Why eating more plant-based food and less meat is better for you and the planet

flat lay photography of vegetable salad on plate

We can’t say it enough: eating more plant-based foods is good for both human health and the planet. Plant-based food can be one of the major solutions to face global warming. The good news is that eating more plant-based food is easier than you might think.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Overall, 2.7 million lives could potentially be saved each year worldwide if fruit and vegetable consumption were increased”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report shows that lifestyle changes, including a less-meat-intensive diet, are necessary against global warming. Plant-based diets are a significant opportunity to face climate change. The risk is to increase the temperature of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

Also, eating more plant-based foods will reduce the demand for meat, dairy, and eggs, reducing animal suffering.

How can eating more fruit and vegetables contribute to solving all these issues?

Hi, my name is Valentina, and I am a communication strategy consultant. I help food businesses guide consumers to make sustainable choices by promoting plant-based food consumption. I believe that food is a major way to reconnecting with nature and that our food choices can make a difference.

Let’s start discussing the benefits of eating more vegetables on our health.

The effects of a plant-based diet on health

Scientific research has shown that in Western society, there is a higher risk for lifestyle-related diseases – including atherosclerosis, heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes – and colon cancer than in the Mediterranean basin.

The Western diet is typically rich in saturated fats, sugar, salt, red meat, and highly processed food. In contrast, the Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts; it relies on fish, white meat, and pulses as the primary source of protein, and olive oil as the main source of fat.

There is increasing evidence of the link between red meat consumption and the risk of several types of cancer and other health outcomes. Scientific research is now clarifying the protective role of plant-based food on our organism.  Research has shown that the whole-food, plant-based diet can help to prevent, and in some cases reverse, some major chronic diseases.

Eating more plant-based foods not only helps you reduce your meat intake by adding vegetal protein into your diet, but it also brings you protective molecules with strong antioxidant action: the phytochemicals.

Phytochemical, literally means ‘plant’ – from the Greek φυτόν – compound.  These ‘plant compounds’ are specific to plants. Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and other plants are rich in phytochemicals. Their role in the plant is to protect from bacteria, fungi, virus infections, insects, and other animals. In some cases, like the potato solanine, these molecules are toxic for human consumption, and the vegetable cannot be eaten raw. Phytochemicals also protect from sun damages. For this reason, plants growing in the Mediterranean regions, like tomato and olive trees, are rich in phytochemicals.

So, what do plant-based foods do for us?

  1. Provide us with complex carbohydrates, proteins, and little fats. The composition varies from plant to plant. Pulses are particularly rich in protein and, combined with cereals, provide us with all the essential amino acids (amino acids are the basic components of proteins) that we need to build our proteins. Generally, fruits and vegetables have a high satiating effect while being low in fat.
  2. Give us vitamins, minerals, and trace elements, which are essential for the correct functioning of our body. If you choose to avoid food issued from animals entirely, you will need to ask a Dietetics professional for advice and probably add food supplements like vitamin B12.
  3. Promote the diversity of the gut microbiota, which typically improves the health condition.
  4. Help protect our cells from damage, inflammation, and cancer.
  5. Provide dietary fiber, ensuring that our digestive system is clean and healthy, helping to flush out toxic and carcinogenic molecules.

The environmental impact of meat production

Adopting a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in meat is a high-impact action for the environment.

The environmental consequences of meat production are enormous. According to the FAO, the world’s livestock industry is responsible for 14.5 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gases, which is as much as the transport sector.

Breeding livestock and growing intensive crops require land that is made available through deforestation. It also involves the use of pesticides, which causes water pollution and kills bees. Intensive farming and cultivation also cause the loss of biodiversity. The relentless production of meat is also a factor reducing biodiversity.  More and more meat. Less and less biodiversity.

According to IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), up to one million species could be wiped out in the coming years if current trends do not change. About agrobiodiversity, FAO in the “Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture” report stated that of the 6000 different species used as food, only nine contribute to 66% of total food production today.

The direct consequence of the loss of biodiversity in food is a higher risk for food security due to climate change, pests, and diseases.

