A healthy diet also helps the environment

We have been advised time and again to eat a healthy and balanced diet. A new study has revealed that eating a healthy diet not only benefits the individual but also the environment. Researchers from the University of Oxford was published in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study is titled, “Multiple health and environmental impacts of foods”.

Image Credit: Syda Productions / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Syda Productions / Shutterstock

The authors wrote, “Dietary choices are a leading global cause of mortality and environmental degradation and threaten the attainability of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.”

The study shows that eating a poor diet could also harm the planet. In a complex study and analysis the researchers looked at 15 common food items included in the western diet and their impact on the health and environment. These diets include those in fruits, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, legumes, dairy products and beans etc.

These food items helped protect the climate as well as preserve the water resources says the study. Other healthy foods say the researchers include fish. Although they noted that fish consumption led to a greater carbon foot print compared to plant based diets that provided the best environmental outcomes.

On the other hand diet comprising of processed and red meat products have been found to cause ill health and also lead to environmental pollution. Some foods such as high sugar diets including soft fizzy drinks, biscuits and confectionaries tend to have great impact on health but have minimal impact on the planet wrote the researchers.

According to the authors of the study, this was the first study to look at the impact of food on both health and the environment on such a large scale and they feel that the relevance of this study in today’s timeline of environmental consciousness and concerns is undisputed.

According to lead researcher Michael Clark at the University of Oxford, “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.”

Clark and his team explain that plant based foods remain the best choice of diet for humans. He said, “How and where a food is produced affects its environmental impact, but to a much smaller extent than food choice.” Farming groups have been already voicing their opinions saying that sole meat production leads to damage to the environment. Clark agrees saying that the biggest change in environment could be seen if meat based diet is converted to plant based diet.

Marco Springmann, one of the co authors of the study added, “We now know pretty well that predominantly plant-based diets are much healthier and more sustainable than meat-heavy diets. But sometimes there is still confusion among people about what foods to choose.” Their team could help provide detailed information to policy makers and consumers as well as food manufacturers to make choices that are better for the environment.

For this study the team included plant based foods as well as others including sugary beverages, animal based foods such as fish, eggs, dairy products raw as well as processed meat products etc. They wrote that the items chosen for study include, “chicken, dairy, eggs, fish, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, potatoes, processed red meat, refined grain cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), unprocessed red meat, vegetables, and whole grain cereals”.

For their study they looked at the health impact of these foods on tens of millions of people in the western nations. For every extra portion of food consumed, factors such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes as well as bowel cancer and deaths data was gathered and analyzed. The environmental impact of the foods was calculated on the basis of water consumption and pollution, green house gases and their impact on the environment etc. This was compared to one portion of vegetables consumed.

The ill health impact was measured using data on, “type II diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and mortality.” The environmental impact was measured using data on, “GHG emissions, land use, scarcity-weighted water use, and 2 forms of nutrient pollution—acidification and eutrophication.” Thus for the 15 foods chosen 5 environmental outcomes and 5 ill health outcomes were measured in the study.

Processed red meat was worst for the environment compared to any other type of food including pulses wrote the researchers. The team suggests that some of the foods such as refined grains and cereals, eggs, chicken, dairy products had medium impact on the environment and did not affect the health poorly. These could be used to replace red and processed meats to improve environmental outcomes, they advised.

The team wrote in conclusion, “Global diets have been shifting toward greater consumption of foods associated with increased disease risk or higher environmental impacts and are projected to lead to rapid increases in diet-related diseases and environmental degradation. Reversing this trend in the regions in which it has occurred and instead increasing consumption of whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, and olive oil and other vegetable oils high in unsaturated fats—foods that are consistently associated with decreased disease risk and low environmental impacts—would have multiple health and environmental benefits globally. Public and private solutions could help shift food consumption toward healthier and more environmentally sustainable outcomes.”

Journal reference:

Multiple health and environmental impacts of foods Michael A Clark, Marco Springmann, Jason Hill, David Tilman Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2019, 201906908; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1906908116, https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/10/22/1906908116

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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