Eat greens to be green. A diet that’s good for the planet as well as for you is full of organic fruit and vegetables. Photograph: AlamyAs dieticians increasingly focus on the environment, they’re finding that what’s better for the earth is usually also better for the body.Dieticians and food companies are awaiting the US Department of Agriculture’s highly anticipated new dietary guidelines by the end of this year with one key question in mind: will they include environmental considerations?
The USDA updates its guidelines on what’s healthy for Americans to eat and what’s not every five years. This year, for the first time, the USDA’s advisory panel recommended that those guidelines should also include sustainability. The government agency is being asked to factor in whether or not a food is good for the planet when deciding whether its healthy.
The move caused a major uproar throughout the food industry, with thousands of commenters arguing that environmental concerns were beyond the scope of the guidelines and that addressing them was an overreach of the USDA’s authority.
The public comment period closed last month and the USDA will be releasing final dietary guidelines by the end of the year. The finished product may or may not include references to sustainability. Regardless, it’s clear that nutritionists are increasingly drawing connections between health and the environment.
“It’s all connected – you can’t tackle hunger and obesity and the paradox of the obesity crisis among hungry children without tying it to food waste, the farm bill and how the food system has been set up in this country,” says Kate Geagan, a registered dietician and author of the book Go Green, Get Lean.
Consumers push for better options
According to Geagan, consumers are driving the push for dietary sustainability – and encouraging dietitians to get onboard. “Consumers aren’t just looking for what’s on the nutrition fact panel anymore – they have a whole list of other things they want to know about and how they define eating right,” she says.
Supermarkets are also looking at the intersections of health and environmental concerns, Geagan adds. “Supermarket dietitians are very interested in this as a way to engage consumers and create value,” she says, pointing to Kroger’s Free From 101+ as a prime example. The supermarket chain conducted consumer testing and surveyed shoppers to pinpoint 101 ingredients they don’t want in their food, and are now in the process of weeding them out of stores nationally.
Christopher Gardner, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, says he sees the various aspects of sustainability – creating local economies, fair labor practices, animal rights, and environmental impacts – as useful drivers of behavior modification. “I spent decades doing all this research to show people what they should be eating and I had very little success getting anyone to change their diet,” he said during a presentation at the Sustainable Foods Institute in Monterey, CA, last month. “But when I started adding in discussions about animal rights or labor practices or climate change, I saw really meaningful shifts in people’s willingness to change.”
The reason, he says, is that most people relate to at least one of those drivers, and that adding multiple reasons to shift a behavior tends to be more effective than focusing on any one.
Healthier for you, healthier for all
Appealing to the various drivers of people’s diet choices could help address not only the nation’s obesity problem, but also the environmental impacts of food production, even the stability of the food supply chain. For example, decreased consumption of meat could have a major impact on water usage. According to Arlin Wasserman, founder of food consultancy Changing Tastes, Americans currently get about 15% of their protein from plant-based sources. Shifting that to 25% could result in enough water savings to provide two-thirds of California’s water supply.
There may even be a business benefit to shifting the composition of our dinner plates. Wasserman points out that, while McDonald’s is somewhat locked into the quarter pound beef patty, some newer entrants to the industry – like Five Guys – are offering smaller meat servings. In the process, they’re delivering health benefits to customers, environmental benefits to the planet, and financial benefits to the company, all without sacrificing quality or customer satisfaction.
“It’s hard for people to get jazzed up about changing eating habits for a result they’ll see 10 years from now,” Geagan says. “But framing it as a more immediate payoff or benefit – in terms of weight loss, health, energy, really focusing on the health benefit overlap of these issues, that’s where I think health professionals can really add value to the conversation.”
Interested in a diet that’s as good for the planet as it is for you? Geagan suggests following these simple guidelines.
Eat more of this
Beans, beans the magical fruit: Packed with protein, fiber and folic acid, beans are available everywhere, are low-fat and filling, and have a relatively small carbon footprint.
Sardines: These little fish are both sustainable and full of Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Not everyone is a sardine fan, but you can sneak them in via tomato sauces and salad dressings.
Organic fruits and vegetables: Many conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables are covered in pesticide residue. Conventional strawberries, for example, are still grown with 1,3-Dichloropropene, which the state of California believes causes cancer. US shoppers looking to avoid chemicals can start with the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list to get the most bang for their buck.
Protein-packed vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds: Most Americans only get about 15% of their protein from plants.Bumping that up to 25% could boost both individual health and the health of the planet. Plant protein options that are easy to incorporate into your diet include: lentils, chia seeds (throw them into smoothies, muffins, salad dressings), quinoa, peanuts, and tofu (opt for organic tofu, like Hodo, to ensure that it’s made from sustainably sourced soy).
Pasture-raised eggs: Recent researchhas found that pasture-raised eggs contain more vitamin A and more Omega-3 fatty acids than eggs produced any other way. They also tend to pack more flavor, and enough protein to keep you satiated through the morning. Eggs are also one of the most climate-friendly sources of animal protein.
Small amounts of high-quality grass-fed beef and dairy: Research has shown that grass-fed beef has measurably more antioxidants and fewer inflammatory fatty acids than grain-fed beef. As for milk from grass-fed cows, it’s higher in alpha-linolenic acid, an Omega-3 fat that reduces inflammation and has been tied to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. In both cases, grass feeding dramatically reduces a cow’s environmental impact.
Eat less of this
Packaged, highly processed foods: In addition to added sugars and salts, foods packaged in plastic may be adding a serving of harmful chemicals to your midday snack. Disposable plastic packaging also never degrades and has a fairly poor recycling rate, making it bad for the planet.
Bottled water: More water is great for you, but Geagan calls bottled water the “hummer of healthy food”. Citing its sourcing from drought-stricken California and its use of single-use disposable plastic packaging, she argues that bottled water delivers far more negative environmental impacts than health benefits.
Fresh-flown fish: While fresh, locally caught fish can be a great choice, fresh-flown fish is often the least sustainable choice, particularly when it comes to tuna and salmon.
Conventionally raised poultry, pork, beef, or dairy products: Concentrated animal feeding operations have significantly higher carbon and water footprints than their pasture-based counterparts. They also necessitate the need for antibiotics, and negatively impact surrounding land and water. The antibiotics in these food products is a suspected contributor to antibiotic resistance, and CAFO-raised animals also provide fewer nutrients than their pasture-raised counterparts.