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Battle of the Burritos: Understanding the Footprint of What We Eat

By Hannah Malan, Graduate Student Researcher, UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative EatWell PodFood Day Infographic Digital_1000w.jpg

As part of our Food Day celebration this year, the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative EatWell pod collaborated with Jennifer Jay, Professor of Environmental and Civil Engineering, to create an infographic that compares the nutrient data and environmental impact of two different recipes for one much beloved food item: the burrito.

We created two burritos – one bean and veggie, one beef and cheese – and compared their overall nutrition profile as well as the carbon footprint of the ingredients inside. The results were impressive. While similar in calories and protein, the beef burrito had 10x the footprint of the veggie burrito.

We asked UCLA Health System Senior Dietitian, and Fielding School of Public Health Adjunct Assistant Professor Dana Hunnes to comment on our results.

From a dietitian’s perspective, can you help us better understand the difference between eating a veggie versus meat burrito?

Swapping out plant-proteins and vegetables in general is always great for your health and the environment (as we can see from this infographic).

From the perspective of our health, there are so many vitamins and minerals that are present in plant-based foods, along with antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber, and just a whole host of nutrients that can only be found in plant foods.

We do not need nearly as much protein as “we’ve been ‘taught’ to believe” that we do. In fact, according to Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), we really only need roughly 0.8g/kg of protein per day, even for active adults!

What does this mean?

It means that a 135-pound female (~61kg) only needs about 49 grams of protein each day. A 180-pound male (~81kg) only needs about 65 grams of protein each day.

These are really quite easy to obtain! After all, almost everything has protein in it! Not only that…but, this study shows that body builders, really only need around 1.3-1.5grams/kg of protein…so, even if you’re a body building athlete, you still only need ~105grams of protein per day, not the stereotypical 3x as much protein.

The bean burrito has 23 grams of protein! That’s nearly 2/3 of what a healthy female needs over the course of the day, and roughly ½ what a healthy male needs. The beef burrito has slightly more protein (28 grams), but a much larger (10x) carbon footprint. It’s also important to note that we can only absorb up to 30 grams of protein at any one time, so both burritos are approaching that limit.

You also wrote your PhD dissertation about climate change and sustainable dietary patterns. Can you comment on the environmental impacts of the two burritos?

Aside from all the healthy nutrients that are more likely to prevent and/or mitigate chronic diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, kidney disease), plant-based proteins (think: beans, legumes, quinoa) and a plant-based diet is extremely good for the environment.

As you can see from the side-by-side comparison of carbon equivalents from the two diets, the plant-based burrito is much better. Roughly 10% the amount of CO2 equivalents as the beef burrito.

In addition to driving less and using less electricity, the FASTEST, EASIEST, AND BEST way to reduce our carbon footprint is to eat a plant-based diet. We do NOT need meat in our diet, and in fact, there is evidence to suggest that meat-heavy diets increase the risk of and exacerbate already-present chronic diseases, and are pro-inflammatory.

So, from a personal-health perspective, and an Earthly-health perspective, the best thing we can do is eat a plant-based diet.

What are Americans actually eating?

According to the FAO’s 2012: World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050 report, average per capita intake of meat for the United States is roughly 200 pounds per person per year, and will increase to 212 pounds per person per year in the next decade.

In developing countries, current intake is roughly 62 pounds per person per year, and is expected to increase to roughly 93 pounds per person per year over the same time frame. This represents a huge problem since the developing world’s population is going to increase far faster than the developed world’s.

We in the United States and other developed countries need to demonstrate our commitment to reducing our meat consumption if we expect the rest of the world to follow suit.

But aren’t high protein diets good for weight management and keeping us full?

Consuming a whole-foods plant-based diet – meaning non-packaged, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, avocados, healthy vegetable fats (olive oil) – increases satiety because it has such high volume and water content.

Of course, consuming packaged plant-based foods (i.e. Doritos) will lead to weight gain and low satiety because there is minimal volume, for a lot of calories. But, consuming multiple foods from those listed above will increase satiety, and can certainly help with weight management and weight loss.

It’s about diet quality! Protein does enhance satiety, but overdoing protein can just lead to more fat-storage. Any time you omit a food-group you are likely to lose weight, which is what Atkins/high-protein diets essentially do. I am advocating that we omit the animal-proteins group…similar concept; but switches the ‘food pyramid.’

Learn more about our Food Day campaign, check out our favorite food films, and see what UCLA Dining is doing to reduce our campus ‘foodprint.’

Read more from Dana on her Huffington Post blog.

