Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health


Diets link environmental and human health. Rising incomes and urbanization are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. By 2050 these dietary trends, if unchecked, would be a major contributor to an estimated 80 per cent increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and to global land clearing. Moreover, these dietary shifts are greatly increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies. Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases. The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Lifecycle GHG emissions (CO2-Ceq) for 22 different food types.
Figure 2: Dietary trends and income.
Figure 3: Diet and health.
Figure 4: Effect of diets on GHG emissions and cropland.


  1. 1

    Matson, P. A., Parton, W. J., Power, A. G. & Swift, M. J. Agricultural intensification and ecosystem properties. Science 277, 504–509 (1997)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Steinfeld, H. et al. Livestock’s Long Shadow (FAO, 2006)

  3. 3

    Edenhofer, O. et al. Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change Technical Summary (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014)

  4. 4

    Tubielle, F. N. et al. Agriculture, Forestry and other Land Use Emissions by Sources and Removals by Sinks (FAO Statistics Division, ESS/14-02, 2014)

  5. 5

    Tilman, D. et al. Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change. Science 292, 281–284 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Popkin, B. M., Adair, L. S. & Ng, S. W. Global nutrition transition and the pandemic of obesity in developing countries. Nutr. Rev. 70, 3–21 (2012)

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Popkin, B. M. The nutrition transition in low-income countries: an emerging crisis. Nutr. Rev. 52, 285–298 (1994)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Drewnowski, A. & Popkin, B. M. The nutrition transition: new trends in the global diet. Nutr. Rev. 55, 31–43 (1997)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Hu, F. B. Globalization of diabetes: the role of diet, lifestyle, and genes. Diabetes Care 34, 1249–1257 (2011)

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (FAO, 2013)

  11. 11

    Smil, V. Feeding the World: a Challenge for the Twenty-First Century (MIT Press, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    FAO. Global agriculture towards 2050. In How to Feed the World 2050 1–10 (FAO, 2009)

  13. 13

    Godfray, H. C. J. et al. Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 327, 812–818 (2010)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Ng, M. et al. Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. Lancet 6736, 1–16 (2014)

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Willett, W. C. et al. Mediterranean diet pyramid: a cultural model for healthy eating. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 61, 1402S–1406S (1995)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Chopra, M., Galbraith, S. & Darnton-Hill, I. A global response to a global problem: the epidemic of overnutrition. Bull. World Health Organ. 80, 952–958 (2002)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Nishida, C. et al. Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: report of a joint WHO/FAO expert consultation. Public Health Nutr. 7, 245–250 (2004)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Singh, P. N., Sabaté, J. & Fraser, G. E. Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans? Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 78, 526S–532S (2003)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Aune, D., Ursin, G. & Veierød, M. B. Meat consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Diabetologia 52, 2277–2287 (2009)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Kearney, J. Food consumption trends and drivers. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 2793–2807 (2010)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Huang, T. et al. Coronary heart disease mortality and cancer incidence in vegetarians: a meta-analysis and systematic review. Ann. Nutr. Metab. 60, 233–240 (2012)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Pan, A. et al. Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies. Arch. Intern. Med. 172, 555–563 (2012)

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Tilman, D., Balzer, C., Hill, J. & Befort, B. L. Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 20260–20264 (2011)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    de Vries, M. & de Boer, I. J. M. Comparing environmental impacts for livestock products: a review of life cycle assessments. Livest. Sci. 128, 1–11 (2010)

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Nijdam, D., Rood, T. & Westhoek, H. The price of protein: review of land use and carbon footprints from life cycle assessments of animal food products and their substitutes. Food Policy 37, 760–770 (2012)

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Eshel, G. & Martin, P. A. Diet, energy, and global warming. Earth Interact. 10, 1–17 (2006)

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Marlow, H. J. et al. Diet and the environment: does what you eat matter? Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 89, 1699–1703 (2009)

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Eisler, M. C. et al. Steps to sustainable livestock. Nature 507, 32–34 (2014)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Smith, J. et al. Beyond milk, meat and eggs: role of livestock in food and nutrition security. Anim. Front. 3, 6–13 (2013)

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Daley, C. A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., Nader, G. & Larson, S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutr. J. 9, 10 (2010)

