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Updated 30 January 2019

Plant-based diets good for the planet, and for you

Diets with a lower carbon footprint contain less red meat and dairy, and more healthful foods like poultry, whole grains and plant-based proteins.

A low-carbon diet – one high in vegetables and grains – is good for both your health and the planet, researchers say.

Food production is a major contributor to climate change, so researchers decided to examine the carbon footprint of more than 16 000 Americans' diets.

Lower-carbon diets healthier overall

"People whose diets had a lower carbon footprint were eating less red meat and dairy – which contribute to a larger share of greenhouse gas emissions and are high in saturated fat – and consuming more healthful foods like poultry, whole grains and plant-based proteins," said study author Diego Rose. He's a professor of nutrition and food security at Tulane University, in New Orleans.

The highest-carbon diets accounted for five times the emissions of the lowest-carbon diets. The high-carbon diets had greater amounts of meat, dairy and solid fats, and higher concentrations of total proteins and animal protein foods, the investigators said.

But even though lower-carbon diets were healthier overall, they contained some unhealthy items such as sugars and refined grains, and had lower amounts of important nutrients, such as iron, calcium and vitamin D, likely due to lower consumption of meat and dairy.

The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Total elimination not required

On 16 January, an international panel of experts issued a report in The Lancet that showed the average person's daily diet will need to change drastically during the next three decades to make sure everyone is fed without depleting the planet.

And a study released earlier this year by Rose's team found that 20% of Americans accounted for nearly half of the nation's diet-related greenhouse gas emissions.

The goal of the research is to help the public and policymakers understand that improving diet quality can also help the environment, according to Rose.

"We can have both. We can have healthier diets and reduce our food-related emissions," he said in a Tulane news release.

"And it doesn't require the extreme of eliminating foods entirely. For example, if we reduce the amount of red meat in our diets, and replace it with other protein foods such as chicken, eggs or beans, we could reduce our carbon footprint and improve our health at the same time," Rose explained.

Image credit: iStock

 
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