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Finding a natural solution

New Study Suggests Plant-Based Diets May Harm the Environment

If you're a vegetarian, you may think your healthy, meat-free lifestyle means you're creating a healthy environment. But a new study from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) suggests that this notion may be a myth.

The study on energy use, greenhouse emission and food consumption, published in the November issue of “Environmental Systems and Decisions,” produced evidence that following the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary recommendations — which encourage Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, with less red meat — actually harms rather than helps the environment.

cubed pieces of red pepper, broccoli and chicken
Photo by Agnieszka.

That's because foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy products and seafood require high resource use and greenhouse gas (GHG) per calorie — even more so than meat. This finding directly contrasts with the ideas promoted by many "green" organizations like Down to Earth Organic and Natural, which urges Americans to consider adopting a vegetarian diet to save the earth.

Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former bodybuilder, action movie star and California governor, said in a recent United Nations conference that Americans can protect the environment from greenhouse gases by reducing their consumption of red meat.

But the CMU study — titled "Energy Use, Blue Water Footprint and Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Current Food Consumption Patterns and Dietary Recommendations in the U.S." — claims that the resources involved with growing, processing and transporting "greener" foods increase energy use, water use and GHG emissions — taking a significant toll on our planet.Therefore, says CMU Social/Decision Sciences professor Paul Fischbeck, "Eating lettuce is over three times worse in GHG emissions than eating bacon."

How to Eat Well and Care for the Environment

As a person who wants to eat well and be an environmentally conscious citizen, what are you supposed to do? Here are three ways you can continue your organic lifestyle and celebrate Earth Day without feeling guilty that you're doing more harm than good.

1. Consider Growing Your Own Food

Growing your own food helps the environment in many ways — you’ll prevent air and water pollution, reduce the use of fossil fuels and spare the planet from the resources involved in transporting fruits and vegetables to your local supermarket.

The benefits are more than just environmental: Building your own garden can help you get exercise, build your sense of pride and make sure your food is always fresh and tasty.

2. Eat This, Not That

The good news is that, when it comes to GHG output, not all fruits and vegetables are created equal. Lettuce takes a toll on the environment because it requires major resources — like water and energy — to grow, harvest and transport.

Onions, okra and broccoli, for example, have less of an environmental footprint. If you’re a strict vegetarian, consider beans, too. Beans are low in fat, high in necessary protein and folic acid — among other nutrients — and don’t require a lot of resources to produce.

3. Use Your Own Kitchen

You've heard all the negative impacts of processed foods, and it's true — they also can hurt the environment. Processed foods require greater energy to produce than whole foods, so they are associated with a high GHG output. You can avoid processed foods simply by learning how to cook your own meals — after all, you have that stove for a reason!

You don't have to do it the Paula Deen way. You can make comfort food that's still healthy if you substitute healthful ingredients while cooking up your favorite recipes. For example, try using low-fat milk instead of heavy cream. Serve up a faux-meat dish by substituting tofu for beef. Or swap out the white pasta in favor of whole wheat noodles, which are packed with more nutrients and fewer empty carbs.

Health-conscious treats can taste just as good as the traditional recipe, and your body will probably thank you for it. The environment will too, because you're also doing your part to reduce your carbon footprint.

Don't Freak Out!

Even with these helpful tips, you may be tempted to throw away that head of lettuce for fear that you're destroying the planet. Don't panic!

You're not a hypocrite for choosing a vegetarian diet. While the CMU study suggests that your lifestyle may not be as environmentally helpful as you thought, remember that it's only one study — and like most single studies, it has its own set of limitations.

As the study acknowledges, a majority of Americans eat far too many calories for their body weight , and the growing obesity epidemic takes an even bigger toll on the environment than your fruits and vegetables do.

If you're a vegetarian or just a health-conscious consumer, don't worry too much: You're probably doing less harm to the planet than your neighbor who just ordered a large Papa John's pizza with extra meat and cheese.

Kayla Matthews is a health and wellness blogger who loves jogging, yoga and hiking. Follow Kayla on Google+ and Twitter to read all of her latest posts.