Can Your Diet Be Healthy And Good For The Planet?

by Dr Shireen Kassam

Diet-related diseases are at an all-time high and the latest IPCC report on climate change has been called a ‘code red for humanity’. These two issues are intimately related.

Our food system is at the centre of three global crises: health, climate and biodiversity. We also have a crisis of ethics whereby more than a billion people remain hungry despite the production of enough food to feed two planets. If everyone ate a diet typical of the wealthiest nations, we would need seven planets to feed the world. 

The current global food and agriculture system is a major driver of climate change, water pollution, land degradation, loss of wildlife and biodiversity, deforestation and ocean destruction. Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than all forms of transportation combined.

One of the most comprehensive analyses of the global farming system, assessing all aspects of the food chain from ‘farm to fork’, concluded that shifting to a plant-based diet would have the most impact on planetary health than any other driver of climate change.

Meat and dairy production use 83% of farmland and produces 60% of agricultural GHG emissions, whilst only providing 18% of calories and 37% of protein. Even the production of meat and dairy with the lowest environmental footprint is less sustainable that the worst performing plant food source. Fresh water fishing and grass-fed beef, generally considered more sustainable, was found to have a greater environmental effect than once thought and creates more GHG emissions than any plant food source.

Further studies have examined the impact of shifting towards plant-based diets on both human and environment health and concluded definitively that it would provide combined benefits. Plant-based diets could reduce GHG emissions by 56% and other environmental impacts of the food system by 6–22%, whilst at the same time improving the nutritional quality of our diet and significantly reducing the burden of chronic disease and reducing premature mortality by 22%.

How can our diet choice address these global crises?

We have a simple solution in plain sight. A healthy plant-based diet, including a vegan diet, would not only improve global health, preventing an estimated 1 in 5 deaths, but would keep the food system within planetary boundaries necessary to avert climate disaster, whilst promoting biodiversity and feeding more people. The Planetary Health Plate created by the Eat-Lancet commission, to keep the global food system within planetary boundaries, is a predominantly plant-based diet. 85% of energy is this type of diet is derived from healthy plant foods and the report acknowledges that a 100% plant-based diet is not only nutritionally adequate but has additional benefits for planetary health. 

An excellent new analysis from the EPIC study cohort, included more than 400,000 participants from Europe followed for 14 years. The study examined the impact of diet choice on human and planetary health. Planetary impacts were assessed by considering diet-related GHG emissions and land use.

The results are obvious and clear. Diets heavy in meat and dairy and thus contributing most to GHG emissions and land use were shown to be associated with an increased risk of death from all-causes and death from coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Remarkably, diets that are worst for the planet were shown to be associated with an increased risk of developing up to 14 different cancers. Overall, by choosing a climate-friendly diet such as the Eat-Lancet Planetary Health Plate, up to 19-63% of all deaths and up to 10-40% of cancers could be prevented whilst at the same time reducing GHG emissions by 50% and land use by 62%.

Adopting a plant-based diet will also reduce the use of antibiotics and hence the generation of antibiotic-resistant infections, reduce foodborne infections and the future risk of pandemic infections.

What can you do to support better health?

Diet change is one of the most impactful actions you can take to improve personal and planetary health. Without diet change we cannot meet our climate targets. The UK’s National Food Strategy Plan clearly lays out the problem and makes the connection between our food system and climate and health outcomes. The recommendations are a step in the right direction, but don’t go far enough. These include a 30% reduction in meat consumption, whilst increasing fruits and vegetables and fibre consumption. But it seems the UK Government are not brave enough to support the implementation of these necessary changes, likely due to food industry pressure. 

As COP26 approaches in the birthplace of The Vegan Kind, Glasgow, let’s make a big noise about the urgent need to transition to a plant-based food system. We do not need to wait for policy change, we can all change what’s on our plate today. Meat and dairy are not required in the diet, contribute to ill health and are destroying our planet. Sign up to the Plant Based Treaty and share this widely. We need to be shouting ‘diet change not climate change’.

If you have not already made the transition, sign up for our 21-day plant-based health challenge for support and guidance on adopting a healthy plant-based diet. If you need help with your health concerns, then book an appointment at Plant Based Health Online. We will support you to improve your diet and lifestyle and show you how to thrive.