Switch to Healthier Diet Could Save the Planet
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the traditional Mediterranean diet. It’s the dietary pattern and lifestyle practiced by peoples native to the Mediterranean basin—at least, prior to World War II, before industrialized food began to supplant this time-honored diet. Still practiced by some in places like Spain and Greece, this ancient lifestyle is characterized by a few striking features: It features very little red meat—and virtually zero added sugar. Whole plant foods make up the bulk of foods consumed, and fats are supplied almost exclusively by extra virgin olive oil, plus a little fatty fish. Fresh herbs are frequently consumed, too.
It’s one of the most extensively studied diets on the planet, and numerous studies have shown that it promotes enviable health. People who most closely follow the classic Mediterranean diet enjoy remarkable health benefits, ranging from significantly lower rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other inflammation-based diseases and disorders. They’re also far less likely to be obese.
Clearly, switching from a generic carb-heavy, meat-centric, over-sweetened American diet to a more vegetarian or Mediterranean-style diet is one of the important keys to health and longevity. But according to a paper published in the influential journal, Nature, it may also be a key to preserving the future health of the planet itself. That’s because many of the hallmarks of the unhealthful western diet—high consumption of beef and refined oils and sugars—are only possible through practices that are extremely resource and land-intensive.
As the global population grows, land and fresh water will continue to be ever more scarce and precious. The environmental costs of sustaining this type of consumption will eventually become unsustainable. Switching to a healthier Mediterranean-style diet would take pressure off the environment, including the air, water and land. The switch would reduce habitat destruction. Rainforests around the globe are under siege as farmers slash and burn these vulnerable and invaluable resources to make way for expanding cattle farming.
In a press release, University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman said, "We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage…In particular, if the world were to adopt variations on three common diets, health would be greatly increased at the same time global greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by an amount equal to the current greenhouse gas emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships. In addition, this dietary shift would prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannas as large as half of the United States."
David Tilman, Michael Clark. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nature13959