New research suggests that a change in diet could help protect the environment

October 15, 2020

A new study from the University of Illinois Chicago suggests that a shift in American diets could reduce the environmental impacts of food production and consumption by up to 38%.

“What we eat has an impact on the environment through the land used to grow food, net greenhouse gases released by producing food and water use,” said Joe Bozeman, who is a research associate at the University of Illinois Chicago Institute for Environmental Science and Policy and lead author of the study. “By following guidelines developed with human health and the environment in mind, we can help reduce the environmental impact of food production.”

This research focused on what dietary shifts would be needed among Americans in order to comply with the healthy goals created by the EAT-Lancet Commission, which represents the first-ever global dietary guidelines.

These recommendations were established in 2019 to aid policymakers and health care systems worldwide in sustaining natural resources to feed an estimated 10 billion people through the year 2050.

The study suggests that meat and refined sugar are among foods with the highest negative impact on the environment, while vegetables, fish and nuts have a lower impact.

"We found that shifting to increased vegetable and nuts intake while decreasing red meat and added sugars consumption would help Americans meet EAT-Lancet criteria and reduce environmental degradation between 28% and 38% compared to current levels," Bozeman said. "At the same time, health outcomes would improve, so following these global recommendations would result in a win-win for the environment and human health.”

According to Bozeman, different populations would have to make different changes based on their current diets. Black people could meet the EAT-Lancet targets by eating more vegetables and nuts while consuming less red meat, chicken and added sugars. White people would need to shift their consumption to include less red meat and added sugars, but more nuts.

The research shows that meeting all criteria would significantly decrease environmental degradation in land, greenhouse gases and water.

New research suggests that a change in diet could help protect the environment