A newly published study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford has found that eating healthy plant-based foods is nearly always the best dietary option for the planet. The analysis aims to help inform better individual choices and promote not only healthier food consumption but also sustainable food choices. While many previous studies have considered either the environmental footprint of animal products or the adverse health effects associated with meat consumption, this study is the first that looks into the linkage of the health and environmental impact of food choices.
Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Oxford study assessed 15 foods including fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, potatoes, refined and whole grain cereals, sugar-sweetened drinks and animal products such as red meat, chicken, dairy, eggs and fish. The main finding was that fruit, vegetables, beans and wholegrains were best at both preventing diseases and protecting the planet, as they require less water and land resources and generate fewer greenhouse gases to produce. While there were a few foods that seemed to veer off the trend, such as sugary fizzy drinks that have a low environmental footprint but are not healthy, most foods that are healthy are plant-based foods that do not leave a hefty climate impact. Red meat, for instance, scored highest in terms of environmental impact and ill health.
To calculate these results, researchers used data from previous scientific studies on the correlation between dietary choices and health outcomes, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. For the environmental impact of foods, the team considered greenhouse gas emissions, water use and pollution.
Team lead researcher Michael Clark said: “Continuing to eat the way we do threatens societies, through chronic ill health and degradation of Earth’s climate, ecosystems and water resources. Choosing better, more sustainable diets is one of the main ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment.”
There were some food groups that were in the “medium” category, scoring somewhere in the middle in terms of health and environmental impact. These include refined grains and cereals, dairy, egg and chicken. The research team argued that if these foods were used as a replacement for red meat, then there would be a positive impact on both alleviating pressure on public health systems as well as overall emissions and resource demand on our planet.
“Our existing agricultural economy is destroying our ability to deal with climate change and also destroying our public health,” said Professor Tim Benton of think tank Chatham House.
The scientists who conducted the study hopes that these findings will encourage consumers, politicians and food manufacturers to make more informed decisions when it comes to food. Their research conclusions mirror the calls made by other experts and scientists for a dramatic shift in our global food system for one that is plant-based, healthier and more nutritious and more sustainable.
Lead image courtesy of Helthnaturaworld.