Eat for the Earth:  Plant-Based Diet vs. Planetary Health Diet

15

APRIL, 2019

By India Horner

An environmental assessment of a plant-based diet and the planetary health diet.

No doubt, we all have to eat. However, in order to satisfy our ravenous demand for meat and dairy products, it seems that our global community is going to suffer inescapable environmental and ecological havoc. It is almost impossible to have a conversation around food in 2019, without someone telling you they have adopted a plant-based diet. And yes, lately, veganism has rapidly gained a reputation for being sin-free and harmless to every living soul in the world… essentially it encapsulates the human body and earth itself.

What would you say if I told you that there was another diet, that didn’t rule out all the categories of animal products, but simply reduced them. Welcome, to the planetary health diet. Whilst many people are turning to plant-based diets as consciousness grows regarding the damaging nature of the meat and dairy industries on the environment, this new global diet could similarly reduce the damage to the environment, whilst also saving 11 million lives annually. Intrigued? I am.

Plant-based lunch

Getting all your greens in?

Essentially, the planetary health diet, focuses on reducing meat and dairy consumption, whereas a plant-based diet, is completely committed to cutting out such animal products. Both can be motivated by the desire to improve the critical condition of our environment. Naturally, the choice of which diet path to follow is yours. Let’s take a look as to what these dietary choices can offer you…

Prefer plant-based?

Interestingly, 2019 has been named the ‘Year of the Vegan’ according to The Economist, with millions of people across the world having taken part in ‘Veganuary’ this year. Last year 62% of participants chose to continue avoiding animal products after their participation. As you can see, following a plant-based has evolved into a global sensation like no other food trend. Naturally, there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that avoiding animal products, whether it be in food and drink, or beauty and cosmetics, can benefit both a person’s health and the environment. However, many now debate as to how such a dramatic change in consumption patterns will affect the future of the environment.

Oxford academic Dr Marco Springmann attempted to create a model of what a vegan planet would look like at some point in the near future. In order to do so, he kept in mind the changes in climate, potential resource shortages, as well as turbulent population growth. With this, he estimated that if the whole population were to adopt a vegan diet by 2050, it would benefit the global economy massively in terms of saving in healthcare costs, and a potential cut in greenhouse emissions by two thirds. These forecasts clearly demonstrate that there are global benefits of going plant-based. Even a follow-up UN report from 2010 projected a similar idea, that a shift towards a plant-based diet is vital to save the world from the unprecedented level of changes and catastrophes occurring in the climate.

Plant-based food festival
Plant-based snack

What are the driving factors?

Lately, plant-based diets have surged in popularity in many cities across the globe. I have personally witnessed these changes in international hotspots such as London, Sydney and Cape Town, with more and more vegan restaurants cropping up all over the place like hidden Pokemons. It comes as no surprise that the youthful population is attracted by the new, urban and often edgy vibe that veganism promotes. Therefore, it is easy to comprehend that 20% of under 35s have tried a vegan diet. Interestingly, young people today are being inspired by social media and the vastly influential scope of YouTubers, instagrammers and even celebs. YouTube has become a power-house in facilitating the popularity of plant based diets, mainly through recipe inspiration. Similarly, celebs are paving the way for plant based eating to become even more popular, by promoting a lifestyle of clean eating and exercising. For instance, did you know that the Hunger Games hunk, Liam Hemsworth is vegan? See, he manages to stay dead handsome and maintain a vegan diet. Even his wife, Miley Cyrus, is vegan. Couples who vegan together, stay together.

There is another influential factor that inspires people to convert to a plant based lifestyle. In recent years, Netflix has begun to showcase a series of polemical online documentaries. With Netflix’s global audience of nearly 118 million streaming subscribers, it comes with no surprise that these advocacy films are the cause of many people’s conversion. So, when a lazy sunday inspires you to binge watch Netflix, you thought a documentary would contribute to a peaceful evening. Fair warning, this is not David Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’. On the contrary, films such as ‘Cowspiracy’ document the damage the livestock industry has on the animals, the environment and even us humans. Some of these documentaries expose violent scenes in slaughterhouses and farms or factories. Based on feedback from my friends, these documentaries naturally either make you cry for three days due to the harrowing footage or hysterically throw the meat in your fridge out of the window. And hey-presto, you are vegan in about 3 hours. And with fair reason. These documentaries aim to blatantly expose the brutality of the meat, dairy and egg industries, which up until watching the documentary, were hidden from the public eye.

