How plant-based meals benefit people and planet
March is National Nutrition Month, and this year’s theme — Fuel for the Future — focuses on using food to nourish not only ourselves but the planet. The key: Opting for plant-based meals and snacks, which can make a difference in managing and preventing chronic diseases — all while reducing your carbon footprint, too.
A major link exists between human health and environmental sustainability. Research indicates that if humans continue to consume animal-based products at the current rate, we won’t be able to feed the growing world population adequately by the year 2050.
“Meat production uses a lot of resources,” says Chef Greg Christian, CEO of Beyond Green Partners, a sustainable food service and consulting company based in Chicago that advocates for home-cooked foods, local sourcing, and zero-waste. Livestock production alone contributes more greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transportation sector (cars, trucks, planes, and trains) combined.
Fruit and vegetable production uses far less resources. In a 2021 farming analysis published in Nature Food, researchers analyzed 171 crops and 16 animal products, from more than 200 countries. They found that producing 1 kg of wheat emits 2.5 kg of greenhouse gases. By comparison, 1 kg of beef emits 70 kg of greenhouse gases.
Besides the greenhouse gases, Kristen Kimble, a registered dietitian at the Digestive Health Center at Northwestern Medicine, notes additional downsides. “Not only does it require a substantial amount of land to farm livestock for beef, dairy, and pork products — land that could be used to farm plants for human consumption — but the byproducts of factory farming are detrimental to the environment.”
Most infamously, for example, Florida’s toxic red tides have killed thousands of fish and other aquatic life, causing the state to close beaches due to human health risk. Red tides result in large part from agricultural runoff and fertilizer usage, according to University of Florida researchers.
Plant-based diets greatly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and land use, as well as water use.
Additionally, farm-to-table eating — which incorporates local, seasonal foods — uses less fossil fuel to transport food and encourages people to understand where their food comes from. That deeper knowledge and conscientious eating promotes a healthy relationship with food.
“Connection to your food source is like your connection to your mother,” Christian says. “Food nourishes — the soul and body — like, hopefully, people’s mothers did.”
Growing and cooking your own food can strengthen that connection. Just remember that not all plant foods carry equal nutrients.
At the 2022 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Orlando, Florida, plant-based nutrition experts dedicated a session to plants’ differing health benefits. Less healthy plant-based eating patterns include juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, fries, and sweets. Though these may be marketed as healthy, compared to whole plant foods, they’re often high in calories, saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium — all of which raise a person’s risk for heart disease.
Whole fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds pack the most nutritional punch. “There is a correlation between diets high in plant foods and reduced risk of lifestyle conditions, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease,” Kimble says. In addition, death rates from obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers decrease with higher consumption of plant foods.
Much of plant foods’ power comes from their nutrient density. “Foods that pack in many beneficial nutritional components in a small volume, include dark leafy greens, berries, beans, nuts and seeds, and allium vegetables like onions, leeks, and garlic. One property of these foods is the soluble fiber content, which can help stabilize blood sugar after meals, reduce cholesterol, and create a sense of fullness,” Kimble says.
Plus, many plant foods contain prebiotic fiber, which feeds the good bacteria in your gut microbiota. “We are only just beginning to understand the role that the gut microbiome plays in our health,” Kimble adds.
Plant-based diets tend to be less expensive than meat, too.
The bottom line: Eating more plant foods can lead to long-term sustainability of our global food system, as well as our individual health. Start slowly by going meatless at least one day a week. Try replacing meat, poultry, and seafood with tofu, tempeh, and pulses like beans, peas, and lentils.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourages people to focus on healthy people-and-planet eating with these tips:
- Enjoy more plant-based meals and snacks.
- Purchase foods with minimal packaging.
- Buy foods in season, and shop locally when possible.
- Start a container or backyard garden to grow food at home.
- Plan your meals and snacks.
- See what food you have at home before purchasing more.
- Use a grocery list and shop sales when purchasing food.
- Eat foods in various forms including fresh, frozen, canned and dried.
- Practice gratitude for your body by giving it the fuel it needs.
- Learn cooking and meal preparation skills.
- Find creative ways to use leftovers rather than tossing them.
- Create happy memories by eating with friends and family when possible.
Calculate your environmental impact of moving to a plant-forward diet and eating fewer animal products here.