Western diets are known to cause environmental and health detriments. There are many studies on the effects of various foods on human health, and in Europe, countries are taking strides towards a Life Cycle Assessment approach. This semi-holistic analysis researches and promotes the sustainability of food production and consumption. However, this approach does not fully take into consideration effects such as human health and animal welfare.
A new study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment wanted to consider all of these factors when researching the best diet. They proposed the One Health approach in researching diets, which combines the Life Cycle Assessment with other elements to provide a more comprehensive picture of dietary impacts.
Human health was measured by the risk of non-contagious diseases, and animal welfare was measured on three criteria: years of life suffered, loss of life, and loss of morally adjusted animal lives. There were three diets compared to a reference diet from the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The variable diets were 1) a vegan diet, 2) a Mediterranean diet, and 3) the national dietary guidelines of the German Nutrition Society.
Diets were controlled by varying as few food products and nutrients between the diets. In the Mediterranean diets, the proportions of fish, seafood, vegetables, and grain products were increased, but the actual food was kept constant as much as possible. Researchers used existing databases on the environmental impacts of food production, human health, and animal welfare to score each diet.
Right off the bat, the men’s reference diet had more significant impacts than women’s simply because of the greater amount of food consumed. Both reference diets had risks factors for several diseases like diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases. Aside from meat, honey and seafood had the most considerable effect on animal welfare.
Each of the variable diets was more sustainable than the reference diets, but they had significant trade-offs. The Mediterranean diet increased water requirements and animal suffering (from nut/vegetable and seafood consumption, respectively). Since seafood is smaller than meat, animal suffering increases due to the amount eaten. Vegan food scored well in animal welfare and human health, but the amount of water consumption increased. It was also challenging to get the recommended vitamins and nutrients with their diet alone (and the vegan dieters needed to get these nutrients separately).
In the end, it comes down to individual preference. What matters most to the consumer: ecological impact? Amount of animal suffering? Personal health? There is no perfect answer yet, but something in the middle of a Mediterranean diet and vegan diet seems to be the way to go to limit animal suffering and reduce environmental impact while still getting all the recommended nutrients. However, if you’re still unsure, limiting meat is the best way to minimize the adverse effects of food production while also staying healthy.
Sources: Science of the Total Environment