Plant-Based Diet: Healthy, More Environmentally-Friendly, And Cheaper
Back in 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defined sustainable diets as “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.” Ever since then, more and more countries have attempted to transition their citizens’ average diets towards a more sustainable pattern. In the U.K., for instance, three changes likely to have the most significant impact were recommended:
- reducing consumption of meat and dairy products;
- reducing consumption of food and drink of low nutritional value (i.e., fatty and sugary foods);
- reducing food waste.
The national Dutch recommendations went a step further and included a fourth recommendation: eating two portions of fish a week. However, researchers claim that despite potential health benefits, this may also lead to ecological detriment.
Currently, food is regarded as the largest contributor to global warming, with more than 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) and one-third of the land use (LU) related to food production. Scientists suggest that efficiency-focused technological measures might not be enough to reduce GHGE levels sufficiently. Meanwhile, access to available, nutritious, and safe food is crucial to ensure food security for both the current population and generations to come.
In this study, a team of researchers from the Netherlands set off to identify diets with low price and climate impact, yet fulfilling all nutritional requirements. They reported that the average Dutch diet is not in line with the current dietary guidelines: fruit, vegetable, fish, and fiber intakes are below recommended thresholds, where only 3–14% of adults consume enough fruits and vegetables. 2007-2010 data from 699 adults, aged 31-50, was used when determining what the Dutch typically ate in 2013. The food products outside the 206 represented in this study constituted slightly more than a quarter of the total energy intake. The recommendations for 33 macro- and micronutrients were set to be met. GHGE, LU, and fossil energy use were accounted for when evaluating the environmental impact of each food type. Water use was not included in this study, due to a lack of data for specific foods. A mathematical model was set up and used to calculate an optimal diet — one that is cheap, environmentally-friendly, healthy, and does not invoke too many changes in terms of what products shall be consumed.
The optimized diet, consisting of 63 popular and low-priced basic products, is primarily plant-based. It is rich in carbohydrates and fiber, and consists of wholegrain bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, open-field (i.e. not greenhouse) vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, soy drink, and some dairy. Complemented with fish, eggs, spreads, low-fat margarine, coffee, and tea, it was shown to ensure the intake of all required nutrients at adequate levels for both male and female adults.
The climate impact of such a proposed diet is very low – nearly twice lower than the average Dutch diet. This reduction was mainly driven by the lower intakes of meat, dairy, and drinks. Interestingly, at a surprisingly low cost of €2.60 day, too, corresponding to a two-person diet priced at €37 per week – this diet represents a significant reduction as compared to the reported Dutch average of €82. But would people choose to adopt such a diet?
The researchers worry that some of the proposed changes may not be accepted by the consumers, especially the recommended strong reductions in dairy and meat. Despite the fact that the study attempted to minimize the amount of drastic dietary changes, it still resulted in the near elimination of meat and cheese, and the introduction of soy products. There are some positives, though: the original dietary survey data revealed that half of the population did not consume milk, three-quarters did not eat eggs and a third did not consume cheese during the days of data collection. Furthermore, more than 10% of the people did not eat meat at all, suggesting that a significant portion of the Dutch population are already on their way towards more sustainable dietary habits.
Animal advocates can use the results of this study as a counterargument to claims that environmentally conscious and healthy dietary choices must come at a high cost. Sound environmental arguments can only quicken the reduction of human dependence on animal products. Advocates should encourage all countries to develop and adopt region-specific Sustainable Development Goals-aligned dietary guidelines. However, any future calculations should also include modern plant-derived meat and dairy alternatives (and their full environmental footprints, including water use) as dietary incorporation of processed foods could reduce reluctance to change one’s diet and future recidivism rates.