.S. and similar diets. The challenge now is less about identifying the problem, but rather getting people to make a switch. This is a difficult proposition in the U.S. where meat heavy diets are deeply enmeshed within its eating culture” (Goldstien et. al.).

According to, the U.S. is first in consuming more meat than any other country followed by Australia in second. This should come as no surprise with our soaring obesity rates coinciding with increased risk for disease. The U.S. overconsumes. We are literally eating too much of a good thing. It is time the U.S. adopts more healthy and environmentally friendly options like the rest of the world.

Legumes (Fabaceae/Leguminosae) are considered the second most important human food crops, just after the cereals (Gramineae). However, legume seeds constitute an essential part of the human diet as they are excellent sources of proteins, bioactive compounds, minerals, and vitamins, in comparison with cereals, and are referred to as “the poor man’s meat” [4,5]” (Hou, D., 2019). In order to make legumes a complete protein, it must be combined with a whole grain like wheat, rice, farro, etc. Not only will this be better for your health and the environment, but it will save you money. Meat is very expensive. A bag of legumes only costs about 69 cents to maybe a couple of dollars depending on where you shop. The same goes for quality whole grains. Think of the money you will save! You can also make enough meals to last the week since these come in larger servings.

“For those individuals who cannot afford animal proteins or those who are vegetarian, the mung bean is of a comparatively low-cost and has a good source of protein” (Hou, D., 2019). The mung bean contains one of the highest protein contents compared to others in the legume family coming in at about 23g of protein per 100g per serving including one of the highest in fiber. “The mung bean protein is easily digestible, induces less flatulence, and is tolerated by young children” “In many studies, the mung bean was recommended as a supplement for preparing an infant’s weaning food because of its high protein content and hypo-allergic properties [14,15]” (Hou, D., 2019).

The part I love best about the mung bean is that you don’t have to soak them overnight. Just like lentils, mung beans absorb liquid and soften quickly. As an added bonus, they don’t get mushy. I have overcooked lentils many times and it becomes one big pile of mush. Not a fan of mush? Say hello to your new friend–the mung bean.

Protein Rich and Environmentally Friendly Mung Bean Soup

I have found I struggle to get enough servings of vegetables daily before they spoil or go bad each week. The secret to my veggie intake success is soup! I love soup because it is easy, keeps well, and can be frozen for extended use. There is literally no waste.

My goal is to combine my high vegetable intake in a soup with a healthy and environmentally responsible protein. So, I borrowed ideas I learned from vegetable soups and instead of adding meat or seafood, I added mung beans. The result was amazing!

I eat this soup almost every day. I get almost five servings of veggies in this one bowl of soup. It is like a one stop shop of highly nutritious ingredients my body needs. You don’t need to purchase expensive supplements. They are costly and frankly just give you expensive pee. Give your body fresh produce that is proven to work and live a healthier life like Mediterranean’s. If they can do this, so can we. We just have to make the time.

This soup recipe is simple and doesn’t take a lot of time. If it did, I wouldn’t make it every single week. The recipe below is followed by detailed cooking instructions plus visuals. I made sure I considered all learning styles. Have fun and bon appetite!


* Substitute sweet potatoes instead.

* Combine vegetable stock and chicken stock for added flavor.

* Use low sodium stocks to reduce the sodium level, not shown in these nutrition facts.

* Sprinkle in nutritional yeast to add flavor, protein, and more nutrients.

* Add in your favorite hot sauce to spice it up!

* Pair it with sourdough toast or 1/4-1/2 cup of rice, quinoa, farro, or wild rice.

Directions with Visuals

1. Chop and pre-prep all veggies and spices.

2. Heat olive oil on medium heat in a large Dutch oven or pot.

3. Add the diced shallots to the heated oil and cook until transparent stirring frequently.

4. Add the diced carrots and celery to the shallots and cook until soft and slightly golden stirring frequently.

5. Add in the potatoes and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 3-4 more minutes stirring frequently making sure you don't burn the garlic.

6. Turn the heat up to medium-high and add in the stock, rosemary, and thyme bringing the liquid to a boil.

7. When boiling, stir in the mung beans and reduce the heat low to medium-low maintaining a simmer and cook for 20-25 minutes or until beans and potatoes are tender.

8. Stir in the greens, cover, and cook for 3-4 minutes until softened.

9. Season with salt and pepper to desired taste.


Works Cited

Goldstein B, Moses R, Sammons N, Birkved M (2017) Potential to curb the environmental of American beef consumption using a novel plant-based beef substitute. PLoS ONE 12(12): e0189029.

Godfray et al. (20 July 2018). Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Retrieved from

Hou, D., Yousaf, L., Xue, Y., Hu, J., Wu, J., Hu, X., Feng, N., & Shen, Q. (2019). Mung Bean (Vigna radiata L.): Bioactive Polyphenols, Polysaccharides, Peptides, and Health Benefits. Nutrients, 11(6), 1238.

Machovina, B., Feeley, K., Ripple, W. (Dec. 2015). Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption. Retrieved from https://www-sciencedirect-

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Executive Summary. Retrieved from

Ritchie, H., and Roser, M. (Aug. 2017). Meat and Seafood Production & Consumption. Retrieved from

Samraj, A. N., Pearce, O. M., Läubli, H., Crittenden, A. N., Bergfeld, A. K., Banda, K., Gregg, C. J., Bingman, A. E., Secrest, P., Diaz, S. L., Varki, N. M., & Varki, A. (2015). A red meat-derived glycan promotes inflammation and cancer progression. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(2), 542–547.

Soulillou, J. P., & Padler-Karavani, V. (2020). Editorial: Human Antibodies Against the Dietary Non-human Neu5Gc-Carrying Glycans in Normal and Pathologic States. Frontiers in immunology, 11, 1589.

University of California - Davis Health System. (2016, October 19). Neu5Gc in red meat and organs may pose a significant health hazard. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 7, 2021 from

United States Department of Agriculture (29 Nov. 2018). U.S. diets are out of balance with Federal recommendations. Retrieved from gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58334.