How Living a Plant-Based Lifestyle Benefits the Environment

Gardening and benefits of a plant-based lifestyle

Verywell / Amelia Manley

Plant-based eating patterns are becoming more and more common—for good reason. There is significant scientific data on a plant-based diet's ability to help prevent cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis. They are also known to be safe for a wide variety of people at all life stages, including small children, pregnant and lactating women, and older adults.

Not only is a plant-based lifestyle important for our health, but it also has many benefits for the environment. Read on to learn about what defines a plant-based lifestyle and how adopting one is a small step you can take to contribute to the health of the environment.

What Is a Plant-Based Lifestyle?

A plant-based lifestyle places an emphasis on plant foods while still including a limited amount of dairy, meat, fish, and eggs. Those who follow a plant-based lifestyle eat primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. This differs from a vegan diet that eliminates all foods derived from animals, a plant-based lifestyle still allows animal-based foods. An individual following a plant-based lifestyle may also pay close attention to the quality of their food, ensuring as much as possible to purchase local, ethically sourced products.

Plant-based diets are known to have positive effects on human health and the possible prevention of chronic diseases. Plant-based diets rich in whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds are associated with a significant reduction in modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including decreased blood lipids, glucose, blood pressure, and inflammation.

A randomized control trial looked at the effects of plant-based lifestyles in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Compared to the control diets, plant-based diets were associated with a significant improvement in HbA1C levels and total cholesterol, as well as improved emotional and physical well-being, quality of life, and depression.

Environmental Benefits of a Plant-Based Lifestyle

There are a variety of environmental benefits associated with a plant-based lifestyle.

Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Worldwide, food production is responsible for 30% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Meat has been identified as the food source that produces the most greenhouse gas. Studies show that decreasing meat consumption could reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also improving overall health outcomes and reducing chronic disease.

There is also research to support improved environmental outcomes without the elimination of meat and dairy products. Plant-based lifestyles can still include meat and dairy while still having a positive impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Reduces Land Use

Food production is responsible for 80% of deforestation and is the greatest contributor to biodiversity loss. Since meat and dairy production consumes the majority of agricultural land for production, it is one of the biggest threats to species biodiversity. Biodiversity is essential to the resiliency of our food systems.

Transitioning to more plant-based eating patterns would mean less land being used for meat and dairy production and more land used for growing crops. Studies show that with more individuals eating a plant-based diet, diet-related land use can be reduced by 76% while also contributing to improved health outcomes.

Decreases Pollution

Scientists estimate that food production causes 35% of plant-warming pollutants. Additionally, the meat industry is more than two times more responsible for pollution than the production of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Research shows that transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle can decrease pollution by 49%.

Shifts in diet don't need to be extreme to see a benefit to the environment. Adopting a more plant-forward diet while still including small amounts of fish, meat, and dairy still will result in decreased pollution.

Saves Water

Plant-based lifestyles may play a role in water conservation. 24% of global freshwater is used for livestock and it takes 23% less water to produce 1 kg of grain compared to 1 kg of beef. One study found that reducing animal intake would reduce global water use by 14%. Additionally, plant-based diets may improve water quality by reducing eutrophication caused by runoff from animal feeds and manure.

Prevents Animal Cruelty

It's no secret that animals raised for food production are maltreated with very few legal protections. Buying ethically-sourced fish, eggs, meat, and poultry as well as decreasing animal food consumption can help decrease demand for these animals that are treated so poorly.

In fact, with growing concern about animal welfare and the negative impacts meat production has on the environment, there is increased interest and research in in-vitro meat. In-vitro meat production is considered an efficient, environmentally friendly, and ethical way to source meat. Additionally, plant-based meat alternatives are becoming more and more socially accepted.

Why You Should Consider a Plant-Based Lifestyle

Not only are plant-based lifestyles good for our health, but they can significantly improve the health of the environment as well. Plant-based diets can contain all nutrients needed for health, can decrease the risk of a number of chronic diseases, and require fewer natural resources for production. There is a growing interest in plant-based lifestyles for physical health, but also for environmental health as climate change becomes worse and individuals search for more sustainable food options.

Globally, climate change is a threat to food security and will influence the quality and quantity of food produced as well as the ability to distribute it equally. Food demand is expected to rise and there are constraints on the availability of land, water, and fisheries to meet these growing demands.

Additionally, rising temperatures cause heat stress for livestock, resulting in decreased productivity, egg yield and quality, and meat quality. From the consumer perspective, this results in increased prices on grocery store shelves. Adopting a plant-based lifestyle would alleviate some of the strain that climate change is putting on our food systems.

Tips for Living a Plant-Based Lifestyle

If by now you are thinking of switching to a more plant-based eating pattern, there are some simple ways to get started. Remember, plant-based doesn't have to be completely vegetarian or vegan—you can still include dairy, fish, meat, and eggs.

Switch over slowly by picking one meal a week or a day to eat plant-based. Try adding "Meatless Monday" into your weekly routine. If eating a completely animal food-free meal is challenging at first, think about using animal food as a side dish. For example, vegetarian chili with a small amount of beef, a pasta dish with a side of grilled salmon, or a chicken and tofu stir fry. Gather recipes or buy a plant-based cookbook for inspiration.

When eating a plant-based diet, there are some nutritional factors to consider. Plant-based lifestyles can be lower in vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. Consider including some animal foods in your to get adequate amounts of these nutrients. You may also need to take a supplement. Speak with a registered dietitian for guidance on a well-planned plant-based diet to ensure adequate nutrition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is plant-based eating really better for the environment?

    Plant-based eating has a significant effect on the health of the environment. Adopting a more plant-based eating pattern reduces greenhouse gas emissions, decreased the use of cropland, saves water and improves water quality, and decreases pollutants leaching into water and soil.

  • How does a plant-based diet reduce your carbon footprint?

    Eating a plant-based diet reduces your carbon footprint by decreasing the huge amount of natural resources required to produce animal foods. Plant-based foods require significantly fewer resources and produce less greenhouse gas than animal foods. Additionally, animal foods require significantly more processing before they are ready for market. Plant-based foods, such as beans and nuts, require less processing and are therefor more energy efficient sources of protein and other nutrients.

  • Why is plant-based food more sustainable?

    Plant-based foods are more sustainable because their production requires fewer natural resources, less energy, and are less taxing on the environment compared to animal-based foods. With climate change, natural resources are becoming more scarce, increasing food prices and threatening food security. Changing course and eating a more plant-based diet is an alternative for a more sustainable future.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Rebecca Jaspan is a registered dietitian specializing in anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, as well as disordered eating and orthorexia.