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10 Ways a Plant-Based Diet Helps the Planet

Detrick Snyder
Vegetarian food on a plate
Specialty plant-based foods have been exploding in popularity, no doubt driven by their status as healthy-for-you and healthy for the planet.

Andrea Wotan, a registered dietitian specializing in whole-food plant-based nutrition, points out that “eliminating meat and dairy is the best step that any of us as individuals can take today to reduce our collective negative impact on the planet.” 

Judging by the number of government initiatives, non-profits, and researchers who stand with this position, she’s not wrong.

But what difference does going plant-based really make in reclaiming our environment’s health?

1. Reduced Greenhouse Gasses

The single most positive effect of adopting a plant-based diet is the potential to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses like methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide.

Agriculture directly accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in America. After accounting for emissions from crops grown for animal feed, more than half of agriculture emissions are related to animal production.

Putting this into a global perspective, “if cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases,” according to the climate solutions nonprofit Project Drawdown. 

Beyond just eating less meat, increasing plant consumption allows crops to actually take the carbon out of the atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into water and starches, and these starches are where that carbon ends up.

Eating vegetarian or vegan is such a powerful tool that Project Drawdown ranks plant-based diets as the third of 76 most impactful strategies to reduce greenhouse gasses.  

Going vegan could amount to a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Even reducing meat consumption to 2.5 servings a week (the level recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans) could result in a 29% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

So if going veg seems daunting, flexitarian (where minimal meat is included) can help too!

2. Better Health and Healthcare Savings

A plant-based diet can help you lose weight and may reduce the risk of almost every chronic disease. Going plant-based may even extend life, according to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Even if the environmental reasons to go plant-based don’t convince you, it’s hard to argue against living longer.

One study shows that the global annual healthcare savings could amount to $963 billion by 2050 if everyone in the world were to shift to a vegetarian diet. That number would top 1 trillion for vegan diets. 

But it’s not just about the bottom line: a population-level vegetarian shift would prevent 7.3 million unnecessary deaths per year.

As the lead author of the study, Dr. Springmann, told University of Oxford Press, “our results indicate that dietary changes could have large benefits to society, and the value of those benefits makes a strong case for…more environmentally sustainable diets.”

With the U.S. being the most expensive healthcare system in the world while also producing nearly 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, plant-based diets have a unique advantage of addressing both issues at once.

Health is literally wealth for vegans and vegetarians.

If you want a plant-based menu that helps you help the planet, but you’re not sure where to start, check out these meal kit delivery options!

3. More Fresh Water

Plant-based diets require a lot less water than meat-centered diets. 

Water Footprint Network, a nonprofit aiming to solve the world’s water crisis, estimates that a 6-oz serving of beef uses a whopping 4331 gallons of water to produce. That’s over 20 times more water per calorie than cereal grains and root vegetables. 

This is especially relevant when you think of the longstanding drought facing western America. Supply just can’t keep up with demand.

According to a study published by Nature Sustainability, the main use of river water in the U.S. is to irrigate crops grown solely to feed livestock. 

Not only that, but the agricultural runoff from those crops pollutes what little water remains and places even more stress on freshwater ecosystems.

“It is imperative for us to be thinking about our freshwater sources,” says Wotan. “We need to think carefully about stewarding our freshwater and whether irrigating cattle feed to produce beef and dairy — two foods that most of us don’t even need in our diet — is how we want to be using this precious resource”.

The logical step — eating less meat — is only obvious.

4. Cleaner Oceans

You may think of fish as a part of a healthy pescatarian diet, but the global appetite for fish and seafood leaves a trail of pollution as it scrapes our oceans.

One-third of the world’s fish populations are overfished, according to the UN’s FAO. At the current rate, every commercial fishery will collapse by 2050.

Beyond the problem of overfishing, pollution due to fishing is a huge issue. As much as 70% of plastic floating at the ocean’s surface is due to fishing.

This is just scraping the surface, literally. Abandoned and lost fishing nets litter the ocean floor. Other marine life are caught in nets and discarded as “bycatch”. The transportation networks that support the seafood industry are major emitters of pollution.

Although fish can be part of a healthy diet, the fishing industry has a sinking side that negatively impacts the ocean from top to bottom.

5. Stops deforestation

Andrea points out that “high meat and dairy diets are the leading causes of forest destruction of wild intact ecosystems in many parts of the world.” 

Tropical forests are clear-cut to make way for herds of cattle. The soy and corn crops to feed them are made possible by even greater deforestation.

These crops are used to feed an enormous livestock industry, which convert that carbon back into carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses like methane) and release it back to the atmosphere. Not just once, but hundreds of times over.

When you compare the amount of land required to produce a calorie from plants versus a calorie from animals, the issue of using land for livestock becomes even more apparent. Animal products provide just 18% of calories but take up 83% of farmland in the United States.

With research showing that 40% of all deforestation is due to the cattle industry, reducing our meat intake is a clear way to preserve our wildlands.

6. Enhances biodiversity

If you only focus on climate change, then you're missing the more subtle effects on ecosystems. 

