Our diets, and every step involved in sourcing our food, present a heavy burden on the planet. Packaging waste, the water and land used to grow crops and the resources required to raise cattle are all examples. But not all diets are equal when it comes to environmental impact. How does what you eat affect the world we live in and should you make a change once you know?


The most Earth-friendly diet is a vegan diet. Think about it. Eliminating all meat products means no cows, pigs, chickens, goats or other animals being raised for slaughter. It also means an end to dairy cows who are forced to endlessly lactate to produce milk. Along with the water, land and food required to raise these animals comes the release of greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. In fact, the industry of raising food livestock is one of the top contributors of methane release on the planet.

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No diet has zero impact. Even eating vegan means fields of crops and all the resources used to grow them. Currently, about 40% of usable land is serving the food industry through crops or livestock. If everyone stopped eating animal products, it would require an increase in crop growth to replace it. However, growing plants is far less impactful to the land than raising animals. Plus, plants bring the added benefit of carbon sequestration and the release of fresh oxygen, working as literal filters for the air we breathe. 


A vegetarian diet comes in a close second for the most environmentally-friendly way of eating. Like vegans, vegetarians cut the meat and fish products, along with the associated environmental problems. However, vegetarians are open to eating other animal products such as eggs and dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese and butter. In order to access those products, chickens and cows still need to be raised so eating them comes at a higher cost to the environment

It’s generally accepted that raising livestock requires more water than growing plants, so even if we’re not eating the animals, those eggs and cheese products require vast resources.

Keto and Atkins

Keto and Atkins diets rely on a foundation of high fat and low carbohydrates. That means oils, butter and cheese are all included. It also gives the green light to red meat, poultry and fish. Inasmuch, the diet contributes to overfishing and the resource consumption involved in raising livestock. However, the keto diet also incorporates more Earth-friendly options like nuts, dark chocolate and certain fruits and vegetables. Since there is a way to maintain the diet while minimizing animal products, it’s more a matter of the choices you make rather than the requirements of the eating plan. In other words, keto can be more or less impactful than the standard American diet depending on how you format it.


This is another hybrid diet that is rooted in vegetarian eating. The only difference is that pescatarians consume fish. With the current state of fish management, this single difference actually carries a heavy weight. Overfishing, ocean pollution caused by the industry and fish farming are all problems that need to be addressed in order to get back to sustainable fishing practices. 


A flexitarian diet is mostly plant-based, with an allowance for small amounts of meat, fish and dairy. On the one hand, this means the diet has a bigger impact than vegan or vegetarian lifestyles. However, the more people who shift to plant-based eating, the more the planet will benefit. With this in mind, if a high percentage of people shifted to a flexitarian diet, it would reduce animal consumption overall. So while one person’s decision to replace some meat with produce might not have a huge impact, it can help create a wave that could.  

Other popular diets

There are many variations of those diets already mentioned. With an understanding of the high impact of raising red meat and the relatively low impact of produce, it’s easier to see where diets land on the environmental scale. 

For example, the paleo diet, which is rich in meat products, even if they are wild-caught or locally farmed, places an environmental burden. A keto diet with a meat emphasis is guilty too. The carnivore diet leans exclusively into animal products, putting it at the very bottom of the environmentally-friendly scale.

Other diets land in the middle of the discussion, like Whole30, which focuses on whole foods such as vegetables, seafood and unprocessed meat, and eliminates processed foods, including sugar, dairy and bread. While this eliminates a lot of packaging waste, the moderate meat consumption leaves a scar. 

A note about income

A study published under the title, “Evaluating the environmental impacts of dietary recommendations” provides an interesting look at another factor in dietary decisions: income. Specifically, it looks at nationally-recommended diets around the world and compares the corresponding environmental impacts in relation to the nation’s income. The results were clear — high-income nations do a better job of reducing greenhouse gasses, eutrophication and land use.

“In upper-middle–income nations, we find a smaller reduction in impacts, and in lower-middle–income nations we find a substantial increase,” reported the study.

So while personal decisions are a factor in the food/environment balance, we must also look at public policy, availability of food choices and access to accurate information about the impact food selections carry. 

Via Everyday Health

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