What does a ‘green’ diet look like?

March 6, 2024

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<img src="https://images.immediate.co.uk/production/volatile/sites/30/2020/08/vegetable-selection-8467ca0.jpg?quality=90&resize=620,413" srcset="https://images.immediate.co.uk/production/volatile/sites/30/2020/08/vegetable-selection-8467ca0.jpg?quality=90&amp;resize=360,239 360w, https://images.immediate.co.uk/production/volatile/sites/30/2020/08/vegetable-selection-8467ca0.jpg?quality=90&amp;resize=180,119 180w, " sizes="(max-width: 620px) 100vw, 620px" width="620" height="413" class="wp-image-448761 alignnone size-landscape_thumbnail" alt="Selection of cucumber, beans, romesco cauliflower and herbs laid out on a wooden background" title="What does a 'green' diet look like?" /> <p>There are so many <a href="/howto/guide/which-diet-is-the-most-environmentally-friendly">different diet</a> options, whether you want to lose weight, bulk up or eat like our ancestors. But a green diet isn’t another food trend to add to the list – it simply means a healthy and sustainable diet that’s good for you and the planet.</p>
<p>The UN defines <a href="https://www.fao.org/nutrition/education/food-dietary-guidelines/background/sustainable-dietary-guidelines/en" target="_blank" rel="noopener">sustainable eating</a> as ‘diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security, and to healthy life for present and future generations’.</p>
<p>In other words, green eating isn’t just about following a healthy diet today but ensuring that our children and grandchildren can eat nutritious food, too.</p>
<p>Discover our full range of <a href="/howto/guide/top-20-healthiest-foods">health benefit guides</a> and also find out the <a href="/howto/guide/what-flexitarian-diet">flexitarian diet</a> and <a href="/howto/guide/what-plant-based-diet">plant-based diets</a>.</p>
<h2>Why do we need a green diet?</h2>
<p>The impact of climate change is undeniable – <a href="/howto/guide/how-will-extreme-heatwaves-affect-our-food">heatwaves</a>, flooding and ocean warming are all becoming more common and more extreme. This, in turn, has an impact on the types of foods that will be available in future. But a green diet can help tackle climate change and build a sustainable food supply chain.</p>
<p>Right now, the way most of our food is produced isn’t sustainable. Our current food system is responsible for <a href="https://www.ed.ac.uk/sites/default/files/atoms/files/food_systems_are_responsible_for_a_third_of_global.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">around one third (34 per cent)</a> of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with meat production alone reported to generate <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/13/meat-greenhouses-gases-food-production-study" target="_blank" rel="noopener">nearly 60 per cent</a> of that carbon footprint.</p>
<p>Sadly, it’s not just about carbon emissions. Food production, particularly farming and agriculture, is also <a href="https://www.oecd.org/food-systems/action-tracks/nature-positive-production/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">a major cause</a> of deforestation, overfishing, loss of biodiversity, and soil and water pollution worldwide. All this adds up to create global warming, extreme weather events, water shortages, and (eventually) food shortages for everyone.</p>
<p>To help reduce this environmental impact, a shift in the way we produce and consume our food is needed. And this change can also be good for our wellbeing.</p>
<h2>How do you eat green?</h2>
<p>You could choose to follow the <a href="/howto/guide/what-is-the-planetary-health-diet">planetary health diet (PHD)</a> – a way of eating that links our long-term health with the wellbeing of the planet. It was developed by the Eat-Lancet Commission, a group of leading scientists, with the long-term goal of supplying good food to a growing global population.</p>
<p>However, it is quite prescriptive; you must stick to <a href="https://eatforum.org/content/uploads/2019/07/EAT-Lancet_Commission_Summary_Report.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">daily targets</a> for meat, fish, grains, fruits, sugars, nuts, vegetables, starchy vegetables… it’s not one for people who like to keep things simple. Or you could choose the UK’s Green Food Project, which contains more general guidelines.</p>
<p>This <a href="https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a7497bfed915d0e8bf198f5/pb14010-green-food-project-sustainable-consumption.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">government initiative</a>, launched in 2012, identified eight key principles of a healthy and sustainable diet. They are:</p>
<p>1.    Eat a varied balanced diet to maintain a healthy body weight.<br>
2.    Eat more plant-based foods, including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.<br>
3.    Value your food. Ask about where it comes from and how it is produced. <a href="/howto/guide/how-cut-your-food-carbon-footprint">Don’t waste it</a>.<br>
4.    Moderate your meat consumption, and enjoy more peas, beans, nuts, and other sources of protein.<br>
5.    <a href="/article/top-10-sustainable-foods">Choose fish</a> sourced from sustainable stocks. Seasonality and capture methods are important here, too.<br>
6.    Include milk and dairy products in your diet or seek out plant-based alternatives, including those that are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals.<br>
7.    Drink tap water.<br>
8.   Eat fewer foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.</p>
<p>While the Green Food Project is easier to follow than the PHD, it may feel like a lot of changes to make all at once. Luckily, you don’t have to; follow the principles that will have the greatest ‘green’ impact before adding more.</p>
<h2>Moderate your meat consumption</h2>
<p>Research repeatedly shows that red meat and dairy are two of the most harmful foods for the environment – together, <a href="https://www.who.int/publications-detail-redirect/9789240074828" target="_blank" rel="noopener">they generate 55 per cent</a> of total global agriculture emissions. Equally, switching to a plant-based diet has been identified as one of <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987" target="_blank" rel="noopener">the most effective ways</a> to shrink our carbon footprint.</p>
<p>Cutting down the amount of red meat we eat has a number of health benefits, too. The National Diet and Nutrition survey found Brits consume, on average, around <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196%2821%2900228-X/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener">86g of red meat</a> every day. But <a href="https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-types/meat-nutrition/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">official advice</a> is to eat no more than 70g a day – too much red meat has been linked to bowel cancer, high cholesterol and heart disease.</p>
