Choose healthier foods with a lower environmental footprint

ayurveda brain health environment healthy eating healthy living immunity real food resilience Apr 26, 2023

Did you miss part one of this series, "Better health for you and the planet"?  Check it out HERE!

Part 2

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a sustainable diet is healthy, has a low environmental impact, is affordable, and is culturally acceptable.[10] But this may leave you wondering how to choose the most environmentally friendly foods? What dietary patterns are the most sustainable and the healthiest?

Many people are talking about this, although the science isn’t necessarily clear. Many believe that the foods that have a lower impact on our environment and better impact on our health are plants. There’s no question that consuming plant foods that are Real Foods (not processed), such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds, will benefit both our bodies and the environment. There is a huge body of research showing that the more plants you eat, the lower your risks of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and obesity.[15,16] And in contrast, decreasing your intake of red and processed meats can also lower your risks while reducing your impact on the environment.[10]

This doesn’t mean that you must cut out all meat today. Meat is an integral part of many diets and a go-to source of vitamin B12, iron, and protein.  But you need to choose your meats wisely.  In fact, by simply replacing some of your factory-farmed or processed meats with plants or other healthier choices like organic, hormone-free and antibiotic-free meats, you can start making a difference.

There isn’t one single eating style that blows away all others in terms of sustainability. In fact, there are several that can positively influence the environment. A recent review of 63 studies in PLoS One rated different diets according to whether they help reduce greenhouse gases, water use, and land use[10]. And there wasn’t one diet that was a clear winner for all of these categories. 

  • Vegan = Only plant-based foods (no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, or eggs)
  • Vegetarian = Plants, dairy, and eggs (no meat, poultry, or fish)
  • Mediterranean = Plants, poultry, fish, and eggs (limited red meat and dairy)
  • Pescatarian = Plants, fish, dairy, and eggs (no meat or poultry)
  • And the newest addition, coined by Mark Hyman: Pegan = all the plants from a vegan diet plus small amounts of animal fat and protein

Interestingly, the 2019 revised version of Canada’s Food Guide (created without industry lobbying) no longer specifically recommends meat and dairy as two essential food groups! It has instead put them together into a new group called “protein.” So the new recommendations include one-half of your plate being fruits and vegetables, one-quarter is whole grains, and the last quarter is protein—plant- or animal-based. Oh, and the drink of choice is water.[17]

There’s a lot of “information” out there about how plant-proteins are better for the environment, and healthier for you.  And some people feel pretty strongly about this, to the point of being unwilling to fairly assess alternative positions.  Beyond any ethical considerations – and I don’t think any of us believes that any sentient being should be raised in the inhumane conditions of CAFOs – Contained Animal Feeding Operations – what also matters is consideration of the biochemistry of one’s body, determining what sources of nutrients give us energy, as well as reducing those that just don’t work in our bodies.  And with now 8 billion people on the planet, it doesn’t make sense that we would all have identical food and nutrient needs.  

The reading and research I’ve done over the past 20 years that I’ve been in the Natural Nutrition field has added to my understanding that there are a few different ways to determine what foods are healthiest for each of us, both the ratios of the macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) as well as the sources of them (animal or plant).  In Ayurveda, it’s called your prakruti, where you determine your dosha: vata, pitta or kapha.  Another system is that of metabolic type: carb or protein or mixed.  It’s up to each of us to experiment and figure out which foods drain us of energy and which ones make us feel great!

Environmental impact of different types of foods

The number one factor that drives the environmental impact of food is how it’s produced.[10] Food production is responsible for between twenty-five and thirty percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.[10,11] How crops are grown and how livestock is raised makes a bigger impact on the environment than how much it’s processed or how far it’s been transported.[10,11] 

In general, plant-based food produces fewer greenhouse gases and uses less land and water than factory-farm-raised animal-based food.[10,18] At least half of the greenhouse gases from agriculture come from one single area: livestock.[9,11] According to the International Panel on Climate Change, “Livestock are responsible for more GHG emissions than all other food sources.”[19] Of all the livestock, cows are particularly impactful as cattle are responsible for about two-thirds of that.[19] This is because of the methane released from the natural fermentation process that occurs in their (rumen) digestive systems.[19] In addition to the release of greenhouse gases, beef has a large impact on how much freshwater and land we use.[9,11]  However, biodynamic and organic farming (see my blog HERE) take the health of both the animals and the environment into account, and is a healthier choice than meat from the huge Big Farm operations.

You don’t have to overhaul everything you eat or choose a specific eating style. By simply factoring in a few things, you can make progress towards eating more sustainably. The next time you plan meals or go grocery shopping, think about how much you really need, how it was produced, how to reduce your processed meat intake, and how to reduce food waste and save money.

Next week: Stay tuned for Part 3 for my best tips/strategies for reducing food waste!



9 - Grinspoon, P. (2019, March 26). Cleaner living: Plant-friendly is planet-friendly. Harvard Health.

10 - Aleksandrowicz, L., Green, R., Joy, E. J., Smith, P., & Haines, A. (2016). The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PloS one, 11(11), e0165797.

11 - Ritchie, H. (2020, January 24). You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local. Our World in Data.

12 - Svoboda, E. (2021, April 28). Can gratitude help you live more sustainably? Greater Good Magazine.

13 - Kates, S., & DeSteno, D. (2020). Gratitude reduces consumption of depleting resources. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10.1037/emo0000936. Advance online publication.

14 - Lowrey, A. (2021, April 6). Your Diet Is Cooking the Planet: But two simple changes can help. The Atlantic.

15 - Tello, M. (2018, November 29). Eat more plants, fewer animals. Harvard Heath.

16 - Micha, R., Peñalvo, J. L., Cudhea, F., Imamura, F., Rehm, C. D., & Mozaffarian, D. (2017). Association Between Dietary Factors and Mortality From Heart Disease, Stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association, 317(9), 912–924.

17 - Health Canada. (2021, April 9). Canada’s Food Guide.

18 - Health Canada. (2020, October 14). Healthy Eating and the Environment.

19 - International Panel on Climate Change.(2018). Special Report: Global warming of 1.5 ºC.

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