Bummed About Climate Change? Change Your Diet

What constitutes an an environmentally sustainable diet?

Reductions in environment-damaging foods are largest in high-income nations, where fruit, vegetables, and nuts are generally recommended for replacement calories. Unsplash/Mike Dorner

Changing your diet and consuming fewer animal products is a challenge—whether you’re making a lifestyle change to full-blown veganism or simply tweaking your diet to include less meat or dairy, pursuing a plant-based diet may seem impossible in a world of constant temptation. Achieving your health goals is more easily said than done when the food industry has made unhealthy food more accessible than ever, infiltrating social media by hacking your cravings in a constant stream of mouthwatering posts. According to a new study published in the National Academy of Sciences, a helpful motivating factor to keeping your diet on track is to consider not only how it will benefit your own health, but the health of the environment.

Researchers at the University of Leiden, Netherlands, were prompted to examine the connection between food sustainability and national dietary recommendations after realizing the lack of awareness international governments create for an environmentally sustainable diet—despite all of the information supporting a plant-based diet’s positive effect on global sustainability. After analyzing 37 countries worldwide, only four included any mention of sustainability in their official dietary guidelines.

The team studied the potential impacts of a plant-based diet on environmental factors such as carbon emissions, water quality, and land use to see if a change in countries’ official dietary guidelines could result in a lower environmental impact of humans. What they found was that the nations that would reap the biggest sustainable payoff, both economically and in the health of their environment, were the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Canada. The environmental effects would vary in turn with the individual needs of each country. “For example,” the study says, “India focuses on increasing caloric and nutritional content, whereas the United States focuses on reducing caloric intake.”

What constitutes an an environmentally sustainable diet? “Compared with average national diets, NRDs [Nationally Recommended Diet] generally recommend a substantial reduction in sugars, oils, meat, and dairy,” the study reads. The study also takes into consideration the economic power of each nation and individual governments’ ability to create change, showing that higher-income nations would be able to instate the greatest reductions in environment-damaging foods. “These reductions are largest in high-income nations, where fruit, vegetables, and nuts are generally recommended for replacement calories. These changes are very large and would require significant departures from current dietary patterns It is likely that any shifts to these recommended diets would occur gradually,” says the study.

The study highlights an enormous area of opportunity for governments to help improve the environment while improving national public health, especially in a time when global warming’s escalation is creating a powerful influence over global natural disasters. “Climate change is hurting us without a doubt,” stated James Byrne, a professor who studies climate change at the University of Lethbridge said during a press conference American Geophysical Union in New Orleans last week. “Houston, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, British Columbia… California, I think they declared it the worst fire season.”

The United States government’s antiquated stance on the spiraling global issue is disheartening to activists and citizens alike hoping to reduce carbon emissions and participate in the international effort to curb the devastating effects of climate change. Last Monday, President Donald Trump vowed to remove climate change from the official National Security Strategy list of global threats, reversing an Obama-era decision to write climate change into the list as an “urgent and growing threat to our national security.” The U.S. remains the only nation to refrain from signing the Paris Climate Accord, the Environmental Protection Agency has removed every utterance of the words “climate change” from its website, and the Trump administration remains staunchly in denial. However, it is possible to make small changes in your own everyday life to help the cause, and it starts with cutting out as many animal products as possible from your diet.

It is clear that much more progress needs to be made when it comes to global environmental and public health, especially in the United States, but the researchers write off the study as a promising one. “Although I think we could do even better, the message is a positive one, overall,” said study author Dr. Paul Behrens “’Especially if middle- and high- income countries modify their diets to align with nationally recommended diets. This will generally mean eating more plant products such as legumes and vegetables, and fewer animal products. If you know your diet isn’t healthy, you have one more reason to change, for our environment too. It might just be possible to have your cake and eat it!”

Bummed About Climate Change? Change Your Diet