- Switching to a vegetarian diet can provide both health benefits and significant environmental impacts. These include using less land for livestock, efficiently using energy, reducing pollution, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
- Computer models have demonstrated that replacing meat with a variety of plant-based foods could reduce the use of pasturelands, and decrease requirements for cropland, nitrogen fertilizer, and greenhouse gas emissions by 35% to 50%.
- While replacing meat with a plant-based diet would increase water usage by about 15%, all protein and nutrient requirements can be met – with the exception of vitamin B12, which can be easily supplemented.
- Moving towards a plant-based diet requires planning and a good understanding of nutrition. A balanced plate should ideally include half vegetables, a quarter protein sources such as beans, lentils or tofu, and a quarter whole grains.
- Transitioning to vegetarianism could be started with small steps, such as adopting a Meatless Monday regime.
Introducing tofu, buckwheat, and asparagus in place of burgers could significantly improve the condition of our planet without compromising on essential nutrients. This is the key finding of a new research study which gauged the impact on both human health and the environment of diets based on “nutritionally beneficial” alternatives to meat.
Environmentally Friendly Benefits of Vegetarian Diets
Previous studies have illuminated how vegetarian diets can be gentler on the planet. For instance, less land is needed for livestock, there is reduced pollution, energy use is efficient and there are fewer “greenhouse gas” emissions contributing to global warming.
However, meat is the primary nutrient source for a majority of people. Therefore, it becomes crucial to demonstrate that plant-based foods can seamlessly meet these requirements while benefiting the environment, as pointed out by Gidon Eshel, the principal investigator of the study.
“We have carefully evaluated the nutritional and environmental aspects,” confirms Eshel, who holds a research professorship in environmental and urban studies at Bard College, based in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Replacing Meat with Plant-Based Diets
A computer model was utilized by his team to predict the impact of substituting meat in the average American diet with 500 distinct plant-based “partial” diets – ranging from merely replacing beef to totally eradicating all meat.
Each diet incorporated 35 plant foods, randomly chosen from a more extensive list composed of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Generally, a few foods were crucial – including soy, buckwheat, asparagus, green peppers, and squash.
For instance, combined, soy and buckwheat provided one-third of the total protein in the diets.
Published research was referred to when gauging the requirements of these diets in terms of land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water, and nitrogen fertilizer – a source of pollution.
The researchers stipulated that if all Americans substituted meat for plant alternatives, the use of pasturelands would become obsolete. Also, requirements relating to the nation’s diet, such as cropland, nitrogen fertilizer, and greenhouse gas emissions, could decrease by 35% to 50%.
The only resource that would increase is water use, by about 15%.
Nutrional Impact of Plant-Based Diets
“The science is unequivocal,” asserts Eshel. “These meat-replacement diets would indeed be vastly superior to the typical American diet.”
All the study diets delivered healthy levels of protein and over 40 other nutrients – including fiber, “good” fats and a spectrum of vitamins and minerals. The exception is vitamin B12, which is only found in animal products.
However, the issue of supplementing B12 is easily addressed with appropriate dietary supplements.
Transitioning to a meatless diet on a large scale might seem unrealistic, with the U.S. alone consuming 25 billion pounds of beef in 2015. Eshel acknowledges that “it wouldn’t be an easy transition”.
The transition would not only apply to individuals but also to economic and cultural structures. For example, the “labor-intensive” process of vegetable cultivation is quite different from growing corn and other crops used for livestock (and people).
Moving towards a More Plant-Based Diet
Vandana Sheth, an LA-based dietitian, advices, “It’s absolutely achievable to delight in a healthy plant-based diet while adequately fulfilling all your nutritional needs. However, it requires some planning and understanding of the key components necessary to balance it well.”
A good meal guide, she suggests, is to fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with protein sources such as beans, lentils or tofu, and a quarter with whole grains.
While the study highlighted a few foods, Sheth advises trying a variety of fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, whole grains and “getting creative” with herbs and spices to enhance taste.
And if the thought of diving headfirst into vegetarianism is overwhelming, Sheth recommends starting with small steps – perhaps a Meatless Monday.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides advice on building healthy vegetarian diets.