By By Amy Norton HealthDay Reporter, HealthDay Reporter
MONDAY, March 6, 2023 (HealthDay News) — Swapping that steak for a fish fillet or veggie burger is not only good for your health, but for the planet, a new study suggests.
And overall, meatless diets excelled on both counts.
The researchers found that, on average, vegan and vegetarian diets had the smallest carbon footprint, which refers to the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere to produce the foods that make up the diets.
Meanwhile, the pescatarian diet, which includes seafood but no meat, scored highest in nutritional quality and was friendlier to the planet than meat-containing diets.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were two diets currently in vogue: the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet; and the paleo diet, which focuses on foods that proponents say were eaten in prehistoric times, primarily meat, fish, eggs, nuts, and vegetables.
Those two meat-rich eating plans, the study found, had the largest carbon footprints and the lowest dietary quality.
(The keto diet can also be hard on the heart, raising “bad” cholesterol levels and the risk of arterial clogging, according to new research presented at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology.)
Experts said the findings may give consumers something to think about when they’re at the grocery store.
“Most people probably don’t think about the environmental impact when they choose their food,” said lead researcher Diego Rose, a professor and director of the nutrition program at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, in New Orleans.
That’s understandable, since people today are so cut off from their food sources. “Everything we buy comes from the same grocery store,” Rose noted.
But studies have pointed to many reasons why a meat-free, plant-based diet is more environmentally friendly: less land is used to raise and feed livestock; less air pollution; less energy use; and fewer greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
Red meat production has a particular environmental impact, more so than poultry, Rose said.
All of this has been well documented in previous research. The goal of the new study, Rose said, was to simultaneously look at the nutritional quality and carbon footprints of diets commonly consumed by Americans.
To do that, the researchers used data from a government study that asked more than 16,000 American adults to detail what they had eaten in the past 24 hours.
The vast majority, 86%, reported an omnivorous eating style, meaning they ate both animal and plant foods. Most of the remaining respondents reported a vegetarian or pescatarian-style diet, while less than 1% each ate a vegan, keto, or paleo diet.
Study participants were not asked to label themselves vegan, Rose said. But, she added, her dietary reports give an idea of what Americans actually eat on a day-to-day basis.
The researchers scored those real-world diets using two standard measures of dietary quality that award points for eating things like vegetables, fiber-rich grains, and lean protein, and avoiding things like sugary drinks, red meat, and highly processed foods.
In terms of nutritional quality, the diets ranked from best to worst were: pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, omnivorous, paleo, and ketogenic.
When it came to carbon footprint, the list was similar, but the vegan and vegetarian diets outperformed the pescatarian diet in terms of respect for the planet. (Vegan diets exclude all animal products, including eggs and dairy.)
Debbie Petitpain is a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who reviewed the findings.
He said the study shows that what’s good for personal health is also good for the planet, which might motivate some people.
That said, Petitpain noted that most people aren’t willing to give up entire food groups or adopt a strict dietary identity.
“Fortunately,” Petitpain said, “it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
People can help themselves, he said, by putting more plant foods than animal products on their plates and getting a little creative with protein.
You can start, for example, by substituting one serving of meat each week with seafood, and more affordable options like canned tuna in water do count, Petitpain said. Swapping a burger for a bean taco salad, or even replacing half the meat in a mushroom burger, are other tactics.
And just because a diet is technically vegan or meatless doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy, Petitpain pointed out: If you’re living on pasta and bread, your diet needs a makeover, too.
In general, Petitpain said, people will benefit from avoiding highly processed foods and “learning to eat closer to the ground.”
Rose agreed that people don’t need to become vegetarian or pescatarian. She noted that when her team delved into the all-too-common omnivorous diet, two eating styles stood out as being healthier and having a relatively smaller carbon footprint.
They were the long-recommended Mediterranean and DASH-style eating plans. Both include plenty of vegetables and fruits, high-fiber grains, fish and “good” unsaturated fats, and limits on red meat and processed foods.
SOURCES: Diego Rose, PhD, MPH, RD, professor, nutrition program director, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans; Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago; american Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, February 28, 2023, online
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