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Eating less meat may benefit consumers’ health and the environment, study finds

Experts say it’s important to consider how our diets impact more than just our physical health

Man preparing meat and potatoes
Photo (c) Westend61 - Getty Images
The health risks associated with eating meat -- especially red and processed meats -- have been well-documented in several studies. Now, researchers from the University of Bonn explored how different diets affect consumers’ health and the environment. 

According to their findings, diets that limit meat consumption were linked with better outcomes for animals, the environment, and consumers’ long-term health. 

Diets impact our health and the environment

The researchers explained that the study was based on the “One Health” perspective, which states that consumers should consider how their diet affects the environment, their health, and animals. The team wanted to look at different diets and see how consumers can best go about making positive, healthy choices. 

“To do this, we took a look at examples of which products are on the food basket of people in North Rhine-Westphalia,” said researcher Juliana Paris. “We then compared this reference diet with three different scenarios: a shift according to the recommendations of the German Nutrition Society (DGE), a shift to the Mediterranean diet with more fish and seafood, and a shift to a vegan diet.” 

For each diet, the researchers relied on extensive databases to understand how the different food and nutrition choices impacted each of the three categories. They looked at levels of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, risks of cardiovascular disease and cancers, and general animal welfare. 

Limiting meat is beneficial

The researchers learned that all three diets had pros and cons. For example, following the Mediterranean diet is beneficial for consumers’ heart health, but it can also be detrimental to animals. Swapping red and processed meats for more fish options is better for our health, but it comes at the expense of the fish and seafood populations. Vegan diets tend to lack a lot of important nutrients and put a strain on water usage, but plant-based foods are healthier. 

While none of the diets analyzed in this study were perfect in all three categories, the researchers did come to one major conclusion: limiting meat intake led to better overall outcomes. They recommend eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to preserve our long-term health and the environment. 

“Regardless of the choice of animal-based protein sources, the larger the share of plant-based foods -- such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains -- in a diet, the greater the associated human health benefits,” the researchers said. “Moreover, reducing consumption of ready-to-eat meals and highly processed foods is clearly recommended to improve the health of humans, animals, and the environment at the same time.” 

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