“Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” – The EAT-Lancet Commission
The way we think about food matters more than we think. We casually go about our days, which revolve around food: we go to the grocery store, prepare our food, and then eat it. But have you ever considered that your diet impacts climate change, malnutrition, and food insecurity? Let’s unpack how eating sustainably can be beneficial for your holistic wellness, as well as the health of our planet.
What Is a Sustainable Diet?
After a long debate on what defines a sustainable diet, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Biodiversity International landed on this definition: “Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.” The following criteria of a sustainable diet includes diets that nurture and protect the environment, and diets that are accessible, affordable, safe, fair, and nutritious for all human beings.
You needn’t search too far to find that achieving a sustainable diet comes with its own set of challenges. Author of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN) 2017 report, Maria Cristina Tirado-von der Pahlen writes, “nutrition and health….play a significant role in environmental degradation and climate change.” The complexity arises from the interdependent relationship between people and the environment—we are reliant on the environment for our source of food, and the environment depends on us to sustain it. Therefore, we can’t talk about what a sustainable diet entails without talking about and taking into account factors like the global population, the environment, nutrition, and food security, all of which influence our holistic health. While we may not have control over aspects like the global population or food security, what we can do is look at our own consumption habits and strive to make better choices and incorporate more mindful practices into our eating routines.
What Can We Do to Eat More Sustainably?
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) recommends the following tips to address climate change, the food system, and malnutrition:
Adopt a More Plant-Based Diet
In the World Resources Institute (WRI) 2016 report, researchers reported that the demand for beef is estimated to increase by 95% by 2050. Consuming more plant-based meals lessens demand for meat and lightens the pressure on agricultural land that is used for livestock, which produces 14.15% greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more is that growing and eating more plant-based foods contributes positively to biodiversity and can help to reverse environmental destruction caused by outdated agricultural practices. Adopting a more regenerative agriculture system gives back to instead of taking from the environment.
Diversify Your Plate and Palate
Adding a variety of different foods to your plate is not only good for the planet but also for your health. According to the WHO, “A healthy diet helps to protect against malnutrition in all its forms, as well as noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.” A nutritious diet consists of four components according to the 2020 SOFI report: variety, adequacy, moderation, and balance. Try diversifying your plate and palate by creating a rainbow plate. This refers to the loading of your plate with fruits and veggies of bright colors. It’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but your meal will also be packed with tons of nutrients.
Avoid Food Waste
Considering that a large population of people globally are chronically hungry, being mindful of our food consumption is so important, to say the least. Food waste amounts to an estimated 1.3 billion tons a year and has a carbon footprint of about 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year, from agricultural production to consumption. There are conscious actions we can all take to reduce this waste, starting with making a shopping list.
Palm oil is a commonly used vegetable oil found in many products, from ice-cream to shampoos, and it’s massively responsible for deforestation, currently poseing a threat to biodiversity, including plants and animals. Biodiverse forests have now become a fragile ecosystem for species, home to already endangered animals like orangutans and tigers, whose habitats have been destroyed. Palm oil also contributes to air pollution, soil and water pollution, soil erosion, and climate change. WWF recommends looking out for these labels: Fairtrade, Freedom Food, MSC and ASC, and RSPO. It’s important to back these organizations to support and promote the production of sustainable palm oil.
The health of the Earth affects our wellbeing, in the same way our choices and actions have an environmental impact. Becoming more dependent on plant-based foods for our consumption can reduce the pressure on the environment. By taking care of your body with plant-based foods, you’re taking care of the environment and the vulnerable, marginalized populations of people who are suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition. We can all create positive changes by the little choices we make to improve our holistic health. We can start by informing ourselves to make conscious food choices and spreading the word. Remember, it’s the small steps that make the big differences!