Boost your health -- and the planet's -- with one New Year's resolution: Eat more plants

You don’t have to go totally vegan to make a big difference

Do your New Year’s resolutions include eating better, losing weight or taking action to stem climate change?

You can actually accomplish all three of these goals by simply eating more plant foods, says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Incorporating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes into your daily diet and reducing animal food sources, such as meat and dairy, has proven benefits for your health, your waistline and the planet, says Dr. Hunnes, author of the book “Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life,” due to be published Jan. 27.

“Generally speaking, a plant-based lifestyle has demonstrated improvements in health in the prevention of chronic diseases and can actually help reverse certain chronic diseases if we go all-in on that lifestyle,” Dr. Hunnes says. “And it’s really good for the planet, because you can produce 10,000 times more calories of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, for example, on an acre of land than you can growing an animal. So it uses less land and less water and you produce far more food for humans to consume.”

It’s not all or nothing

Don’t worry if you’re not quite ready to give up burgers or bacon and eggs. Any move in the direction of more plant-based foods and fewer animal foods is good for your health and the Earth. Baby steps will still get you there.

“I don’t tell people, ‘You need to be vegan or you’re going to destroy the planet and destroy your health,’” Dr. Hunnes says. “I say: try, as much as possible, to follow a plant-forward lifestyle, meaning you’re piling your plate with fruits and vegetables and legumes and other plant-based sources of protein..”

Crowding out animal products in favor of more vegetables and fruits — which contain fiber, vitamins and antioxidants that support good health — can lead to weight loss, since plant foods are naturally filling, low calorie and nutrient-dense.

The effect of diet on climate change also can’t be overstated, Dr. Hunnes says, because animal agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. By eating more plant foods, she says, individuals can make strides toward the overwhelming issue of climate change through the choices they make at each meal and with each bite.

“I can go with the bean burrito instead of the beef burrito and save the (environmental) equivalent of driving 15 or 20 miles,” Dr. Hunnes says. “It’s not going to feel like a huge shift in your life, but if a lot of people do it, it could potentially be a huge shift for the planet.”

Here’s how a couple other popular, diet-related resolutions stack up for your health and the environment:

“There are plenty of plant-based foods out there that have plenty of protein and you absolutely can get enough, if not more than enough, from plant-based sources,” says Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes.

Eating less sugar/fewer sweets: “There is a lot of data to support the notion that a diet that is quite high in sugar and also processed foods can be detrimental to our health and increase inflammation within the body,” Dr. Hunnes says. “A lot of desserts, depending on what they are, can be full of dairy products that are not particularly good for the environment.”

Processed, packaged foods often contain palm oil, she adds, the production of which is leading to deforestation in many parts of the globe.

So it’s a good idea to skip packaged foods and keep sweets to a minimum.

Cutting back on booze: The environmental benefit of reducing alcohol consumption may be negligible, since most beer, wine and liquor is distilled from plants, Dr. Hunnes says. Still, trying “Dry January” or making a concerted effort to cut back on booze can deliver health benefits, particularly for heavier drinkers.

According to the National Cancer Institute, studies show that alcohol can cause various types of cancer, including colorectal, liver, esophageal, breast and head and neck cancers. Alcoholic beverages can also add calories to your diet that you might not otherwise consume, Dr. Hunnes says.

However, some of the healthiest and longest-living people on the planet — residents of “Blue Zones” such as Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy — consume small amounts of alcohol daily.

“I think the jury’s still deliberating the benefits versus the detriments of alcohol,” Dr. Hunnes says. But, she adds, moderation is key.

Learn about clinical nutrition services at UCLA Health.