A green diet for a greener planet

Exploring the environmental benefits of plant-based eating, plus a UQ dietician shares their top tips for eating green.

By Hayley Lees

Aussies love to slip another shrimp on the barbie – but at what cost to the environment?

On average, Australians eat around 89 kilograms of meat per person per year. According to a recent study in Nature Food, our love of bacon, beef and birds is contributing adversely to climate change.

Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods. With food-based agriculture accounting for more than 35 per cent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, animal-based food emissions contribute a whopping 57 per cent of that – mostly carbon dioxide, but also methane and nitrous oxide.

So, maybe now is the time to start thinking about balancing your meat consumption by eating more fruit, vegetables and grains to do your bit for the planet.

Contact spoke with accredited practising dietitian and UQ PhD candidate Naomi Fitzpatrick about eating a greener diet. 

So, what is plant-based eating?

‘Plant-based’ eating does not necessarily mean vegan, where all animal food sources are excluded; rather that the primary source of food is plant products. This could be:

  • Flexitarian – generally reduce meat, dairy and egg intake, but occasionally eat animal products.
  • Vegetarian – may eat cheese, eggs and milk, yet swap animal meats and fats for plant proteins.
  • Vegan – all plants all the time, so no milk, eggs, or honey.
  • Raw veganonly raw, plant-based foods.

The current Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating agree with this definition because the ‘meat, fish and alternative’ group considers plant sources of protein, and the ‘dairy and alternatives’ group accounts for plant-based products that are fortified to match key nutrients provided by dairy products.

Animated graphic GIFs of cartoon people with vegetables.
Animated graphic GIFs of cartoon people with vegetables.

Is plant-based eating healthy?

Well that depends on what you eat!

Not all plant-based foods are created equal. If you choose a plant-based diet consisting of refined grain products (white bread, crackers, baked goods, white rice), heavily processed vegetables (chips, crisps, deep-fried dishes), and highly processed fruit constituents (juice, fruit candy, soft drinks), this would make it difficult to meet your bodies nutritional needs.

Getting back to ‘nature’ and aiming to include more unprocessed foods will help you on your way to greener eating.

Fitzpatrick agrees with the move to a more plant-based diet but explains that making radical changes may not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

“Having the time, knowledge, skills and financial means to move toward a plant-based diet usually requires a person to be afforded a certain amount of privilege,” she said.

“Health looks different on everyone and eating plant-based is not the only way to be healthy.”

Is eating less meat better for the environment?

This debate is open and sometimes quite biased. Most experts agree that eating less meat is not detrimental to the environment, yet ‘plant vs. animal' has many variables to consider – such as land use, water use, chemical use, etc.

The report from Nature Food concludes “Recent reports suggest that human and global health would be greatly improved by replacing animal-based foods (such as meat, fish, eggs, milk, and their products) with plant-based alternatives. This transition would be facilitated by the availability of more plant-based foods that are affordable, convenient, sustainable, nutritious, and tasty.”

In an effort to provide healthy meat alternatives, UQ engineers and food scientists are  on a mission to make plant-based food more nutritious and taste better.

Professor Jason Stokes from UQ’s School of Chemical Engineering is part of a three-year Australian Research Council project in partnership with US-based food technology company, Motif FoodWorks, Inc.

“People want to continue to eat meat but supplement their diet with a plant-based protein for environmental and sustainable reasons.” Professor Stokes said.

The Nature study outlines how small changes to your diet can have a significant impact on your carbon footprint. To produce one kilogram of wheat, 2.5 kilograms of greenhouse gases are emitted, while one kilogram of beef creates 70 kilograms of emissions. Swapping even one meat meal a week can make a difference.

Ten tips to start a plant-based diet

  1. Work out your ‘why’ – Why are you choosing to shift toward a more plant-based diet? Nutting out (pun intended…) what it means for you is an important part of shifting behaviour. Is it for environmental reasons? Financial reasons? Health goals?
  2. Be kind to yourself – There is no right or wrong way to start, and being flexible and compassionate with yourself as you try different things with food will help make it feel more achievable and sustainable. Change takes time!
  3. Don’t pretend some foods are ‘other’ foods – Blitzed cauliflower isn’t rice, it’s blitzed cauliflower! Calling foods what they are might reduce the disappointment around a food not tasting exactly like the thing it’s pretending to be.
  4. Check your labels – Keep an eye out for key nutrients such as protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  5. Get enough Vitamin B12 – This can be tricky if you are not consuming any animal products (where most people get their B12) and it may be that a supplement is the most convenient option (that’s totally okay!). However, food-based sources are available, e.g. fortified cereals – they just might require some planning to make sure you’re getting what you need.
  6. Select more unprocessed food – Choose food in the state closest to its post-harvesting state ‒ a plant product can undergo lots of processing steps, which results in loss of nutrition.
  7. Consider the nutritional composition of plant ‘analogues’ of animal products – Is the macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein and fat) composition the same? Is the product fortified to yield the same selection of key vitamins and minerals? A typical example is choosing a plant based ‘milk’ to replace dairy milk: all milks are definitely not equal!
  8. Ensure you eat sufficient crucial nutrients found mostly or exclusively in animal food products – Find alternative sources for these nutrients – e.g. iron in red meat.
  9. Select plant-based products that are in season and locally sourced – This will ensure exposure to a variety of phytonutrients (change of season = change of exposure through the year) and will provide produce more likely to have been picked closer to the ripened stage.
  10. Touch base with an accredited practising dietitian – You can see a dietitian for free at UQ Dietetics clinic (in person or via telehealth).
Animated graphic GIFs of cartoon people with vegetables.

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