When it comes to keeping Mother Earth healthy, it’s long been assumed that a vegan diet would visit the least amount of harm to the planet. If you believed that, well, it’s time to put down that bowl of quinoa and pick up a juicy burger. A large body of evidence proposes that a flexitarian diet could be the compromise we need to achieve a healthier dietary shift and help reduce our food consumption’s carbon footprint. It could potentially be the diet to save the planet!
For years, humanity has relied on a broken food system that has both undermined human health and damaged the ecosystem. Our unhealthy diet—comprised mostly of sugar and fat, and excessive amounts of meat—is now ranked as one of the leading causes of mortality, placed even higher than tobacco and alcohol. Regrettably, it is this same diet that has been contributing to the world’s increasing greenhouse gas emissions, depletion of resources, and mass extinction of species.
Climate change advocates are pushing for vegan as the diet to save the planet. According to projections, a global shift to a vegan diet can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent. However, deleting meat and dairy products from people’s diet virtually seem implausible. Not everyone is willing to give up cheese, milk, steaks and burgers. In fact, global meat consumption is on the rise and projected to reach 78.3 pounds from 75 pounds by the year 2024. Thus, implementing a strictly vegan diet will require drastic measures on a global scale. On the other hand, a flexitarian diet, with less strict rules on food consumption, can encourage more people to participate in the reduction of meat consumption.
Understanding the Flexitarian Diet and its Impact on People’s Health
With the growing population and the quest to feed 10 billion people by the year 2050, the EAT-Lancet Commission has brought together 37 scientists and experts from various disciplines spanning 16 countries across the world. Their mission is to answer the critical question: What is a healthy and sustainable diet and how do we get there?
Considering the existing dietary patterns, geographical considerations, and local and regional realities, the commission arrived at the bottom line that is “a flexitarian diet, which is largely plant-based but can optionally include modest amounts of fish, meat and dairy foods”. To illustrate what constitutes a healthy planetary diet: Half of the plate should be comprised of vegetables and fruits. The other half must be a combination of unrefined whole grains, protein sourced from plants, unsaturated plant oils, and minimal animal-sourced protein.
With 2 billion people suffering from obesity and another 2 billion from malnourishment, radical dietary changes must be pursued. By following a flexitarian diet, countries will be able to address various lifestyle- and diet-related diseases and consequently help prevent 11 million adult deaths per year.
Best Case Scenario: If We All Follow the Flexitarian Diet
A diet that is mainly plant-based with a modest amount of animal-sourced protein proffers many benefits for people’s health and our planet’s sustainability. However, there is no one-size-fits-all description of how the flexitarian diet will change each region’s food consumption patterns. For instance, the climate-intensive western diet needs to cut back on meat consumption by up to 90 percent. By contrast, low- to middle-income countries are already eating less meat. Besides increasing vegetable and fruit consumption, improving plant-based protein consumption to address malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency is needed.
With all things considered, a global shift to a flexitarian diet combined with improved food production practices and reduction of food waste can introduce a significant and positive environmental impact. By 2050, greenhouse gas emission, cropland, water use, and biodiversity loss can be restored to safe and sustainable planetary boundaries. Evidently, research and statistics corroborate a flexitarian diet can help fix our broken food systems. Indeed, it holds a very high potential to be the diet to save the planet.
Transform the Way We Eat: Follow a Plant-based Diet to Save the Planet
Cataclysmic shifts in the Earth’s system will leave a severely damaged planet in the hands of today’s children. Without the existence of meaningful actions to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations and the Paris Agreement, our children’s generation will bear the outcome of our choices.
Undeniably, our diet now stands as the single biggest threat pushing our ecosystem towards the tipping point. So, with the planet’s ecological stability perched at the edge of a cliff, isn’t a shift in how we dine a small price to pay to save our planet?