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., van Otterdiijk, R. & Meybeck, A. Global Food Losses and Food Waste (FAO, 2011)

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Snowdon, D. A., Phillips, R. L. & Fraser, G. E. Meat consumption and fatal ischemic heart disease. Prev. Med. 13, 490–500 (1984)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Key, T. J., Thorogood, M., Appleby, P. N. & Burr, M. L. Dietary habits and mortality in 11,000 vegetarians and health conscious people: results of a 17 year follow up. Br. Med. J. 313, 775–779 (1996)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. 34

    Mann, J. I., Appleby, P. N., Key, T. J. & Thorogood, M. Dietary determinants of ischaemic heart disease in health conscious individuals. Heart 78, 450–455 (1997)

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Lagiou, P. et al. Mediterranean dietary pattern and mortality among young women: a cohort study in Sweden. Br. J. Nutr. 96, 384–392 (2006)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Mitrou, P. N. et al. Mediterranean dietary pattern and prediction of all-cause mortality in a US population. Arch. Intern. Med. 167, 2461–2468 (2007)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Brunner, E. J. et al. Dietary patterns and 15-y risks of major coronary events, diabetes, and mortality. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 87, 1414–1421 (2008)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Martínez-González, M. A. et al. Adherence to Mediterranean diet and risk of developing diabetes: prospective cohort study. Br. Med. J. 336, 1348–1351 (2008)

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39

    Fung, T. T. et al. Mediterranean diet and incidence of and mortality from coronary heart disease and stroke in women. Circulation 119, 1093–1100 (2009)

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  40. 40

    Yang, Q. et al. Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults. JAMA Intern. Med. 174, 516–524 (2014)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. 41

    Buckland, G. et al. Olive oil intake and mortality within the Spanish population (EPIC-Spain). Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 96, 142–149 (2012)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  42. 42

    Stehfest, E. et al. Climate benefits of changing diet. Clim. Change 95, 83–102 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. 43

    Popp, A., Lotze-Campen, H. & Bodirsky, B. Food consumption, diet shifts and associated non-CO2 greenhouse gases from agricultural production. Glob. Environ. Change 20, 451–462 (2010)

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44

    Westhoek, H. et al. Food choices, health and environment: effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake. Glob. Environ. Change 26, 196–205 (2014)

    Google Scholar 

  45. 45

    Alexandratos, N. & Bruinsma, J. World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision Ch. 4 (ESA/12-03, FAO, 2012)

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46

    Schmitz, C. et al. Land-use change trajectories up to 2050: insights from a global agro-economic model comparison. Agric. Econ. 45, 69–84 (2014)

    Google Scholar 

  47. 47

    Herrero, M. et al. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 20888–20893 (2013)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  48. 48

    Havlík, P. et al. Climate change mitigation through livestock system transitions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 3709–3714 (2014)

    ADS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  49. 49

    Chen, X.-P. et al. Integrated soil-crop system management for food security. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 6399–6404 (2011)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  50. 50

    Hatfield, J. L. et al. Climate impacts on agriculture: implications for crop production. Agron. J. 103, 351–370 (2011)

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51

    United States Department of Agriculture. National Nutrient Database (2013)

  52. 52

    United States Department of Agriculture. Choose My Plate (2013)

  53. 53

    Trichopoulou, A. et al. Modified Mediterranean diet and survival: EPIC-elderly prospective cohort study. Br. Med. J. 330, 991 (2005)

    Google Scholar 

  54. 54

    Key, T. J. et al. Mortality in British vegetarians: results from the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition (EPIC-Oxford). Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 89 (Suppl). 1613S–1619S (2009)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  55. 55

    Key, T. J. et al. Cancer incidence in British vegetarians. Br. J. Cancer 101, 192–197 (2009)

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  56. 56

    Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R. & Fraser, G. E. Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 32, 791–796 (2009)

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  57. 57

    Couto, E. et al. Mediterranean dietary pattern and cancer risk in the EPIC cohort. Br. J. Cancer 104, 1493–1499 (2011)

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  58. 58

    The InterAct Consortium Mediterranean diet and type 2 diabetes risk in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study: the InterAct project. Diabetes Care 34, 1913–1918 (2011)

    PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  59. 59

    Hoevenaar-Blom, M. P. et al. Mediterranean style diet and 12-year incidence of cardiovascular diseases: the EPIC-NL cohort study. PLoS ONE 7, e45458 (2012)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  60. 60

    Orlich, M. J. et al. Vegetarian dietary patterns and mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA Intern. Med. 173, 1230–1238 (2013)

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  61. 61

    Tantamango-Bartley, Y., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Fan, J. & Fraser, G. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population. Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev. 22, 286–294 (2013)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  62. 62

    Tonstad, S. et al. Vegetarian diets and incidence of diabetes in the Adventist Health Study-2. Nutr. Metab. Cardiovasc. Dis. 23, 292–299 (2013)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  63. 63

    Trichopoulou, A. et al. Diet and overall survival in the elderly. Br. Med. J. 311, 1457–1460 (1995)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  64. 64

    Trichopoulou, A. et al. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and survival in a Greek population. N. Engl. J. Med. 348, 2599–2608 (2003)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  65. 65

    Kuznets, S. Economic growth and income inequality. Am. Econ. Rev. 45, 1–28 (1955)

    Google Scholar 

  66. 66

    Groningen Growth and Development Centre. Total Economy Database (2013)

  67. 67

    Seventh-day Adventist Diet. (2013)

  68. 68

    Bach-Faig, A. et al. Mediterranean diet pyramid today. Science and cultural updates. Public Health Nutr. 14, 2274–2284 (2011)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  69. 69

    FAO. FishStat (FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, 2013)

  70. 70

    Costello, C. et al. Status and solutions for the world’s unassessed fisheries. Science 338, 517–520 (2012)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  71. 71

    Bartley, D. Bianchi, G., Soto, D. & Vannuccini, S. in The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 199–223 (FAO, 2014)

  72. 72

    Waite, R. et al. Improving Productivity and Environmental Performance of Aquaculture (World Resource Institute, 2014)

  73. 73

    Grassini P, Eskridge, K. & Cassman, K. Distinguishing between yield advances and yield plateaus in historical crop production trends. Nature Commun. 4, 2918 (2013)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  74. 74

    Sundrum, A. et al. Effects of feed strategies, genotypes, sex, and birth weight on carcass and meat quality traits under organic pig production conditions. Wageningen J. Life Sci. 58, 163–172 (2011)

    Google Scholar 

  75. 75

    O'Kiely, P. Intake, growth and feed conversion efficiency of finishing beef cattle offered diets based on triticale, maize or grass silages, or ad libitum concentrate. Ir. J. Agric. Food Res. 50, 189–207 (2011)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  76. 76

    Mathlouthi, N., Larbier, M., Mohamed, M. A. & Lessire, M. Performance of laying hens fed wheat, wheat-barley or wheat-barley-wheat bran based diets supplemented with xylanase. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 82, 193–199 (2002)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank M. Burgess, A. Clark and E. Hallström for their comments, K. Thompson for assistance with data collection, editing, and creating figures, and the LTER programme of the US National Science Foundation and the University of Minnesota Foundation for support.

Author information




D.T. conceived this project and M.C. assembled data; both M.C. and D.T. analysed data and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Tilman.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

All data used in our analyses are publicly available from the original sources that we list, and are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Dietary composition.

The percentage of per capita total dietary protein (a) or calorie demand (b) that is met by each of ten food types is shown for each of five different diets: the global-average 2009 diet, the projected income-dependent diet for 2050, the Mediterranean diet, the pescetarian diet and the vegetarian diet.

Source data

Extended Data Table 1 Original data sources for LCAs in Fig. 1
Extended Data Table 2 Food group composition
Extended Data Table 3 Mean food production emissions
Extended Data Table 4 Economic group country composition
Extended Data Table 5 Cohort studies and health conditions examined
Extended Data Table 6 Effects of agricultural development variables on forecast 2050 cropland use
Extended Data Table 7 Protein conversion ratios of livestock production systems

Supplementary information

Supplementary Data

This file contains numerous data sets used by Tilman and Clark. Each dataset is indicated by a letter (A to H) and has a descriptive title. See Methods for more details. (XLSX 215 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Source data

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tilman, D., Clark, M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515, 518–522 (2014).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing