Having a climate-friendly lifestyle not only means recycling, consuming fewer resources and using public transportation but also changing our diets, according to a new study, which showed that wider use of healthier diets could reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture and food production.
The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, establishes a link between diet, health, and sustainability, and shows that foods with positive health outcomes have a low environmental impact, while other foods, such as red meat, can be especially harmful to both.
"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," said David Tilman, co-author of the study. "Normally, if a food product is good for one aspect of a person's health, it's better for other health outcomes, as well. The same holds for environmental outcomes."
Tilman and the group of researchers explored how consuming 15 different food groups is, on average, associated with five different health outcomes and five aspects of environmental degradation. They concluded that transitioning diets toward greater consumption of healthier foods would also improve environmental sustainability.
Red meat had the strongest association with a heightened risk of mortality, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. Producing red meat was also ten to 100 times worse for the environment than producing plant-sourced foods due to greenhouse gas emissions, land use, acidification, and eutrophication.
At the same time, consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda and fruit juice, was also found bad for your health but with a low environmental cost. Adding an extra serving of dairy products, eggs, or chicken was not associated with upping or lowering disease risk and with a moderate environmental impact.
“Overcoming current environmental and health challenges may seem overwhelming, but there is much that we as individuals can do,” Michael A. Clark, co-author, told Inverse. “Choosing to purchase and consume foods that are win-wins for health and environment will be key in reversing the growing health and environmental harms that societies globally are experiencing.”
While meat is bad for your health and the environment, there’s a wide range of products that are completely the opposite. Eating more nuts, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish every day is quite positive, as well as implementing plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean diet.
The study also showed certain nuances can make the environmental or health impacts stronger or weaker. Leafy greens are better for reducing type 2 diabetes risk than some other vegetables, while frying fish can negate its positive health effects. Wild-caught fish is much better for the earth than farm-raised.
“This study shows that replacing red meat with more nutritious options can greatly improve health and the environment,” said Jason Hill, co-author. “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.”
The study highlighted recent recommendations from the United Nations and others about the environmental impacts of human diets. A report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August said eating more plant-based foods helped adapt to and limit climate change.