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Wendy Gordon

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The Blessing of Variety: An Eco-Omnivore's Thanksgiving

Posted: 11/08/11 04:46 PM ET

"If you are an environmentalist, why do you eat meat?" I get asked this a lot, often around Thanksgiving when of course the traditional meal contains a giant turkey with meat enough for days of sandwiches, casseroles, and pot pies.

It's tough enough being an environmentalist, but if you are an omnivore as well, and from New Jersey, you better have a pretty thick skin. The ribbing never stops.

But seriously, I eat meat because it tastes good. And turkey is one of those feel-good foods, right? It's why after dinner on Thanksgiving, all you really want to do is take a nap.

There is a reason for that. Turkey is a source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid which the body can't make but needs. Tryptophan allows the body to produce the B-vitamin niacin, which in turn helps it produce serotonin, a remarkable chemical that acts as a calming agent in the brain and plays a key role in sleep.

I like sleep and most people like me calm, but as it turns out I'm not a big turkey eater. This is not a problem as tryptophan is particularly plentiful in chocolate. It is also in oats, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, corn, spirulina, and peanuts.

I eat all those foods, and often. In fact, if there was one word to describe my diet it would be "variety." As my friends, Annie Berthold-Bond and Melissa Holden, and I wrote in True Food: Eight Simple Steps to a Healthier You (National Geographic Books, 2009): "Eating the rainbow--or fruits and vegetables of many different colors--improves your health and, according to the USDA, 'reduces your chances of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and other scourges of the modern industrialized diet.'"

Yes, vegetables come in other hues than green or carrot-colored. Remember the red beet, the yellow squash, the orange sweet potato, the purple eggplant, even the white cauliflower and turnip. White, as we explain here, means rich in allicin and selenium, both helpful for the heart and as a cancer preventative.

The same goes for proteins--they are packed in a surprising number of products besides meat as you can see in these "Easy Protein Snacks for the Smart Athlete." I'm not playing ice hockey as much as I did when I was in college, but I do exercise every day and find I get more lasting energy from a spoonful of peanut butter than a couple ounces of steak. And it's cheaper, as are beans, nuts and seeds, which are all great protein sources, along with leafy green vegetables, yogurt, and even oatmeal.

When it comes to protein-rich foods, although I am an omnivore I'm pretty spare with the animal proteins. I may have red meat once or twice a month, poultry or fish two or more times a week, but I don't eat much, no more than three to four ounces of animal protein on any given day.

I choose to eat the way I do primarily for health reasons and for that good food feeling. Remember Supersize Me, the 2004 American documentary film directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock? Spurlock's month-long all-fast food bender--he ate the equivalent of 9.26 Big Macs per day--left him seriously unhealthy and feeling pretty rotten. At the end of the "experiment", the 32-year-old Spurlock had gained 24½ lbs. (a 13% body mass increase), had pumped up his cholesterol level to 230, and experienced mood swings, sexual dysfunction, and fat accumulation in his liver.

As it turns out, the average American diet is only about half as bad as Spurlock's was during the film. We each eat the equivalent of four Big Macs of meat a day, twice the recommended daily allowance for meat. Overeating red meat, according to research funded by the National Cancer Institute, is associated with an increased incidence of cancer and higher cardiovascular mortality rates, the two leading causes of death in the United States.

Our love affair with beef is also contributing significantly to a number of environmental woes. Agriculture in the United States (much of which now serves the demand for meat) contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in our nation’s rivers and streams. In addition, the livestock sector accounts for 18 percent of emissions of heat-trapping pollutants. This is a higher share than transport.

According to NRDC's "Eat Green" fact sheet, if all Americans eliminated just one quarter-pound serving of beef per week, the reduction in global warming gas emissions would be equivalent to taking four to six million cars off the road.

For all these reasons, I look upon meat as a treat, and favor the white and fish varieties over the red, but non-animal protein most of all. I seek out USDA Certified Organic or Certified Humane meat and poultry products when I go shopping, in order to avoid hormones and antibiotics that are given to animals on conventional farms.

As for the Thanksgiving turkey, variety American-style belongs on the menu, and so I suggest to people to seek out the wonderfully tasty heritage breeds--the Narragansetts, Bourbon Red and the Standard Bronze to name a few.

Heritage breeds were all but lost when industrial-scale poultry operations took over the market with the fast-growing Broad Breasted White, now found everywhere and so overbred it is incapable of carrying its own weight, much less flying or mating naturally.

The threat of extinction is real; because of the Broad Breasted White’s domination, many of these heritage varieties are maintained by a small number of poultry handlers. By purchasing them, you maintain the market for these birds and help farmers keep up breeding populations.

Because of their limited number, of course, it’s important that you order early. At Smarter Living, we’ve prepared a primer on choosing your turkey with links to shopping sites. But check first for birds near you--you’ll find directions to your local farmers’ markets as well as recipes, seasonal produce, and more at Smarter Living’s Eat Local directory.

Sure, you’ll pay more than for a factory-farmed bird, but it’s a once-a-year expense that enhances the survival not only of historic breeds but also of American lifeways, including traditional recipes and family farms. Among these recipes, local food entrepreneur Chef Peter Hoffman has provided his Heritage Turkey with the Three Sisters and accompanying Beet and Cranberry Relish.

So to my fellow eco-omnivores preparing the Thanksgiving menu, don't be shy, celebrate the abundant variety that grows from our good earth, with a delicous heritage turkey and a rainbow of seasonal vegetables and fruits. Want help? USDA is a great nutrient information source, Label Lookup is a super label decoder and Eat Local (soon to be an App) makes seasonal eating easy.