A Dietary Pattern for a Healthier Planet
by Joanna Pustilnik, Bodacious Nutrition
A condo building is going up in my neighborhood, and my husband and I were worried it might cause more traffic congestion. We already live by a highway, and I’ve read that can increase the risk of high blood pressure. But then I read the world is going to house 9.6 billion people by the time my baby daughter is thirty, and the condo suddenly seems like a very minor concern.
Already, one in nine of us—or about 13 percent of people worldwide—don’t have enough to eat. That’s not fair. I like food. You like food. We should all have enough of it. As a dietitian (and a human), I’m perplexed – how are we going to feed the 3 billion more people that will share our space with us? We’ll have even less resources by then.
Food production would need to increase 70 percent to feed all our new friends. Globally, producing food already eats up 70 percent of fresh water and causes 80 percent of total deforestation. Ten billion acres of land across the globe – an amount the size of Africa – is being used to raise livestock.
We can’t increase our global food production ? we don’t have the space. Instead, we need to drastically change how we grow, produce, and eat food. The most powerful thing we can do as individual consumers is to eat sustainably.
Food security and sustainable dietary patterns
To feed our 3 billion new friends, we need to be food secure. Food security is when we have enough safe, nutritious food. A sustainable dietary pattern has minimal environmental impact but maintains food security and nutritional value.
A “dietary pattern” is essentially the way we normally eat. It includes our typical portions, combination of commonly eaten foods, and the variety in our habitual choices. To be sustainable, a dietary pattern should be healthy, shouldn’t decrease the biodiversity of an ecosystem, should be economically sound, and should optimize our resources.
Plant based diets such as the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), and a vegetarian (or vegan) diet seem to fit this bill. Health benefits of these diets include lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and they boast a lower amount of red meat, processed foods, and more fruits and vegetables. Studies are repeatedly finding that diets high in animal foods are not sustainable.
Beef, in particular, uses a lot of resources and produces too much waste. In one Italian study, beef was the food tied to the greatest negative impact on the ecosystem while a vegan diet had the lowest environmental impact and greatest health score. Beef and lamb require the most fossil fuel per calorie of protein ? 250 times more than beans!
Here’s a graph from the World Resources Institute that shows the impact of various foods on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Notice animal-based foods use consistently more resources:
Overall, agriculture is responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but 18 percent of this is due to raising livestock. That’s more than the transportation industry and all industrial processes combined – they only emit fourteen percent.
Another issue is that meat increases per capita land requirements while feeding less people overall. The grain we feed animals doesn’t go as far as it would if we just were to feed it directly to people, and we feed 40 percent of grain globally to livestock instead of our hungry 1 billion human friends.
Meat also produces a large amount of waste – methane and other gases as well as solid waste that pollutes land and waterways. A plant-based diet with a smaller amount of meat is making more sense.
Harvard and the European Union have both looked at sustainability research to develop diets. Harvard’s plate boasts more fruits and vegetables than USDA’s MyPlate, more whole grains, and focuses more on plant protein while limiting red meat intake. It also encourages milk and dairy no more than 1 to 2 times a day.
The European Union’s LiveWell for LIFE diet has been found to reduce GHG production by 25 percent compared to current intake. It too promotes a plant-based diet with a focus on more plant proteins than a typical person eats with no more than 1/3 of the diet consisting of foods from animal sources.
How we eat now
Currently, we are not eating in line with either of these diets. Most of us eat a Western-style diet that’s high in red meat, dairy, and processed foods (think packages, boxes, bags, and the center of the grocery). We include few fruits and vegetables, limited legumes and beans, and not enough whole grains.
We especially love our red meat.
In 2009, we ate 14 million tons of beef ? about 92 lbs. per person. By 2030, this number is projected to increase to 17 million tons. The average man only needs 56 gm of protein per day, but he eats over 100 gm daily! Demand is also increasing worldwide as countries become more industrialized.
Simple changes we can all make
First, we can shop locally. This limits GHG produced by the transportation of food from far away. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables is also a smart choice, and not just for health reasons. Consumerism is powerful. We need to show our government that sustainable farming practices that maintain the soil are demanded.
We can also limit ourselves to our fair share, because excessive energy intake requires more energy use. We can also shop for fresh food to decrease waste from packaged goods. Also, we throw away 40 percent of our food. Eating more mindfully would help decrease this amount and preserve our vital resources.
And finally, eat less animal products. If just 10 percent of us limited consumption of animal products, enough food would be saved to feed 1 billion people.
From a nutritional perspective, limiting meat would only promote positive health. We don’t all have to abstain and become vegans, but research shows any decrease in meat consumption increases sustainability AND improves decreases disease risk.
I like to call a plant-based diet a gracious diet. Include small amounts of meat if you like, but let’s remember to conserve. We can get everything we need while still being considerate of future generations. They’ll be hungry, too.
To continue supporting sustainability, DC EcoWomen is partnering with Whole Foods’ program Nickels for Non Profits through December 17th. On your next shopping trip, bring a reusable bag to Whole Foods Markets in Montgomery County, and ask to donate your earned nickel to DC EcoWomen. For more information, visit: http://dc.ecowomen.org/2017/10/31/nickels-for-nonprofits/
Looking for healthy and sustainable meals for the holidays? Kristin Bell shares her best vegan holiday fare at http://holiday.wholefoodsmarket.com/tips-and-recipes.html. I’m getting hungry already…
Joanna Pustilnik is a DC EcoWoman, dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and health coach with a tele-health private practice, Bodacious Nutrition, and a beautiful new baby daughter. She blogs at http://www.Bodaciousrd.com, and is passionate about sustainability and helping others find their best selves. She hasn’t been eating meat for about 11 years, but she admits she craved the occasional hot dog during her pregnancy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org