Diet, Health & the Environment

By Marilyn Sitaker | October, 2020

Most of us understand that what we eat has a major impact on our health. Studies show that 40% of deaths world-wide are due to diseases associated with poor dietary quality: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and colorectal cancer. At the same time, the process of growing, processing, and distributing our food affects the environmental, too. Agricultural food production contributes to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and also impacts ecosystems through nutrient pollution. Farming is resource-intensive, taking up 40% of land and accounting for 70% of water withdrawals from rivers, reservoirs & groundwater. 

Many studies have examined the impacts our dietary choices have on our personal and planetary health. But how do we sort through it all to find the right balance between a diet that is best for ourselves and one that is best for the planet? The good news is that the mix of food groups that are most healthy for humans are also those with growing methods that require fewer land and water resources, while also generating the lowest GHG and eutrophication and acidification potentials. 

Earlier this year a group of researchers simulated the environmental effects of various dietary substitutions. They used consumption and trading data from 140 countries to estimate which foodstuffs people might switch to in order to help the planet, and came up with several hypothetical diet plans that would allow people to achieve the recommended amounts of energy and protein in various ways. Here’s what they found: 

Cutting down on meat makes a big difference to a person’s diet-related carbon footprint. For instance, compared with an American who eats 2,300 calories through the mix of foods in a typical western diet, a person following a vegetarian diet could reduce their annual GHG emissions by 30%. Because milk and cheese are produced by methane-emitting cows, environmentally-conscious omnivores would need to cut out dairy completely to achieve similar reductions in their carbon footprint. 

An even better option would be to make two-thirds of your meals plant based (vegan), while eating fish, dairy and meat occasionally. Doing so would cut food-related greenhouse-gas emissions by nearly 60%. Full time veganism, unsurprisingly, is the most environmentally friendly. Switching to a plant-based diet could cut an estimated 85% of the carbon footprint of a person eating a typical Western diet (one high in calories, sugar, refined/processed foods, animal products and low in whole grains).

By providing estimates of how much GHG can be reduced by cutting back or eliminating various combinations of meat and dairy, this study provides encouraging information by showing that even modest changes can have a sizable impact. If you have an interest in changing your diet to make it healthier for you and healthier for the planet join the Eating for a Healthy Planet Support Group on Tuesday,October 27th at 7pm. More information below!

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