Eat Healthier, Save The Planet

A study from UC Santa Barbara found that even small changes in the modern diet could lead to climate change.

No, this isn’t a post about how going vegan or vegetarian will help to save the planet by stopping the slaughter of innocent animals or reduce methane emissions. As a dedicated carnivore, I simply cannot bring myself to cut out the part of my meal I love best: the meat.

But I will say this: eating healthier can do a lot to improve the quality of life on the planet. It does so in two ways:

It reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, the meat industry does produce a significant amount of the greenhouse gas emissions on Earth. If everyone in the world cut back their meat (pork, beef, lamb) intake by one to three meals per week, there would be serious decreases in greenhouse gasses.

It reduces the need for healthcare. Hospitals, clinics, and emergency rooms use a lot of energy, which is mostly coming from less-than-environmentally-friendly sources. Healthier eating means healthier people, in turn leading to fewer doctor/clinic visits and less energy used by those clinics.

A study led by UC Santa Barbara researchers, who analyzed the potential effects of healthier model diets for the United States says so.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has done this,” said study director David Cleveland, a research professor in UCSB’s environmental studies program and geography department. “People have looked at what effect diets have both on climate and on health, but they’ve never examined the potential to mitigate climate change through the food system and the health care system together.”

The food system contributes about 30 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with the largest proportion coming from animal-based food. In addition, the poor quality of the standard U.S. diet — including high levels of red and processed meat and low levels of fruits and vegetables — is a major factor in a number of preventable diseases. The U.S. spends $3 trillion on health care every year — 18 percent of the gross domestic product — much of it allocated to diseases associated with poor diets.

Cleveland and colleagues first used data from published meta-analyses that examined the effect of foods on diseases. Then, using life-cycle assessment data for the foods that changed in the healthier model diets, they analyzed the effects of the diets on greenhouse gas emissions for the food system. For the health care system, the researchers estimated the change in risk of diabetes, colorectal cancer and coronary heart disease due to the healthier diets and the subsequent effect on both health care costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

To create healthier model diets, the researchers altered the standard 2,000-calorie-a-day U.S. diet, changing the sources of about half of those calories. The different model diets progressively reduced the amount of red and processed meats, with the most stringent diet eliminating them completely. Fruit and vegetable intake was doubled, and peas and beans increased to replace the meat protein removed. Refined grains were partially replaced with whole grains. Added sugar, which Cleveland noted is a known health risk, was not reduced. Neither was dairy, eggs, fish or non-red meat.

“This means our estimates are probably very conservative, both in terms of health and climate change implications,” Cleveland said. “Just changing half of the diet and including only some of the diseases associated with diets, we found a huge effect.”


1. Elinor Hallström, Quentin Gee, Peter Scarborough, David A. Cleveland. “A healthier US diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both the food and healthcare systems.” Climatic Change, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10584-017-1912-5.