Eating less protein could keep nitrogen out of US waters

"It's interesting to think about possible ways to cut into those nitrogen losses beyond expensive technology," says Maya Almaraz. "Dietary changes are a healthy and cheap way to do it." (Credit: Getty Images)

Balancing how much protein you eat with the amount your body needs could reduce nitrogen releases to aquatic systems in the US by 12% and overall nitrogen losses to air and water by 4%, researchers report.

Protein consumption in the United States, from both plant and animal sources, ranks among the highest in the world. If Americans ate protein at recommended amounts, projected nitrogen excretion rates in 2055 would be 27% less than they are today despite population growth, according to the study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The study is the first to estimate how much protein consumption contributes to excess nitrogen in the environment through human waste. It also indicates that coastal cities have the largest potential to reduce nitrogen excretions headed for their watersheds.

“It turns out that many of us don’t need as much protein as we eat, and that has repercussions for our health and aquatic ecosystems,” says lead author Maya Almaraz, a research affiliate with the Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Davis.

“If we could reduce that to an amount appropriate to our health, we could better protect our environmental resources.”

Protein in, nitrogen out

The human body requires protein. But when a body takes in more protein than it needs, excess amino acids break it down into nitrogen, which is excreted mostly through urine and released through the wastewater system. This brings additional nitrogen into waterways, which can result in toxic algal blooms, oxygen-starved “dead zones,” and polluted drinking water.

The scientists estimated current and future nitrogen excretion exports based on US census population data. They saw an upward trend over time, with exports increasing 20% from 2016 to 2055. That increase is associated with population growth, as well as an aging population, which requires more protein to manage muscle loss.

Coastal cities face dramatic population growth in the coming decades, and suburban migration patterns indicate such movement is typically accompanied by increased nutrient loading conveyed through wastewater, stormwater runoff, and other sources.

The researchers found that coastal cities along the West Coast, Texas, Florida, Chicago, and especially the northeast US show large potential for reducing dietary nitrogen loading to their watersheds.

Benefits of dietary changes

Sewage contributes 15% of the total nitrogen flux from land to ocean in North America, the researchers report. Technology capable of removing 90% of nitrogen in sewage exists, but less than 1% of sewage is treated with it due to its expense.

Eating a diet that balances protein with the body’s needs can be healthier for humans and reduce nitrogen pollution in the environment without additional wastewater treatment costs.

“It’s interesting to think about possible ways to cut into those nitrogen losses beyond expensive technology,” says Almaraz. “Dietary changes are a healthy and cheap way to do it.”

Additional coauthors are from the University of Queensland; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and the University of Nottingham.

The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation funded the work.

Source: UC Davis