vegetarian diet better for environment and health

Human health and environmental health are both being threatened. We desperately need to find effective ways to improve both. Fortunately, one crucial change will save both.

Recently there has been a proliferation of studies that have looked at the effect of diet on both human and environmental health. The results are as impressive as they are consistent. The following article is a review of the recent literature on diet’s effect on human health and the health of the planet.

1. The Eat-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health Study
The most recent research was published by thirty-seven of the world’s leading scientists, headed by Harvard’s Walter Willet, one of the world’s leading experts on nutrition. Titled “The Eat-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health,” the report was published in the medical journal Lancet.

The study insists that diet has a huge impact on the health of people and of the planet. “Unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality,” the study’s authors say “than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined.” And, as for the health of the planet, “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change by contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land-system change.”

Unhealthy and unsustainable food production contributes to disease and premature death. It also exerts the largest pressure of all human contributions to the challenges faced by the planet. The contemporary diet has contributed to undernutrition, obesity, heart disease and the doubling of diabetes. It uses up about 40% of the land, 70% of all fresh water used and causes 30% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Use of land for agriculture is “the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction:” something that is seldom talked about.

The diet the researchers overwhelmingly arrive at to reverse these trends “largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and includes no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.” The researchers found, “with a high level of certainty,” that the adoption of this diet globally “would provide major health benefits, including a large reduction in total mortality.”

The switch to a healthy, sustainable diet is the switch from an animal-based to a plant-based diet. Such a switch would prevent 19-23.6% of deaths annually world wide. The findings can be broken down into two sections: eating for your health and eating for the health of the planet.

Eating for Your Health
Red Meat

Red meat includes beef, pork and lamb. Because red meat is not a necessary part of the diet and contributes to disease and death, the researchers say the optimal intake of red meat may really be 0 grams a day: none. They permit 0-28g of red meat a day.

The researchers allow 0-58g of poultry a day.

Though high intakes of dairy have been marketed and promoted based on the need for high amounts of dietary calcium, the World Health Organization (WHO) has pointed out that “regions with low intake of dairy foods and calcium have lower fracture rates than regions with high dairy consumption.” The researchers cite studies that show that drinking lots of milk does not protect against bone fractures. Because the unsaturated fats in plants are healthier than the saturated fat in dairy, the researchers place the optimal amount of dairy at only 250g a day.

The researchers balance the omega-3 fatty acid benefits of fish against the mercury concentrations in fish and point out that omega-3 fatty acids from plants may be an appropriate substitute. The allow 28g a day of fish.

The researchers allow only about 13g per day from eggs: that is, only about 1.5 eggs a week. It’s time to change your breakfast.

Nuts are loaded in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy unsaturated fats and fiber. They reduce cholesterol and triglycerides, free radical damage and inflammation, and they reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and premature death. Contrary to common wisdom, nuts are not fattening. The researchers recommend 50g a day of nuts.

Legumes improve cholesterol and blood pressure and prevent heart disease. The researchers say that soy beans, in particular, reduce the risk of breast cancer. The researchers recommend 50g (dry weight) a day of beans, lentils and peas and 25g a day of soy beans.

Refined grains need to be avoided, but eating whole grains is associated with reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and overall mortality. The researchers recommend 232g a day of whole grains.

Fruits & Vegetables
Eating fruits and vegetables prevents cardiovascular disease and cancer. Eating lots of vegetables reduces blood pressure and your risk of diabetes. The researchers recommend 300g a day of vegetables and 200g day of fruits. That translates to about five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Added Fat
Many recipes call for added fat in the form of butter or oils. Replacing saturated animal fats with unsaturated vegetable oils substantially reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease. Trans fatty acids (hydrogenated fats) should be avoided. Dairy fat is associated with greater risk of coronary heart disease than unsaturated plant fats. The researchers discuss studies that show the benefits of canola (rapeseed) oil in preventing heart attacks and death from heart attacks and of olive oil in preventing cardiovascular disease and improving cognitive function. The researcher say that the evidence points to replacing animal fats with plant fats. They suggest 50g a day of total added fats in recipes made up of unsaturated plant oils. 

Since high sugar intake is associated with high triglycerides, diabetes, weight gain, and increased death from cardiovascular disease while having no benefits, the researchers limit consumption of all sweeteners to no more than 31g a day.

Overall, the study found that adopting the recommended diet would improve the intake of most nutrients and reduce premature deaths by 19-23.6%.

