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Vegetarian 'Healthy' Diets Worse For The Environment Than Eating Meat

First Posted: Dec 17, 2015 12:25 AM EST

Living on a vegetarian diet may be worse for the environment than eating meat, according to a recent study.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) tracked the supply chain from production to household and found that the diet recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was associated with a higher calorie carbon footprint than less healthy diets. While the USDA suggests that consuming fruits and vegetables is better for the environment than meat, the study results cite both higher resource use and greenhouse gas emissions linked with these recommendations.

"Eating lettuce is over three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon," said Paul Fischbeck, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think. Eggplant, celery and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken."

During the study, researchers specifically examined how growing, processing and transporting food, food sales and service, and household storage and use, take a toll on resources in the form of energy use, water use and GHG emissions.

While study results showed that getting our weight under control and eating fewer calories had a positive effect on the environment by reducing energy use, water use and GHG emission from the food supply chain by about 9 percent, eating "healthier" recommended foods increased the environmental impact in all three categories: Energy use went up by 38 percent, water use by 10 percent and GHG emissions by 6 percent.

"There's a complex relationship between diet and the environment," Michelle Tom, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering, said. "What is good for us health-wise isn't always what's best for the environment. That's important for public officials to know and for them to be cognizant of these tradeoffs as they develop or continue to develop dietary guidelines in the future."

The study is published in Environment Systems and Decisions.

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