If you've considered adopting a more plant-based diet for health reasons, you could be doing a bit of good for Earth at the same time.
Grilled Corn Salad with Chili-Miso Dressing

What you do on a daily basis-how you live, what you drive and what you buy-can make a difference in the environment around you. It's no surprise that a message stressing the importance of reducing your carbon footprint is spreading, and more people are looking for easier ways to be less destructive to the Earth.

You might try to do your best by recycling, choosing a vehicle with better gas mileage and not letting the water run while you brush your teeth. These small efforts do make great differences (every little bit counts), but there's another way to live a significantly greener lifestyle: switching to a vegan diet.

How a Plant-Based Diet Impacts the Earth

Three times each day, you have the choice of what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Through these seemingly small decisions, ranging from asking for almond milk in your latte to asking for no bacon on your salad, you have the ability to impact the environment in meaningful, sometimes dramatic, ways.

"We have to be mindful of our activities. Eating is something everyone on the planet does, and everybody has the ability to have some control over it," says Joan Sabaté, M.D., Dr.P.H., a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Loma Linda University who also directs the school's environmental nutrition research program, which focuses on the impact human diets have on the planet. "A plant-based diet as opposed to a meat diet uses much less natural resources to produce."

Research shows that reducing animal-based products in our meals can have a significant environmental impact: a typical nonvegetarian diet uses 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more energy and 13 times more fertilizer than a vegetarian diet, according to a study by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

A decade ago, the United Nations reported that meat production produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation industry, and recommended governments set targets for reducing meat consumption.

A Less-Meat Approach Is Helpful Too

If you like the idea of eating greener but you're not keen to give up all meat and animal products, don't worry. You can still help the environment without removing entire food groups.

"The good thing is that it is not an all-or-nothing endeavor," Sabaté says. "Reductions in meat consumption, whether in frequency or amount, have benefits."

Research has found that diets that are lower in animal products and higher in vegetables can have drastic effects as well. A 2013 study in Environmental Health focusing on the Mediterranean diet found that this eating pattern could contribute to greatly reduced energy consumption, land use and water consumption. More research highlighted by the Climate Institute has suggested that low-meat diets, such as pescatarian (eating fish but no other meat), can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

If you're on the fence about reducing your meat consumption, then consider taking the plunge for another important reason: yourself.

"[Plant-based diets] may lower the risk of certain diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers," Sabaté says. Benefits of going vegan can include weight loss, better heart health and an overall longer lifespan. The Mediterranean diet has very similar benefits to veganism, with the added bonus of it boosting brain health and providing anti-inflammatory properties.

How to Start Eating Less Meat

To keep your meat consumption in check, for the health of the planet and yourself, you can implement one or more of these strategies:

  • Try out Meatless Mondays. This strategy calls for eating meatless at all three meals one day per week. When you feel you've mastered that, expand to two days. Keep bumping up until you're eating a mostly meat-free diet.
  • Balance your day by eating Vegan Before 6. The brainchild of author and food columnist Mark Bittman, the Vegan Before 6 movement encourages people to eat no meat or animal products before dinner. It's an easy approach to eating more vegan dishes, and it still allows flexibility.
  • Focus on using meat as a condiment instead of a main dish. Nix the meat-and-two-sides rut, and look instead for dishes where meat doesn't play the starring role. Pastas and rice dishes are a great option here, as are stir-fries, soups and curries. Seek out whole grains to keep these meals nutritious.
  • Eat your way through our Best 30 Vegetarian Recipes. Give yourself a kitchen challenge, and cook each of these tasty vegetarian dishes. Not only will you eat less meat in the process, you'll also learn new techniques, favorite ingredients and ways to expand your meat-free recipe repertoire.
  • Dedicate a week to our 7-Day Mediterranean Meal Plan. See how delicious eating vegetarian or pescatarian can be by trying this made-for-you meal plan, complete with all three meals and snacks for the week. You can then turn to some of the other steps here to continue eating less meat and more plants.