Eating for the Health of the Planet
The study states that “Increasing evidence shows that food production is the largest cause of global environmental change.” Food production is a major source of methane, which is produced during digestion in ruminant animals like cows and sheep. Methane is a stronger contributor to global warming than is carbon dioxide. Food production is also the largest consumer of fresh water, the largest driver of loss of biodiversity and the largest user of land.

The study cites research that demonstrates that grains, fruits and vegetables have the lowest environmental impact, while meat from ruminant animals have the highest. They summarize the overall research by concluding that plant-based diets cause fewer adverse environmental effects. Vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and land use; vegetarian diets are associated with the greatest reduction in water use. The authors say that “increased consumption of plant-based diets could reduce [greenhouse] emissions by up to 80%. The current study found that “animal source foods have large environmental footprints per serving for greenhouse-gas emissions, cropland use, water use, and nitrogen and phosphorus application.” Overall, they say, animal source foods cause about three-quarters of climate change effects. Switching to a plant-based diet is necessary if global warming is to be limited to the less than 2⁰ increase that is recommended.  

The authors wrap up their research by concluding that “Our universal healthy reference diet largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and includes no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.

2. The Containing a Sustainable Food Future Study
The population continues to grow, but the land available for food doesn’t. Greenhouse gasses continue to drive global warming. If we are to fix these problems on time, we have to change the way we eat. 

According to a report by the World Resources Institute, demand for food will increase by more than 50% by 2050. But agriculture already uses almost half of the planet’s vegetated land, and hundreds of millions of people are already hungry. And that’s not the only problem with the way we produce food: agriculture produces a full quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. So, how do we produce more food while using less land and producing less greenhouse gasses?

A significant piece of the answer is changing the way we eat. According to the report, the raising of livestock—including cows, sheep and goats—uses an incredible two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land and generates half of agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gasses. If we want more food and less climate change, we have to eat less meat.

The report concludes that, to make it work, the 20% of the world’s people who eat the most meat would have to reduce their meat consumption by 40%. Expressed more globally, worldwide, people would have to shift at least 30% of their consumption of cows, sheep and goats to plant based foods. That works out to a menu of 1.5 servings of foods from cows, sheep or goats per week.

A plant-based diet produces more food on less land with less greenhouse gasses. Every calorie of animal-based food requires many times more the calories of plant-based food to feed the animals and many times more land while producing many times more greenhouses gasses than plant-based food. Plant-based diets feed more people, while using less land and producing less greenhouse gasses.

Plant-based foods are also superior to milk and other dairy products because land use and greenhouse gas emissions from dairy products equal or surpass those of pork and chicken.

3. The University of British Columbia Study
This study asked what the most effective ways are that people impact global warming. They wanted to know which moves would have the greatest impact on global warming if someone could make just a few lifestyle changes.

They found that eating a plant-based diet was one of the four most “widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions.”

The other three are having one fewer child, living car free and avoiding airplane travel. For many people, of the four, going vegetarian is the most doable. 

Though these four are the highest impact changes, the researchers found that they are no where near the ones most talked about or promoted.

4. The Options for Keeping the Food System Within Environmental Limits Study
study published in the scientific journal Nature has concluded that, if you want to save the planet, you have to, amongst other strategies, eat less meat.

The study’s lead author noted that food production is responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and that “the production of animal products generates the majority of food-related GHG emissions (72-78% of total agricultural emissions),” making the food you put on your plate “a major driver of climate change.”

The study found that “adopting healthy and more plant-based diets globally could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the food system by more than half.” In fact, it could reduce GHG by a remarkable 56%. They found that to prevent global warming, the average person would need to eat 75% less beef, 90% less pork and 50% less eggs. We also need to triple the amount of beans and pulses we eat and quadruple the amount of nuts and seeds. 

5. The What You Eat Matters study
This thorough study of the most commonly eaten foods has revealed which ones are best and which ones are worst for global warming.

From its beginnings on the farm to its ending on your plate, the most environmentally unfriendly food is lamb. Lamb contributes 39.2kg of green house gas emissions. The second most damaging food is beef at 27kg. The third and fourth worst foods are cheese, at 13.5, and pork, at 12.1. Turkey contributes 10.9kg, chicken 6.9, tuna 6.1 and eggs 4.8.

The list of foods that are healthiest for the environment is dominated by plant foods. Potatoes contribute 2.9kg; rice 2.7; nuts 2.3; yogurt 2.2; broccoli, tofu and beans contribute only 2kg; milk causes 1.9, tomatoes 1.1 and lentils only .9.

