Jet skis on the highway and sharks in the street: these are some of the images that may come to mind when you remember the record-breaking flash floods that occurred in Fort Lauderdale in April of 2023. Due to global warming, lethal weather such as this is becoming more common across the globe, and it is taking the lives of our patients. One of the largest contributors to the greenhouse gasses which are facilitating this climate change is our food system, particularly our production of meat. As such, it is time for the medical community to step up to the challenge and take a more active role in promoting vegetarian diets.
A vegetarian diet excludes all forms of meat and fish. It does not necessarily lack other animal products such as dairy and eggs, though it may. Research shows that the production of meat and other animal products requires more resources, such as water and land, and is responsible for significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of plant-based foods. Scientists have calculated that one pound of beef produces about 60 times as much CO2 as a pound of wheat, and cutting out meat for just a single year could reduce your CO2 emissions by about as much as driving 2,475 fewer miles.
Health care workers are in a unique position to promote vegetarian diets as a way of improving environmental health. Patients respect our opinions and often turn to us for advice on lifestyle choices. By discussing the environmental impact of food choices with patients, we can encourage them to consider the impact of their diets on the environment and make more sustainable choices. We can also educate them to correct the common misconceptions that a vegetarian diet provides subpar nourishment or that it is inadequate for men. (To be clear, plant-based diets have no impact on testosterone levels.) Rather, promoting vegetarian diets would be working to improve patient health. Vegetarian diets are beneficial for weight management, heart health, and cancer prevention, just to start. Studies have proven that they are associated with lower blood pressure, improved lipid profiles, smaller carotid intima-media thickness (a measure of atherosclerotic disease), less inflammatory markers, and a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome. By encouraging patients to adopt vegetarian diets, practitioners can help improve their overall health while also reducing their impact on the environment.
Some might argue that promoting vegetarian diets is outside the scope of a doctor’s role. However, this viewpoint seems to arise from the politicization of climate change over the years. Despite their ideologies, any skilled professional should be able to isolate political views from the conversation and discuss only matters of fact. Promoting vegetarianism is not a novel or liberal idea. Organizations such as the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization (WHO) have long recognized the benefits of plant-based diets for both health and the environment. In fact, the WHO has already classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (definitely able to cause cancer) and red meat as Group 2A (probably able to cause cancer). As health care workers, we have a duty to inform others about the body of evidence promoting this healthy lifestyle choice for both our patients and the environment.
Climate change is a present-day concern, not a future problem. One of the most influential ways that individuals can take action and work to make a difference is by being more mindful of the food they consume, particularly by cutting out meat. Vegetarian diets can be a fulfilling, healthy, and impactful solution for improving both individual and environmental health. As members of society with more social responsibility, health care workers must do their part to combat climate change and promote public health by informing patients of the benefits of vegetarianism in their everyday practice.
Megan McLaughlin is a medical student.