Recent research has revealed that eating healthy foods isn’t the most environmentally friendly solution, resulting in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and in extra pressure on the ecosystem.
The controversial findings, presented in the journal Environment Systems and Decisions, resulted from a study conducted by experts at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh.
As recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), people should have a higher intake of seafood, fruit, veggies and dairy products, in order to lead healthier lives.
Researchers assessed the environmental damage resulting from including such items in one’s diet. They measured greenhouse gas emissions, as well as energy and water consumption, starting from the point when these foods are grown or produced.
The examination continued across the supply chain, measuring the pressures that the ecosystem was being subjected to as these items were being processed, shipped ( to markets, retail stores etc.), stored and refrigerated (in shops or at home), and finally ingested or discarded.
Afterwards, each product was graded based on the resources it demands, versus the number of calories it supplies to an individual.
It was determined that foods which are considered the most healthy and nutritious often result in excessive damage to the environment.
Advisable diets, coupled with calorie reduction and smaller intake of meat, result in an increase of 38% when it comes to the amount of energy required so as to make meal items available.
They also lead to a 6% larger amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and require around 10% more water than less healthy nutrition plans.
Furthermore, when calorie intake isn’t curbed in any way, the damage is even more significant: a 43% and 16% rise in the consumption of energy and water, respectively, and 11% higher emissions.
When analyzing them based on the calories they bring, fruit require the highest amount of energy and water, while seafood and meat contribute the most to the greenhouse gas effect.
In a staggering example, according to Paul Fischbeck, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie’s Department of Social and Decision Sciences, opting for lettuce generates greenhouse gas emissions three times as high as the ones produced when choosing bacon instead.
Other vegetables such as cucumbers, eggplant and celery place a more severe strain on the environment’s limited resources in comparison with chicken or pork meat, while broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots and onions are less damaging.
Researchers also came to the conclusion that curbing calorie intake with the purpose of keeping one’s weight within normal limits is a much more environmentally friendly solution.
As per estimates, it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as water consumption and energy use by as much as 9%.
Experts such as Antony Froggatt, senior research fellow at Chatham House, have declared that the controversial study has left them quite befuddled.
As Froggatt explains, although it’s obvious that lettuce requires significant amounts of water and energy throughout the production cycle, before it can reach the customers’ tables, the impact every food item has on the environment can actually vary significantly, as different processes can be employed.
Furthermore, according to him, it’s much more accurate to assess the benefits of a meal in terms of proteins instead of calories, as some foods can be highly nutritious, and yet have a low caloric content.
When taking into account this aspect, adopting a vegetarian diet remains much less demanding on the environment than favoring meat, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint, and in a diminished production of other greenhouse gases.
Recent guidelines devised by the USDA also seem to reinforce Froggatt’s viewpoint, claiming that emphasis on vegetables and fruit instead of meat results in curbing the impact of man-made activities on the ecosystem.
On the other hand, the findings of the study have been supported by Tamar Haspel, the author of Washington Post’s Unearthed column, who has recently expressed the opinion that lettuce demands a huge amount of resources, although it has little nutritional value.
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