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Changing your diet can ‘save the planet’

Changing your diet can ‘save the planet’ Shutterstock
13 Nov
With increasing pressure on agriculture, climate, population numbers and health, a much needed panacea for humanity’s manifold crises may be just a bite away

The so-called ‘Mediterranean diet’ has begun to gain momentum across the environmental science community. A study by ecologist Dr David Tilman, and his team at the University of Minnesota, claims with a shift in lifestyle we can live longer and save the planet. The study, published in Nature on November 12, suggests that by adopting the diet on a global scale, humans could not only live longer and healthier lives, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the habitats of endangered species.

The typical Mediterranean diet encompasses a high intake of vegetables, pulses, fruits and wholegrains. Red meat consumption should be limited, and preferably un-processed, with fish and poultry eaten in moderate amounts as healthy substitutes. Similarly, dairy intake should be moderate. No refined sugars, like sugary drinks and snacks and, as is tradition across the mediterranean, cook with olive oil rather than butter made from animal fat. Drinking lots of water is integral to a healthy lifestyle and red wine during meals is permitted, but no more than two small glasses per day for women, and three for men.

‘We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage,’ said Tilman, professor in the University’s College of Biological Sciences. The research examined the current environmental costs of food production, diet trends, relationships between diet and health, and population growth; projecting this data forward to 2050 the team came to a striking analysis.

The forecast concluded that if we continue eating excessive amounts of meat protein, refined sugars, dairy and eggs, there would be a global increase of some of the most prolific diseases and the environment would continue to suffer. Incidents of type 2 diabetes, some cancers and coronary heart disease would be greatly amplified. Predictions also suggest there would be a staggering 80 per cent increase in the global greenhouse gas emissions produced biologically and mechanically during food production, as well as continued habitat destruction cleared for agriculture.

cowsRearing livestock for meat and dairy. Photo: Shutterstock

This suggested international change in behaviour has been presented as the solution to the tightly linked ‘trilemma’ of diet, environment and health. If implemented, by 2050 there could be a reduction in incidence of type 2 diabetes by about 25 per cent, cancer by about ten per cent and death from heart disease by about 20 per cent.

The greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction which are caused by current global diets, and which are increasing inline with global population, would also be significantly reduced.

‘Health would be greatly increased and at the same time global greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by an amount equal to the current greenhouse gas emissions of all cars, trucks, plans trains and ships,’ said Tilman. ‘In addition, this dietary shift would prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannas as large as half of the United States.’

A similar argument had been presented by medical journalist Michael Mosley for BBC Horizon in his 2014 two-part series Should I Eat Meat?. The series explores the contrasting effects of eating a meat-rich diet versus a diet rich in vegetables and grains, and compared the following factors: health impact ; volume of greenhouse gasses emitted during production; and contrasting total areas of land used. His all-round conclusion? Globally, we need to eat less meat.

med-dietThis ‘nutrition pyramid’ represents the proportions of food eaten in a Mediterranean diet. Photo: Shutterstock

Vegetarian and pescatarian options are also pegged as optimum lifestyles due to their lack of meat, but the Mediterranean diet instrinsically limits refined sugars, dairy and animal fats too. It is therefore concluded to be the overriding cure for many of the health and environmental crises the planet faces today.

The clip below is taken from Michael Mosley’s BBC Horizon documentary Should I Eat Meat?, and explores the sustainability of meat production.

 You can find the original research paper here.

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