plant-based diet better for health and environment

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.

The Eat-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health includes thirty-seven of the world’s leading scientists, including Harvard’s Walter Willet one of the world’s leading experts on nutrition.

Their 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.

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 carbon dioxide is. 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.

This is at least the fourth study in the past few months to arrive at the same conclusion. Look at this and this and this. Earlier studies also support the same conclusion: look at this and this and this and this.

Maybe with this new study, we’ll finally start listening.

Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 2019;

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For much more on enjoying a diet that’s better for you and for 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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