Pamela A. Popper, Ph.D., N.D.

Wellness Forum Health

Mainstream scientists are now promoting the idea that dietary change is needed in order to address the growing epidemic of degenerative disease and its associated costs, and to save the planet. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is the first to calculate the impact of plant-based eating on both human health and climate change.

The researchers say that the human diet is a major influence on both health and the environment, with food production responsible for over 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. They say that the benefits of eating a more plant-based diet with reduced intake of animal food vary depending on the region. The biggest gains in environmental and health terms would be in developing countries, which would realize about 75% of the gains. Westernized countries, on the other hand, would benefit more financially due to both high meat consumption, along with resulting obesity and healthcare costs in those countries. They add that transitioning to a plant-based diet would reduce the mortality rate worldwide by between 6% and 10%, and reduce greenhouse gases related to food production by between 29% and 70%. The overall financial gain is estimated to be as much as $31 trillion U.S. dollars, equivalent to 13% of worldwide gross domestic product.

The conclusions were drawn from models developed by Oxford researchers for four dietary patterns, which were used to make predictions for outcomes by mid-century. The dietary patterns used were:

  • Our current pattern of eating
  • A diet based on current guidelines with minimum amounts of fruit and vegetables and some limits on red meat, sugar, and calories
  • A vegetarian diet
  • A vegan diet

Following current guidelines would result in as many as 5.1 million fewer deaths each year by 2050, but eating a vegan diet would be much more effective, with 8.1 million fewer annual deaths. Food-related emissions would be reduced by 29% by following current guidelines, by 63% by following a vegetarian diet plan, and by 70% if we all convert to a vegan diet.  The dietary changes could result in as much as $1 trillion per year in savings on healthcare, lost working days, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The group says that different interventions to change food production and eating patterns will be needed for different regions of the world. Lowering meat intake would have the biggest effect in East Asia, Westernized countries, and Latin America. Increasing fruit and vegetable intake would have a bigger impact in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Eastern Mediterranean, Latin American, and Westernized countries would benefit most from calorie reduction and reducing the number of overweight people.

Just to achieve the goals outlined in current guidelines would require major changes, including a 25% increase in worldwide intake of fruits and vegetables, a 56% reduction in red meat consumption, and a 15% reduction in calories.

Lead researcher Marco Springmann says that while these changes may be difficult, technology alone cannot address the impact the food system has on the environment; dietary changes will be required. He adds that he does not expect everyone to become vegan, but that healthier diets are a step in the right direction.

Springmann M, Godfray H, Rayner M, Scarborough P. “Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change.” PNAS Proc Natl Acad Sci 2016.

Megan Rowling “A Vegetarian World Would Be Healthier, Cooler and Richer.”

Medscape March 22, 2016