Chronic disease caused by poor dietary choice is by far our leading cause of premature death. The World Health Organisation suggests that the vast majority of the world’s 60 million premature deaths every year could be prevented by improved nutrition (see their report).
But in 2009 an article published in the Lancet (one of the world’s most prestigious journals) suggested that the biggest health threat facing humans in the 21st century was climate change, not chronic disease.
I therefore wanted to write an article explaining how we can address both issues with “one stone” and explain why both health threats are so inextricably linked.
For those who don’t realise, the foods which cause the most chronic disease are also those that are causing the most environmental destruction.
The meat and dairy industry is by far the biggest global contributor to greenhouse emissions – they massively outstrip all car, industry and home emissions combined. Equally, we know that fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, legumes and grains have the least environmental impacts on the planet (these were the findings of this recent landmark French study).
In 2012, The European Commission also commissioned a study that looked at what we can do as individuals to help reduce our environmental footprints. They found that if all Europeans used electric cars then it would prevent upwards of 174 million tons of carbon being released into our atmosphere every year. They also suggested turning off electrical appliances that were not being used and turning down thermostats.
But according to the study, the biggest change that people could make in reducing their carbon footprint would be adopting a meat and dairy free lifestyle. This would prevent more than 216 million tons of carbon being released every year. As stated in the study, what we are eating has a greater impact on the environment than car emissions ever could. The study also suggests that even adopting a “meatless Monday” could have a greater impact on the environment than working from home and avoiding the commute for a week.
But these limited dietary changes are not sufficient. According to leading studies (like this one), without significant shifts towards plant based diets, and a significant reduction in meat and dairy consumption, then we will only benefit from minimal environmental impacts. This is quite a logical finding really when you consider that the fossil fuel energy input for meat and dairy production is approximately 25 calories of fossil fuel input for every single calorie of meat produced. Or in simple terms, this is 11 times more than grain production (study).
This science was taken one step further by a team of scientists in Italy. They analysed seven diets to ascertain which caused the least environmental impacts (you can view their findings here). They compared everything from vegan to paleo and for each diet they analysed production carcinogens, fossil fuels used, land use, ecosystems, climate change, air pollution, ozone layer effects and many other facts. Their findings can be seen in the below table:
You can see that the light grey shows the amount of resources required to produce the food associated with that particular diet. The black shows the negative impact that that particular diet has on ecosystems. And the dark grey shows the adverse effects that the diet has on human health. So clearly, if you care about the environment and your body then a plant based organic vegan diet is the way to go.
But if we know this then why aren’t more people adopting this healthier and more environmentally friendly lifestyle? Well as the scientists suggest in the 2012 European Commission report, the hurdles for reducing meat and dairy production is caused by ingrained habits and cultures. A lack of understanding and knowledge are also widely cited as a major hurdles to overcome. The Commission suggest that viable options for reducing the environmental impacts of the meat and dairy industry include: a meat tax, putting the greenhouse gas emission information on the packaging and also widespread educational campaigns.
For me the biggest issue is that people don’t realise how destructive the meat industry is on our planet. And until people truly accept that it is by far the biggest contributor to climate change and greenhouse emissions then change will be stagnant. The positives though are that things are slowly changing. Little by little companies, organisations, governments and peoples understandings and thought processes are changing. For example, in the UK the NHS have adopted an innovative approach to reducing its carbon footprint. NHS staff and patients are now being served with “lower carbon” menus which includes less meat, dairy and eggs. Even governments have started adopting different strategies. In Sweden the government has updated their dietary recommendations which advises the population to eat dramatically less meat and dairy (for both health and environmental reasons).
But these adoptions don’t go nearly far enough. If governments only adopt conservative approaches for tackling climate change caused directly by the meat and dairy industry then we won’t derive the potential health benefits from consuming less meat, fish, eggs and dairy. The science is clear though. By helping our planet we can help ourselves.