Eat a vegetarian or planetary diet to sustain health and the environment

Surmountable Environmental Issues
Sep 29, 2022
5 min read
A planetary diet of sustainable food improves personal and environmental health / iStock

Issue 37 • Week of September 25, 2022 / Updated May 16, 2023

Sustainable agriculture is only one part of the equation toward healthier food and ecosystems. Our diets also have a substantial impact and, for many people, have undergone a surprising number of changes recently. Gallup has consistently tracked ~5% of American adults to be vegetarian or vegan for the past two decades. Leading up to this World Vegetarian Day on October 1, that number has doubled as researchers running two separate polls this year from Oklahoma State and Kansas State Universities now place that number at 10%.

That is good news for participants' health, but is it enough to make a dent in our pollution?

Current and estimated food demand generates so many greenhouse gases that even if nations reduced all non-agricultural emissions to zero, then they still would not meet their Paris climate accord targets by 2050 if nothing else changed. Plus, the rate of already-high Body Mass Index (BMI) increases nearly doubled for children and teens during the pandemic.

These dietary changes have not occurred in isolation; Americans ate 20% less beef from 2005 to 2014 and plant-based meat alternatives are on track to become cheaper than beef as early as next year.

To advance sustainable food further, a recent commission from 16 different countries developed culinary recommendations they call a "planetary diet" which could help avert climate disaster and save 11 million lives per year by reducing diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. The results of the menu were approved by 93% of taste testers in Baltimore and do not require people to go vegetarian. Americans would need to switch about half of our current protein intake from animal to plant-based and eat almost 50% less dairy and starchy vegetables to reach the goal, as well as doubling our consumption of fruits and green vegetables. On average, we also barely eat any whole grains (not the same as multigrain) and should increase from an ounce to about half of a pound daily.

More than 40% of American adults are obese. A possible silver lining to the pandemic is its potential to reshape our diets for the better as more people cook at home. Yet healthy does not necessarily mean sustainable. Thirsty crops such as almonds and avocados can be part of a balanced diet but US consumption has grown 4x in 15 years and 6x in 20 years respectively, worsening droughts in California and Mexico. Student nutrition, meanwhile, relies on US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines and is slower to change since school lunch regulations at the federal, state, and local level influence funding and therefore cafeterias.

Changing what you eat and sticking to it can seem impossible. The very word diet often implies something temporary, so we feel destined to fall back on old habits. Try instead to think of culinary choices in terms of a lifestyle where food is just one component. Out of everything you encounter on a daily basis that you cannot control, it is possible to find the willpower to eat more sustainably for your health and for the future.

There are plenty of resources to help you with meal plans if you are willing to make a commitment. Then, check out the Surmountable issue on holding yourself accountable to your goals.


How has ignoring the source and impact of our food affected our society?

1 235 million pounds of pesticides are used annually to grow crops for livestock in the US, which as animal feed are allowed to leave 100x more residue than fresh produce for direct human consumption
2 Farm animals contribute 15% of greenhouse gases which in the US largely comes from nearly 900 tons of manure each year leading to air pollution that causes more human deaths than coal plants -- almost 13,000 per year
3 Thirsty crops such as alfafa for animal feed, almonds and pistachios, citrus, and other fruits in California as well as avocados in Mexico and Chile are contributing to severe ongoing droughts
4 Since the USDA released its first nutrition guidelines in 1980, the number of Americans with type 2 diabetes has doubled and childhood obesity has become an epidemic, prompting many to call out the influence of industry lobbyists on the food pyramid and the chemicals never addressed
5 Sample planetary diet meals average $10 each, 5x more than provided by our food stamp program, and are mostly out of reach for 19 million Americans in food deserts
Possible Goals

What are some goals that would encourage more sustainable diets?

1 Hold the USDA and Health and Human Services (HHS) accountable throughout development of the 2025-2030 dietary guidelines so that they adopt scientific consensus unencumbered by lobbyists
2 Visit vegetarian restaurants, start and stick to a healthier diet at home by going meatless on Monday, and find how to eat more whole grains and vegetables with less animal protein
3 Buy more local produce combined with alternatives to avocados and almonds or at least avocados from Florida instead of the southwest
4 Update food stamp benefits to allow healthier options
5 Organize healthy school lunch initiatives to petition local schools to offer healthier foods and involve kids in cooking to create good eating habits early

Which actions will you take from across the spectrum of potential solutions?

Learn more or get assistance Donate to help solve a problem Volunteer to change the world
Impact Get Help Give Money Give Time
Short Find vegetarian restaurants nearby Donate vegetarian food to your local food bank Browse a local farmer's market
to Cook with planetary diet recipes Preorder food that encourages crop rotation Speak up for healthier school food
Long Use an app to build sustainable meal plans Contribute to encourage farm to school food Track the next USDA guidelines
Term Get a sustainable school food grant Give proper nutrition to school districts across the country Make plant-based food the default
Get inspiration

Who can I get inspiration from?

"You are what what you eat eats."
- Michael Pollan
Can Seafood Be Sustainable?
Are you a pescetarian or do you strive to be? Next week, we'll consider the impact of our seafood selections on Surmountable.

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