I hope that it is now clear why we do need to switch to a plant-based diet, which does not necessarily mean that we must avoid all animal products. A plant-based diet consists mainly of foods derived from plant sources, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, and nuts, and it can also include dairy food, eggs, fish, and meat in low quantity.

Healthy and sustainable diets 

To face both the environmental and health crisis, we should adopt a sustainable and healthy diet. According to FAO, sustainable and healthy diets are “those diets with low environmental impacts that contribute to food and nutritional security and to healthy lives for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, are nutritionally adequate, safe, and healthy, and optimize natural and human resources” (Burlingame, 2010).

The Mediterranean diet is an excellent example of a healthy and sustainable diet. It is a plant-based diet rich in foods with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, like extra-virgin olive oil, fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, whole-grain cereals, and red wine. The Mediterranean diet is also varied, given that it includes animal-based food like fish and poultry with a limited quantity of dairy products. Many studies have demonstrated the protective effects Mediterranean diet on chronic diseases such as diabetes and certain types of cancer.  

Pulses, including chickpeas, lentils, and beans, have the combined advantage of being suitable for human health and the planet. They are a source of vegetal protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and contain zero cholesterol. Furthermore, their cultivation improves soil fertility thanks to their nitrogen-fixing properties. For these reasons, eating pulses helps reducing meat consumption and has a positive impact on the environment.

Our food choices matter

What can you do on a day-to-day basis?

You can start introducing more plant-based food to your meals by simple steps like:

  • introducing pulse-based dishes
  • exchanging plant-based recipes with your friends
  • informing you on what fruit and vegetables are in season now where you live
  • knowing your specific nutritional needs
  • joining initiatives like the Meatless Monday movement
  • finding inspiration online

In Day by day Plants, you will find plenty of recipes by season, and our base is constantly growing! We aim to share essential recipes like sauté rice, risotto, quiche, and much more, as easy to customize to your taste, the local produce, and upcycle leftovers.

Disclaimer. For any advice on your specific nutrition needs, please refer to a Dietetics professional for advice.

Further readings

BBC Science – Climate change food calculator: What’s your diet’s carbon footprint?, August 2019

Nature – Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet.

Food Navigator – Plant-based diets the ‘least favoured solution to climate change’, according to UN poll, January 2021.

Sources

FAO, Food Outlook, June 2020.

WWF, PULSE FICTION REPORT, 2019

FAO, SUSTAINABLE HEALTHY DIETS, 2019 

Wyckhuys KAG, Aebi A, Bijleveld van Lexmond MFIJ, Bojaca CR, Bonmatin JM, Furlan L, Guerrero JA, Mai TV, Pham HV, Sanchez-Bayo F, Ikenaka Y. Resolving the twin human and environmental health hazards of a plant-based diet. Environ Int. 2020 Nov;144:106081. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106081. Epub 2020 Sep 1. PMID: 32889485.

Farinetti A, Zurlo V, Manenti A, Coppi F, Mattioli AV. Mediterranean diet and colorectal cancer: A systematic review. Nutrition. 2017 Nov-Dec;43-44:83-88. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2017.06.008. Epub 2017 Jul 8. PMID: 28935150.

Preventing Chronic Diseases: A vital investment. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2005.

Burlingame B, Dernini S (3–5 November 2010). “Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: Directions and Solutions for Policy, Research and Action.” (PDF). International Scientific Symposium, Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets United Against Hunger. FAO Headquarters, Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Mentella MC, Scaldaferri F, Ricci C, Gasbarrini A, Miggiano GAD. Cancer and Mediterranean Diet: A Review. Nutrients. 2019 Sep 2;11(9):2059. doi: 10.3390/nu11092059. PMID: 31480794; PMCID: PMC6770822.

Published by Valentina

Hi, I’m Valentina. I'm a Communication Strategy Consultant for food businesses. My mission is facilitating communication for sustainable development through digital services and intercultural connections. I also run "Day by day Plants" blog where I share my passion for plant-based food.

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