The best diets? Sustainable and healthy diets

November 16, 2018

Which is better, the flexitarian or the Mediterranean diet? The vegan or the nutritarian diet? In fact, there is no answer to the question on which is the "best" diet.

The right answer could be: "it depends on the objective you are trying to achieve". Every year, in an attempt to give order, so to speak, to the numerous and more or less renowned and popular diets, the U.S. News and World Report publishes rankings of the best diets, based on different criteria. To be top-rated, a diet must be effective for weight loss, protective against diabetes, easy to follow and provide health benefits in general.

The director of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, David Katz, who has collaborated in many BCFN initiatives, was among the experts who worked on these rankings. The 2018 report shows, despite differences in the order, that some diets appear in the top positions in many diet categories.

A closer look reveals that the food and the rules of healthy diets are also the most environment friendly. The principle of a sustainable and healthy diet has always been the basis of the work carried out by experts at BCFN, who with the double food and environmental pyramid, launched in 2009, have pointed out that healthy eating mostly goes hand in hand with food sustainability.


Healthy diets ranking

Looking at the 2018 healthy diet rankings, one thing is immediately obvious: the Mediterranean diet, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the flexitarian diet (which considerably reduces but does not completely eliminate animal protein) are the most represented when it comes to eating healthily. In particular, the three diets rank among the top three (in different positions depending on the category) in the Best Diets Overall category, but also in the Best Diabetes Diets and Best Diets For Healthy Eating category.

Additionally, the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet are among the best eating regimes for the heart. While the Mediterranean diet and the flexitarian diet rank at the top of both the Best Plant-Based Diets and the Easiest Diets to Follow category. What do these diets have in common? They are all based on large daily amounts of fruit and vegetables, vegetable proteins, such as those that come from pulses, and "good" fats, such as those found in olive oil and some fish (for example, blue fish). These diets are also low in simple sugars, refined and manufactured foods, meat, salt and animal fat.

In particular, the Mediterranean diet has been registered on UNESCO´s immaterial cultural heritage list, emphasizing that this eating regime encompasses more than just food, as it has important cultural, and social elements and respects the environment and seasons.

The advantages of following these diets are considerable, as they reduce the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, metabolic disorders and many tumors. A huge achievement when considering that 17.5 million deaths around the world are linked to heart and vascular diseases (31% of the total), 8 out of 10 people suffer from at least one chronic disease after the age of 65 and over 30% of tumors could be prevented through healthy food choices.  

the Mediterranean diet has been registered on UNESCO´s immaterial cultural heritage list

Sustainability champions

Fruit, vegetables and plant-based food in general are the pillars of healthy diets but also of the most sustainable diets for the environment. This is demonstrated by the food and environment double pyramid, which as explained on the BCFN website developed from research and an evolution of the food pyramid on which the Mediterranean diet is based”.

When looking carefully at the double pyramid, the first thing that stands out is the perfect symmetry between healthy and sustainable foods. In other words, the foods that provide the best health benefits are also those that have the lowest impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and water and land consumption.

The figures speak for themselves: if over the course of a year a person avoids eating meat two days a week, they would save 310kg of CO2 per year. This is because, as explained in Eating Planet, published by BCFN, the production of a kilo of fruit inputs 495 of CO2eq (the unit used to measure greenhouse gas emissions). On the other hand, for a kg of meat figures reach 26,000.

Additionally, compared to the typical Western diet, the Mediterranean diet allows to save 2000 liters of water per person. So, a vegetarian menu, with the same calories and proportions of macronutrients (protein, fat, sugar), has approximately half the impact on the environment compared to a menu that includes meat.