We know that the food choices we make can have marked effect on our health and wellbeing, but it can also have an impact on the climate too…
At FBF collective, we are strong advocates of seasonal fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, pulses and legumes, and a healthy scattering of treats. But a recent study has proven that this is the best way to eat, for our health as well as for the planet (1). The health and environmental impacts of 15 foods common in western diets were assessed, and researchers found fruit, veg, beans and whole grains were best for both avoiding disease and protecting the climate.
In contrast, eating red and processed meat excessively causes the most ill-health emissions and pollution, and of all the foods studied, a daily serving of processed red meat is associated with the largest increase in risk of heart disease, type II diabetes, and strokes.
However, there were some notable exceptions in the study. Fish for example, is generally a healthy choice, but has a bigger environmental footprint on average than the plant-based foods mentioned above. When buying fish always make sure it has the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification on it (pictured below for reference) – this sets a standard for sustainable fisheries to abide by. High-sugar foods, such as chocolates, biscuits, and fizzy drinks, have a relatively low impact on the planet but are not as healthy. We therefore need to take a common-sense approach and create a balance of foods that benefit our own health, but also consider environmental impacts like water usage and transportation costs. Despite this, the same dietary changes – eating more vegetables, legumes, whole grains – that could help reduce the risk of diet-related diseases could also help us meet crucial environmental sustainability goals.
What is a plant-based diet?
As with all dietary patterns, there is no one-size fits all solution and an individualised approach is needed. Plant-based eating is on a spectrum from vegan to flexitarian, but there are common themes.
This includes not only fruits and veg, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources.
A high intake of fruit and veg has been linked in numerous studies with health benefits including a reduction in risk of several diseases such as heart disease and type II diabetes. It’s thought to be due to the high levels of antioxidants and fibre found in plant foods. Saying this, it's important to note that not all plant-based foods and diets are equally healthy e.g., too much coconut oil can increase LDL cholesterol due to its high saturated fat content, and unhealthy plant-based diets containing high levels of salt can increase heart disease risk.
Plant-based diets are sustainable diets - those with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.
A sustainable diet can be made up of the following key areas:
- Eating with a completely or predominantly plant-based approach
- Eating a broad range of products and ingredients to support a diverse diet
- Eating locally and seasonally
- Supporting local communities and farmer community livelihoods when buying imported foods
- Opting for lower-impact transportation or imported foods (for example, shipping rather than plane transported food)
- Choosing foods that have been produced sustainably, by farmers who protect natural resources and limit their chemical use
An unsustainable diet can be made up of the following key areas:
- High intake of meat and dairy
- Eating fish that are overharvested/not MSC certified
- Overreliance on a small number of foods
- Relying on imported foods
- Predominantly buying from large, industrial agricultural systems with little protection of workers and support for communities
- Buying from farms which degrade soil and biodiversity, deplete water resources, routinely use chemicals
A lot of people worry about micronutrient deficiencies when adopting a more plant-based, and specifically vegan diet. Yet, there is no nutritional considerations unless all meat and dairy are avoided - in which case, your diet needs to be more carefully planned to ensure adequate intake of protein, B vitamins, iodine, iron, zinc, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Transitioning to a Plant-Based Diet
- Try just one/food or ingredient at a time – simple swaps
- One meal at a time – dedicate one meal of the day on one/two days of the week to have only plant-based
- Then progress to one day at a time
One bonus of switching to less meat and more plant-based proteins is that it will save you some pennies... So next time you do your food shopping consider the following questions:
- Am I eating too much of one thing?
- Where is this food from?
- Was it produced responsibly?
Written by Abigail Attenborough (ANutr)
1) Clark, M.A., Springmann, M., Hill, J. and Tilman, D., 2019. Multiple health and environmental impacts of foods. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(46), pp.23357-23362.