Diet and the Environment
There are a lot of different diets with various health benefits associated with them, but deciding which is best for the environment can be difficult. There are a lot of conflicting opinions about which is the most sustainable without being too difficult or unhealthy. This post will look at the environmental impacts of 6 different diets: vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, paleo, keto, carnivore.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t really know what a few of these diets really were or how they differed until I did research. Here’s a brief summary of each of these diets:
Vegetarian - no meat, poultry, or fish; emphasizes eating plant-based foods
Vegan - no meat or animal products (including dairy and eggs); stricter than vegetarian
Flexitarian - focus on plant-based foods, but still allows fish, eggs, and occasionally meat
Paleo - essentially, if cavemen didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either; focuses on meat, fish, poultry, fruits and veggies; no refined sugar, dairy, legumes, or grains
Keto - avoiding carbs and focusing on foods with fat, which is supposed to send your body into a state of ketosis, where your body breaks down dietary and stored body fat; meat, dairy, and leafy green vegetables are good, but not starchy root foods
Carnivore - eating meat, fish, and eggs, with some other animal products, like butter, yogurt, and cheese
There isn’t any exact science or data that can specifically determine which diets are best and which are worst for the environment. It’s like determining which diet is the healthiest for you: it can be different for everyone and there isn’t one that is the best overall in every instance. Each diet has its pros and cons in terms of how environmentally friendly it is, so let’s look into how each diet compares.
Vegetarian. One study from 2018 found that being vegetarian can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34%! Plant-based diets are more sustainable than meat diets in terms of land and water use. However, one issue with vegetarian diets is which foods you eat. Eating the same meals year-round can be problematic because you have to transport foods to your area. It’s important to ensure that what you eat is local and in season to avoid all of these negative effects on the environment due to transportation.
Vegan. Another study from 2018 said that being vegan is best for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and this claim is blacked by a separate study in 2014. Vegan diets are also great because they avoid fish, which can help with the declining fish numbers and maintain diversity in the ocean. One issue with vegan diets is that not many people follow it in the US, and since people tend to have similar diets as their peers, Americans are not likely to adopt this diet. Because it is so strict, not many people are willing to try it, so that limits its ability to help the environment - if nobody is following this diet, it doesn't do much good. Also, healthy food and the correct types of food can be hard to access, depending on how much money you have and where you live. There are access issues to being able to use this diet, but for people who can access these foods, this is a great diet for the environment.
Flexitarian. Flexitarianism is great because a lot of people can follow it relatively easily. It is much easier for people to reduce their meat intake rather than never eating meat again, yet it still has great environmental benefits. It’s a lot harder for diets like vegetarianism and veganism to help the environment when not many people follow them. The only real con is that because animal products are still eaten, it isn’t as environmentally friendly as stricter diets.
Paleo. Choosing local and grass-fed meat is better for the earth than what is normally found in many supermarkets. People who use the snout-to-tail approach, meaning they eat as much of the animal as possible, also reduce meat waste, which is beneficial. However, Palo is still meat heavy, which is always negative for the environment, and it can often involve eating a lot of processed meat, like bacon.
Keto. The Keto diet can involve eating high-fat items from plants, like nuts and avocado, which is good for the planet. However, this diet is heavy on animal fats for the most part, so that has a lot of negative effects. Meat products are the biggest source of methane, and even palm oil, a high-fat food from plants allowed in this diet, contributes to deforestation. This diet also has a lot of health issues associated with it, as lack of balance and nutrient restrictions are concerning.
Carnivore. There are not any environmental benefits to note for this diet because it is centered on animal products. According to a 2014 study, the average high meat eatern contributes 7.19 kg of CO2 equivalents daily, compared to 2.89 kg for an average vegan. The way meat impacts deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions is damaging the environment, so this is definitely not the best diet for the earth.
As you can see, there are no “good” and “bad” diets (although I would argue carnivore is pretty close to the “bad” diet section). Each one has its pros and cons, and these lists are not complete nor do they have the health pros and cons included. Some diets may be more healthy for you even though they aren’t great for the planet, but that’s not what this article is about. I hope that this article is helpful to you when examining your own diet and encourage you to try a new diet, even if not strictly or for forever. Diet and the environment are highly connected, so diet can be a great way to help the earth.