Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
When focusing on our wellness, we often focus first on what’s best for us. How do we nourish our bodies to feel great, maintain a healthy weight, and get the energy we need to thrive?
Our food choices have huge implications for our body. But it’s often easy to forget that our choices also have large implications for food systems and the health of our planet.
Is it possible to eat in a way that’s good for your body and the planet?
Yes. In fact, more often than not, the health of our bodies and the environment go hand in hand.
In recent years, there has been ample research on “co-benefits”—practices that benefit both the environment and human health. For example, biking to work every day is good for your cardiovascular health and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than driving.
Climate change does and will continue to have many negative impacts on human health. By emphasizing co-benefits, policy makers and individuals can work towards positive solutions that can help mitigate the harm for your body and your planet.
It all starts with small changes … which can add up over time. Here are five easy ways to get started on sustainable eating.
1. Curb Your Red Meat and Cheese Consumption
Americans eat a lot of meat. In fact, we consume 60 percent more than Europeans—and the global appetite for meat is only going up.
Satiating this appetite requires large amounts of water, pesticides, fuel, and food. Livestock production (including meat, milk, and eggs) uses one-third of the world’s fresh water and accounts for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Red meats like beef, pork, and lamb are particularly hard on the environment. According to the Water Footprint Network, a single pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water before it reaches your plate. That’s about 90 eight-minute showers. Yikes!
By reducing your consumption of red meats and cheeses, you can help out both the planet and your own wellness. Research shows that diets lower in animal-based saturated fat and higher in fruits and vegetables are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers.
2. Eat More Plant-Based Protein
For more sustainable eating, try swapping out some animal products with plant-based proteins—many of which have researched benefits for both human health and environmentally sustainable farming.
For example, pulses are part of the legume family and include dried peas, lentils, and chickpeas. They are high in protein and fiber, and they are nitrogen-fixing crops that promote sustainability in agriculture. Research shows that pulse intake supports glycemic health and diabetes prevention. One serving of pulses per day has also been found to significantly lower LDL cholesterol, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. Finally, research shows consuming pulses can increase feelings of fullness and be beneficial for weight loss.
Experiment with recipes using plant-based proteins and see if you can work more of them into your diet each week. Taking a “meatless monday” challenge can be a great way to get started if you’re a regular meat eater.
3. Reduce Food Waste Through Portion Control
Americans throw away 40 percent of the food we grow, yet we still have a large percentage of the population not getting enough to eat every day.
Beyond being conscious about what you’re buying and throwing away, it’s important to remember that overeating is a form of food waste. Portion control can be beneficial for both sustainable agriculture and for your long-term health.
A good way to start practicing simple portion control is to follow the healthy plate model. Fill up half of your plate with vegetables or leafy greens, a quarter with grain, fruit, or a starchy vegetable, and the remaining quarter with a healthy protein source. This ensures you’re getting balanced portions for your body and more sustainable portions in regards to food production.
4. Be Seafood Savvy
In 2011, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 90 percent of global fish stocks were either fully fished or overfished, and several were at risk for extinction. Since then, organizations around the world have been successful in raising awareness around the risks of overfishing and destruction of marine ecosystems as well as creating sustainable fishing policies and monitoring systems.
Consuming fish and seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent cardiovascular disease, promote cognitive health, and reduce inflammation. The American Heart Association recommends eating a 3.5 ounce serving of fatty fish two times per week for heart health.
While consuming fish low in mercury is part of a healthy diet, it’s also important to make sustainable seafood choices. Choose wild species with an abundant population and do not consume more than recommended portions.
Because seasonal and regional sustainable seafood sources can vary, consult a seafood guide for current best choices. Seafoodwatch.org is a great resource for learning more about your seafood options. You can also consult the Environmental Working Group’s Seafood Calculator to estimate personal needs and choose the healthiest, most sustainable options.
5. Buy Whole Grains in Bulk (And Reduce Processed Foods)
Many processed foods—including whole grain bread, crackers, and tortillas—have added sugars and preservatives that can be harmful to your wellness. Simple grains and dried goods bought in bulk require less processing and less packaging. Plus, they have a longer shelf life and are often more cost-effective.
Try adding meals with quinoa or brown rice instead of bread of pasta to your weekly menu. Cook a pot of quinoa at the beginning of the week and add a scoop to your meals. You’ll get a healthy carbohydrate and protein boost—and save time, energy, and packaging.
6. Get Your Produce from Farmer’s Markets or CSA Boxes
Get quality seasonal produce without unnecessary packaging by shopping at your local farmer’s market or signing up for CSA (community supported agriculture) box. Smaller, organic farms are more likely to use sustainable agriculture practices. Plus, the produce is less likely to be contaminated with harmful toxins. Bring your reusable bags, contribute to the local economy, and make some tasty, healthy meals!
Climate change is a daunting reality. But, it’s important not to let the overwhelming nature of it keep you from making small changes today. Every contribution counts. And you can rest easy knowing that eating sustainably can be good for you and your planet.