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Photo: Ryan Thompson

The myth that you can’t get enough nutrients from plant-based foods isn’t true. According to a new study, eating plants isn’t just healthy, it’s substantially more environmentally-friendly than eating beef.

“How much resources does it take to feed a person per year?” asked lead author Gidon Eshel in 2010. Researchers assessed a variety of plant-based combinations that would provide eaters with the equivalent of roughly 190 kcal of energy, 16 grams of fat and 11 grams of protein per day, which they estimate would nutritionally replace the daily amount of beef consumed in the Mean American Diet (MAD).

Grass-fed beef cattle. (Photo Credit: Ryan Thompson / USDA)

Grass-fed beef cattle. (Photo Credit: Ryan Thompson / USDA)

The researchers then analyzed more than 500 combinations of plant-based foods while minimizing “land use, greenhouse gas emissions or reactive nitrogen use.” Although there was significant variation in the types of plants considered, the environmentally optimal and nutritionally-substantive diets typically included peanuts and a variety of legumes like lentils and kidney beans.

The Impact on Human Health

Some people worry that they won’t get enough nutrients if they give up beef for plants. However, this study shows that, for the most part, that is not the case.

Plant-based foods can provide adequate or superb amounts of unsaturated fats, calcium, iron, potassium, protein, vitamin C and other healthy nutrients. However, plant-based options, when compared with beef, did produce some nutrient deficiencies in vitamin B12 and zinc. The authors suggest that supplements could easily replace both of these shortcomings.

Overall, the authors concluded that “the presented shift from beef to plant based replacement diets can thus improve nutrition in most metrics.”

eating plant protein isn’t just healthy, it’s substantially more environmentally-friendly than eating beef. (Photo Credit: O'Leary's / Flickr)

Fruits and vegetables. (Photo Credit: O’Leary’s / Flickr)

The Impact on the Environment

From an environmental perspective, the plant-based beef alternatives “on average only require 10 percent of land, four percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and six percent of reactive nitrogen (Nr) compared to what the replaced beef diet requires.”

If the entire United States were to ditch beef for plants the country would “save 91 million cropland acres (and 770 million rangeland acres), 278 million metric ton [CO2 equivalent], and 3.7 million metric [tons of reactive nitrogen] annually.”

To put this into perspective, this shift would liberate more land than Alaska, Texas and California combined, and reduce emissions equal to about 59 million passenger vehicles annually and divert more than double the amount of ocean dead zone-causing synthetic nitrogen that runs from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

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