Now, I intend to delve into the reasoning behind why people decide to embrace the plant-based lifestyle. Generally, for most people, their choice stems from a combination of factors relating to their personal health, climate change and animal welfare. Whilst these motivating factors may sound simple, there are various positives and negatives of choosing to adopt a plant-based diet.

Health

In this day and age, many citizens are constantly looking to be fitter, healthier and more radiant. Furthermore, many online influencers claim that a plant-based diet is the cause of their dewy looking skin and dazzling glow. Yes, and that’s without the excess Chanel highlighter. It is therefore no surprise that people are experimenting with a plant-based lifestyle in order to experience health benefits such as better skin and hair, based on what they see on social media on a daily basis.  

Generally, as you eliminate meat, dairy and animal products from your diet when transitioning to a plant-based diet, you will rely more heavily on other types of food. Hence, you might replace your regular snacks with things like vegetables, fruits and nuts. Consuming more of these foods can contribute to a higher daily intake of certain nutrients. Other studies also demonstrate that plant-based diets can provide more fibre and antioxidants, as well as being richer in potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E. I didn’t even know a vitamin E existed… Now get ready, this one’s a shocker. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1/3 of all cancers could be prevented by factors within your personal control, such as diet. Essentially, avoiding certain animal products may help reduce the risk of prostate, breast and colon cancers.

On the other hand, not all plant-based diets have these aforementioned super powers. You could just live off Oreos and vegan fast food, in which case these potential benefits may not come to fruition. I mean, veganism isn’t some sort of fairy godmother of health. Poorly planned plant-based diets can easily lead to insufficient amounts of vital fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, calcium and zinc. Hence, steer clear of nutrient-poor vegan options, and consider vitamin supplements to replace any vitamins you may be lacking.

In addition, the high street is adapting to plant-based demands with incredible speed. Many supermarkets now stock vegan food ranges. Astonishingly, there has been a 185% increase in vegan products launched in the UK between 2012 and 2016. However, be aware, as these food ranges can occasionally be misleading and even counterintuitive. Just because something is a plant-based version of a non-vegan food, doesn’t make eating a fake meat burger healthy. It is interesting to note that vegan dietitian Megan Roosevelt states that “fake meat is often loaded with artificial ingredients, preservatives, processed oils and nutritionally empty ingredients.” Instead, grab a vegan lentil burger.

Plant-based love
Plant-based burger

Climate change

There is no doubt that by adopting a plant-based lifestyle, it can have multiple benefits on the environment. In many ways, it creates a more ethically responsible world, in terms of reducing your impact via water use, land use, desertification, CO2 emissions and energy use. Here’s a whopper. The global average water footprint of a 150 gram beef burger is 2350 litres, according to a study from 2011. Here’s the fascinating part, the water footprint of a 150g soy burger, produced in the Netherlands, is about 160 litres. Woah. Whilst a beef burger from the same country uses approximately 1000 litres of water, it is clear that a veggie soy burger is WAY better for global water usage. Similarly, consuming less meat leads to a smaller carbon footprint, given that 27kg of CO2 is generated per kilo of beef in comparison to 0.9kg per kilo of lentils… However, one should also keep an eye on your carbon footprint whilst relying on a plant-based diet. Simply because you are avoiding animals products, one should still pay attention to the carbon footprint of the imported fruit and veg that you would consume.

On another note, farmland also benefits largely when adopting a plant-based diet. To produce and sustain healthy cattle, you need large amounts of food to feed them. Currently, most of the crops grown in the US are ‘feed grains’ like corn and soybeans, that are used to feed livestock, as stated on the Ohio Environmental Council’s website. Cattle grazing also has detrimental effects on the land, as it requires vast amounts of land which leads to high rates of deforestation. Not only does this have an adverse effect on atmospheric CO2 rates, given that trees absorb CO2, but also generally in our global water and carbon cycles.

Land that is used for cattle grazing is often so dry, that it can lead to an increased rate of the human creation of deserts, and therefore desertification. Such land will then struggle to support plants, and few species can survive in such conditions with dry and infertile soil. However, without the need to consume meat and dairy, global farmland use could be reduced by over 75%. This equates to an area similar to the size of the US, China, the EU and Australia combined, and we would still be able to feed the current population. This land could potentially be used more efficiently for other purposes, such as growing plants for human consumption.

