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02-29-2024

Small changes in diet can greatly reduce your carbon footprint

A popular food guide has undergone a revolutionary change, moving away from traditional food groups, including meat and dairy, to emphasize the significance of plant-based proteins in your diet and how they impact your carbon footprint.

This shift indicates a new direction in nutritional advice, highlighting a growing awareness of the health and environmental impacts of our food choices.

However, the broader effects of transitioning from animal to plant proteins in human diets remain a topic of exploration.

How diet impacts your carbon footprint

Recent research conducted by McGill University, in partnership with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, sheds light on this issue, providing clear evidence that replacing animal proteins with plant-based alternatives can lead to increased life expectancy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

This study, and the major shift in Canada’s Food Guide, underscores that the benefits derived from such dietary changes depend on the specific animal proteins being substituted.

Published in Nature Food, the research utilized data from a national nutrition survey to assess the dietary habits of Canadians.

It focused on the outcomes of replacing 25% and 50% of red and processed meat or dairy with plant proteins such as nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, and fortified soy beverages.

These replacements were evaluated based on their impact on nutrition, health, and climate.

Plant-based diets and greenhouse gas emissions

The study reveals that red and processed meat, along with dairy, are significant contributors to Earth’s diet-related greenhouse gas emissions.

A striking finding is that by substituting half of the red and processed meat consumption with plant-based proteins, an individual’s carbon footprint from their diet could decrease by 25%.

Dairy substitutions, however, resulted in a lesser impact, showing reductions of up to 5%.

Olivia Auclair, the study’s lead author and a recent PhD graduate from McGill’s Department of Animal Science, explains:

“We show that co-benefits for human and planetary health do not necessarily require wholesale changes to diets, such as adopting restrictive dietary patterns or excluding certain food groups altogether but can be achieved by making simple partial substitutions of red and processed meat, in particular, with plant protein foods.”

Lowering your carbon footprint can extend your life

The research also highlights the health implications of such dietary shifts. High consumption of animal products is linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

The study estimates that replacing half of the red and processed meat in one’s diet with plant protein foods could extend life expectancy by nearly nine months, primarily due to a lower risk of chronic diseases.

Men, in particular, could see greater benefits in terms of life expectancy compared to women. However, replacing dairy with plant proteins showed smaller increases in life expectancy and posed a potential risk of calcium inadequacy, increasing by up to 14%.

Senior author Sergio Burgos, Associate Professor at McGill’s Department of Animal Science, expresses his hope that the study’s findings will guide consumers towards healthier and more sustainable food choices and inform future food policies in Canada.

“I hope our findings will help consumers make healthier and more sustainable food choices and inform future food policy in Canada,” says Burgos.

Towards a sustainable dietary future

As the pursuit of sustainable and health-conscious diets gains momentum, this study offers valuable insights, empowering individuals to make choices that are beneficial for both their health and the environment.

Patricia Eustachio Colombo is the co-author and Honorary Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He emphasizes, “Increasing the consumption of plant-based foods alongside reductions in red and processed meat would have considerable benefits for health and the environment and would involve relatively small changes in diets for most people.”

In summary, the shift towards plant-based proteins, as evidenced by the latest research from McGill University and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, presents a promising path for enhancing both human health and environmental sustainability.

By adopting simple dietary substitutions, particularly replacing red and processed meats with plant-based alternatives, people can significantly reduce their carbon footprint and extend their lifespan.

This study underscores the minimal changes required for substantial benefits in several areas, while serving as a pivotal guide for informed, healthier, and more sustainable food choices.

This research initiative marks a critical step forward in our collective journey towards a more resilient and eco-conscious society.

This study was published in the journal Nature Food.

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