A study into the links between dietary patterns and greenhouse gases has concluded that plant-based diets are best for the planet after finding that the carbon footprint of meat-eaters is 59% more than that of vegetarians.
Food production accounts for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but researchers at the University of Leeds have drilled down deeper to look at exactly which foods are contributing the most.
In a study published in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers looked at the carbon footprints of over 3,000 different generic foods and 40,000 branded items.
The researchers discovered that meat was linked to 32% of diet-related GHG emissions, and dairy products account for 14% of food’s carbon footprint.
Other foods that had a notable impact on the climate include drinks such as tea, coffee, and alcohol, which contribute 15% of diet-related greenhouse gases; and cakes, cookies, and sweets contribute almost 9%.
They assessed the foods’ associations with greenhouse gas emissions against an automated online dietary assessment for 212 adults over three 24-hour periods.
From this, they found that non-vegetarians produced 59% more greenhouse gas emissions than vegetarians.
The links between diet and greenhouse gas emissions
The differences in greenhouse gas emissions were also explored by dietary patterns, demographic characteristics, and World Health Organisation recommended nutrient intakes.
Researchers were looking to determine if less environmentally sustainable diets are also often more processed, energy-dense, and nutrient-poor.
The study found that vegetarians also had lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with cakes, biscuits and confectionery, reflecting healthier dietary patterns more generally.
Additionally, the research found that men’s diets produce 41% higher emissions than women’s diets, primarily due to greater meat intake, the study authors said.
“Meat was the dominant driver for diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, explaining most of the differences between greenhouse gas emissions associated with vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets, and between the differences in greenhouse gas emissions associated with the diets of men and women,” the study’s authors said.
However, drinks such as tea and coffee, and cakes, biscuits and confectionery, explained a quarter of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, and present alternative routes to reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions.
The study also found that increased greenhouse gas emissions were linked with excessive levels of saturated fat, and lower than recommended levels of carbohydrates in diets.
“Those who met dietary recommendations had generally lower diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, suggesting future policies to encourage sustainable dietary patterns and plant-based diets could be good for both individual and planetary health,” the study’s authors concluded.
Do you want to do more for the climate? Here are 10 easy steps to take to reduce your carbon footprint.