There is an option you might find attractive, omnivorous which has recently been in the news. It’s not a new diet, but it is drawing new attention especially as it is considered by many experts to be environmentally friendly.

Interest in plant-based diets has swelled in the past few months due to intermittent meat shortages, along with the hope that a healthier diet might help us should we contract Covid-19. However, plant-based eating was already trending pre-coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps you feel that you were one steak or chicken breast away from destroying your health, and concerns about the environmental impact of our food choices.

One vegetarian I spoke to last week told me “I am a vegetarian, but sometimes I really fancy a steak”. There is little doubt it takes a strong commitment to your beliefs to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, not least due to the fact that most restaurants don’t really offer this alternative, though this is changing.

What is an omnivorous diet?

An omnivorous diet that features healthy, wholesome foods provides benefits from both meat and plants. Lean meats supply protein, B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals including magnesium, iron and zinc. Additionally, the vitamins and minerals present in plant-based foods can help guard against obesity as well as fight off conditions including heart disease, stroke, kidney stones, bone loss, diabetes and cancer. Furthermore, the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" reported in a study that participants who followed an omnivorous diet and participated in strength-training exercises gained more fat-free muscle mass than vegetarians who took part in the same exercises.

Is it healthier to be a vegetarian or an omnivore?

There is no simple answer to this question. A leading concern for those who prefer a vegetarian diet is making sure adequate nutrients are supplied, particularly calories and protein. Meat is a main protein source in most diets, so vegetarians have to pursue other avenues to get adequate protein. This is mainly the legume family which consists of plants that produce a pod with seeds inside. The term “legume” is used to describe the seeds of these plants.

Common edible legumes include lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans, and peanuts. The different types vary greatly in nutrition, appearance, taste, and use. Without meat in the diet, humans cut out vitamin B12 and limit DHA/EPA (active forms of omega-3 fats), nutrients which promote brain health. In contrast, a vegetarian diet is shown to have a lesser risk of certain diseases.

What does a omnivorous diet offer you?

Due to the wide amount of variation among omnivorous diets, there's no one standard diet plan that most people follow. Some omnivores are primarily carnivorous and have meat with every meal; others follow a "flexitarian" diet and eat meat only rarely. In the most balanced omnivorous eating plans, meals and snacks contain foods from all five major groups: dairy, protein-rich foods, fruits, vegetables and grains.

What is the environmental impact of our diet?

This may be the critical question. Global warming, soil pollution, water contamination… Agriculture and food production have enormous impacts on our planet. But how can we reduce the carbon footprint of our diet?

Perhaps we need to realise that our diet is one of the domains with the strongest environmental impacts. In order to produce food on an industrial scale so that everyone gets fed, many hectares of land are needed, and many fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are often used.

In terms of environmental impacts, it is often said that a vegetarian diet is less harmful. In fact, producing meat has a huge environmental impact. There seems little doubt that this is true. A cow raised for its meat emits between 70 and 120 kg of methane every year, which has a contribution to global warming that is 23 times stronger than CO2.

To produce 1 kg of beef, the livestock must be fed, its food (cereals, hay, etc) needs to be grown and plenty of water is used as well. Much space and particular soils are occupied in order to raise cattle. It is then necessary to transform the animal into consumable meat (slaughter, cutting, processing, packaging…). All this contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases. Maybe the vegetarians are right. Their diet is much more friendly to the environment. Vegetarian and vegan diets are those with the lowest carbon footprint, with 1.7 and 1.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emitted per year per person, respectively. At the same time, “meat lovers” emit 3.3 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year per person, twice as much as the vegan diet.

Finally, if we consider factors other than CO2 (such as soil, water, and biodiversity pollution), things are still complicated. For instance, fruit, vegetable, or cereal crops can be very harmful to the environment because of the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other fungicides that destroy biodiversity and the pollute soil and the water. On the other hand, the production of certain vegetables (cucumbers, lettuce, celery) requires large quantities of energy and water, making the calculations even more complex. And all this does not take into account the deforestation caused by growing crops like soybeans, or monoculture.

No easy answer

Unless you have the commitment to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, we should all seek balance in our diets. Less red meat for sure, but you know that. Mankind is doing an amazing job of wrecking the planet, all in the pursuit of personal pleasure. Perhaps we should think ‘environmentally’ and at least think more carefully about what we eat, where it comes from (local is best) and what affect our food choice is having on our planet. Bio or organic fruit and vegetables are a good choice and much more widely available these days. Processed food really needs to avoided as far as possible.

With a bit of thought, you could make a difference.