Is the Mediterranean Diet Eco Friendly?

The Mediterranean diet is healthy and delicious; a new study examines its environmental sustainability

The Mediterranean diet is respected for its health benefits. Eating Mediterranean style is associated with lower incidence of chronic disease and obesity.

It’s appreciated also for its flavor and for its practicality: Cooking Mediterranean is relatively easy, and relies on good raw ingredients simply prepared, rather than on complicated or drawn-out techniques.

Good for heath, easy on the palate and practical to prepare, but in this day and age ecological consequences are also important. Food production at the massive scale needed to supply the human population is a huge burden on the environment. Food production is a leading cause of deforestation, water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Food production uses lots of water, and generates greenhouse gases ­– about one third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, much of it from livestock.

A new study in Public Health Nutrition evaluated the Mediterranean diet’s environmental impact.

The study involved some 20,000 Spanish participants, who reported on their food intake. The foods consumed were categorized on a sliding scale as adhering more or less to a Mediterranean diet pattern. A Mediterranean diet typically emphasizes vegetables, grains, (mostly whole/unrefined) legumes, nuts and olive oil. Fish and dairy products are eaten in moderation, as are meat and meat products; some wine is typically enjoyed. The impact of each food item on water, land and energy consumption and on greenhouse gas emission was assessed.

The researchers found that the better the adherence to the Mediterranean diet, the lower the environmental cost — natural resource use and emissions went down with Mediterranean adherence. Meat — especially beef meat — eggs, and dairy consumption had the highest detrimental impact on the environment. The results are quite impressive: Water requirements for food production for a person adhering to a Mediterranean diet is 60 percent less than what it is for someone who doesn’t, land use is 70 percent less, you need 90 percent less energy, and Mediterranean style diets produce 70 percent less greenhouse gasses.

The researchers, led by Ujué Fresán conclude:“As diet influences positively not only our health but also the environment, a nutritionist giving dietary advice may take the environmental impact of diet into account, and enhanced adherence to a MedDiet is likely to be an important target to be fostered in our society.”

Do people care about food’s sustainability and environmental impact?

When people make their food choices they consider convenience, cost, taste, health, and availability; but do they care about sustainability and environmental impact?

“The environmental costs tend to be a tertiary discussion for most and fall well behind, ‘How do I lose weight and get off my meds?’” says Nutrition, Health & Wellness coach Scott Putnam. “People are first looking for ways to feel better and drop weight, but then get excited to learn that by eating more plant-foods, they’re not only helping themselves, they are doing their part to save animal lives and the planet. It’s really a Win-Win-Win situation!”

Likewise, when people first seek organic foods their primary motivation is personal avoidance of pesticides and chemicals, but choosing organic for selfish reasons evolves into an environmental commitment. “There are fruits and vegetables for which choosing organic doesn’t necessarily reduce exposure to pesticides much, because the chemicals remain in the peel and do not penetrate the edible part. So, although choosing organic may not necessarily benefit my family’s potential exposure directly, I may still choose organic because I know that this choice may support organic farmers and their surrounding communities,” notes Dr. Luz Claudio, professor of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

That’s why it’s important to find an eating pattern in which health, taste, practicality and sustainability are aligned, and the Mediterranean diet is a worthy candidate.

That olive oil as the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet also avoids another ecologic pitfall: “A personal soapbox of mine is palm oil,” notes Registered Dietician Nichole Dandrea. “The palm oil industry is linked to major environmental issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous peoples rights abuses. The World Wildlife Fund states that rainforest areas equivalent to 300 football fields are cleared every hour to make way for the palm oil industry.” She encourages avoiding palm oil unless it’s Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

We can all take steps towards greater sustainability by eating more plants and less meat (this is the single most impactful decision), eating less processed foods, choosing organic when possible, preferring produce that’s locally grown and in season, and avoiding waste.

Even the smallest steps count in a world with more than seven and a half billion people making food choices.

Dr. Ayala

Originally published at on February 21, 2018.