Sustainable Nutrition

Vegetarianism, Mediterranean Diet and Organic Farming

Sustainable Nutrition

Vegetarianism, Mediterranean Diet and Organic Farming

Tsiaka Anastasia, Nutrition Consultant

BioAgros SA

Have you ever thought that your food choices may affect the environment? According to numerous studies, about 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to the food system1. This statement means that both collectively and individually, eating behaviours and choices directly affect environmental health as well as individual health. The growth of the world’s population and, by extension, food consumed, in particular products of animal origin2, may pose a major threat to climate change, ecosystem health, food safety and the health and nutrition of the general population3.

This is why the concept of “sustainable nutrition” has been incorporated, which aims to define a healthy diet and sustainable food production, with the aim of improving human health and the environment. A sustainable diet encourages the consumption of foods that do not harm the environment and, at the same time, promote good health of the body4.

Each country or region has its own food culture and, by extension, its own environmental footprint. The total area of meat use of the local cuisine, the types of cereals and seeds preferred, the methods used in agriculture and animal husbandry, are factors that affect the environmental footprint of each food system5.

Vegan diet for a healthier environment

Livestock farming requires extensive use of land, energy and water and contributes to biodiversity loss and increased surplus nitrogen. According to studies, it has been estimated that the complete removal of meat from a healthy diet6 could lead to a reduction of up to 1/3 in greenhouse gas emissions7.  Of particular interest is a study carried out by  Aleksandrowicz and colleagues, where the effect of diets of different content on foods of animal origin (diet including meat and its derivatives,  vegan  (complete exclusion of foods of animal origin),  vegetarian (consumption of eggs and dairy products) and  pesco-vegetarian   (fish consumption) greenhouse gas emissions. The results showed that the reduction in meat consumption, and its derivatives, was accompanied by a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, land use and energy consumed8. The vegan diet had the least burden on the environment, followed by  vegetarian and pesco-vegeterian , which had a similar effect, despite their variation in fish consumption. The diet that included meat, which had the highest exposure of dioxide gases, proved to be the most damaging to the environment.  The cultivation techniques applied (conventional vs organic farming) are another important factor, affecting the health of the environment. According to research data, organic farming is more environmentally friendly than conventional ones10. They are characterized by higher energy efficiency10,11, enhance soil quality12,13 and contribute positively to the biodiversity of animals and plants (domesticated or wild)6,7,11, but also to the reduction of water and soil contamination12,14. “That is, if I care about the environment, should I become a vegetarian?” …  It’s definitely an option! Vegetarianism is a philosophy, a way of life. The idea is to eliminate any form of exploitation, and abuse, of animals to meet the needs of food, clothing or any other purpose15. At a nutritional level this translates into choices of plant origin, with the exclusion of all or certain foods of animal origin (e.g., meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, etc.)16, depending on the category of vegetarianism that each one chooses to follow. Whichever category a vegetarian belongs to, the basic foods he consumes are fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals and legumes. A balanced vegetarian diet plan, due to the avoidance of saturated fatty acids, derived from the consumption of animal products, promotes good heart health, with people who follow it showing;
  • lower plasma cholesterol levels,
  • decreased blood pressure and
  • reduced risk of cardiovascular disease17
However, great care is needed, since avoiding all, or part, of foods of animal origin can lead to a deficiency of certain micronutrients, such as iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids17,18.

We insist Mediterranean

The Mediterranean diet has been recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)as an ‘intangible heritage’  of humanity19. It stands out for its low environmental impact23mainly because it is a diet based mostly on plant foods.

The Mediterranean Diet adds to the “trunk” of vegetarianism the moderate consumption of eggs, poultry and fish (e.g., 1-2 times a week) and the rare consumption of red meat (e.g. 1 time per month). It is considered particularly healthy and nutritious, as well as

  • has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack20
  • enhances the maintenance of normal blood sugar levels and acts protectively against type 2 diabetes, and
  • seems to improve memory and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s21,22

To sum up, therefore, since it does not fit your philosophy, it is not necessary to become a vegetarian to help the environment. The data show that foods of plant origin enhance the good health of the environment, but also of humans. They contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and act as cardioprotective to the human body. While, on the other hand,  the increase in meat consumption is accompanied by a parallel increase in the burden on the environment. However, a small to moderate consumption of it offers multiple benefits to the human body and helps to avoid the appearance of low levels or deficiency in micro-and macro-nutrients.

Moreover, the introduction of organic farming and organic livestock farming seems to add another important piece to the protection of both the environment and humans. We are therefore called upon to make choices to promote the good health of the environment and of man, two organisms that are vital for the continuation of life.

Therefore, you can support the environment and, at the same time, your health

  • increasing the daily consumption of foods of plant origin, enriching your diet with fruits and vegetables and
  • mitigating the consumption of meat (e.g., 2 times a week), replacing it with protein-rich plant foods, such as legumes (e.g., lentils, beans), nuts (e.g.  peanuts, almonds), seeds (pumpkin seed, chia seeds)

“All in good measure”,
Kleovoulos of Lindios


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[3] EEA, 2015. The European Environmentd State and Outlook 2015: Synthesis Report. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen

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