Join the conversation #FoodDay2016 #UCFoodForAll #UCLALiveWell


7 Reasons Why I Love BPlate

Today, October 7th, is Bruin Plate’s 3rd anniversary since its grand opening in Fall 2013. The health-themed dining hall, lovingly dubbed BPlate by UCLA students, opened my freshman year and has since played an important role in my UCLA experience; it’s where I bonded with classmates over the fear of looming midterms and gossiped with floormates over the latest dorm drama. Beyond its delicious food and the many fond memories I have of it, here are seven reasons why BPlate deserves to be celebrated on its anniversary today (and every other day too):

  1. Before I ate at BPlate, I had no idea that chickpeas and garbanzo beans were the same thing nor had I heard of farro or wheatberry. BPlate introduced me to so many new, nutritious foods and gave me the perfect environment to sample them without fear. I likely wouldn’t have ordered seitan or rainbow chard on a menu or bought it at the supermarket, because I wouldn’t have wanted to “waste” money on a food I might not like. At BPlate, however, I could be adventurous without fear — if I didn’t like something, I could just venture back into the dining hall for something new. BPlate also helped me re-discover foods I’d previously thought I disliked. I used to hate Brussels sprouts and kale, but after trying the delicious BPlate versions I love them both and even cook them in my apartment now!
  2. BPlate has done wonders in reducing the stigma surrounding health food on UCLA’s campus. Many mistakenly believe that eating healthfully means cutting out all carbs or eating only salads, but BPlate proves that eating healthfully can be both delicious and exciting. Personally, I used to think that any amount of dessert was unhealthy. However, BPlate’s inclusion of desserts like frozen yogurt, mini tarts, and fresh fruit showed me that dessert can be part of a healthy diet when enjoyed in moderation.
  3. BPlate’s architecture is one of my favorite parts about the dining hall. It’s almost always a beautiful, sunny day on UCLA’s campus and when the sun is shining I prefer to spend my time outdoors rather than inside buildings with artificial light. However, BPlate’s floor-to-ceiling windows allow me to enjoy sunlight and delicious food at the same time. The great views of campus are an added bonus.
  4. BPlate is incredibly environmentally conscious. Over 30 percent of the food served in the dining hall is sustainable and locally sourced; it serves vegetables from local farms, free-range chickens, cage-free eggs, and fair-trade teas and coffees while composting 100% of pre- and post-consumer waste. Even the floors are made of recycled material. Eating at BPlate makes me feel like I’m doing something good for both myself and the environment.
  5. As an incredibly indecisive person, I find eating in dining halls very stressful. There are so many dishes to choose from, which often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Before BPlate opened, finding healthy options added to my dining hall stress. BPlate, however, makes finding healthy options infinitely less difficult and stressful. Every dish is created with nutrition and health in mind; all dishes are less than 400 calories and less than 30% of all calories come from fats. When eating at BPlate, I know that any dish I choose will be a healthy, nutritious option, which relieves much of my dining hall stress — the only problem is that all the healthy options a BPlate are so good that I have trouble deciding between them!
  6. While at your average dining hall servers might hurriedly toss a scoop of mashed potatoes or piece of chicken on a plate so they can serve students more quickly, at BPlate servers pay meticulous attention to the presentation of the food they serve. Every dish at BPlate has its own unique design and each plate is a work of art in and of itself. I love the presentation of the food at BPlate, because it makes me feel like I’m eating in a restaurant, not a college dining hall. I also found myself being more appreciative of the food in front of me when someone had taken the time to present it so beautifully. My experiences fall in line with one study, which found that presenting food in an aesthetically pleasing way enhanced consumers’ experience of their food.
  7. I grew up in a very meat-oriented household, so before eating at BPlate I thought all vegetarians and vegans ate was salad and pasta. However, BPlate has since showed me that vegetarian and vegan diets are not at all limiting. Many of my vegetarian and vegan friends love BPlate too, because it offers them such a wide variety of plant-based options compared to typical dining halls. BPlate’s vegetarian options are so good that I often choose them over the meat dishes!

What do you love about BPlate and/or what has eating at BPlate taught you? Share your experiences with me at or on social media!

Danielle de Bruin is an undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in Sociology with a double minor in Italian and Global Health. She is the blog coordinator for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative and the director of UCLA’s Body Image Task Force, which is a committee within the UCLA Student Wellness Commission. With the Body Image Task Force, Danielle organizes events, workshops, and campaigns to promote healthy body image, self-confidence, and mental health on campus. She is also a published co-author in the journal PLOS Medicine.