How to Choose Sustainable Protein Sources

Support your muscles and the environment by focusing on what’s good for the planet.

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We all know that eating enough protein is a non-negotiable if you’re trying to support your muscle growth. After all, protein is the building block of muscles, making it a key macro for people who want to bulk up or see more tone. 

But if you want to support your muscles while supporting the environment, then you’ll need to look more carefully for the sustainable protein sources that are good for the planet. 

From choosing options that use less water to produce, to leaning on choices that don’t result in excessive amounts of greenhouse emissions, there are many ways to support Mother Earth’s health while you’re also helping your own well-being. 

How to Identify Sustainable Protein Choices

Knowing how to identify sustainable protein choices is the first step to sustaining your muscles in an environmentally friendly way. Many plant-based diets support athletic performance while contributing to environmental healthCompared to omnivore diets, vegan diets reduce land-use impacts by 50 to 86 percent, water use by 22 to 70 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 21 to 70 percent. Because of this, limiting animal protein appears to be a positive step in maintaining environmental health. 

But if you are a meat lover, know that you don’t have to go completely plant-based to support the environment. Certain animal proteins are more sustainable than others, and knowing how to read labels when shopping can help you sustainably navigate your choices. 

Some common terms that can help clue you in on how the animals are treated include the following: 

Organic meat. This means the animals are raised in conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed 100 percent organic food, and do not receive antibiotics or hormones.

Grass-fed. This meat must be certified USDA organic, and the animal must be able to eat grass and foods like hay (instead of feed).  

Certified humane raised and handled. This refers to how the animals are raised. The organization that manages this certification is focused on improving the lives of farm animals in food production, in part by driving the demand for kinder and more responsible farm animal practices.

Pasture-raised. These animals must have had access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days per year

Natural. This term means that the meat has been minimally processed so that it’s not fundamentally altered from the original version. Products made with artificial colors, flavors or chemical preservatives would not be classified as natural. 

Raised without antibiotics. This means that the animal was not given antibiotics at any point in its life via its food choices or injections. 


Tips for Including Protein Sustainably

Choosing sustainable protein sources can mean different things for different people. While some people want to emphasize foods that use a minimal amount of water to produce, others want to ensure that the food choices they include are not contributing to global warming. Depending on your own personal values and goals, choosing protein sources that align with what you believe is best for the planet can be simple to do with a bit of know-how. 

Here are eight ways that you can be gentle on the planet while also helping fuel your muscles at the same time:

1. Include environmentally friendly protein-packed whole grains. 

Whole grains are often thought of as a carbohydrate source, but along with the energy-supporting carbs, many whole grains are natural protein sources. 

For instance, sorghum is an ancient grain that requires very little water to produce — under normal conditions, sorghum produces about 500 pounds of grain for every inch of total water.

And sorghum is a nutritional powerhouse, serving up a whopping 10 grams of protein in just 1 cooked cup. Try swapping sorghum in dishes that traditionally include rice. And for a fun crunchy treat, pop some sorghum just as you would popcorn. 

2. Choose pole- and line-caught tuna.

One 3-ounce serving of canned tuna contains 21 grams of protein along with healthy fats and important micronutrients. But not all tuna is sustainably sourced.

Some methods for catching tuna use nets to essentially scoop up any tuna in their way — along with anything else in their path, potentially including turtles, small whales, dolphins and other fish that are not meant to be caught.  

Pole and line fishing uses hand-held poles to catch the tuna and is the most sustainable option. This method is more selective, allowing the fishermen to catch one tuna at a time, avoiding hooking other sea life or birds. When shopping for canned tuna, look for labels that state the fish was caught using pole or line fishing.

3. Lean on nuts and legumes that have a small water footprint.

While all nuts and legumes are nutrient-packed and a source of plant-based protein, some options require significantly more water to produce than others. 

For example, it takes just 5 gallons of water to produce 1 ounce of peanuts, compared to 80 gallons for an ounce of almonds. Plus, peanut crops are also nitrogen fixing, meaning that they take nitrogen from the air and produce their own in the ground, which benefits other crops.

One ounce of peanuts contains 7 grams of plant-based protein. Whether you snack on shelled peanuts midday or add a dollop of its butter to your oatmeal, know that choosing peanut products can be quite impactful for your health and the environment. 

4. Include bivalves in your diet.

Bivalves, like oysters and mussels, are natural filter feeders, meaning that they feed by straining suspended matter and food particles from water. “Filter-feeding species can naturally lessen disease risk to humans and wildlife, essentially by helping keep our water sources clean,” Integrative and Comparative Biology states.  

Three ounces of oysters provide 8 grams of protein. Eating these bivalves helps keep oyster, clam and mussel farms healthy and thriving, allowing farmers to continue to grow these sea creatures in the water and help remove pollutants in a natural way.

5. Swap out beef for beans.

Fun fact: Producing 1 kilogram of protein from kidney beans requires about 18 times less land, 10 times less water, nine times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer and 10 times less pesticide versus producing 1 kilogram of protein from beef. Clearly, leaning on beans for your protein can have a major impact on the environment — and just 1 cup of beans provides 15 grams of protein

6. Add lentils to your dishes.

Pulses, like lentils, support a sustainable and diverse agriculture system, use minimal water to grow, have a low carbon footprint when used in cropping rotations and help reduce food waste. They are a nutrient-dense source of protein and contribute to food security and human nutrition across the globe. 

Conversely, the water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken is nearly one and half times higher than pulses. And when it comes to beef, the water footprint per gram of protein is about six times larger than for pulses. 

7. Lean on chicken for your animal protein fix.

If you are a meat eater, lean on chicken instead of less sustainable protein sources that produce a higher carbon footprint. 

While options like lamb have a large carbon footprint, thanks to the gas emissions that they produce, chicken has a lower impact on the environment. In fact, pound for pound, chicken requires less feed than what many other consumed animals require, and they don’t create methane gas.  

Choosing pasture-raised chickens appear to be even more environmentally friendly while also being a more humane method for the animals to be raised. 

8. Salmon

While in the past we were told that wild salmon is the only option when it comes to sustainable salmon choices, we can now lean on wild- and farm-raised options, thanks to new and improved practices in the farm-raised industry. As long as the salmon farmers are implementing sustainable practices, the farmed salmon industry can limit habitat damage, disease and pollution, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Salmon packs 30 grams of protein into a 5-ounce fillet, making it a top pick for sustainable protein sources. Asking if a store or restaurant serves sustainable seafood can help you navigate your choices. Alternatively, you can download the Seafood Watch guide to help you choose wisely.