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This diet swap can cut your carbon footprint and boost longevity

A plant-based diet is not just good for your health, it's good for the planet.
Alexander Spatari
Getty Images
A plant-based diet is not just good for your health, it's good for the planet.

If you're aiming to cut back on meat and you want to build muscle strength, you're not alone.

Followingour storyon foods that help maintain strength, lots of you responded to our call-out, telling us you're trying to boost protein consumption with a plant-based diet.

Now, a new study published inNature Food, finds that if people swap red and processed meat for plant protein a few times a week, it's good for their health – and can also reduce their diet-related carbon footprint.

The study found cutting red meat consumption by half leads to significant changes. For instance, eating it twice a week instead of four times a week will shrink your carbon footprint by 25% and may also boost longevity.

"We found that there was an increase in life expectancy of approximately nine months," linked to the 50% reduction, says study author Olivia Auclair of McGill University. Her study was motivated by the latestCanada Food Guide which emphasizes consumption of plant protein foods.

When it comes to diet changes to improve health and climate, "we don't need to go to major extremes," or completely eliminate foods from our diet, Auclair says. The study adds to the evidence that small changes in diet can be consequential, and that a diet that's good for our health is also good for the environment.

But sudden changes can be jarring. We heard from Kyle Backlund who has adopted a plant-focused diet. For a long time he'd been in the habit of eating meat at many meals, and when he cut back he felt a drop in his energy level when he exercised.

"I would experience some lethargy and weakness," he says. When Backlund realized he needed to up his protein intake, his partner Stephany Marreel – who does most of the cooking and also eats a plant-based diet – found ways to add more protein into miso-based soups and stews, by adding tofu, vegetables, and grains like quinoa. Bean burritos and zucchini fritters are two of her favorites. "You can add egg to it and you can add almond flour which has a little more protein," Marreel says.

Kyle says he is now feeling good on his plant-focused diet. "Every meal that we have is delicious and I'm fully on board," Backlund says.

People can get all the protein and nutrients they need from a plant-based diet as long as they do a little planning, says Dr. Christopher Gardner, a food scientist at Stanford University. His research is featured in the new Netflix documentary You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment.

He points to a variety of sources, from lentils, chickpeas and other beans, to nuts and seeds, whole grains and vegetables, "If someone is consuming a reasonable variety, meeting protein needs from plant sources to sustain muscle is no problem," Gardner says.

There's an environmental argument for shifting diet as well, Gardner says. Livestock require lots of land and water. Richard Waite and his colleagues at the World Resources Institute, estimate that beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions, per gram of protein, compared to beans.

As we've reported, by one estimate, if people in the U.S. swapped beef for beans, this one switch alone could get the U.S. about halfway to its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Many people are unaware of the links between diet and climate, but among those who are, there's a willingness to make changes. And, when it comes to which changes are beneficial, "we really want to make these as simple as possible so that people can actually make a change in their diet," Auclair says.

When it comes to healthspan and longevity, Auclair and her collaborators at McGill University used survey data to evaluate the eating habits of Canadians, and modeled what would happen if people made the dietary swaps. They used models to estimate changes in life expectancy, based on Canadian mortality data and the relative risks of diseases associated with animal-based and plant-based foods, which were assessed in the Global Burden of Disease study.

The findings fit with other research. Last month, researchers at Tufts University published a study that found people who consumed plenty of plant protein in mid-life had significantly higher odds of healthy aging – more evidence that what's good for our health is also good for the planet.

This piece was edited by Jane Greenhalgh

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a Washington-based correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic since it began, providing near-daily coverage of new developments and effects. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.