<p>You don’t have to stop eating meat altogether: replacing beef and lamb with <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3389618/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">pork and chicken</a>, for example, could cut UK emissions by 9 per cent.</p>
<p><a href="/recipes/collection/vegan"><div class="image-handler__container image-handler__container–full" style="padding-bottom: calc(100% * (350 / 700));">
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<h2>Eat more plants</h2>
<p>One of the classic arguments against reducing our meat intake is that plant proteins don’t contain enough nutrients – but it’s not true.</p>
<p>The <a href="https://www.bda.uk.com/static/539e2268-7991-4d24-b9ee867c1b2808fc/a1283104-a0dd-476b-bda723452ae93870/one%20blue%20dot%20reference%20guide.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">British Dietetic Association</a> (BDA) says, ‘protein quality and quantity is not compromised when switching to more plant-based diets. Plants contain all essential amino acids, and diets entirely based on plant foods that meet daily energy requirements will also meet all essential amino acid requirements.’</p>
<p>And after reviewing a number of large studies, researchers from <a href="https://www.ndph.ox.ac.uk/longer-reads/are-plant-based-diets-good-for-your-health-and-the-planet" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Oxford University</a> concluded that plant-based diets had a protective effect against heart disease, could reduce your risk of developing diabetes and protect against other conditions including cataracts and kidney stones.</p>
<p>Of course, not all plant-based foods are good for you. Vegan ‘junk’ foods and many <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8398225/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">plant-based meat alternatives</a> are made with high levels of salt, fat and sugar, and can miss out on key nutrients. But sticking to pulses, legumes and vegetables is good for both your health and that of the planet.</p>
<p>Find out more about following a <a href="/howto/guide/vegan-diet-better-environment">vegan diet</a> and the environment.</p>
<h2>Drink tap water rather than soft drinks</h2>
<p>Together, fizzy drinks and fruit juices produce the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5822528/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">third largest amount</a> of greenhouse gases in the UK diet, while water generates one of the lowest, along with tea and coffee. This is because soft drinks use a lot of energy to produce and transport, while juices need chemicals like pesticides and fertiliser to initially grow the fruit.</p>
<p>When you add in the impact on our health, the argument is even stronger for ditching fizzy drinks. They’ve been <a href="/howto/guide/are-fizzy-drinks-bad-for-you">linked to conditions</a> such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and even some types of cancer.</p>
<p>But swapping out sodas for water doesn’t mean drinking more bottled water. <a href="/howto/guide/10-tips-reducing-your-plastic-waste">Single-use plastic bottles</a> are now one of the greatest polluters across the globe, so stick to tap water – and always carry a <a href="/review/best-water-bottles-test">reusable water bottle</a> with you – to further reduce your impact on the planet.</p>
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<h2>Is a green diet worth it?</h2>
<p>If everyone in the UK ate a healthy, balanced diet – including five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and little to no sugars or processed foods – we could cut our <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273276194_The_potential_to_reduce_greenhouse_gas_emissions_in_the_UK_through_healthy_and_realistic_dietary_change" target="_blank" rel="noopener">carbon emissions by 17 per cent</a>. If we then cut down on animal products and processed snacks, and upped our cereal, fruit and veg intake, we could make further GHG reductions of around 40 per cent.</p>
<p>The BDA says making these changes could add nearly <a href="https://www.bda.uk.com/static/539e2268-7991-4d24-b9ee867c1b2808fc/421de049-2c41-4d85-934f0a2f6362cc4a/one%20blue%20dot%20reference%20guide.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">18 million years</a> of healthy life to the UK population as a whole, cutting the number of days lost to debilitating conditions like diabetes, bowel cancer and heart disease.</p>
<p>And we can do all this without making huge adjustments to our current diet or following a food fad. A healthier you and a happier planet means the green diet may be the only diet we’ll ever need.</p>
<h2>More on sustainability</h2>
<p><a href="/howto/guide/how-cut-your-food-carbon-footprint">10 ways to cut your carbon footprint</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/facts-about-food-miles">The facts about food miles</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/cut-waste-food-packaging-avoid">6 pieces of packaging to avoid</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/10-ways-eat-out-sustainably">10 ways to eat out sustainably</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/how-reduce-food-waste">How to reduce food waste</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/what-biodegradable-really-means">What biodegradable really means</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/your-diet-contributing-water-scarcity">Is your diet contributing to water scarcity?</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/how-compost-food-home">How to compost food at home</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/how-be-better-recycler">8 ways to be a better recycler</a><br>
<a href="/howto/guide/what-are-greenhouse-gases">What are greenhouse gases?</a><br>
<a href="/feature/sustainability" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sustainability hub page</a></p>
<p><em>Rosalind Ryan is a journalist and editor specialising in health, lifestyle and environmental issues. She has nearly 20 years’ experience writing for publications including The Guardian, The Independent, Healthy magazine and Women’s Health.</em></p>
<p><em>This article was updated on 8 March 2024. If you have any questions or suggestions for future content, please get in touch at goodfoodwebsite@immediate.co.uk.</em></p>


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