And for those that take on the challenge of eating not only a healthy diet, but also a sustainable one, the choice becomes even more difficult. Just one YouTube video or two showing the way livestock animals are treated can be enough to make you feel like food is inescapably cruel and we should all become breathatarians, surviving on the air we breathe alone (please don’t try that).
But do not fear: Science may have found the answer to your prayers. Turns out just a single change to your diet addresses all of your environmental, ethical, and health concerns, according to a new study. It’s a win-win-win situation.
To bag this triple win, diets have to change in one key way: “strongly reducing” consumption of meat and other animal products, the study found. But before you go all in and renounce cow products for good, for example, it’s not so simple as just ditching beef. The benefits of cutting meat, eggs, fish and dairy out vary depending on what kinds of foods you reduce, and how much.
The findings were published this week in One Earth.
It’s not just about cutting meat
Laura Scherer, assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands and lead author on the study tells Inverse that eating less meat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re helping animals lead better lives. For example, eating less beef but more eggs may benefit the environment — especially when it comes to climate change — but it isn’t so great for animal welfare.
Only by cutting down on animal products as a whole can people meet all three goals at once, the study suggests. But how, exactly, one does this isn’t always clear. Not all national dietary guidelines include suggestions on how to do this, and best practices can vary depending on where you live. The new results could offer a roadmap, Scherer says.
“The study gives a broad picture of the impacts of diets and can guide decision-makers in revising dietary guidelines,” she says.
Among the countries getting it right is Brazil, which already has dietary guidelines that benefit human health, animal welfare, and the environment, the study found.
But other countries miss the mark. And at least one misses all of them: “Oddly, South Koreans would negatively affect their health, the environment, and animal welfare if they would follow their national dietary guidelines,” Scherer says.
Balancing animal welfare and the environment
One of the most difficult things to pin down when trying to eat sustainably is how food choices affect animal welfare — but increasing numbers of people want to know, Scherer says.
“Since there can be trade-offs between animal welfare and other aspects of sustainability, such as the nutritional value and the environment, we analyzed them together,” she says.
Two other considerations when it comes to animal welfare and the climate are land and water use. Take almonds. A 2019 study conducted in Australia found the delicious nuts were among the most water-intensive foods in people’s diets.
That’s not exactly news (remember Chidi’s almond milk guilt in The Good Place?). But more surprising is the high water footprint of wine, potato chips, cake, and cookies — you know, ‘health foods.’
Cutting back on these “discretionary foods,” which many countries’ national dietary guidelines recommend eating sparingly for health reasons, is also a good way to eat more sustainably, those researchers suggest.
This new study jibes with that suggestion: It offers ways to improve diets all-around — not only for us, but also for the animals and environment we rely on for food, healthy and not.
How to win big with diets
The next step is to get people to make changes — countries also need to update their guidelines. But that could be tough. Hesitation to change what they already do can often hold people back from making the right choices, Scherer says.
“People are generally resistant to change their diets because it requires breaking long-standing habits, and that is not always easy,” she says.
Convenience is a factor, too — limited access to plant-based options can make changing long-held habits even harder.
A third factor is education — and that’s where the study comes in. “Sometimes, people also mistakenly believe that we need animal products in our diets to stay healthy and get sufficient proteins,” Scherer says. But a vegan diet can be healthier and better for the environment and animals, she says. In this, force of habit can play a more positive role.
“To overcome such barriers, it may help to educate people about nutrition and to offer much more plant-based meals in canteens to familiarize people with new food,” she says.
Sustainable food systems are essential for meeting nutritional requirements, limiting environmental impacts, and reducing animal welfare loss. Although current dietary trends in many regions rather go in the opposite direction, the adequacy of dietary guidelines is unknown, and the three sustainability dimensions are generally not assessed simultaneously. Here, we assessed nation-specific recommended diets for these impacts compared with the average diet. We assessed the trade-offs between nutritional quality, environmental sustainability (carbon, land, and water footprints), and animal welfare. Most countries reduce their animal product consumption in terms of food calories when switching to the nationally recommended diet. Recommended diets have the potential for ‘‘win-win-wins’’ in all three categories when compared with the current average diet, such as that shown in Brazil. However, South Korea loses in all three regards, and many other countries face trade-offs. This highlights the scope for the optimization of dietary guidelines to minimize such trade-offs.