🍽️ Why a plant-based diet will help you - and the planet - live longer

🍽️ Why a plant-based diet will help you - and the planet - live longer

Do you want to live a longer and healthier life? Are you also keen on helping the planet last longer? Marco Borsari has some valuable news for you.

Marco Borsari
Marco Borsari

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Switching to a flexitarian diet with less meat, based on vegetables and grains and some meat variants (as cultured ones), can bring immediate benefits in terms of health, sustainability, ethics, and economy.

And the best part is: we have all the technological and practical means to adopt it right here and now, or at least very soon.

We are almost eight billion people now living together on this planet. And one of the biggest challenges is to provide everyone with healthy and appropriate nutrition. While malnutrition problems persist for low-income populations, many other issues like obesity affect wealthy nations.

Meat is at the same time one of the most consumed foods and the leading cause of many diseases as well as root of climate change. An obvious solution is, of course, to provide everyone with a mainly plant-based diet. However, doubts about nutritional value, food taste-related satisfaction, as well as costs remain strong.

Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash
Meat is one of the most consumed foods linked to several diseases.

By analyzing the latest research and data as well as millenary traditions, we can see how it could be beneficial and possible to apply a vegetable-based diet to address all of these issues.

And naturally, we also ask ourselves the more fundamental question: should we stop eating meat?

A constellation of great opportunities

In the nutritional field, it's essential to satisfy a specific requirement for micronutrients, such as vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium. These are involved, for example, in the regulation of the body development and the immune system.

Despite consuming enough energy foods for our daily needs, the diet isn't complete enough, and malnutrition occurs. In many low-income countries, the diet is mainly based on high-energy value foods (cereals, roots, and tubers) to fight hunger. This leads to a lack of micronutrients found primarily in vegetables and fruit. Therefore, problems related to malnutrition, such as anemia and night blindness, can arise. These are problems mainly linked to low-income countries, while the diet normally diversifies when countries become wealthier.

A large part of the population is under the recommended consumption of vegetables. Among these, you can also see some middle-income to high-income countries, such as Sweden. Image: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/average-per-capita-vegetable-intake-vs-minimum-recommended-guidelines

However, with a dramatic increase in calories consumed daily, the risk is to end up with the opposite problem: obesity, the main death risk in high-income countries for young people, responsible for about 4.7 million deaths per year. One of the leading causes is excessive farmed meat consumption: 1.55 kg per week is the European’s current average consumption, triple that recommended by nutritionists.

Research linked other major high-income health problems to meat consumption in recent years. For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified red meat as "probably carcinogenic to humans" while processed meat as "carcinogenic to humans." For example, it was estimated that every 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent.

In addition, recent research shows how the consumption of processed red meat leads to an increase in mortality linked to cardiovascular problems if correlated with other risk factors (such as frequent tobacco consumption or obesity). Its replacement with at least a partially vegetarian diet leads to a general reduction in the risk of mortality from cardiovascular problems.

Therefore, on the one hand, the risk is mainly linked to processed red meat, so it's certainly healthier to choose meat produced sustainably. Processed meat is modified to improve its taste or extend the shelf-life, while sustainable beef is free from those industrial processes. On the other hand, a vegetable diet also leads to more benefits and reduces the issues described.

But what does a healthy and balanced diet richer in vegetables look like?

There are plenty of possible variations.

  • One famous and examined alternative is the Mediterranean diet, used by all the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea for thousands of years. It was born from the clash between the classical Greek-Roman civilization and the "Barbaric" one. The former had a diet based mainly on olive oil, cereals, fruit and vegetables, bread, and wine: the latter preferred meat, animal fats, beer, and polenta.

This mix of different civilizations diets is a wealthy, tasty, and varied diet, also recommended by the FAO. The landscapes of the other cultures have thus changed, some by integrating animal breeding, some by horticulture.β€Œ

The food pyramid of the Mediterranean diet sees moderate consumption of fish, white meat, dairy products, and eggs. The consumption of red meat is limited compared to other diets. To ensure the supply of fats, extensive use is made of olive oil, which contains less harmful fats than animal ones.

  • To these traditional practices could be added food that still is almost unknown. For example, Spirulina Algae was defined as the super-food of the future. Algae contain very high and complete protein, minerals, antioxidants supplies, requiring little land and water consumption for its crop.β€Œ
Eating more vegetables and fruit is excellent for both you and the climate.

Big news: a healthy diet is a climate-friendly diet!

A plant-based diet is more climate-friendly and more ethical towards both animals and biodiversity, but above all, it is healthy. For that reason, FAO, in its Food-based dietary guidelines, as a first suggestion, recommends eating more vegetables and fruit, especially the ones rich in fiber vegs such as cauliflower, broccoli, beans, and onions. Other tips include using less sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and meat and, in general, diversifying your diet.

So, can a diet with a higher vegetable consumption be more sustainable for the environment than a meat-based one?

A study carried out by SlowFood in partnership with Indaco2, a spin-off of the University of Siena, demonstrates the evident bond between a healthy diet and a climate-friendly diet.

A comparison was made between an unhealthy weekly diet based on ultra-processed animal protein from factory-farmed meat and a healthy diet of fresh cereals and vegetables cultivated with sustainable practices. The result is that opting for the latter means saving 23 kg CO2 every week.

Similar results are illustrated by the Project Drawdown, a non-profit organization that presents solutions for reducing our environmental impact towards zero emissions. It demonstrates and quantifies several immediately actionable steps to achieve sustainable goals. Among these, there is the transition to a plant-rich diet. As a result of their research, average emissions could be reduced by up to 70 percent by adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent by a vegetarian diet.

You do NOT need to spend more

At this point, our utilitarian soul raises a final question: will we end up spending more money shifting to a plant-based diet?

The idea that plant nutrition is more expensive is quite widespread. The problem is significant in low-income countries, where opting for a more expensive diet is impossible.

Research from the University of Oxford, published in Lancet Planetary Health, helps us answer this question. The study showed how, in upper-income countries, healthy and vegetable dietary patterns cost up to 34 percent less when it comes to money spent on food.

The study also sought to calculate the cost of a plant-based diet in low-income countries, considering the calculation of significant indirect costs related to climate change and health services. Β Also, the calculation demonstrated how healthy and sustainable dietary patterns in this context can mean up to an average of 37 percent lower spending for the year 2050.

The study concludes: "Variants of vegetarian and vegan dietary patterns were generally most affordable, and pescatarian diets were least affordable."

So, by now, you understand all of the benefits of eating more greens and less meat and are thus one step closer to helping yourself, and the planet, stay healthier, feel better, spend less, and live longer. Pretty cool, right?

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