Eco-dieting: Eating your way to a healthier planet

Want to contribute to the fight against global warming? Start by changing what you put on your plate. This Earth Day, we look at some newfangled diets such as “climatarianism” and “reducetarianism” which you can adopt.

This week, the World Resources Instititute released a new study that showed making small changes to our diet can have a significant impact on reducing environmental damage.

The new paper, Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future, reveal that across the globe, people are converging towards diets high in calories, protein and animal-based foods - all of which pose challenges for food security and a healthy planet.

The global research organisation says the average American, for example, could cut their diet’s environmental footprint in half just by eating less meat and dairy. WRI also provided a protein scorecard that offers consumers an easy reference to the different levels of greenhouse gases produced by different sources of food.

WRI’s latest research echoes those of two separate studies published in earlier in February that demonstrate how reducing the amount of meat we eat can improve not only personal health but also help cut carbon emissions - an urgent imperative outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change which was inked by the world’s nations in December.

Swedish researchers from the Chalmers University of Technology reported reducing meat production can cut greenhouse gases by up to 50 per cent, while scientists from the University of Oxford published research that demonstrated how the adoption of more plant-based diets “can have multiple health, environmental, and economic benefits”. 

These scientific treatises validate some of the latest food trends that have taken the world by storm.

It would seem, in effect, that making eco-conscious choices about what we eat is on its way from being just a “hippie” quirk to becoming a mainstream behaviour.

In December, the New York Times christened “climatarian” as one of their Top New Food Words, and other news outlets, such as BBC and The Huffington Post, have also been quick to report on other environmentally-motivated diets (such as reducetarianism and flexitarianism) that have found their way into the zeitgeist. 

And while diet fads may come and go, the thing that works in favour of environmentally-motivated diets is that when weight-loss isn’t the goal, the tendency for it to stick is far greater, since the undertaking does not depend on expected changes to a person’s physical self.

As noted by the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, for a change in lifestyle to become lasting and permanent, the behaviour needs to “touch on the deep rooted beliefs, patterns, and behaviors that inform our food choices and eating habits in the first place”.

Here, we profile some of the latest eco-diets to have emerged:

Climatarianism 

Climatarians seek to eliminate all dairy and meat products that come from cows, goats and sheep, because grazing cattle produce methane, a more lethal greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Pork and chicken production create far less carbon emissions and therefore remain part of the diet.

The movement was popularised by Britons Biba Hartigan and Liz Sutton, who launched Climates.network in July 2015 after a successful crowdfunding effort to create an online support network and social community for individuals who want to take practical steps to reduce the impact of global warming.

Their “Go Climatarian” campaign is the lynchpin of their cause, as it is a simple and effective method of lowering one’s carbon footprint.

And while the motivation for this diet is purely environmental, climatarians can also count benefits such as better health, increased biodiversity and improved animal welfare as a result of their choices. 

Reducetarianism 

Brian Kateman founded the Reducetarian Foundation in 2014 as a way to encourage more people to reduce the consumption of animal products with the option to completely eliminate them eventually.  

The purported advantages of a meatless diet and animal-product free lifestyle are very similar to those of the climatarian diet: a smaller carbon footprint, improved animal welfare and personal health. 

Reducetarians, unlike climatarians, seek to reduce not just ruminant or grazing meat sources, but all kinds of meat consumption as well as the use of animal products.  

In addition, founder Kateman also emphasises that there is no need to eliminate them, just the weaning off othe dependence on these foods and products.  

Flexitarianism

Flexitarianism evolved out of the many ways people have adapted a vegetarian diet, which is a plant-based diet that allows for only the consumption of eggs and dairy products as alternate sources of protein.  

Some examples are diets that are primarily vegetarian, but includes, on occasion, meat and other animal products, such as pescatarianism (vegetarians who include fish/shellfish protein) and pollotarianism (vegetarians who include poultry meat protein).  

It began as a health diet, but because it is easy to adopt and includes options for those with different food preferences, is now being co-opted as a way for green-minded consumers to transition to a diet with a lighter carbon footprint.

VB6 

Former New York Times columnist and best-selling author Mark Bittman came up with the idea to cut out all meat and animal-related food products before 6pm as a way to ease himself into a healthier diet, which he details in his book VB6: Eat Vegan before 6:00. 

Like reducetarianism, there are no rules about what can or cannot be consumed, but relies on a time frame for when to eat what. 

Although the main benefit of the VB6 diet is improved personal health, it is another easy way for the environmentally conscious who are wary of making overly-drastic changes to their diet to reduce their reliance on meat products in their diets. 

Entomophagy 

Another equally effective (albeit unpopular) way to reduce your carbon footprint is a diet based on insect protein. While entomophagy is not a diet plan, it is an alternative source of protein that can fulfil the same nutritional requirements as meat without the damaging environmental and health effects.

Outside of the ick factor, the consumption of insect protein has been recognised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations as “a serious alternative for conventional production or other animal based protein sources, either for direct human consumption, or indirectly as feedstock”.

Key to their attractiveness as an environmentally friendly food souce is their “high food conversion rate”, or the ability to efficiently provide protein with significantly less input as compared with animal sources.  

On average, insects are able to convert two kilograms of feed into one kilogram of protein, a much preferable ratio as compared with cattle, which take eight kilograms of feed to produce the same amount. 

They are also significantly cheaper to produce as they take up less arable land to farm, require less labour and are easier to transport. 

While these diets above vary in their approaches, they all provide an opportunity for us to eat our way to a healthier planet.

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