Experts have long known that animal products like beef, lamb, pork and veal have a disproportionately negative impact on the environment. Raising animals requires more water and land and generates more greenhouse gases than growing protein-rich plants does.
“This is a win-win for individuals and our environment,” Dr. Lichtenstein said. However, she cautioned, if a plant-based diet is overloaded with refined carbohydrates and sugars, it will raise the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And she discouraged relying on popular plant-based meat alternatives that are ultra-processed and often high in sodium, unhealthy fats and calories, and that “may not be ecologically sound to produce.”
To protect both the environment and human health, the committee advised shifting one’s diet away from tropical oils — coconut, palm and palm kernel — as well as animal fats (butter and lard) and partially hydrogenated fats (read the nutrition label). Instead, use liquid plant oils like corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower, canola, nut and olive. They have been shown to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by about 30 percent, an effect comparable to taking a statin drug.
As for beverages, the committee endorsed the current national dietary guideline to avoid drinks with added sugars (including honey and concentrated fruit juice). If you don’t currently drink alcohol, the committee advised against starting; for those who do drink, limit consumption to one to two drinks a day.
All told, the dietary patterns that the committee outlined can go far beyond reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and strokes. They can also protect against Type 2 diabetes and a decline of kidney function, and perhaps even help foster better cognitive abilities and a slower rate of age-related cognitive decline.
The earlier in life a wholesome dietary pattern begins, the better, Dr. Lichtenstein said. “It should start preconception, not after someone has a heart attack, and reinforced through nutrition education in school, K through 12.”
And during annual checkups, Dr. Eckel said, primary care doctors should devote three to five minutes of the visit to a lifestyle interview, asking patients how many servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains they consume and whether they read nutrition labels.