Eat to improve your health AND the Earth’s health at the same time!Jun 18, 2022
What we eat, chronic disease, and the health of the environment all have one thing in common: food! And, what’s good for one is good for all.
Over the past several decades there have been increasing levels of obesity, cancers, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease in the general population in Western countries. This has come at the same time as the exponential rise in processed foods that are high in calories, sugar, and salt. Both of these also happen to be occurring as greenhouse gas emissions, water, and land use have been increasing (including for food production).
Overall, what we’re seeing is a rise in chronic disease, processed food consumption, and environmental degradation.
Coincidence? Not likely.
One of the underlying connections between these three situations is what we eat.
How we nourish our bodies impacts our health, and how that food is produced is a major driver of environmental impacts. And of course, I’ve been writing a lot about the benefits of choosing whole, natural, nutrient-dense Real Food, and doing your best to let go of all of those processed food products.
A recent study published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health looked deeper into the connections between what we eat, our health, and the planet’s health. The study authors say, “evidence indicates that the declining health of the planet and humans can be mitigated by altering unsustainable diets and food systems, resulting in co-benefits.”
How can choosing a different eating style improve our health and the health of our planet?
The many benefits of eating more sustainably
Researchers found that dietary patterns that are linked with higher cancer and all-cause mortality rates are also linked to foods that emit more greenhouse gases and need more land for production. So if we make our food choices to improve our own health, the planet will benefit as well. In other words, you can improve your nutrition, lower your health risks, and reduce your environmental impact all at the same time!
I would call that a win-win!
In this study, the researchers estimated that if everyone ate a more sustainable diet, over 20 years the risk of death could decrease by up to 63%, plus up to 39% of cancers could be prevented. At the same time, food-related greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by up to 50% and land use by up to 62%.
How did the researchers come to this conclusion?
They reviewed data from 443,991 participants in the EPIC study over about 14 years and noted what people reported eating and how many of them got cancer or died. They then estimated how much their dietary patterns and food choices contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and land use. This allowed them to see relationships between what people ate, how many died of cancer or other causes, and what the environmental impact of their food was.
These all show a positive impact and significant benefits of eating more sustainably.
How food production impacts our planet and the environment
A lot goes into producing food. And not all food gives us the same nutrients for the same environmental impact.
The nutrients in our day-to-day foods impact our personal health. In the same way, the food choices we make impacts the Earth’s health. Before we can eat our food, it has to be farmed and produced, using land and freshwater, and also creating greenhouse gases.
Currently, agriculture produces 25% of the human-made greenhouse emissions, consumes about 70% of our freshwater, and uses over 33% of cultivable land.
An ideal situation would be to eat foods that provide us with the vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients, while at the same time producing less greenhouse gases and using less land and water.
Did you know? The food categories that contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions and land use are meat and meat products, followed by dairy products.
So what is sustainable eating?
One dietary pattern that’s been developed to be both nutritious & healthy and more environmentally sustainable is what is being called the “EAT-Lancet diet.” Likely named after the British medical journal, the Lancet, that published it!
And it turns out that eating even a little bit more closely to the EAT-Lancet diet may help reduce risks of death, cancer, and reduce greenhouse gases and land use, even if it’s by a smaller amount.
What is the EAT-Lancet (or “planetary health” ) diet?
The researchers say, “Our findings, along with other studies, including the EAT-Lancet report, suggest that co-benefits to human health and the environment could be achieved by adopting diets that consider both nutritional quality and planetary impact, such as the EAT-Lancet diet.”
The EAT-Lancet or “planetary health” diet is pretty simple and allows for a lot of choice and flexibility. It recommends that:
- Half of your food intake (by volume) consist of fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and nuts
- The other half is whole grains, beans and legumes, unsaturated fats, starchy vegetables, and small amounts of meat, dairy, and added sugars (make them natural!)
These are very broad guidelines, so you can customize these in any way that works for you.
The good news for those of us in Canada, is that the most recent edition of Canada's Food Guide pretty much illustrates these proportions and food choices!
Some examples of specific diets that meet these recommendations include the Mediterranean diet, pescatarian diet, and vegetarian diet.
