Healthy Diets for a Healthy Planet

The Guardian recently ran an article titled “Men’s meat-heavy diets cause 40% more climate emissions than women’s, study finds” so of course I had to go down the research rabbit hole. Two main articles were cited.

One was a relatively small study examining “Variations in greenhouse gas emissions of individual diets: Associations between the greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient intake in the United Kingdom” and it found that that in the 212 participants who tracked their food intake for 1-3 days, the diets of men were associated with 41% higher greenhouse gas emissions, as they reported eating eat more meat and drinking more alcohol. It also noted that non-vegetarian diets produced 59% more greenhouse gases than vegetarian diets, and that vegetarians also had lower emissions associated with eating confectionary and baked goods, reflecting healthier diets more generally. There were no differences in emissions based on age or on body size. The study didn’t consider the impacts of various diets on water consumption, another important factor in environmental health.

The second study, “The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling study” was even more interesting to me. It used regionally comparable food prices for 150 countries and paired them with a variety of diets from a standard meat-eating diet through to vegan, included estimates of food waste, economic growth, health costs, and climate change costs, to calculate which diet might be best for the planet.

The conclusions were complicated. Generally, vegetarian diets are significantly less expensive in upper-middle-income and wealthy countries, but more expensive in lower-income countries, without other changes. This is partly explained by the need for those in poorer countries to increase their nutritional intake to meet minimum health standards.

However, by reducing food waste, getting more people out of poverty, and counting the diet-related costs of climate change and health care, vegetarians and diets became much more affordable even in the poorest countries. So much for the argument we sometimes hear about how a healthy plant-based diet is too expensive.

Turning back to the original gender-based headline, neither study considered the gendered role of food preparation, usually unpaid labour in most parts of the world. Eating out, packaged, and pre-prepared foods have been major contributors to food waste and environmental degradation, as well as to the ability of women to work outside the home.

My takeaway? I still eat meat, but I try to live by Michael Pollan’s famous adage for healthy eating: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Since Pollan defines “food” as things that are minimally processed, that means I spend a lot of time growing foods and cooking them. I am fanatic about not wasting anything. Your mileage may vary.

Image: a plate half filled with colourful fruits and vegetables, with small portions of whole grain foods and various animal and vegetables proteins, plus a glass of water. Source: Canada’s Food Guide