Study reveals lifestyle changes can improve both health and environment

Image of a cyclist made of veg

Protecting the health of people and planet should be a more straightforward prospect, given that the steps to address both issues – such as eating less meat – are in many cases the same.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by University College London (UCL), published in The Lancet, which underlines how lifestyle impacts on the environment, and vice versa.

“We’re getting fatter, we’re getting heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, respiratory ill health, depression and anxiety – and virtually all the things we want to do to protect us against climate change will improve our health,” said Anthony Costello, professor of international child health at UCL.

Nowhere is the link between lifestyle and global warming better evidenced than on the meat-laden plates of western industrialised countries.

Not only does a growing body of evidence indicate that high meat consumption can increase the risk of obesity and diseases such as cancer, but industrial-scale livestock farming contributes to rising levels of harmful greenhouse gases, such as methane.

Hugh Montgomery, professor of intensive care medicine at UCL, and a supporter of Meat Free Monday, said: “A lot of high-carbon lifestyles are desperately unhealthy. Not having to treat people because they’re not sick is actually the biggest win of all.”

He added that raising fewer animals for meat and dairy would drastically cut methane emissions, preventing “a lot of strokes, heart disease, bowel cancer and so forth”.

Figures from the European Commission suggest that even an incremental reduction in harmful greenhouse gases could save up to £25 billion in healthcare costs.

Montgomery added that most of the people he saw at his intensive care unit were “there for diseases of lifestyle that are entirely preventable if we make it easier for people to live healthier lifestyles – a lot of which are in fact low-carbon”.

Choosing to walk or cycle rather than drive is another example of an activity that can contribute to improved health while reducing environmental degradation, in this case pollution caused by car journeys.

The report says the next step is for government, scientists, schools and the NHS to “nudge” people to eat better and take more exercise.

Read the study

Watch accompanying video: Climate change and health: How can we transform climate change from a threat to an opportunity to improve global health?