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Plant-based diets: Healthy for people, but what about the planet?

Plant-based diets are generally seen as healthy – but they are not necessarily the healthiest diets for the environment, according to new French research.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined the nutritional value of the self-reported diets of nearly 2,000 French adults and compared dietary composition with estimates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by the ingredients’ production.

Per 100 grams, the researchers found that animal products like meat, poultry, dairy, fish and eggs were indeed associated with much higher GHG emissions than fruits, vegetables and starchy foods. However, despite containing larger amounts of plant-based foods, diets of the highest nutritional quality were not necessarily the lowest in GHG emissions.

Due to ease of transportation and storage, and relative lack of waste, the least healthy foods, like sweets and salted snacks, were associated with some of the lowest emissions on an energy basis.

The researchers used a database to estimate GHG emissions per 100 grams of each food for the 400 most commonly consumed foods within the sample population. But when they looked at what people ate to meet their energy needs, they found the ‘healthiest’ diets – defined as those high in fruit, vegetables and fish – were associated with about the same level of emissions as the least healthy diets.

They explained that it was necessary to eat far more low-energy food in order to meet daily energy needs.

“Altogether, our results therefore seem to contradict the widely accepted view that diets that are good for health are also good for the planet,” they wrote.

“This notion has progressively emerged, based on the fact that plant-based products have a lower environmental impact than do animal products and on the belief that vegetarian diets are necessarily healthy.”

Red meat was found to contribute the most carbon dioxide of any food, at 1,627 grams of carbon dioxide per 100 grams, and 857 grams per 100 kcal. On an energy basis, red meat accounted for about three times as much carbon dioxide as fruit and vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables were comparable to poultry, eggs, pork and dairy products in GHG emissions per 100 kcal.

Food production is estimated to contribute about 15-30% of GHG emissions in developed countries, according to a European Commission study.

 

Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.035105

“High nutritional quality is not associated with low greenhouse gas emissions in self-selected diets of French adults”

Authors: Florent Vieux, Louis-Georges Soler, Djilali Touazi, and Nicole Darmon

4 comments (Comments are now closed)

Right on the money Leslie

Plus if more people WERE on PBD they would be growing at least some of their own fruit and veg, again taking some of the pressure off

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Posted by Susan Kirk dot com dot au
28 February 2013 | 23h18

What utter rubbish

If we were to shift to a more plant based diet (not totally plant based - that would be unhealthy, we need some meat) then we could shut down a lot of the processing plants for grain and corn, herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer use would decrease and the industrial waste from processing plants that package all the sugary, starchy rubbish they try to pass off as food could be closed down. These would all have a far more beneficial effect on the environment. Plus less wheat and gluten would mean a lot less disease, fewer drugs needed, less medical treatment required, less hospitalisation. This needs to be where we are focusing our research. These authors/researchers have a very narrow minded approach.

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Posted by No Harmacy
28 February 2013 | 02h11

Food sustainability isn't all about GHG's!

Whilst this article provides an interesting alternative slant on the current debate about the need for plant based eating, it should be remembered that GHG's are only one part of the wider sustainability picture when it comes to our dietary intake. How we consume is just as important as what we consume, and this type of study which calculates GHG's is therefore necessarily restrictive in its approach, as it can only consider parameters based on current provisioning practises, which have already been deemed to be unsustainable. Also, GHG's alone do not account for land use - which is one of the major problems in terms of meat production, think DEFORESTATION! Agree with Leslie - too many factors unnaccounted for in this simplistic analysis.

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Posted by Angie
20 February 2013 | 13h29

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