Study: The Less Meat You Eat the Better for Human Health and the Environment
Reducing meat consumption is the quickest way to improve your health, a new study finds, but you don't need to cut it out altogether to see health benefits, the researchers concluded. A meat-centric diet has been linked to increased risk for chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more. But what sets this study apart is that it looked at the benefits of meat reduction as opposed to completely going meat-free.
Many studies have looked at what happens when you avoid meat and animal products altogether, but this study actually examined the nuance of varying levels of meat-eating and reduction and the benefits of reducing as opposed to totally cutting all meat from the diet.
The study compared three diets: Meat reduction, Mediterranean and Vegan Diets
Researchers at the University of Bonn, Germany recently set out to find out which diet that called for reducing or eliminating meat is the best for human health and the environment. The study compares three diets in order to best determine what level of meat reduction is the best across different outcomes: human health, ethics, and the environment. Published in Science of The Total Environment, the university report found that a vegan diet ranked best for the environment, animal welfare, and human health. The only category that the vegan diet didn't win on was the difficulty people have getting their full spectrum of nutrients.
The three diets compared in the study include one that you could call the Reducetarian Diet, which is the one suggested from the German Nutrition Society (DGE) that recommends consumers should moderately reduce meat consumption and focus on getting more of their macronutrients from vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains; the Mediterranean diet which focuses on fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and plant-based foods with minimal dairy and no meat; and the third diet they looked at was a fully vegan diet.
The study weighed a variety of concerns including what the average Western Diet lacks, the sourcing of food, the emission of greenhouse gas emissions, the production of waste, and more – to properly determine the least harmful diet that people should follow. The study concluded that the vegan diet wins on all categories other than the fact that people may need to focus on where they get certain nutrients.
The researchers used what is called a One Health assessment system. It's a collaborative effort that defines optimal health as what is best for humans, animals, and the environment, and is recognized by reputable organizations like the CDC and others. All three diets would be classified as beneficial for sustainability, but the diets differ when it comes to their impact on the environment and human health.
Eating less meat is better for you and the environment
The less meat that you eat the better, the study recognized, and if you cut out meat even one meal a day that is better for the environment and your health than if you had not done so. However, the study also found that the other two diets that completely remove red meat from the diet had even more health benefits as well as placing less strain on the environment.
The Meditteranean is healthier for you but takes its toll on the planet and the oceans because when people substitute fish for their protein source it leads to overfishing, the study found. The researchers pointed out that it would be beneficial to replace some of the proteins with plant-based sources instead, such as legumes, and other sources of plant-based protein.
"It's beneficial to meet less of your overall protein needs from animal sources," the study's lead researcher, Dr. Neus Escobar states. The other aspect of the research was that people simply eat more food than they need, he added. "In addition, many people today have diets that are significantly too rich. If they reduced the amount of food they ate, to what they really need, it would have additional positive effects."
The vegan diet scored best for human health and the environment, although vegan food production often requires increased water consumption, especially certain nuts. The vegan diet also requires consumers to add up their daily nutrients including making an effort to consume foods with vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium.
Reducing Meat is Key to Boosting Health
Reducing meat is core to improving individual health, the study surmised. A meat-free diet that is lower in saturated fat has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes and help strengthen immunity and overall well-being. In a separate poll, vegans are 10 percent happier than meat-eaters, linking mental health to ditching meat and dairy.
Several studies have linked meat-eating to increased risk of stroke, cancer, heart disease, and lifestyle conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and more. A report published in the Journal of the American Heart Association claims that a plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of not only heart disease but also "all causes of mortality."
The report found that consumers who ate a diet rich in animal products and refined carbs were 32 percent more likely to die of heart disease and 25 percent more likely to die prematurely from all causes.
Leaving meat behind can be the easiest and first step to combating climate change, experts agree. Over the last year, the climate crisis has been defined by worsening greenhouse gas emissions attributed directly to animal agriculture. A new research study recently found that meatless diets can potentially produce 59 percent fewer emissions than non-vegetarian diets. The research analyzed the environmental impacts of animal-based and plant-based foods to determine the global impacts for both diets, concluding that healthier diets coincide with more environmentally friendly diets.
The Good Food Institute issued a life cycle assessment to examine how sustainable plant-based protein production compared to conventional animal-based meat and dairy products. The assessment found that alternative protein produces 86 percent fewer greenhouse gases, used 97 percent less land, and wastes 96 percent less water. The figure clearly indicates the sustainable value of alternative protein in contrast to its environmentally damaging animal-based counterparts.
Meat farming dominates the food production industry worldwide, accounting for 57 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. The danger is apparent, meaning that any step towards reducing meat consumption is a huge leap forward in fixing the ongoing climate crisis.
Bottom Line: Eat less meat to benefit your health and the environment
A new study suggests that if consumers ate less meat they would be healthier and so would the environment. If you're not ready to go completely meat-free you can save 30 percent of daily greenhouse emissions by cutting out meat one mal a day. Even that will have an impact on your health by a significant amount. Starting with cutting out meat one meal a day is a big step in the right direction. It's easy to find plant-based food full of proteins, vitamins, and other core nutrients. Check out the Beginner's Guide to Going Plant-Based for how to start.