- What is a Plant-Based Diet?
- What is Climate Change?
- How the Standard American Diet Impacts the Environment
- Why Eating a more Plant-Based Diet Helps the Planet
- How do I Start a Plant-Based Diet?
You've probably heard the term plant-based diet, especially in recent years. You might have some vague idea that it's a healthy alternative to many standard diets, especially the typical American diet. There are various ways to approach a plant-based diet, from a whole-food, plant-based diet (WFPB diet) to a vegan or vegetarian diet. This approach to eating gives us two main takeaways: a healthier you and a cleaner environment. You might not think that what you eat can positively impact the climate, but it can.
What is a Plant-based Diet?
The main idea behind a plant-based diet is to incorporate more plant-based foods into your daily food intake while also eliminating or minimizing animal products (1). There are several ways to go about this.
A WFPB diet means you choose most of your food from plant-based sources. A whole-food, plant-based diet has the following guidelines(2):
- Avoid animal products. If you can't, then limit them.
- There is a strong focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts.
- No refined foods, so stay away from processed oils and added sugars.
- Food quality is super important. Always try to go locally sourced and organic.
If you're looking to switch to a healthier diet, the Mediterranean diet (3) is a good starting point that can lead you to a more vegetarian or vegan diet if you decide to follow that route. The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based foods but still incorporates animal and dairy products.
There are also a variety of vegetarian diets (4).
- The classic vegetarian diet is plant-based and can include eggs and dairy. No meats allowed. This includes poultry, fish, and seafood. It is also known as a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
- There's flexitarian or semi-vegetarian. The difference between this and the vegetarian diet is that flexitarian allows for meat occasionally.
- Pescatarian is like a vegetarian diet but includes fish and seafood. Other types of meat are not allowed.
The vegan diet (5) is also an option for consuming plant-based foods. With a bit of planning, this can be a very healthy choice. The vegan diet does not allow for any animal products.
There are various ways that choosing to eat plant-based is beneficial to your health.
- These diets can help with weight loss. Obesity is an epidemic (6), and combating it with a healthy diet is a big piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, 69% of US adults are considered overweight. These diets tend to have higher fiber content and exclude processed foods. This combination helps shed excess weight.
- Twelve studies (7) with more than 1100 participants showed that the people eating plant-based diets, on average, lost four and a half pounds more than those not assigned plant-based diets.
- These diets are heart-healthy (8). For example, a study of over 200,000 people found that those that adopted a plant-based diet were at significantly lower risk of heart disease.
- The risk of getting certain types of cancers drops significantly (9).
- There is also a lower risk of diabetes (10) when consuming this type of diet and preventing cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer's disease (11).
What is Climate Change?
When we speak of climate change, we're talking about the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns worldwide (12). These changes can occur naturally; however, since the 1800s, humans have been a significant catalyst of climate change.
Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas act as a blanket worldwide. This traps the sun's heat, and as a result, temperatures rise.
Carbon dioxide increases from the clearing of forests and land. In addition, methane emissions from landfills have taken a toll. The main culprits of the problems we face with climate change are energy, industry, transport, buildings, agriculture, and land use.
The consequences of the temperature rise are significant. It's not just warmer weather. It's intense droughts, more fires, melting ice caps, more intense and damaging storms, water shortage, rising sea levels, flooding, and an alarming decline in biodiversity (13) which is the variety of all living things on the planet.
How the Standard American Diet Impacts the Environment
The standard American diet is harming the planet. It is also known as the SAD diet. The name says it all, right?
The reality is that the standard American diet isn't sustainable. There's too much consumption, and there's too much waste. In addition, there are a lot of processed and refined foods. So, it's terrible for your body and bad for the planet (14).
A study (15) shows how the U.S. Dietary Guidelines aren't sustainable globally. There isn't enough land to produce the food required to meet these guidelines. And most people in the US don't even follow the guidelines making their diet even more detrimental.
Fresh water is used in food production. It is the biggest user of fresh water. Food production is responsible for 14.5 percent of the global greenhouse emissions. Nearly 40% of the planet's land is used for food production. This is a problem for the health of the world.
A typical factory farm feeds animals grain that requires more than 127 million acres of land to grow. Switching to grass-fed beef wouldn't necessarily solve the land usage problem. A study (16) found that changing entirely to grass-fed would require 30% more cattle to meet the current consumer demands. That means A LOT more land would be necessary for pasture-raised cattle to forage.
Why Eating a More Plant-based Diet Helps the Planet
A report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that changing diets from meat and animal-based to plant-based yields a high potential for leaving less of a carbon footprint on the world (17).
The report (Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change) contains studies showing that a shift to a plant-based diet could reduce greenhouse gas. Compared to current consumption patterns in industrialized countries, diets rich in nuts, vegetables, beans, and fruits were more beneficial to the climate.
The world would be healthier, but people would also see the personal health benefits. According to another study (18), mortality and greenhouse gases could be reduced by 10% and 70% by 2050 if a global shift were to occur.
Again, the SAD diet (standard American diet) is overloaded with meat products. In a study of 16,800 Americans (19, 20), greenhouse gases were highest in meat. Veal, pork, and beef are just a few types of meat contributing to the problem. The diets resulting in the lowest gas emissions had the lowest amount of meat or no meat. Many studies worldwide support these findings (21, 22, 23).
The reason for this is because of the emissions produced from livestock. 14.5% of the world's human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, especially beef and dairy cattle.
Let's say you just can't live without meat. It's okay because you can still help improve the climate by incorporating more portion control and adding more plant-based foods. Eat more leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and fruits, and reduce the amount of meat you consume.
In a study (24) of 55,504 people, those who ate medium amounts of meat per day had a lower carbon footprint. By making sure your meat intake is 1.8 – 3.5 ounces, or 50 – 100 grams, per day, you'll still positively impact the climate. Remember, a serving of meat is approximately 3 oz or 85 grams. Sticking to that metric of a serving per day and filling the rest of your diet with plant-based options will help your health and help the climate.
Cutting back on dairy products also helps to reduce the carbon footprint left behind. A study of 2101 adults found that the dairy industry was the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (25).
When it comes to dairy cattle, their manure alone emits greenhouse gasses like methane, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, and ammonia (26, 27, 28). Cheese is the biggest culprit out of all the dairy products, given that it takes so much milk to produce. As a result, it has more significant greenhouse gas emissions than other animal products, including pork and chicken (29).
How do I Start a Plant-Based Diet?
Below are some steps to help you get started with a plant-based diet.
- Start with vegetables. Try to make your meals colorful, and make it a habit to have vegetables with every meal, or at least lunch and dinner. You can even replace other snacks with vegetables and enjoy them with hummus.
- If you can't live without meat, then have smaller amounts. Retrain your brain when it comes to meat consumption. Instead of making meat the centerpiece of your meals, treat it as a side or garnish.
- Make salads the centerpiece. Build your meals around salads. This way, you start with leafy green vegetables and fruits. This can allow you to add various options to make each salad unique.
- Go vegetarian or vegan with a meal at least once a week. It's a simple step that can lead to healthier habits, especially when you compare how the different types of dishes impact you. Wondering which day to start? You're in luck! It turns out Mondays are the day to go meatless. The Meatless Monday Movement campaign began in 2003, though its routes go back to World War I. People tend to be more open-minded about trying new things on Mondays, so the initiative is to replace meat with healthy plant-based foods on Mondays. Each Monday will add up, and that consistency will help you become healthier and lighten your carbon footprint on the planet.