In building a healthier plate that focuses less on red meat and more on plants, you can help reduce your carbon footprint.
When you reach for plant-based foods, you’re doing your health a favour. But did you know that the planet is thanking you too?
Research shows that many of the foods that are most harmful to human health are also the worst for the environment, contributing to everything from climate change to the loss of animal and plant species around the world.
“Choosing a better, more sustainable diet is one of the main ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment,” says Michael Clark, PhD, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
The biggest winners, according to research: plant foods, such as legumes, whole grains, and vegetables. The worst offenders: animal products, especially red meat.
Indeed, meat and dairy together account for about 14.5 percent of human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Of the total livestock sector, beef and dairy contribute the most emissions (41 percent and 20 percent, respectively).
Meanwhile, one study revealed livestock’s extra-large footprint on the environment.
Meat and dairy provide just 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein but take up 83 percent of farmland.
On top of that, forests around the world, including rainforests, are being cleared to make room for livestock, especially cattle ranching, according to the FAO. This deforestation not only causes habitat loss for animals and plants, threatening biodiversity, it also destroys the forests, which play a critical role in helping to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
When it comes to eating for environmental health, the No. 1 takeaway is to choose plant-based over animal-based foods. And if you’re not ready to nix choices like burgers and steak entirely, reducing your intake of red meat is a move in the right direction. Large-scale modelling has shown that cutting back on meat and dairy by half could achieve up to a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Axe Red Meat From Your Diet
The environmental costs of producing red meat – chiefly beef and lamb – take the greatest toll on the top five environmental indicators, including greenhouse gas emissions, degradation of soil and water resources, and the disruption of ecosystems.
Producing processed red meat delivers the second worst environmental impact. So ideally, seek to replace red meat with high-quality plant protein, but even opting for red meat only now and then would be an improvement.
Eat Nutritious Lentils for Plant-Based Protein
Plant foods like beans, peas, and lentils are some of the most healthy foods around and can easily substitute for animal protein, according to the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health. And one study called legumes a win-win for agricultural sustainability.
Nutritionally speaking, in addition to plant protein, legumes provide fibre – a key nutrient, albeit one most people don’t get enough of – and B vitamins, and they may play a role in helping prevent certain cancers and heart disease, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the U.S., which specialises in research and advocacy on agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, and drinking water pollutants, ranks lentils as the No. 1 climate-friendly protein.
Opt for Unprocessed, Nutritious Whole Grains Over Refined
Cereals and grains are unsung heroes, scoring high marks for health and environmental benefits, as long as they are minimally processed and whole. “Whole grains offer far more benefits to our bodies than refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients,” explains Lilian Cheung, RD, a lecturer on nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In addition to fibre, whole grains contain B vitamins, minerals, and protein, as well as compounds that act as antioxidants, helping the body prevent disease, Cheung says.
Take it one step further by opting for ancient grains like buckwheat, barley, wild rice, spelt, and teff, which are even more nutritious and can improve soil health and help offset carbon emissions, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Knorr.
Swap Farmed Salmon for Shellfish
Long a darling of healthful eating, salmon has a serious dark side. Salmon are now almost exclusively raised in farms, essentially pens, where densely packed fish are often continuously fed antibiotics to prevent bacterial infections.
Research shows that this practice can also breed antibiotic resistance. As the BBC reports, farmed salmon are also routinely treated with chemicals to ward off sea-lice infestations, which have become common in recent years.
In general, wild salmon is said to be safer than farm-raised for personal health.
However excellent alternatives are shellfish, like oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops. All are nutritional powerhouses and high in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and minerals, per Oceana, a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans.
Shellfish have a low environmental impact and, because they are filter feeders, can actually help clean water resources.
Make Room for Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been cultivated for centuries for their flavour and nutritional value. One study found that adding just one serving of mushrooms to a meal significantly increases fibre and several micronutrients that we often don’t get enough of, such as vitamin D and potassium.
In fact, certain types of mushrooms exposed to UV light are the only edible plant source of vitamin D, according to the National Institutes of Health. In addition to a variety of other nutrients like B vitamins, mushrooms contain substances that have demonstrated antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer effects in laboratory and animal studies, according to a review of research. What’s more, research suggests that mushrooms may help protect against cancer, including breast cancer in premenopausal women.
As for their environmental impact, mushrooms are noted for their climate-friendly ability to absorb carbon. In other words, they may help reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Trade Asparagus for Broccoli
While healthy, asparagus is one of 10 common climate-damaging foods, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit environmental advocacy group.
For starters, growing asparagus requires 258 gallons of water per pound, while broccoli, by comparison, uses about 34 gallons per pound.
Most people know broccoli has health benefits, and like other cruciferous veggies, it is rich in a variety of plant compounds that may help reduce inflammation and cancer risk, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Choose Cheese Wisely
Cheese generates the third highest greenhouse gas emissions after lamb and beef. These foods produce the highest emissions in part because they derive from ruminant animals, which generate methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the EWG. Cheese also has a high carbon footprint because it requires a lot of milk – about 10 pounds for 1 pound of hard cheese produced.
If you’re not ready to say goodbye to cheese, the NRDC recommends opting for brands produced locally to help offset transportation emissions; buying organic products, which aren’t produced with chemical pesticides and fertilisers; and choosing less-dense products, like cottage cheese, which require less milk to produce.
SOURCE: Everyday Health