Is a Heart Healthy Animal-Based Diet Environmentally Sustainable?

Updated: Sep 27, 2019

If you have read my book, The Health Evolution: Why Understanding Evolution is the Key to Vibrant Health, you know that I make the argument that creating a personal environment where your body can thrive is actually a strategy for doing your part to have the least environmental impact and ensure a positive future for humans, as well as the other creatures of Earth. If you follow my work you also know that I am a strong advocate for an animal-based, ketogenic diet for heart health, and for health in general. You also may be aware that there is a lot of information out there saying that animal agriculture is bad for the environment. So, can these two passions of mine exist together? Can I have a healthy heart by eating an animal-based diet and not have a heavy heart from the potential negative impacts it will have on the environment and the well-being of the animals we raise for our consumption?

Let’s go through each of the imbalances that cause a heart attack and discuss how correcting that imbalance in our body is also more sustainable for the environment. The first two imbalances we will discuss together. They are being fat adapted because our heart prefers to burn fat and ketones (1,2,3), as well as reducing oxidative stress so that we don’t get atherosclerosis or deplete the Nitric Oxide in our body. Both of these can be accomplished by restricting carbohydrates. Restricting carbohydrates will make us very efficient at fat burning by getting us into ketosis and, since burning fat results in less production of free radicals (4), we will also see less oxidative stress.

So, how is burning fats rather than carbohydrates kinder to the environment? Most of the carbohydrates humans consume come from processed forms of the crops corn, wheat, and sugar. These crops are produced via industrialized plant agriculture, which is a very unsustainable practice.

In her book, Primal Fat Burner, Nora Gedgaudas tell us that 70% of the world’s grasslands have been degraded and soil is being degraded 13% faster than it can be rebuilt. The act of farming plants goes against a natural ecological system. Ecosystems thrive on diversity and farming clears all diversity and produces one species on a piece of land. Doing this destroys the land until it is unfertile. If we take a look at the land where there used to be ancient farming societies, like Mesopotamia and Egypt, that land is now desert. On the other hand, eating an animal-based diet will significantly reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates consumed and therefore will not support the unsustainable practices of industrial plant farming.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misguided information out there in the media when it comes to plant-based vs. animal-based diet and their effects on the environment. It all started with some religious ideologies that eventually became heavy influencers in our government policies and media outlets. The details of how that came to be will not be discussed here, but for all that information and the details of how religious ideologies have influenced our dietary guidelines people like Dr. Gary Fettke and his wife Belinda have done great work exposing this. A search for them on youtube will get you plenty of information.

So, we have seen how plant farming is unnatural and not sustainable, but what about the idea that animal agriculture is bad for the environment. First, let’s discuss ruminants, the main type of animal that we eat. Ruminants are the grazing grass eaters, and the main grazer in the animal agricultural system we have in the United States is cattle. Cows are amazing animals in that they can take something like grass, a plant we can’t eat, and turn it into meat, something we can eat. Cows do this by having a very specialized digestive system that can take that grass, break it down, and ferment it into short chain fatty acids. Yes, the end product of a cow eating grass is fat, so in a way a cow eats a high fat diet.

Humans do not have a digestive system that can turn plants into fat and therefore we must eat fat directly. This is the ecosystem that evolved during the millions of years of human evolution when our pre human and human ancestors were eating large ruminant animals. Ruminants turned grass into meat and fat and then we ate the ruminants. Not only that, but the large ruminants that roamed the Earth played a large part in creating the healthy topsoil that we have used to farm crops on. Unfortunately, our farming practices have destroyed this topsoil. (5) Ruminant agriculture is so important for the health of our ecosystem, so why does it get such a bad rap?

One argument is that animal agriculture produces a large amount of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. However, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the total amount of US greenhouse gases produced from agriculture is around 9%. (6) Of that 9% only 4% is attributed to animal agriculture, which means plant agriculture produces 5%. Specifically, the beef industry contributes only 2% to greenhouse gas emissions. (7) Given that transportation, industry, and energy production account for 76% of the greenhouse gas emission in the United States I think it would better suit us to focus on reducing emissions from those sources rather than not eating beef to reduce our emission by only 2%.

One research article concluded that “if animal agriculture were eliminated in the US, we’d reduce greenhouse gas emission in the US by 2.6%, and 0.36% globally but at the cost of unbalancing our food ecosystem and the creation of essential dietary nutrient deficiencies”. (8)

But why are greenhouse gases a problem in the first place? They are an issue because carbon in them is being released into the atmosphere. While it is a good idea to be thinking about how to reduce the carbon released into the atmosphere, it is a better idea to be thinking about how to reverse the process. Instead of thinking sustainability, we should be thinking regeneration. Luckily, research has shown us an approach to regenerating our soils.

Studies have shown that properly raised cattle, where they are properly rotated on land, has a carbon sequestration effect placing the carbon back in the soil. (9) There are many farms practicing this form of animal agriculture and proving this concept, none better than Polyface Farms in Swoope, VA. Organizations like the Savory Institute are also showing how ruminant agriculture is the last chance we have to restore health to the land that has been lost due to plant farming. This makes sense because it was millions of ruminants on the land in the form of bison and buffalo that built-up the strong top soil that was there in the first place.

Even if animal agriculture wasn’t sustainable, which we just discussed that it is, and the answer was to get all of our food from plants, there is not enough land available to produce the amount of crops needed to feed all of humanity. Currently, 11% of the land in the world is being used for farming plants and 26% is being used for rangeland for animals. 63% of land on Earth is land that cannot be used for agriculture of any kind. (10) Some people argue that if we use the land no being used for rangeland for animals and farm plants on it instead that we could produce enough plant food, but not all that rangeland is suitable for farming, some range land is way to rocky to produce crops on. Add to this the fact that if we removed animals from the equation, trying to get enough protein from plants (58% crude protein) vs animals (92% crude protein) we would have to produce way more plant protein to make up for it. (11) Not to mention that the practice of farming is decreasing the topsoil needed to do it by 24 billion metric tons per year. (5) Trying to produce enough plants to feed humans without eating animals is not sustainable and impossible.