Unlike meat, most CO2 emissions from plant foods occur during processing after leaving the farm; for example, during the unavoidable cooking. 90% of potatoes' emissions, 65% of beans' emissions and 59% of lentils' emissions occur in the processing.

The study concluded that beef creates thirteen times the green house gas emission than do vegetable proteins like beans, lentils and tofu. It summarized by saying that if every person in America went vegetarian, as far as the environment goes, that would be the equivalent of taking 46 million cars off the road.

6. The FAIRR Report
According to Britain’s Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return FAIRR report (FAIRR), animal farming is being increasingly linked to “a range of environmental, health and social problems.” They report that eating meat is linked to

greater greenhouse gas emissions than those from transportation

threats to water availability

threats to food security

increasing rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer

deforestation and soil degradation

increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance

7. Oxford’s Nature Climate Change Study
Oxford researchers recommend taxing meat and dairy as a motivation for buying less of it and consuming less of it. A reduction in meat and dairy, they conclude, would have a major impact on climate because the food production system is responsible for over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and the bulk of those emissions come from livestock. Raising “livestock” also increases deforestation.

But beyond saving the planet, the reduction in meat and dairy consumption would also save you. The cut back in meat and dairy, according to their calculations, would save about half a million people per year because a diet low in meat and dairy is better for you. The healthier diet would reduce deaths from heart disease, diabetes and conditions related to obesity.

Marco Springmann, the lead researcher on the study, concluded with the warning that "It is clear that if we don't do something about the emissions from our food system, we have no chance of limiting climate change below 2°C."

8. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (Environment)
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA. It is the top nutritional panel in the nation, and its findings are used to inform the government's dietary advice updates.

The Committee found consistent evidence that diets high in plant based foods, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and low in animal based foods are associated with a smaller environmental impact on green house gas emissions and use of energy, land and water.

Based on their systematic review of 15 studies, the Committee recommends that people move toward a plant-based diet and away from an animal-based diet. It says that the evidence supporting this recommendation is in the impressive moderate to strong category.

The systematic review of the existing research concluded that vegan, vegetarian and Mediterranean diets have the greatest environmental benefit. These diets reduce green house gas emissions and take less land. The Committee highlighted the overlap between these diets being healthier for people and for the planet. It noted that these diets have higher health scores and higher sustainability scores. It said that the overlap "could be explained by a reduction in the consumption of meat, dairy, extras (i.e., snacks and sweets), and beverages, as well as a reduction in overall food consumption."

Showing just how impressive the consistency between what's good for you and what's good for the planet is, the report explained that a diet that reduces meat consumption by 50% and replaces it with fruit, vegetables and grain is the diet that contributes the most to reducing death by disease and has the "largest positive impact on the environment."

Overall, the Committee's report concludes that "the studies were consistent in showing that higher consumption of animal-based foods was associated with higher estimated environmental impact, whereas consumption of more plant-based foods as part of a lower meat-based or vegetarian-style dietary pattern was associated with estimated lower environmental impact compared to higher meat or non-plant-based dietary patterns."

9.  The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (Health)
The Committee found that Americans don't get enough vitamins A, C, D, E, folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium and fiber, and that they get too much salt and saturated fat. It also found that the majority of the US population doesn't eat enough vegetables, fruit, whole grains and dairy. The Committee recommends that people increase their consumption of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, nuts, legumes, low-/non-fat dairy or dairy alternatives and reduce their consumption of red and processed meat, refined grains, added sugar, sodium and saturated fat. It recommends replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats and replacing solid animal fats with vegetable oils and nuts.

The committee’s findings include:

Diet & Cardiovascular Disease
The Committee examined over 100 articles and 6 systematic reviews/meta-analyses and found strong and consistent evidence that diets high in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy and seafood and low in red and processed meat, refined grains and added sugar are associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Most studies also found a beneficial effect for regularly eating nuts and legumes. The Committee says that diets that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt but rich in fiber, potassium and unsaturated fat are beneficial for lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease.

This dietary pattern also lowers blood pressure. Proven dietary patterns include the DASH diet, Mediterranean diet and vegetarian diet. A recent meta-analysis of 7 controlled studies found that a vegetarian diet is associated with lower blood pressure compared to diets that include animal products. This dietary pattern was also found to improve cholesterol, lower risk of, and mortality from, cardiovascular disease and stroke; reduce mortality from circulatory disease and to lower the risk of coronary heart disease and ischemic heart disease.

