Climatarian, flexitarian, veggie or vegan – what’s an eco-conscious person to choose?
In recent years January has had a re-brand as ‘Veganuary’ – the month in which hundreds of thousands of people pledge to avoid animal products in an effort to kickstart a vegan diet.
Increasingly, this is with environmental impact in mind. But for those not wishing to go fully vegan – or who’ve perhaps already fallen off the wagon – the ‘climatarian’ diet is another option.
This encourages you to choose lower-carbon options and keep environmental impact in mind, but you don’t have to abandon animal products altogether.
So is this a more pragmatic choice for many? And how different is it to a flexitarian diet? We’ve looked into the details to find out.
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What is the climatarian diet?
The climatarian diet was devised by not-for-profit organisation Climates Network CIC, which describes itself as being for people who want to take action on climate change in their daily life.
The diet has a list of foods that are ‘on the menu’ and ones to avoid, which it says can save a tonne of CO2 equivalents a year per person.
Foods that are allowed include pork, poultry, sustainable fish species, dairy products and eggs – as well as seasonal fruit, vegetables and plant foods.
Foods that are ‘off the menu’ include beef, lamb, goat, unsustainable fish, food that is air-flown and food grown in heated greenhouses.
It suggests further ways to reduce your food emissions, including:
- cutting down on meat overall and choosing high-welfare, organic and local meat where possible
- shopping carefully to avoid food waste
- choosing seasonal, local food.
It also advises ditching disposable cups, plates and cutlery and growing your own fruit and veg if you can.
Climatarian vs flexitarian
You might have already heard of ‘flexitarianism’, which is defined as someone who eats a largely vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish. It’s often a starting point for those looking to make their diet more sustainable.
This isn’t worlds away from the climatarian approach, but is a bit more loosely defined and less mindful of things such as the carbon footprint of your veg. It also doesn’t single out specific meats to avoid.
So far then, so sensible – we cover similar steps in our guide to five ways to a more eco-friendly diet. Could it also be better for your health (and easier to stick to)?
Is a plant-based diet healthier?
Generally speaking, what’s good for the planet is also good for you – for example, eating less meat (especially processed red meat) and eating more fruit, veg and wholegrains.
However, while replacing red meat in a chilli or shepherd’s pie with lentils and pulses will add to your 5-a-day and increase your fibre intake, replacing a beef burger with a plant-based substitute doesn’t offer the same benefits.
Foods labelled as plant-based or vegan tend to have a ‘health halo’ – people assume they’re healthier than they are. But our research has shown that plant-based burgers can contain more calories, fat and salt than a beef burger.
And vegan cake is still cake. It doesn’t mean these foods can’t be enjoyed, but it’s worth recognising they’re not automatically healthier.
See our guide to plant-based meat alternatives for more on the nutritional and environmental credentials of vegan and veggie options such as tofu, seitan, jackfruit and meat-imitating burgers and sausages.
The dairy dilemma
The climatarian diet puts dairy products on the ‘allowed’ list. But we’re often told to reduce our dairy intake due to the impact of emissions from cows and ruminants.
Our research has shown plant milks aren’t necessarily healthier or better for the environment.
Other than soya milk, most plant milks are lower in protein than cow’s milk. They also don’t contain the same nutrients, for example calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine (unless fortified).
Most plant milks do have a lower carbon footprint compared with cow’s milk, but they don’t do as well when looking at other environmental aspects, such as water usage – and it varies depending on what type you choose.
For example, almonds need a lot of water to grow, and the increase in demand for coconut milk has been blamed for deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
There may not be a clear-cut case for a complete swap, but cutting back on dairy intake is a pragmatic option that falls within the scope of a climatarian approach.
Less risk of nutrient deficiencies
Certain vitamins and minerals are predominantly found in foods of animal origin. If you’re following a strict vegan diet, this can put you at risk of deficiencies.
It’s important to be aware of this as some of these nutrients are vital for our health, such as calcium, zinc, iodine and vitamin B12.
Anyone following a vegan diet needs to plan their meals carefully to ensure these nutrients are included in sufficient amounts, and consider taking supplements to top up intakes.
Adopting a climatarian or flexitarian approach means there’s less risk here, as it’s less restrictive.
For those adapting their diet for environmental reasons, it also means you can still include some of the foods you enjoy.
Making changes to your diet that really stick can be challenging, and it’s often easier to make small, incremental changes rather than overhauling your diet in one go.
So all in all, it’s worth giving the climatarian approach a try.
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