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Do You Know the Environmental Impact of Your Diet?

by Rachel Crowell
April 18, 2019 | Our Future

Eating healthy can be a complicated undertaking, especially with food pseudoscience infiltrating ads, social media and even our friendships.

Meanwhile, sustainable eating messages can also be confusing. Should we focus on eating local? Eating less meat and dairy, or even adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet? Do the food choices that minimize harm to the earth also align with what’s healthy for humans? And by choosing healthy foods for us, are we somehow unwittingly hurting people on the other side of the world?

Everything is connected

Agriculture is responsible for approximately one-fifth to one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity, wrote Elliott Campbell, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for The Conversation.

It’s easy to glom onto one idea as the solution to all food-related emissions, whether that means becoming a “locavore” (someone who eats primarily local food), eliminating red meat or going vegan.

Illustration of many types of fast junk food. Environmental Impact of Your Diet pbs rewire
Junk foods – even vegetarian or vegan ones – often create lower carbon footprints but also have low nutritional values.

However, in an interconnected, global society, our choices can quickly backfire, even when we make them with the best of intentions.

Take veganism for example. Even eating a diet of mainly veggies demands some mindfulness.

“The number of vegans has increased 160 percent over the past 10 years, but people need to be asking ‘where has this food come from’ as they fill their shopping baskets with the fruits of the world: pomegranates and mangos from India, lentils from Canada, beans from Brazil, blueberries from the US and goji berries from China,” Emma Henderson wrote for the Independent.  “As we greedily plunder the world’s bread basket, it’s the consumer who benefits, while those at the source can be left high and dry.

"Take avocados and quinoa, whose prices have been pushed up so much by Western demand that they’ve become unaffordable to those who depend on them in their country of origin.”

She added that Kenya had to ban avocado exports last year because the country’s own supply was at risk. Also troubling? As of 2018, the skyrocketing prices of avocados originating from Mexico caused the country to consider importing its own supply.

In other words, the avocado toast you eat in your kitchen might not only make you the subject of an unsavory meme; it might also price someone else out of eating a homegrown food that’s a staple of their diet.

Buy and use only what you need

In the U.S. alone, an estimated $162 billion in food is thrown away every year. Besides being unnecessarily rough on our wallets, feeding our garbage bins rather than our faces also causes wasteful harm to the environment.

About 30 percent of the carbon footprint in the U.S. is tied to wasted food, said Donald Diego Rose,  director of nutrition at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. He is also an author of multiple studies about environmental sustainability and U.S. food consumption.

Limiting your food purchase to an amount you can feasibly use can require extra thought and planning, but knowing that you’re not creating excess waste and greenhouse gases can make it worthwhile.

What about becoming a locavore?

What does “locally grown” mean, anyway? Research shows the term “locally produced food” means different things to different people. Are you a locavore if you mainly eat food produced within 100 miles of your home? 500 miles? Within your state?

Rose said that while past research focused heavily on the distance food travels – often called “food miles” – in reality your “choice of foods swamps out the importance of where you get them from.”

Beware of food that flies

However, food "that’s grown in greenhouses and then air-freighted across the planet” is especially detrimental, Rose said.

Here are his tips for avoiding food that’s been on a world tour:

  • Pay attention to signs and labels describing where your food comes from. Try to eat food that was grown or otherwise produced on the same continent (if not in the same country) as you.
  • Eat food that’s in season.
  • Occasionally treat yourself.

In terms of the greenhouse gases, it might be time that we start treating, say, fruits traveling from South America as an extravagance. That doesn’t mean you have to give up on ever having fresh blueberries from Chile in the middle of the U.S. Just recognize the environmental cost of eating far-traveling food and treat it as an infrequent indulgence rather than a daily habit.

The beef with ruminants

Ruminant animals – cows, goats, sheep and the like – make about eight times the environmental impact as chickens, Rose said. Pork has a greater impact than chickens but less of an impact than cattle and other ruminants, he added.

Moving toward plant-based foods and away from animal-based ones is one way to reduce your carbon footprint, but you can also see a reduction just by switching up the kinds of meat you eat. Swapping out red meat for other protein sources can also be a boon for your health, according to the American Heart Association.

“In general, red meats (beef, pork and lamb) have more saturated (bad) fat than chicken, fish and vegetable proteins such as beans. Saturated and trans fats can raise your blood cholesterol and make heart disease worse,” the association’s website says.

Still, if you’re an avid red meat eater or dairy fan, don’t feel as if you can never eat your favorites again. “Everything in moderation” is a cliché for a reason.

Keep your health – both physical and mental – the focus

Junk foods – even vegetarian or vegan ones – often create relatively low carbon footprints but also have low nutritional values, Rose said. After all, even vegan ice cream can be chock-full of sugar and fat.

On the flipside, beef and dairy products are packed with nutrients such as iron and calcium but have high environmental impacts.

If you have a health condition that is affected by what you eat or requires that your diet incorporate more of a certain nutrient (such as if you’re anemic and need to focus on getting more iron), make certain any dietary changes you make will align with that. When in doubt, talk with a doctor or nutritionist about it.

Change can be difficult. Don’t pressure yourself to do too much at once. Instead, take the process step-by-step.

“Try to choose a realistic goal and don’t beat up on yourself” if you don’t reach it right away, Rose said.

Rachel Crowell
Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]
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