Diet for a cool planet

Reducing our meat consumption.

by Dr. Sarah Nyrose BSc ND

Reducing meat consumption can go a long way to help lower one’s carbon footprint, but it is not necessarily a simple change to make.

Climate change has come to the forefront of local and international issues. In May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in partnership with the UN published a global assessment report outlining nature’s dangerous decline and accelerating extinction rates.1 Compiled by 145 expert authors over the past three years, the report presents an ominous picture: from decimated rainforests, bleached coral reefs, to shrinking ecosystems. Global extinction rates are ten to hundreds of times higher than the average, and one million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.2

What once was an abstract threat lingering in the far future, has now come to fruition in our present. We’re seeing the effects of climate change: shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts3, and the long-term consequences are predicted to occur earlier than initially anticipated.

Our global goals for conservation and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories; it requires transformative change, economically, politically, and socially.1,2As individuals, this requires us to make behavioral changes and sacrifices, for both the immediate and distant goal of saving our planet. But this is not easy.

Unarguably, one of the most important changes is reducing our meat consumption.4,5

Meat production provides only 18% of our calories, but utilizes 83% of farmland.5 Beef production globally is the most problematic; it results in up to 105 kg of greenhouse gases (CO2) per 100 g of protein while legumes (beans, lentils) produce less than 1 kg.5While there is large variance in environmental impacts from different farms, a collective reduction in meat consumption is required to reduce our impact.

As a naturopathic doctor who is passionate about sustainability, who enjoys eating meat and who works daily with patients to shape healthy diets, the complexity of implementing this one behavioural change is not lost on me.

Polarizing opinions of this issue have filled our newspapers and social media feeds, ranging from condemning meat-eaters, belittling vegans, and understandably, defending the industry that one’s community depends on.

Unarguably, one of the most important changes is reducing our meat consumption.

Food is personal. Food is not just fuel; it is a part of our identity, our health, our culture, our community and our daily life. The dietary choices we make are influenced by what our peers and community eat, and are reinforced by decades of food habits.

If we are going to make changes to our diets to reduce our environmental burden, I think we need to understand what influences our dietary decisions and the obstacles we face. Factors such as habit, perceived individual impact, health information and social norms all affect our ability to modify what we eat. In addition, we need to shift our dialogue from one focused on criticism and guilt, to motivation and cooperation. While labeled as an “individual behavioural change”, reducing our meat consumption, in fact, requires a community shift. Together we can implement change, and move towards meeting our conservation and sustainability targets.

Habit
Habits are what dictate our day-to-day lives.2 The food we eat becomes habitual; we gravitate towards the same meals, making food decisions on autopilot. Our habits are fostered in childhood, and heavily influenced by our peers.

The phrase “old habits die hard” accurately reflects the challenges of changing well-established habits. Food is no exception. Independent of the motivating factor (i.e. health, weight, environment), changing one’s diet requires effort, time and willpower.

Taking this into consideration, I think it’s important how we frame making a dietary shift to include less meat. The key is to aim for a small, manageable change (i.e. meatless Mondays), rather than to feel discouraged and frustrated when failing to reduce it completely. You should set your goal based on what’s realistic in your life and given your current situation. It’s also important when trying to change a habit, to focus on the adoption of a new behavior, rather than concentrating on giving up an existing habit.6 In the context of meat consumption, adopting a new habit may be including more vegetarian snacks, sources of protein and meals in your weekly menu. Find recipes that you love and will become a staple in your diet. Finally, it’s vital to set realistic expectations. Research has shown that it often takes 66 days for a new habit to become automatic.6 Therefore, it will take 2-3 months of daily practice before the new habit sticks.

Perceived Individual Impact
Because climate change is a global issue, many individuals believe that their actions will not make a difference.2 This thought process is commonly referred to as the tragedy of the commons. On top of this, the doomsday headlines that bombard us daily reinforce feelings of hopelessness and inaction.

