Biting into a big, meaty burger can almost be thought of as a quintessential American pleasure. It’s no surprise that the United States is associated with meat consumption when as a nation we eat about four times the global average (UCS). However, eating meat is increasingly being viewed as a guilty pleasure. Your diet, the experts warn, affects the environment and your individual health.

The meat debate appears overwhelming – because it is. People just want to be able to eat their steak or chicken without worrying about the effects on the planet. As we expand our understanding of our earth and its climate, individual actions are taking on a global scale. We are faced with the possibility that everything we do on a daily basis could be contributing to global consequences.

How are individual choices, the meat industry, and climate change connected? How is what I eat connected to politics, health, and the environment?

How much influence could your food choices really have? Will choosing the vegetarian option on the menu really make any difference?

There is a huge array of factors involved in the environmental impacts of eating meat. Using plant products to feed livestock requires large amounts of land use and leads to deforestation. The use of grain, soy and corn as feed is much less efficient than if they were to be consumed directly by humans. The entire process of meat production, from agriculture to animal farming, requires enormous amounts of water. It produces greenhouse gas emissions, waste and pollution. On top of it all, it may pose health risks.

But there is much to debate. The statistics all depend on the type of feed that is used and the grazing practices. The environmental impacts differ between different species of animals; different practices are involved in raising cows, poultry or fish.

In terms of health, many will argue that lean meat or fish constitute an important part of a healthy diet. Others will counter that humans can thrive on a vegetarian diet. All this before the vegans have even come to the table.

The meat industry in the United States is subsidized, just like oil. Also like oil, reducing consumption requires behavioral changes that are difficult to achieve. But perhaps drastic changes are in store if eating meat really has the severe environmental impacts as many scientists claim.

How are individual choices, the meat industry, and climate change connected? How is what I eat connected to politics, health, and the environment? As I work to get to the meat of the issue, I hope to bring both research and critical voices to the table.