In a recent study, researchers analysed the environmental impact of recommended diets across the globe.The investigation showed that animal products were found to have a greater ecological impact than plant-based options. Additionally, healthy eating coincided with environmentally-friendly choices.

According to the large-scale assessment which analysed data from 37 nations, National Recommended Diets (NRD’s) hold great influence over our eco-footprint, yet environmental impacts are largely unconsidered when recommending diets.

Food systems place large and increasing burdens on the environment,” according to the research team. They state that up to 86% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture. These numbers threaten biodiversity, land use, degrade soil, and affect climate change.

While data varied across nations, the most important source of energy globally was from grains, while the main contribution of fat was from dairy. NRD’s generally recommended a “substantial reduction” of meat, dairy, sugar, and oils, with an increasing focus on vegetal products for health reasons.

Interestingly, these recommendations coincided with the best way to combat environmental issues; the largest greenhouse gas emissions were found to be from animal products- meat, fish and dairy which accounted for 22%-70% of emissions.

In some countries, such as Australia and Brazil, emissions exceeded 200% compared to averages, largely due to meat making up a large portion of the population’s diets.

The study explored further opportunities in this area, specifically, “incorporating sustainability further into the [dietary] recommendations”. For instance, the researchers suggest a lowered recommendation of fish products due to “concerns about biodiversity loss in food marine webs”.

Additionally, the research stated recommendations could be improved with the introduction of plant-based proteins rather than animal proteins. Many countries recommended a reduction of red meat, often suggesting white meat as a replacement. However, the study highlights that general meat consumption, including white meat, still has a heavy impact environmentally.

Concentrated focus should be applied to dietary recommendations. The assessment stressed one case whereby South Africa  (who have historically struggled with malnutrition) now shows high rates of obesity, as dietary guidelines have not adapted to changed food availability and eating habits. As explained in the paper, an increased intake of animal-based foods and a shift away from plant-based eating can cause malnutrition and obesity to coexist in these nations.

However, according to the paper, the bottom line remains the same: “In terms of food groups, changes in meat and dairy intake would result in a significant reduction in GHG emission, eutrophication, and land use”.