There are many benefits to adopting a climate-friendly diet. Consider these perks when deciding whether to change your eating habits.
It’s Better for the Environment
Food production is the largest cause of global environmental change and is responsible for up to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, per The Lancet report. Following a climatarian diet will almost certainly reduce these harmful emissions, Dr. Clark says. If everyone switched to a vegan diet, for example, we could cut food-related emissions by 70 percent by the year 2050, according to projections published in March 2016 in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers also predict that shifting to a more sustainable food system will reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, biodiversity loss, and water and land use. Currently, agriculture occupies 40 percent of global land, while food production accounts for 70 percent of freshwater use, The Lancet report notes.
Your diet qualifies as climate-friendly if its carbon footprint equals less than 2,000 g of CO2 emissions per day, according to an article published in May 2019 in Environmental Science & Technology. For reference, following the U.S. dietary guidelines results in the highest carbon footprint (3.83 kilograms, or 3,830 g of CO2 per day) compared with recommended diets in Germany, India, the Netherlands, Oman, Thailand, and Uruguay, according to research published in March 2021 in Nutrition Journal.
Shifting to a healthy, sustainable global diet will mean making major changes, including a 50 percent reduction in global consumption of red and meat, and a greater than 100 percent increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes, per The Lancet report.
However, even small changes can make a big difference. “You don’t have to go entirely toward a plant-based diet, but going in that direction will have benefits,” Clark says.
In fact, swapping just 10 percent of your daily caloric intake from beef and processed meat for fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes could lower your food-based carbon footprint by 33 percent, according to research published in August 2021 in Nature Food.
It Can Be Healthier
A climate-friendly diet may carry health benefits. “People in North America are only eating about 60 percent of what they should be eating in fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Chaudhary, who’s also an assistant professor in the department of civil engineering at Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India. Moving toward an eating pattern that emphasizes plant-based foods, and reduces red meat and sugar, can save an estimated 11.1 million deaths per year in 2030, reducing premature death by 19 percent, per The Lancet report.
“In the U.S., most of the benefits would come from a reduction in obesity, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers,” Clark says.
Consumption of processed meats, for example, is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, according to a review published in 2017 in International Journal of Preventive Medicine. Meanwhile, a study published August 2019 in Journal of the American Heart Association revealed that diets high in plant foods and low in animal foods are associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease.
“You don’t have to bring your meat consumption down to zero, but if you can cut it by 10 to 20 percent, it would be good for you and the planet,” Chaudhary says.
It May Be Cheaper (for Some)
Depending on where you live, it may cost less to eat a climate-friendly diet. In one cost-comparing study, published in October 2021 in The Lancet Planetary Health, healthy and sustainable diets (such as vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian) were up to 34 percent cheaper than current diets in high-income countries like the United States.
To put those savings into perspective, the researchers estimate that the typical western diet costs about $50 per person every week, flexitarian diets cost around $42, vegetarian $34, and vegan $33. The exception: Pescatarian diets, which include more fish and seafood, can cost 2 percent more than current diets.
Yet this same study found that climate-friendly diets are up to 45 percent more expensive in low-income countries. So, the savings may depend on where you live.