• elainecossins

Can I really look after the Earth by eating less meat??

If I were to ask you do you care about the environment, I bet/hope most of you would say "yes". A recent poll found 74% of adults saying just that (ref 1) but do we really make the connection between what we eat and the environment around us? Lots of us are aware/worried about fuel consumption, the amount of plastic we use, but do ever stop to think about the impact our current diet is having on the world around us? When I say our current diet I am mainly referring to a typical Western diet.

It's something we all need to be thinking about, it's vital we start making the connection between what we put in our mouths and the journey that food has travelled on to get there and continues after we've eaten.

There is lots of talk and research about food sustainability in the scientific community and amongst food producers - the science journal The Lancet recently published a ground- breaking study called the EAT-Lancet commission that looked into how we can provide healthy diets globally from sustainable food systems. After my recent study day (organised by the fantastic Yorkshire branch of the BDA #BDAyorks), I felt very motivated and inspired and so want to share some of my thoughts and findings. I hope by reading this blog you might start looking at what you eat differently, in terms of what you buy, where it comes from, what's it wrapped in. Start a conversation with your friends and family, I know I am changing what meals I prepare for my family, talking to my kids about it, as a well known UK supermarket says "every little helps"

First off here are the facts and they are pretty scary:

Global food production accounts for a whopping 30% green house gas emissions and 70%

water use (ref 2)

As you can see it's a complex picture - what we eat and drink has a multifaceted impact on our planet, the importance is becoming ever more apparent the more removed we have become from food production.

The United Nations produced some intergovernmental recommendations in 2018 on climate change IPCC, today I am going to focus on 3 take home messages based on their report.

Consume LESS meat and dairy

This echoes the recommendations made in the EAT commission. Raising cattle to produce meat and dairy foods really is a 'biggie' in terms of environmental damage, as they are the worst food culprits in terms of the toll their production takes on the planet and are in fact the 4th biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions overall. If you break down the meat into red meat versus poultry, red meat and processed red meat use up the most water and land (along with greenhouse gas emissions) with dairy production coming second


Locally sourced seasonal foods

These are interlinked, you should really be trying to eat as much food that is grown locally to you and also eating what is in season. For a dietitian this is quite a challenging message to get across, as most members of the general public don't eat enough fruit and veg and as such as a profession we are often promoting their consumption. However, if we take a more global, environmental take on it, then eating strawberries in the middle of winter that have been cultivated in a hot house probably in Spain and then flown over to the UK doesn't make any sense! (refs 5,67)


We in the affluent, developed world are still producing a lot of waste, despite being more aware of recycling. The UK alone produces 10.2 million tonnes of waste EACH year, household waste accounting for 70%. And guess what the bulk of our household waste consists of fruit and veg, especially salad waste...In fact this works out to about 25% of the amount we spend on food each year, which is completely nuts.

Nobody likes the idea of creating more and more landfills or literally throwing our money away, but by thinking more carefully about what we buy in the first place "Am I really going to eat salad this week?" "Do I really want to buy a bag of ready washed salad leaves?" we can shop and eat more efficiently. I know my kids were horrified when they came back from a study day the local college had organised about waste. Here in France all the plastic bags are recyclable and biodegradable which is brilliant (along with my BDA magazine), most supermarkets charge for plastic bags, but we can still do more.

So do we actually practice what we preach, claim to care about? Sadly the answer is no in a lot of cases, there's a large disparity between intent and actual behaviour. There are all kinds of barriers to making the kind of dietary changes that are being recommended and that we need to change. These barriers could be lack of awareness, perceptions about cost "healthy diets" are often assumed to be more expensive, convenience and "food culture". The latter is I think shifting a lot, the BBC’s Good Food Nation Survey 2016 found that many people still regard meat as a core part of every meal - (49%) stating that ‘a meal isn’t a meal without meat’. However there is a definite increase in the number of people (especially young people) following either a vegetarian or vegan diet in the UK, and these numbers are starting to increase here in France too - more of this to come in future blogs!

Now comes the hard part -how am I going to convince you that these changes to your diet (i.e. eating less meat and dairy and more plant-based foods) are going to be beneficial to you? Hopefully now you are more aware of the environmental devastation some of our farming methods wreak and the amount of food we waste will make you re-address your weekly shop. However, there is another really important and exciting aspect I haven't really touched on yet and that is the health benefits that eating a more plant-based diet confers.

There is a lot of strong and robust evidence pointing to the fact that this kind of eating can reduce our chances of developing some of the most common diseases such as diabetes and certain kinds of cancer. A study carried out between 1990 and 2017, involving 195 countries published yesterday The Global burden of Disease showed the link between poor diet and overall mortality. Of real interest is the finding that it's not just reducing the intake of certain foods that is the problem, but rather we don't eat enough of the plant-based proteins, such as beans and pulses and not enough fruit and veg - all of which correlates beautifully with the changes we should be trying to make.

Public Health England have recently taken into account sustainability when describing/advising the relative amounts of different food groups we should be aiming to eat each day, this is reflected in their Eatwell Guide

As you can see it looks deceptively simple, but what's really impressive are the benefits we would gain from eating this way.

When I decided to write a blog on sustainable diets I thought I'd be able to cover everything in one go, but it's such a huge and important area, that I have decided to look at the dietary aspects in more detail in separate blogs. I hope by increasing your awareness and understanding of what you are eating and drinking this will help you make better informed food choices. Not only will you be healthier, but so will our planet.

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