The reality is, we ALL need to change in order to globally make a difference. As individuals, we need to find ways to be empowered and to take action. This could include finding groups in your community that will support and inspire you.
Some food bloggers that inspire us are:

Health
Most people in Canada acquire their daily protein from animal sources.7 There is a lack of understanding on how to obtain vegetarian protein and a fear that dietary needs cannot be met on a plant-based diet or with less meat. This concern is widespread, and better access to dietary information and delicious plant-based recipes are necessary to help facilitate a reduction in meat consumption. As health care providers, we need to become well versed in vegetarian sources of protein, and assist our patients in making dietary changes while still obtaining the appropriate micro/macronutrients.

Eating a diet of plant-based foods –vegetables, fruits, whole grains and plant-based proteins – can be beneficial for your health. Studies have shown that emphasizing plant-based foods can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and improve cholesterol levels.8 Canada’s new food guide includes the recommendation to consume plant-based proteins more often than animal-based foods.9

Social Norms
We routinely compare our dietary choices with those around us, and derive an opinion on what is “normal” or “acceptable”. Our peers have a strong influence on actions and food decisions. If we don’t see people around us changing, we are less likely to change ourselves.2

While this may seem discouraging, from a social psychology perspective, the fact that people need cues from others before implementing a change, means that your actions will start to influence your friends and family. Social norms can shift, and they have a powerful, often unappreciated impact on behavioural decisions.10 In fact, we are already seeing a shift in climate change perspectives, as it has become a key issue in the Canadian election and for the US democratic presidential candidates.

Fare & Flourish
At Fare & Flourish we recognize the complexity of this issue; the nuances of our food system and the individual factors that influence what we eat. Shifting our diet globally to be more plant focused will take time, albeit we must act quickly. It will take a community, inspiring, educating and supporting each other.

Our focus at F&F is to inspire you to cook a nourishing and delicious meal. While we occasionally include recipes with meat, our emphasis is on plant-based dishes. We hope that together we can learn, inspire and support one another in making a shift towards a better diet for the planet.

 

  1. Díaz, S., Settele, J., Brondízio, E., Ngo, H., Guèze, M., Agard, J., … & Chan, K. (2019). Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. 
  2. Swim, J., Clayton, S., Doherty, T., Gifford, R., Howard, G., Reser, J., … & Weber, E. (2009). Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges. A report by the American Psychological Association’s task force on the interface between psychology and global climate change. American Psychological Association, Washington
  3. The Effects of Climate Change. (2019, September 30). Retrieved from https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/.
  4. Springmann, M., Clark, M., Mason-D’Croz, D., Wiebe, K., Bodirsky, B. L., Lassaletta, L., … & Jonell, M. (2018). Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature, 562(7728), 519.
  5. Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987-992.
  6. Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’and general practice. Br J Gen Pract, 62(605), 664-666.
  7. Statistics Canada. (2018, March 22). Protein sources in the Canadian diet, 2015. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2018004-eng.htm.
  8. Anderson, T. J., Gregoire, J., Pearson, G. J., Barry, A. R., Couture, P., Dawes, M., … & Hegele, R. A. (2016). 2016 Canadian Cardiovascular Society guidelines for the management of dyslipidemia for the prevention of cardiovascular disease in the adult. Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 32(11), 1263-1282.
  9. Canada’s food guide. (2019, July 30). Retrieved from https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/.
  10. McDonald, R. I., & Crandall, C. S. (2015). Social norms and social influence. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 147-151.

More Stories

Food Insecurity

Food Insecurity

COVID-19 has illuminated many of the existing problems in our society, including food insecurity. We wanted to learn more about who is most affected, and discuss why these conversations are necessary, especially in the health and wellness world. 

Gardening with Ariel & Jess

Gardening with Ariel & Jess

Ariel and Jess Reyes Barton are the creators of Palenke Greens, which is a burlap sack gardening initiative aimed at assisting people of African descent facing food insecurity. Not only do they provide all of the supplies to create a burlap sack garden, they also help to install it, and have exciting ideas for the future. 

Photography with Nathan Smith

Photography with Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is the photographer behind most of the portraits on Fare & Flourish, and many other interesting photo projects besides. We are so grateful to be able to showcase his beautiful visions on our website.