We all know that fruits and veggies are healthy for our bodies, but new research suggests that eating a plant-based diet is also healthy for the environment. According to a paper published in the journal Nature, eating less meat, less refined fat and less sugar reduces the impact of climate change.
"This is the first time this data has been put together to show these links are real and strong and not just the mutterings of food lovers and environmental advocates," says lead researcher, ecology professor G. David Tilman.
Scientists from the University of Minnesota analyzed 50 years of data from 100 countries to follow diet trends and its effect on human and environmental health. Tilman and graduate student Michael Clark discovered that a plant-based diet reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 41 percent.
The researchers found that a predominately vegetarian diet that includes some seafood also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes by 25 percent and a Mediterranean diet reduced the risk by 16 percent.
All three plant-based diets were found to reduce heart disease deaths by 20-26 percent and cancer rates between seven and 13 percent, compared to diets that focused on meat and processed foods.
While plant-based diets reduced health risks, the scientists also found that they reduce agriculture greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that could reduce the impact climate change has on food production.
"Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases," the researchers write.
Livestock production, which requires land clearing and raising grain for feed, accounts for over 75 percent of GHG emissions. Agriculture in general is to blame for 25 percent of these emissions that are influencing climate change.
As GHG emissions continue to rise, dietary trends that emphasize sugar, meat and processed foods continue to increase as well. Pork chops alone are expected to be to blame for an 80 percent increase in agriculture GHGs by 2050.
While vegetarian and other plant-based diets reduce agricultural greenhouse gases that impact climate change, the scientists note that " a pure junk food diet" could also help reduce GHG emissions. Still, they believe if vegetarian, pescetarian and Mediterranean diets become the norm by 2050 then "they were be no net increase in food production emissions."
But getting more people to put down the pork may be easier said than done. Not only are agriculture emissions increasing, but so are people's waistlines. More than 2.1 billion of the 7.2 billion people in the world are now overweight or obese.
"The dietary choices that individuals make are influenced by culture, nutritional knowledge, price, availability, taste and convenience, all of which must be considered if the dietary transition that is taking place is to be counteracted," the authors write.
The most effective way to reduce GHG emissions is through "better education," the scientists say, including teaching people about healthy, low-carbon production foods that "also tastes good."
Photo Credit:Rick Ligthelm