13.11.2014 |

Plant-based diets could improve human and environmental health

Healthy vegetables (Photo: Olearys/

A new study suggests that healthier food choices could dramatically reduce the environmental costs of agriculture and food production. The paper published in the journal ‘Nature’ by scientists at the University of Minnesota gathered 50 years of data from 100 of the world’s most populous nations. The scientists analysed data on the environmental impact of food production, diet trends, diet-related illnesses and population growth. “We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage,” said Professor of Ecology G. David Tilman. With rising incomes between 1961 and 2009, people consumed more meat, empty calories and total calories per person, the researchers say. The study linked global diet trends to forecasts of population and income growth. The scientists predict that diets in 2050 will include less fruits and vegetables, but almost 60% more empty calories and 25 to 50% more pork, poultry, beef, dairy and eggs. These changes will contribute to increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower life expectancy. These diets would lead to an 80% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions from food production, as well as to habitat destruction due to land clearing for agriculture. The study then compared the omnivorous diets to the traditional Mediterranean diet, a pescetarian diet (with fish as the only animal protein) and a vegetarian diet. Switching to these alternative diets could reduce Type 2 diabetes by 16 to 41%, cancer by 7 to 13% and death from heart disease by about 20% compared to the omnivore diet. In addition, adopting these alternative diets could prevent most or all of the increased greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction that would otherwise be caused by both current diet trends and population growth. “The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance”, the authors write.

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