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A Plant-Based Diet Improves Planetary As Well As Personal Health

At the World's Healthiest Foods, we have always believed that the right foods for personal health are also right for the health of the planet. That belief has recently been demonstrated by researchers in the Departments of Environmental Health and Nutrition at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, CA. These researchers looked at the diets of 34,000 Seventh-day Adventists in California who participated in the Adventist Health Study I. Using 31 food items in a diet survey completed by all participants, two groups of Seventh-day Adventists were determined: a vegetarian group and a non-vegetarian group. In addition to consuming virtually no poultry or beef, the vegetarian group was also found to eat about 150% more legumes and seasonal fruits, 250% more nuts, and 60% fewer eggs.

The next step taken by these researchers was fascinating. They looked at six major ways in which diet choices can affect the environment, including overuse of water resources, excess energy consumption, overuse of chemical fertilizers, overuse of pesticides, generation of wastes, and degradation of the land. (Approximately 75 environmental studies were used to document their facts and figures in these 6 areas.) What they discovered was the much more problematic impact of a non-vegetarian diet on the environment. In comparison to the vegetarian diet, the non-vegetarian diet was projected to require 13 times more fertilizer for its food production, 1.4 times more pesticides, 2.9 times more water, and 2.5 times more energy! Of special concern to the researchers here was frequent consumption of beef, which accounted for more of the unwanted environmental consequences than any other single food.

The conclusions of these researchers make sense to us. Livestock production has long been known to generate large amounts of waste (for example, in the form of unwanted nitrogen and phosphorus that eventually upset the balance in rivers, streams, and groundwater) and to degrade the quality of land surfaces. These unwanted consequences have been particularly true for beef production. So it makes sense to us when these Loma Linda researchers report a more favorable environmental impact for the vegetarian versus non-vegetarian diet.

However, at the same time, we would like to go one step further in our interpretation of the research findings here. We do not believe that all livestock production is destined to produce large-scale environmental damage. We also do not believe that all plant food production is guaranteed to be environment-friendly! Instead, we believe that there are sustainable ways to approach both livestock and plant food production and that the sustainable quality of food production is what matters most-not simply whether the food is animal or plant in origin. Yes, in the most general sense, vegetarian diets do have a better chance to be environmentally friendly than non-vegetarian diets. But their greater sustainability is by no means a guarantee nor is a meat-eating diet guaranteed to be environmentally damaging.

On our website, we always recommend diets that are plant-based, and we believe that a plant-based diet is very important for both personal and planetary health. However, we also believe that there is room in a diet for animal foods, and that animal food-containing diets can be healthy for both individuals and the planet. What is required in every type of diet is a focus on nutrient-rich foods (whether from plants or animals) that have been organically produced in a sustainable manner. What works for our personal health is also what works for the planet-a respect for the uniqueness of all foods!

WHFoods Recommendations

Keeping your diet focused on plant-based foods is not only a way to improve your health, it's also a way to improve the health of our planet. Choosing organic foods that have been produced in a sustainable manner is a way to protect yourself from unwanted pesticide residues and other food contaminants that can degrade your body systems. It is also a way to protect the environment from practices that can degrade the quality of our soil, water, and air. And by protecting our environment, we can help pave the way for future production of healthy foods.