Climate News

Encouraging more people to follow healthier diets can help minimize the environmental impact of food production


When the topic of helping the environment comes up, we often hear the same advice over and over: Don’t litter. Don’t drive to places that are within walking distance. Use natural products. Eat organic food. But one thing we don’t often hear mentioned is the impact that following a healthier diet can have.

A study that was recently carried out by researchers from the University of Minnesota and Oxford University revealed that foods that have the most positive health outcomes tend to have the lowest environmental impact, while foods associated with disease, like highly processed foods, can be very harmful to the environment.

The researchers made this determination by looking at how consumption of 15 food groups is associated with five health outcomes and five aspects of environmental degradation.

The specific foods that were associated with better health outcomes (fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil and whole grain cereals) had the lowest impact on the environment. Red meat, both processed and unprocessed (but traditionally grown), had the most negative impact on the environment and also happened the be the unhealthiest.

This trend held true for all but two exceptions: fish, which is considered a healthier food but has a moderate impact on the environment, and sugar-sweetened drinks, which are decidedly unhealthy yet have a relatively low impact on the environment.

Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences Professor David Tilman said: “This study shows that eating healthier also means eating more sustainably. Normally, if a food product is good for one aspect of a person’s health, it’s better for other health outcomes, as well. The same holds for environmental outcomes.”

Healthy diet, healthy planet

If people adopted healthier diets, it could lead to some big improvements in environmental sustainability. This dovetails with a report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year, which recommended that people eat more plant-based foods to help reduce the impact on the environment.

According to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, food production makes up roughly 30 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the livestock sector representing half of these emissions. It also takes up around 40 percent of global land and is the biggest factor threatening species with extinction. It has also led to most of the planet’s fish stocks being fully fished or overfished.

The EAT-Lancet Commission, a group made up of 37 scientists across 16 countries, maintains that reducing global consumption of red meat and sugar by 50 percent while doubling consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes and nuts is needed to create a planetary health diet. Moreover, they suggest that agriculture’s priority should shift from producing high quantities of food to creating a better diversity of nutrient-rich foods.

The University of Minnesota/Oxford study’s lead author, Michael Clark, said: “Continuing to eat the way we do threatens societies, through chronic ill health and degradation of Earth’s climate, ecosystems and water resources. Choosing better, more sustainable diets is one of the main ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment.”

He added that replacing any type of meat with plant-based food will make the biggest difference to the environment. The researchers hope their efforts will help consumers and policymakers to make better decisions in the future.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to justify making poor food choices. The influence that what we eat has on our health – and the planet we are living on – is enormous, and people need to realize the power they have to make an incredibly positive change.

Sources for this article include:

IntegrativePractitioner.com

TheGuardian.com

HSPH.Harvard.edu

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