Switching to a plant-based diet can help reduce food-related emissions by up to 61 percent, but new research shows that the quality of your vegan diet is directly related to its environmental benefits. The research indicated that healthier plant-based dietary patterns harmed the planet far less than vegan diets that included foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, and other processed foods.

Researchers from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Health teamed up with the Brigham and Women's Hospital to examine how different forms of vegan diets impact the environment differently. By examining the methods of food production such as fertilization requirements, the researchers determined how more organic, healthier diets contributed less to food-related emissions. The collective published their finding in the medical journal The Lancet Planetary Health. 

“The differences between plant-based diets was surprising because they’re often portrayed as universally healthy and good for the environment, but it’s more nuanced than that,” Aviva Musicus, postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School and corresponding author of the study, said in a statement.

The study is the first to simultaneously examine the health and environmental impacts of multiple plant-based diets. Even though several studies have shown that plant-based diets affected health differently, studies did not reveal how plant-based diets higher in refined grains, high-sugar beverages, potatoes, and sweets increased environmental strain. The unhealthy diets emitted more greenhouse gases, used more cropland, and wasted more water.

“An increase in unhealthy diets that are rich in heavily processed and animal-based foods (eg, red meat) is threatening both planetary and human health, contributing to increased rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases worldwide,” the study notes. “Because adverse associations between diets that are rich in animal-based foods and human and environmental health are well established, widespread adoption of healthier plant-rich diets has the potential to reduce disease risk and environmental degradation.”

More Reason to Choose a Healthier Vegan Diet

The research team examined the food consumption patterns of 65,000 participants picked from the Nuses' Health Study II. The study analyzed the associations between health complications and environmental impacts. In contrast to unhealthy diets, healthy plant-based diets included higher quantities of legumes, nuts, whole grains, tea, coffee, vegetable oils, fruits, and vegetables.

The study found that the participants that ate an unhealthy plant-based diet were more likely to develop cardiovascular complications and other diseases. These findings correlate with other studies that have examined how eating vegan is not necessarily synonymous with perfect health. This April, another study from Harvard researchers found a substantial difference in diabetes risk between unhealthy and healthy vegan diets.

This July, research also showed that healthy plant-based diets beat other diets such as keto for lowering cancer risks. One study claimed that a healthy plant-based diet could lower your risk of all cancers by 14 percent.

Eating Plant-Based Can Protect the Planet

The Harvard research provides better insight into the benefits of healthier, more organic plant-based foods while implicating the agricultural industry as a whole, especially animal agriculture. This month, research showed that due to population increases and rising food insecurity, food industry giants are intensifying animal agriculture. Despite offering short-term benefits to food scarcity, this process is shown to present serious risks of environmental harm and animal-borne pandemics.

Avoiding beef and dairy products is essential to slow down climate change, according to research claiming methane is 80 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. Recently, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres claimed that to avoid a climate "disaster" then the world needed to turn to plant-based solutions.

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