Nutrition-wise blog

Sustainable food choices

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. March 11, 2016

Most of us know that our food choices affect our health. But did you know that our food choices also impact our environment?

Diets high in processed foods, refined sugars, meats and other animal products take their toll on the environment through the clearing and erosion of land, damage to ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, increased water consumption and pollution, and greenhouse gas production.

These types of diets are rapidly replacing traditional diets around the world. If this trend continues, it is estimated that by 2050 food production will contribute to an estimated 80 percent increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Consider these facts:

  • The water footprint (total volume of fresh water consumed) to produce beef is 61 times higher than the water footprint for the same amount of vegetables.
  • The carbon footprints (greenhouse gas production) for fruit and for vegetables are 55 and 32 times lower, respectively, than the carbon footprint for red meat.
  • The water footprint of a vegetarian (1,533 liters per person per day) is almost 2.5 times less than that of someone who eats meat daily (4,639 liters per person per day).
  • The carbon footprint of a vegetarian (2,436 carbon equivalents per person per day) is about 2.6 times less than that of someone who eats meat daily (6,556 carbon equivalents per person per day).
  • Eggs, dairy, non-trawling seafood and aquaculture, and poultry and pork have much lower impact on the environment compared with beef.

So the changes needed to achieve a healthy diet — eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal products and salted snacks and sweets — also have a positive impact on soil use, water consumption and carbon emissions.

For example, limiting meat to just twice a week would save up to 2,218 liters of water and 2,942 grams of carbon dioxide per person per day — reducing the environmental impact by about one-third.

Many countries, including Italy, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Brazil, Australia and Qatar, have created "sustainable dietary guidelines." In addition to recommending food choices to improve human health, these guidelines also make recommendations for food choices that address environmental health.

Although the U.S. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines included a chapter on food sustainability and safety issues, it was omitted from the final guidelines. That's disappointing.

Our food choices do make a difference. Why not choose to eat less meat and more plants? How about cutting back on processed foods? How about cutting down portion sizes and working to reduce wasted food? Doing so will do your body good — and our environment.

— Jennifer

March 11, 2016