When you hear "vegetarian," do you think "tofu"? Does the thought of tofurkey for Thanksgiving make you swear never to eat vegetarian?

Well, although tofu can be a nutritious, and delicious, source of protein in a vegetarian diet, you do not have to go there in order to help the planet and your own personal health.

Livestock production has a notable carbon footprint. Farming and raising cattle and poultry use earth's resources, just like any other business. Gasoline to run tractors and transport goods, and feed for animals are necessary. The production of one calorie of meat requires many calories of grains, and the animals eating all those grains produce greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide. As a result, producing meat emits more greenhouse gases than growing crops. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that livestock produce about 28% of global methane emissions from human-related activities.

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Beef and lamb have the highest carbon footprint because their production requires more water, pesticides, fertilizer and fuel than other livestock, which translates into higher emissions per pound of edible meat than for chicken or pork, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). And, pound for pound, they generate more polluting manure.

Reducing the environmental consequences of raising animals is a work in progress. Among the initiatives in the works are increasing well-managed grazing and grass-fed operations and organic feed production and grazing practices. But the simplest way to reduce the environmental impacts of livestock is simply to produce, eat and waste less meat.

Eat less meat at home. If each of us had just one meat-free meal per week, it would be the same as taking more than 5 million cars off our roads, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which based its calculations on a paper prepared by researchers at the University of Chicago. Even reducing your meat portion size will help; treat meat as a condiment rather than the main part of your meal.

We have all been inundated with the "eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains" message, and the environmental reasons are an added plus. Keep in mind that eating too much meat, especially red and processed meat, increases susceptibility to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. And, according to the FDA much human exposure to dioxins comes from food, particularly through animal fats. The best way to reduce the health risks associated with dioxins and other toxins is by limiting dietary exposure to them.

So how about starting with just one meal a week with no meat? It doesn't have to be salad-- pasta, meatless chili, vegetarian quesadillas, and meatless pizza are among a wide array of delicious choices. It’s remarkably easy to take that first step when you consider all the possibilities. Give it a try.