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life in an ecosystem. Animal agriculture is a leading cause of its loss. 

In Andrea’s perspective, “healthy ecosystems keep freshwater systems vibrant, abundant, and clean. They help keep pollinator populations intact. Healthy soil ecosystems are fundamental for growing foods with the nutrients we need for optimal health.”  

The effect of losing any part of the system ripples out to the whole habitat.

Another example comes from the genetically modified crops that feed American’s meat-eating habits. According to plant-based dietitian Judy DeLorenzo, “these ‘Roundup Ready’ crops can withstand being sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate without dying themselves.”

The effect on humans? 

She continues, “glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and was labeled ‘probably carcinogenic’ in 2015 by the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer.” 

Not only do farmers have to use more to kill weeds that have grown resistant, but that glyphosate spills over into our food and water supply.

Eating more plants, especially certified organic plants, is one way to foster biodiversity for the overall health of people and our planet. 

7. Decreases Hunger

Plant proteins provide more calories — and one might argue, healthier calories — per dollar than animal products. 

Per serving, meat is more than twice as expensive as nuts, beans, vegetables and fruit, according to an analysis of national food data.

Even though vegetables may be more expensive per calorie, health is not about more calories, it’s about better calories. Vegetables are a key player in the fight against the nutrient deficiencies in America.

One research team even estimates that “replacing all animal-based items with plant-based replacement diets can add enough food to feed 350 million additional people” in the United States. 

Relative to the 35 million people facing food insecurity in America, going plant-based is low-hanging fruit in addressing hunger in the U.S.

8. Decreases Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance — when bacteria become resistant to antibiotic treatment — is a serious risk to the health of people, especially in healthcare settings.

One of the main sources of antibiotic resistance is in livestock feed. Antibiotics are routinely included in animal feed to prevent infections and to fatten animals up. In fact, one study shows that, of all antibiotics sold in the United States, about 80% are used in animal agriculture. 

This indiscriminate use of antibiotics may kill off most bacteria, but the ones that remain are especially difficult to kill. 

These antibiotic-resistant strains are on the rise in farms, spread by the food we eat, take hold in hospitals and nursing homes, and ultimately result in unnecessary deaths. 

Eating plants eliminates this risk.

9. Eliminates animal cruelty

The vegan lifestyle is almost synonymous with an end to the killing, mishandling, and exploitation of animals. 

Most, if not all, animals have the capacity to experience pain, respond to violence, and perceive safety — or the lack thereof. 

Need proof? Cattle operations use tenets borrowed from psychology to reduce the agitation and distress when they’re walking to their slaughter. 

Reducing stress moments before death may be a tiny step in the battle for animal rights, but forgoing meat altogether eliminates the need entirely.

Animals are still raised in dirty, confined conditions called concentrated animal feeding operations (“CAFOs”), sometimes never seeing the light of day. They are fattened to the point of disability and treated with antibiotics not for sickness, but to fatten them further.

Going plant-based is a necessary step toward an economy whose bottom line includes more than profit.

10. Less Meat, Better Meat

Choosing a plant-centered menu is not an “all or nothing” decision. Reducing meat consumption is more palatable for some than forgoing it altogether.

You can still do your part for the planet by choosing small amounts of free-range, humanely-raised, local meat.

Multiple studies show that free range meat is higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, contains less saturated (“bad”) fat and more unsaturated (“good”) fat, and more vitamin antioxidants like beta-carotene. Same goes for free-range dairy and eggs.

On the environmental side, small herds who can migrate naturally could actually help — not decimate — natural ecosystems. It follows then, that healthy animals can simultaneously support healthier people and healthier ecosystems. 

The first step is reducing the demand for meat. Vote with your dollar — so to speak — for options that promote planetary health.

Free-range solutions may be more expensive, and cannot supply the amount of meat Americans currently demand. 

But I have to ask you: with all the benefits of going plant-based, is it truly even a loss?

Takeaways

Vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or plant-curious, it doesn’t matter: eating less meat and more plants is a crucial way to affect the environment positively. Keep in mind these key points:

  • For humanity as a whole, eating more plant-based foods has the potential to improve population health, reduce healthcare costs, improve healthcare outcomes, and reduce food insecurity and hunger.

  • Eating a plant-based diet can improve your nutrition and health, but figuring out how to optimize a new way of eating isn’t for everyone. If you want to try out a plant-based diet, check out Top10’s list of vegan-friendly meal delivery kits.

  • As a way to address global climate change, going plant-based can reduce water use, deforestation, greenhouse gasses and related pollutants.

  • For the planet, plant-based diets foster more diversity in natural and human-made ecosystems and cause less pollution in the air, on the land, and in our waters.

In closing, Andrea emphasizes the overall benefit of eating more plants. “We're talking about preserving everyone’s home, here. Plant-based messages don’t have an ulterior agenda except to protect the Earth”. 

Detrick Snyder
Detrick Snyder is a Denver-based dietitian and consultant who loves developing best-in-class content for companies on a mission to promote better health. Detrick brings expertise in clinical research, public health, and evidence-based food-as-medicine practices so that you get the most relevant and accurate content possible.

*The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.