Updated: Jul 12
Jules Cormier, MD
DID YOU KNOW?
Your Diet Might Be Contributing To Climate Change
Plant-based diets and planetary health
When people think “eco-friendly”, they think of electric cars or recycling. Most don’t associate burgers with climate change. Did you know that a plant-based diet could reduce your carbon footprint (Reijnders & Soret, 2003) on a scale much larger than electric cars? Animal agriculture is a significant producer of greenhouse gasses and a major contributor to climate change. Deforestation, inefficient use of finite resources like land and water and species extinction can all be minimized by switching to a plant-based diet (Sabate & Soret, 2014).
How plant-based diets benefit the planet
“What does my diet have to do with planetary health?” you might ask. Our food system is highly inefficient at feeding our growing population and the mismatch between the energy we put into the system (resources to produce food) and what we get out (the actual food calories produced) is highly unsustainable (Pimentel, 2003). Our food system is also a major contributor to habitat destruction, land and water overuse, antibiotic resistance and a major producer of greenhouse gasses, all of which can harm the fragile health of our planet. To be considered sustainable, a diet must use natural resources responsibly, while avoiding harm to the environment in the process of producing, preparing and disposing of the food made to be consumed.
How is a plant-based diet more sustainable?
More than 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production. Population growth projections predict that 60% more food will be needed to feed the world in 2050. By then, greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector could reach 50%. Considering that only 10% of calories fed to animals actually get converted into meat calories, the inefficiency of our food system becomes even more obvious when seeing that most of the energy we put into our food system comes from non-renewable sources that harm the environment. With a projected 10 billion people populating the planet by 2050, it’s imperative that we urgently reinvent our food system (Springmann et al., 2016).
Let me paint a picture for you!
We measure carbon (and other greenhouse gas) emissions in grams or kilograms of CO2 equivalents, or Ceq. In order to compare the emissions generated by different foods, let’s look at them side by side! An 8 ounce steak generates about 330 G, which is similar to what is produced by driving your car 5 kilometres. The equivalent amount of chicken will produce 52 grams, less than a sixth of the amount produced by red meat. Fish accounts for about one eighths of the emissions of red meat and emits 40 grams of CO2-Ceq. Legumes, like beans and chickpeas come in at 14 grams and lentils, one of the healthiest foods in the world, rich in iron, protein, vitamins and minerals and packed with fiber, comes in at a amazing 2 grams, about 150 times less greenhouse gas emissions than the same amount of steak. You might have noticed that in terms of the environmental bang for your buck, simply reducing red meat will contribute greatly to saving the planet and reducing your carbon footprint. The billion tons of grains and fertilizer we use to feed the animals we slaughter for meat could feed 3.5 billion humans, yet we still don‘t change. If the whole planet simply moved towards a Mediterranean style diet for one year, we‘d save the equivalent amount of carbon emissions produced by 1 billion cars, while just eating a vegetarian diet one single day per week for a year would save the same amounts of emissions produced by driving your car for 1900 kilometres. If you can’t imagine “cutting out meat” forever, then don’t. Simply reducing red meat specifically, and choosing to eat a plant-based meal here and there, or even a day per week, would help the environment considerably.
Overusing finite resources
It’s estimated that producing animal protein uses up to 11 times more fossil energy than the equivalent in plant protein, and up to 17 times the land surface and 26 times the amount of water. Grains used to feed livestock could feed enough humans to help fight world hunger. Plant-based diets could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29-70% (Springmann et al., 2016). Eating more plants and less meat could save millions of lives and billions of dollars in healthcare costs. We only have one planet, yet innumerable reasons to want to protect it. Plant-based diets produce less emissions, use less resources and save lives and healthcare costs. They must be part of the conversation and the solution. One pound of beef requires 5000 gallons of water, when the equivalent in tofu needs 302. One gallon of cow’s milk requires 1950 gallons of water to produce, while 1 pound of oats requires 290. The abuse and inefficient use of our finite resources is staggering. At some point in the near future, we will have caused irreversible damage to our planet. Although we might not experience the devastation first hand, our kids, or their kids, will.
I could go on and on. If this is a subject that interests you, then go research ocean dead zones, or antibiotic resistance to learn more. Over 70% of antibiotics are given to livestock in order to keep them healthy in the horrible conditions they’re raised. Yet I’m there trying to convince a patient that their cold doesn’t require penicillin in the name of antibiotic resistance. We are fighting a losing battle, and I’ve already seen patients fighting infections caused by multi-resistant bacteria. Animal agriculture is directly linked the world-wide pandemics like avian influenza (bird flu), swine flu, HIV, and even possibly the current Covid-19 pandemic. Experts who have been studying climate change and planetary health for decades are scared, yet for most of us, it’s business as usual. It’s time to change in any way you see fit. If I’d be able to suggest something for you, I’d say reduce your red meat. Red meat is the most environmentally damaging of all the animal products, is classified as a carcinogen by the WHO, is filled with saturated fat and cholesterol and is causally linked to heart disease and stroke. I’ve been there too, selfishly thinking that my tastebuds deserved the red meat I craved. But when I got educated on the negative health consequences of consuming it, it changed my perspective. Then I learned how damaging it was for the environment and this solidified my stance. Finally, I watched Dominion and Earthlings and witnessed the horrible conditions these animals are raised in, and it changed my life forever.
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. I'm a two-time world championship qualified athlete and you can follow my fitness journey there! You can even access the resources section by becoming a member. It's free and there, you can download free resources like my plant-based recipe eBook!
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Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱
Joan Sabaté, Sam Soret, Sustainability of plant-based diets: back to the future, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 100, Issue suppl_1, July 2014, Pages 476S–482S
Pimentel, D., & Pimentel, M. (2003). Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 78(3 Suppl), 660S–663S.
Reijnders, L., & Soret, S. (2003). Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 78(3 Suppl), 664S–668S.
Baroni, L., Cenci, L., Tettamanti, M., & Berati, M. (2007). Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European journal of clinical nutrition, 61(2), 279–286.
Springmann, M., Godfray, H. C. J., Rayner, M., & Scarborough, P. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(15), 4146–4151. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26469271