Indeed, with a plant-based diet, through eating local fruit and veg produce from farms near you can save transportation and energy costs if they are produced consciously on a smaller scale. Even if you still choose to consume animal products, consume locally! There is the benefit of knowing how the animals are being treated and in what conditions they are in. Do be careful when sourcing fruit and veg from abroad, especially when out of season. I can understand the intense desire to have avo toast all year round. However, living off fruit and veg that is not locally sourced is also damaging to the environment.

Animal welfare

Notably, committing to a plant-based diet is deeply rooted in the world of animal rights activism. Being vegan is generally synonymous with loving animals, and to be vegan is to separate oneself from the cruel nature of factory farming and the livestock industry. For many who have seen the harsh and volatile truths being exposed in vegan documentaries, it is an easy decision to give up meat.

However, in order to reduce and eventually rule out the cruel methods of animal slaughter, we must attempt to reduce the demand for meat. This could slowly be achieved if entire nations began to commit to a plant-based diet, or if we adopted the up and coming planetary health diet. According to PETA, each vegan person saves 198 animals each year. Unfortunately, animals are not saved directly due to a person being vegan, or because of a certain amount of vegans in the world. However, it is argued that fewer animals are brought up to later, be slaughtered. Therefore, perhaps 198 animals are not raised to then be killed. On this note, it is important to keep raising awareness about the cruelty of meat production and to try and encourage people to eat less meat.

On the contrary, if you are unable to lend yourself to a plant-based diet, even occasionally, then it is always better to look for meat that is free-range or purchased from local farms. At least then, the animals may be living in better conditions. Overall, for those who have become vegan in order to support animals rights and challenge the current methods of production, eating has become a exercise in mindfulness. Some vegans argue that eating food that you know is cruelty-free, essentially leaves you with guilt-free, positive feelings.

Protect our animals
Plant-based choices could save our planet.

Planetary health diet

Essentially, our next goal and challenge as a global community will be to adopt lifestyle choices that promote sustainability and embraces ethical eating. Mainly, we should focus on increasing our plant intake, and reducing our reliance on meat and dairy, which will reduce the cycle of the intense polluting and unethical forms of meat production. This is where I stumbled across the ‘Planetary health diet’, which was created by the EAT-Lancet commission to construct guidelines that provide nourishing food to our ever growing population.

Don’t fret, this diet could transform the future of food, by still allowing one beef burger and two servings of fish a week, but most of the protein should originate from pulses and nuts. This dietary discovery, along with many other measures, will perhaps lead us on a route to achieving sustainable development. We should also only take advantage of the natural resources we can locally obtain.

This leads me to a fascinating investigation published in the US in 2016, that compared 10 different eating patterns. The conclusion essentially revealed that diets that incorporated animal products, especially milk and eggs, use less land than their vegan alternative option. It appears that more inclusive diets, make better use of existing land. Clearly, meat and milk are not included in a plant-based diet, but both are produced in areas that are completely unsuitable for permanent cultivation. For example, 60% of sub-Saharan Africa is covered by drylands. In this instance, raising livestock is the main, and in many cases, the only land use option available. 

So, at the start of this ramble, I mentioned that this diet had the power to save lives. Scientists declare that the figure of 11 million lives, is the number of premature deaths that are caused annually by unhealthy diets. Clearly, this would mean that the entire world would have to adopt this newly formulated diet. This could cause a monumental positive wave of change in terms of our current eating lifestyle. However, in order for the diet plan to adequately be able to feed the accounted for 10 billion people, which is the estimated population count for 2050, each country will need to focus on various areas of cutting down foods. Interestingly, The Guardian states that North Americans need to eat 84% less red meat but six times more beans and lentils. Whereas for Europeans, eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds meets the guidelines. 

 

Be the change you want to see

Collectively, we can create change.

So, can we save the planet? 

To conclude, it is evident that both diets have a similar goal: that of reducing the detrimental effects on our planet. With this, if the global community adopts either one of the two diets proposed within this blog, we will be on good form to making significant progress in our critical climatic state. However, we must stick to the guidelines of the planetary health diet in order to notice dramatic differences in global wellbeing. As for now, don’t be afraid to experiment with new styles of food, and maybe allocate a ‘meat free Monday’ or ‘fish free Friday’.

How about that? 

Happy eating!

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