Finally, I have finished Diet for a Small Planet. I’ve been working my way through it for about a year, I think. I’d read a little bit, put it away for something else, then groan and make my way back to it. Because I really wanted to like it—but I just didn’t.
So many people I know claim reading Diet for a Small Planet was a mind-blowing, earth-shattering, watershed moment in their lives, one that practically revealed hidden truth and let readers in on the secret to eternal health and happiness. Plus, I’ve met author Frances Moore Lappé and heard her speak, and she is phenomenal. I really, really wanted to like this book.
But for whatever reason, it was just a slog to get through. Maybe it’s because I came to the book already believing its basic premise: Our modern, meat-based food system is killing the planet. I’m already a disciple of the Fix-Our-Food-System-Now movement. Had I read it in the 1970s, perhaps I would have found it more powerful. Maybe that’s a good sign that her message has become mainstream.
Most interesting to me was how daily allowances of protein were calculated. According to Lappé, the Committee on Dietary Allowances of the National Academy of Sciences, Food, and Nutrition Board determined that each person needs .34 grams of protein per kilogram. In other words, a 154-pound man needs 24 grams of protein a day.
I hate math. But I was really interested in figuring out exactly how much protein my family should be getting. So, after hunting for a calculator and several trial-and-error equations, I determined that I, weighing 130 pounds, need 20 grams of protein per day. My son, weighing 50 pounds, needs 8.
Then Lappé takes us through the Committee’s adjustments for the usability of protein. Even though I may eat 20 grams of protein, my body won’t actually use it all—according to scientists, the average usability of protein in the American diet is 75%. Which means I should adjust to eating 26.5 grams of protein a day and adjust my son’s intake to 10.6 grams per day.
Lappe’s point with all of this is that our daily protein needs are more than adequately supplied through grains. In fact, she argues, grains can deliver more usable protein than most meat sources.
Since my last post pondered, why do we even need grains?, this intrigued me. I hadn’t realized grains supplied so much protein. But according to Lappé (and a few of my own hazy memories of reading “9 grams of protein” on pasta packages back when I ate grains) grains supply the same power and energy we associate with meat. In fact, much of the world, Lappé writes, lacks resources (i.e., money) to eat as much meat as Americans do, and therefore depends on grains for protein.
Yet none of this showed up in my brief and very unscientific research (having a full-time job and two young children, I admittedly rely Google). According to the USDA, all we need grains for are fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium.
Why wouldn’t the USDA mention protein? Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I have to believe it’s because they don’t want to piss off the meat producers. If people stopped believing they *needed* meat to get their protein, a lot of people could potentially be out a lot of money.
So—fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium. I also Googled all of these. The top foods that came up for fiber were all fruits and vegetables—no grains. Top foods for B vitamins? Fish, liver, chicken … the only grains that were listed (near the bottom) were “fortified,” meaning the vitamins were added and you could just as easily take a B vitamin supplement. Magnesium? Nuts, seeds, bananas. Iron? Spinach, liver, fish, clams. Selenium? Brazilian nuts, yellowtail tuna, halibut, liver, grass-fed beef.
No grains anywhere.
So I still cannot figure out a reason to eat them. Except, as Lappé argues, for the protein should you forgo meat for greater good preserving the planet.
My family does eat meat. But for the sake of … well, everyone, I do try very hard to limit our consumption—for the past year, my unofficial rule when shopping has been to buy just 7 pounds of meat per week for my family of four. That’s a little less than the norm; according to the Wall Street Journal, the average American eats 2.5 pounds of meat per day, meaning a family of four would buy 10 pounds of meat per week. I also try to buy from sustainable and local farms, reducing the carbon footprint of how far our meat travels.
Our consumption of meat instead of grains would seem to oppose Lappé’s mantra. While I could still trim meat consumption, my food view isn’t actually that far off, and as I said in the beginning, I am a believer in her message. Lappé criticizes antibiotic use in livestock, pesticides on crops, sugar, and prepackaged foods—all of which I also avoid. Even though the focus of her book is vegetarian, she writes, “What I advocate is a return to the traditional diet on which our bodies evolved—a plant-centered diet in which animal foods play a supplemental role … Eating meat occasionally and adding small quantities to plant-centered meals does not violate the themes of this book.”
So to eat meat or not eat meat, eat grains or not—I am struck by Lappe’s beautifully written line: “freedom is not the capacity to do whatever we please; freedom is the capacity to make intelligent decisions.”