Diet & Diabetes
The Committee examined 37 studies and a meta-analysis and found moderate evidence that diets high in vegetables, fruit and whole grains and low in red and processed meat, high-fat dairy, refined grains and added sugar reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. The high quality meta-analysis found a 21% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes from diets high in whole grains, vegetables and fruit; it found a 44% increase of risk from diets high in red and processed meat, high-fat dairy, refined grains and sweets.

Diet & Cancer
The Committee's systematic review of 22 articles found that moderate evidence indicates that a diet high in vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, lean meats/seafood, low-fat dairy and low in red and processed meat, saturated fat, soft drinks and sweets reduces the risk of colorectal cancer.

A systematic review of 26 studies found moderate evidence that diets rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grain and low in animal products and refined carbohydrates are associated with reduced risk of post-menopausal breast cancer. The Committee found that the evidence for pre-menopausal breast cancer was the same but is limited because of fewer studies.

A systematic review of 4 studies found limited evidence (because of the small number of studies) that lower risk of lung cancer is associated with a diet that is rich in vegetables, fruit, seafood, grains and legumes, lean versus higher fat meats and low/non-fat dairy.

Diet & Psychological and Neurological Illnesses
The systematic review of 30 articles found limited evidence that diets high in vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes and seafood is associated with a reduced risk of age-related cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. It found that diets high in red and processed meat are associated with greater age-related cognitive impairment. The evidence is limited because the studies are only recent but are rapidly developing. 

The systematic review of 19 articles concluded that diets high in seafood, vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes are associated with a reduced risk of depression. Diets high in red and processed meat and refined sugar are associated with an increased risk of depression.

Diet & Osteoporosis
The systematic review of 13 studies found limited evidence (limited by the modest--but growing--number of high quality studies) that diets high in vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts, legumes, dairy and unsaturated fat and low in meat and saturated fat is associated with better bone health, including decreased risks of fracture and osteoporosis.

The Committee's Conclusion
"The Committee's examination of the association between dietary patterns and various health outcomes revealed remarkable consistency in the findings and implications that are noteworthy. When looking at the dietary pattern conclusion statements across the various health outcomes, certain characteristics of the diet were consistently identified. Common characteristics of dietary patterns associated with positive health outcomes include higher intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-/non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts; moderate intake of alcohol; lower consumption of red and processed meat and low intake of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains. . . . For conclusions with moderate to strong evidence, higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental."

10. The New Canada Food Guide
The U.S. Department of Health and the USDA were not the only ones to review food policy recently. So did Health Canada. For the first time in Canada’s history, its new food policy is a scientific document and not a political one. For the first time, Health Canada consulted, not food industry groups, but high quality scientific studies.

The Canada Food Guide now recommends eating “plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods". As for protein, instead of meat and dairy, Health Canada now says you should "Choose protein foods that come from plants more often." It recommends choosing foods with healthy fats instead of saturated animal fats.

Health Canada's new food guide's graphic clearly shows an ideal daily plate being made up of 50% fruits and vegetables, 25% whole grains and 25% proteins, dominated by legumes, nuts and seeds.

The guide says that vegetables and fruits are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals and says to eat plenty of them to lower your risk of heart disease. 

The guide says that whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals and that eating high fiber foods can lower your risk of stroke, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

As for protein, the new guide says to "Choose protein foods that come from plants more often. Plant-based protein foods can provide more fibre and less saturated fat than other types of protein foods. This can be beneficial for your heart health." Nuts and soy are protein sources that improve cholesterol.

The guide says that choosing healthy plant fats instead of saturated animal fats can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and have beneficial effects on health. As for what kinds of fats are healthy fats, the guide lists unsaturated fats like olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil, peanut oil soybean oil, flaxseed oil, safflower and sunflower oil. 

As this review demonstrates, the food research of the past several years has revealed a remarkable consistency: what’s good for you is good for the planet. The research has found a remarkable overlap between the diet that most benefits human health and the diet that most benefits environmental health. All of the research points to an urgent need for us to switch from an animal-based diet to a predominantly plant based diet.

For the latest research to keep your family healthy, get The Natural Path delivered to your inbox each month: Subscribe!

For lots more on healthy eating for you and the planet, see Linda's book, The All-New Vegetarian Passport: a comprehensive health book and cookbook all in one.

 The Natural Path is intended for educational purposes only and is in no way intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. For health problems, consult a qualified health practitioner for a comprehensive program.

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