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Are Healthy Foods More Eco-Friendly Than Unhealthy Foods?

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Is a healthier lifestyle more environmentally friendly than an unhealthy diet? What we put into our bodies does in fact influence levels of pollution and rates of deforestation across the world.

Now, according to a new collaborative study from the University of Minnesota and Oxford University, researchers have connected the impact of foods in a healthy diet to their environmental footprint.

The foods making up our diets have a large impact on both ourselves and our environment. This study shows that eating healthier also means eating more sustainably.

David Tilman, Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences, The University of Minnesota

Published in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Scientists (PNAS), the researchers were able to conclude that healthier foods tend to have a lower impact on the environment, whereas foods such as red meat can pose a risk to both environment and health.

To inform their research the team examined how consuming fifteen different food groups is associated with five health outcomes and five elements of environmental degradation. Thus, the dietary transitions that would make for a healthier lifestyle and prevent noncommunicable diseases would meet the goals of environmental sustainability.

Generally, the foods associated with healthier lifestyles (fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals, olive oil, legumes, and nuts) exhibited a lower environmental footprint than those foods associated with an unhealthy, increased risk to dietary health (processed and unprocessed red meats such as beef and pork). However, there were some exceptions, for example, fish is known to have a negative impact on the environment but offers benefits to health.

This study shows that replacing red meat with more nutritious options can greatly improve health and the environment.

Jason Hill, Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering Professor, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, The University of Minnesota

Industrialized meat practices account for as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes.

Therefore, the research carried out by the team illustrates that one potential answer to the climate crisis could be sitting on our plates. By replacing foods that pose a risk to human health with foods that are health beneficial also supports a special IPCC report recently commissioned by the UN.  The findings of this report specifically outline the production, acquisition, and consumption of food in relation to land use and how this is a major driver of climate change.

The IPCC report also highlights that continual practices of the current industrial food system decreases biodiversity, degraded forests, depleted ecosystems, and a warmer planet. What’s more is that a warmer planet increases the likelihood of extreme weather events. These events could have severe consequences for agriculture and make it increasingly difficult to sustain a growing global population.

While there is much media attention given to plant-based diets these days with increased awareness and options available to consumers, the study published by the University of Minnesota and Oxford University also points to the fact that global diets have been shifting towards foods associated with increased disease risk. Therefore, there is still more to be done in terms of shifting the status quo and reversing this trend. With the global population set to hit 10 billion by 2050 what humanity eats, and everyday dietary choices have a major influence on the planet.

It's important that all of us think about the health impacts of the foods we eat. We now know that making our nutrition a priority will pay dividends for the Earth, as well.

Jason Hill

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David J. Cross

Written by

David J. Cross

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.


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