Environmental scientists call for sustainable “flexitarian” diet

A flexitarian diet may be an integral solution for climate change, water supply, and pollution, according to a recent study published earlier this month in the Nature International Journal of Science.

Defined as “semi-vegetarian,” a flexitarian diet is one that is plant-based with occasional consumption of meat, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, who coined the term in her diet program of the same name. Those following a flexitarian diet eat mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains and focus on plant-based proteins instead of animals. However, they do incorporate animal products from time to time, and there is a strong emphasis on eating fewer processed foods, added sugars, and sweets.

Eating most plant-based foods is one of the three key steps towards a sustainable future for all in 2050, researchers say in the study. In addition, food waste will need to be halved and farming practices improved. Without action, the sustainability impacts of the food system could increase by up to 90 percent, they say.

The authors say the food system has several significant environmental impacts, including climate change, depleting water resources, and air pollution. Researchers say that, due to population and income growth expected between 2010 and 2050, these impacts could grow between 50-90 percent, pushing the world beyond boundaries the authors say represent a “safe operating space for humanity on a stable earth.”

The study did not offer a single solution to resolve these environmental dangers, as it will take a combination of efforts to address such complex issues, they say. However, in terms of climate change, the authors looked at the flexitarian diet where individuals ate only one serving of red meat per week as a viable potential solution.

If the world moved to this type of diet, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture would be reduced by more than half, said Marco Springmann, PhD, lead author and researcher at the University of Oxford in England.

Following a flexitarian lifestyle not only has a smaller environmental footprint, but patients often experience weight loss, have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and live 3.6 years longer, said Blatner. It’s a flexible solution for both the health of people and the health of the planet.