And what do these all have in common? They all emphasize eating a wide variety of plants, with moderate amounts of healthy, clean proteins and fats. They consist of Real Food and avoid processed food products. And they would all be considered anti-inflammatory diets, which are highly recommended eating styles since chronic, systemic inflammation is considered to be one of the contributors to many of today's "lifestyle" diseases including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's.
How can we adopt this healthy eating style? How can we get half of our plate to be fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and nuts?
We know that trying to adopt any kind of change, especially the food we eat, is best accomplished by making small changes. Here are some to try today!
- Add fruits and non-starchy vegetables to every meal by adding berries to your breakfast, tomatoes to your lunch, and a side salad to your evening meal.
- For snacks, try nuts plus a serving of fruit such as a banana, apple, or orange.
- Consider some plant-based swaps, like avocado instead of butter or mayo, nut butter instead of cream cheese, or vegetable or mushroom broth instead of chicken or beef broth
- Enjoy more whole grains like whole wheat bread and pasta, brown or wild rice, or quinoa
- Try more beans and legumes by swapping out half of the ground meat for lentils in tomato sauce, soup, or chili, or swapping out chicken for chickpeas in curries and stir fries
- Aim to reduce your meat intake by as little as one-third (so, if you eat meat 6 days/week, aim to enjoy it 4 days/week)
The Study’s Conclusion
“Our results indicate that shifts towards universally sustainable diets could lead to co-benefits, such as minimizing diet-related greenhouse gas emissions and land use, reducing the environmental footprint, aiding in climate change mitigation, and improving population health.”
Because this was an observational study, we can’t say that eating closer to an EAT-Lancet diet “prevents” death and cancer, just that it’s associated with a lower risk over time.
So stock up on those non-starchy vegetables and low-glycemic fruits ... bon appetit!
Trying to eat less red meat and more fish? Try my version of Salade Nicoise, made with rainbow trout in place of tuna.
Recipe ~ Salade Nicoise with Rainbow Trout
A light, versatile summer salad, originating in Nice, France, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, which you can vary to suit your tastes and whatever produce or fish is available.
- 3 cups Mini Potatoes (halved)
- 3 cups Asparagus (trimmed)
- 2 tbsp Lemon Juice
- 3 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 tbsp Fresh Dill (chopped, plus extra for optional garnish)
- Sea Salt & Black Pepper (to taste)
- 16 ounces of Rainbow Trout (baked or grilled)
- 1 ½ cups Cherry Tomatoes (halved)
- 1 cup Radishes (sliced)
- ½ cup Kalamata Olives (sliced)
- 4 Green Onions (sliced)
- In a medium pot, add the potatoes and cover them with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for ten minutes or until fork-tender. Drain the potatoes and transfer them immediately to an ice bath to cool down.
- Set the asparagus in a steaming basket over boiling water and cover. Steam for about three to five minutes or until fork tender. Transfer them immediately to an ice bath to cool down.
- In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, oil, and dill. Season with salt and pepper.
- Arrange the rainbow trout, cherry tomatoes, radishes, olives, cooked potatoes, and asparagus on a serving platter. Top with onion and garnish with extra dill if using.
- Spoon the dressing on top and enjoy!
- Refrigerate the dressing and salad separately in an airtight container for up to three days.
- One serving is equal to approximately 2 1/2 cups of salad.
- Nicoise salad has many different varieties. You can add boiled egg, green beans, red onion, avocado and lettuce. You can also omit ingredients like radishes and green onions.
Laine, J. E., Huybrechts, I., Gunter, M. J., Ferrari, P., Weiderpass, E., Tsilidis, K., Aune, D., Schulze, M. B., Bergmann, M., Temme, E., Boer, J., Agnoli, C., Ericson, U., Stubbendorff, A., Ibsen, D. B., Dahm, C. C., Deschasaux, M., Touvier, M., Kesse-Guyot, E., Sánchez Pérez, M. J., … Vineis, P. (2021). Co-benefits from sustainable dietary shifts for population and environmental health: an assessment from a large European cohort study. The Lancet. Planetary health, 5(11), e786–e796.
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