When you reach for plant-based foods and cut back on meat and full-fat dairy, you’re doing your health a favor. 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 and lead author of an article published in November 2019 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The article explores the links between food, environment, and human health.
The biggest winners, according to the 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, a study published in June 2018 in the journal Science, 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 rain forests, 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 modeling has shown that cutting back on meat and dairy by half could achieve up to a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
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Below, find seven steps for improving your diet that are also friendly to the environment.