Updated 20 May 2014

High-protein diet not green

The high-protein diet craze is bad news for the environment. Learn how to make greener dietary choices, yet still pack in plenty of protein.

The high-protein low-carb diet craze (Noakes, Banting, Paleo, Dukan, Atkins) has sparked much debate about its health benefits.

But as high-protein adherents gleefully tuck in to animal foods, impacts on the planet’s health are being largely ignored.  

Read: Which meat harms the planet most?

Many high-protein foods take a heavy toll on the environment; factory-farmed meat especially so. Meat is the most production-intensive food to get to our plates, contributing the most to greenhouse gases and pollutants like nitrous oxide from fertilisers (used on crops grown mostly for animal feed), and requiring the most water.

Read: Save water: eat less meat

Proponents of the Noakes-Banting-Paleo trend may argue that their eating plans should be described as low-carbohydrate rather than high-protein, but the go-ahead these diets give to embracing animal foodstuffs is bound to increase their intake.

Giving the nod to meat comes at a time when the planet is already struggling under the burden of increased consumption: globally, consumption of meat has roughly doubled since mid-20th century, and the demand for dairy and eggs also continues to rise.

High-protein low-carb fans should be aware that not all medical experts support such diets; in fact many have warned against excessive animal-protein intake, linking it to health effects from kidney damage to cancer.

Read: The dangers of high-protein slimming diets

Meat-eaters: green your plate!

The good news for eco-minded protein lovers is that you can still pack in plenty of the stuff, as long as you keep in mind that some protein choices are greener than others, as follows:

Cut down on lamb and beef - these are the heaviest hitters in terms of environmental impact. Other meats are still fairly high-impact, but far less so relative to these two.

Cut back on cheese too - its carbon footprint is even larger than pork's by some estimates.

If you feel you must eat meat, eat the best quality meat you can get. Grass-fed or pasture-raised meat contains fewer antibiotics and hormones and is often more nutritious. The animals also live in more humane and generally more sanitary conditions.

Cut out processed and cured meats i.e. deli or luncheon meats like polony, hot dogs and smoked meats. Their high processing eats up resources, and consumption has been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Fish has the lowest relative impact of the meats, but only if it's a sustainably fished species, and not imported or transported long distances. Some farmed salmon and trout can be high-impact, but some are sustainably farmed  and do make the green-eating list.

Eat more plant proteins. Low environmental-impact choices include grains, legumes, nuts and tofu.

Waste less meat (and food generally). Estimate the correct portion sizes before you buy. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), uneaten meat accounts for over 20% of meat’s greenhouse gas emissions.

EWG has compared emissions associated with the production of several foods. Here they are ranked from most to least damaging:

FISH (Airshipped, some farmed salmon)
FISH (sustainable choices)
MILK (2%)

Read more:

Make Mondays meat-free
Are vegans unnatural beasts?

Image of lamb: Shutterstock

Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.


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