Indian dietary guidelines entail smallest carbon footprint—77% less than US: Study

Most countries around the world, including India, issue a set of dietary guidelines from time to time to help citizens follow a healthy lifestyle. Over the past few decades, these dietary guidelines have evolved in line with the emerging scientific evidence with an aim to make people healthier while not compromising nature’s ability to sustain future generations.

But, what if the dietary guidelines that aim to improve human health, end up disrupting nature by encouraging more emissions? A new study from researchers in the US shows that the dietary guidelines of many countries do just that, by increasing the carbon footprint—the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from a particular activity—associated with daily food consumption.

“Previous simulations have shown that if the public were to eat according to their government’s recommendations, their diets would be both healthier and have a lower carbon footprint. However, for the US the opposite has been shown; greenhouse gas emissions were simulated to go up if people followed dietary guidelines. This anomaly prompted us to investigate how dietary guidelines vary between countries and the consequent implications for greenhouse gas emissions,” says the co-author of the study, Diego Rose, from School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Tulane University, US.

India, which launched its guideline in 1998, revised them in 2011 to tackle the ‘double burden’ of under- and over-nutrition. Drafted by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, the guidelines recommend four levels of food consumption: taking cereals and legumes/beans sufficiently; vegetables and fruits liberally; animal source foods and oils moderately; and highly processed foods that are high in sugar and fat sparingly.

As per the current study, the carbon footprint associated with India’s guidelines was equivalent to 0.86 kg CO2 per day—much lower than the countries like the US (3.83 kg), the Netherlands (2.86 kg), Oman (2.53 kg), Uruguay (2.42 kg) and Germany (2.25 kg). In fact, the Indian recommended diet’s carbon footprint was much lower than even the global guidelines by EAT-Lancet (1.36 kg), which is designed by leading nutritionists and experts around the world with an aim to balance health and environmental sustainability.

In the study, researchers analyzed dietary guidelines of seven countries from North America, Europe and Asia for their carbon footprint. Individual foods have a substantial impact on global warming as increased consumption of meat and dairy products lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, whereas a plant-based diet is associated with lower emissions.

India’s guidelines recommend very low protein and dairy, and very high vegetables. Moreover, India’s protein recommendation also consists only of pulses—making them the most climate-friendly guidelines among the countries reviewed.

The team of researchers from Tulane University found that the US dietary guidelines are associated with an equivalent of 3.83 kg of CO2 per day—more than 4 times that of India’s. The US vegetarian dietary guidelines, on the other hand, was much lower (1.8 kg) than the country’s main guidelines. However, even the US veg diet recommendations were twice that of India’s, mainly driven by the higher amount of dairy consumption recommendation.

“Despite our common human biology, ‘food-based dietary guidelines’ vary tremendously from one country to the next, as do the associated carbon footprints of these guidelines. Understanding the carbon footprints of different recommendations can assist in future decision-making to incorporate environmental sustainability in dietary guidance,” concludes the study.

The authors, however, acknowledge the limitations of the study as it only considers one impact parameter—greenhouse gas emissions. The authors recommend due consideration to other environmental parameters like land and water use to make the dietary recommendation even more sustainable.

“These findings hold insights for the future development of dietary guidelines and highlight the importance of including sustainability considerations, such as reductions of protein food and dairy recommendations and/or the inclusion of more plant-based substitutions for animal-based products,” says Brittany Kovacs, the lead author of the study in a statement.

The study was published in the open-access Nutrition Journal last week. (Source: The Weather Channel) 

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