This Is How You Should Eat to Minimize Your Environmental Impact
The planetary health diet could be the key to improving the health of Earth *and* the people who inhabit it.
As easy as it is to base your health status off of your eating habits or your workout routine, these factors represent only a sliver of your overall wellbeing. Financial security, employment, interpersonal relationships, and education can all influence your state of health too, and as the globe gradually warms, it's becoming clear that the environment can do the same. In fact, climate change can raise your risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cause acute and long-term mental health issues.
But it's not a one-way street. The diet you follow — and in turn, the food that's being produced to satisfy your cravings — has a direct impact on the health of the environment, says Jessica Fanzo, Ph.D., the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Global Food Policy and Ethics at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet? "Global food production contributes some of the most substantive pressures on natural resources, ecosystems, and the overall Earth system," she says. "Food systems contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, we've got issues with agrochemicals from animal agriculture, and we have food waste and food loss issues."
In fact, the global food system is responsible for producing more than one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (think: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases) that further global warming, and the United States alone creates 8.2 percent of those greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Food. One of the biggest global contributors is raising livestock — most specifically cattle — which creates 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Of course, all that meat has to go somewhere, and most often, it ends up on Americans' plates. In the last four years, the United States has been ranked as the highest beef-consuming country, eating more than 31 percent more beef than the entire European Union annually, per the United States Department of Agriculture. In 2020, nearly 112 pounds of red meat and 113 pounds of poultry was consumed per capita in the United States, according to the National Chicken Council. That isn't just a problem for the Earth: Long-term consumption of increasing amounts of red meat is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes, and total mortality in both men and women, according to a review published in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. Not to mention, 90 percent of Americans aren't hitting the recommended daily intake of vegetables, and 80 percent aren't eating enough fruit, according to the USDA. "Our diets are not sustainable, and they're not healthy," says Fanzo. "And diets present one of the top risk factors in morbidity and mortality." 12,427 / 9,465
Reminder: All those greenhouse gases let sunlight pass through Earth's atmosphere, but they also trap its heat, which creates a greenhouse effect that results in global warming, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. As the planet continues to warm, heatwaves are expected to become more intense and more frequent, sea levels will rise, hurricanes will become stronger, and risks of floods, wildfires, and droughts will increase, according to NASA.
And all this spells trouble for the system the world relies on for sustenance. "Specifically, from the food side, [if we take] a business-as-usual approach, we're going to have significant food shortages and the nutritional content of crops will decline," says Fanzo. "There's a lot of modeling and projections of what will happen to the food system, and there will definitely be multiple bread basket failures, where big agriculture systems simultaneously fail."
The warming climate plays a major role in these shortages. Research shows that that some staple crops in the U.S. — including corn, soybeans, and wheat — have higher yields when grown in temperatures ranging from 84.2 to 89.6°F, but they decrease sharply after temperatures hit that peak. In some regions of the world (like those in semi-arid climates), higher temperatures can shorten the growing season and reduce yield, as crops will hit their breaking point for high temperatures and low moisture levels, according to a 2015 USDA report on climate change and the food system. Milder winters — coupled with increasingly damaging severe weather events, higher temperatures, and increased humidity levels — also allow for pests and pathogens to grow, spread, and survive, which can potentially reduce yields. And as all the growth factors for crops continue to shift, agricultural production is likely to become even more unpredictable, per the report.
As the amount of food available drops, so does its nutritional quality. Elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been shown to lower the protein content of wheat, rice, barley, and potatoes by up to 14 percent, and other mineral and micronutrient concentrations are likely to decrease as well, according to the USDA's report. "We don't really have a choice if we want to save humanity and save the planet at the same time," says Fanzo. "We have to take action, and it has to be in this decade."
The Body and Earth Benefits of a Planetary Health Diet
One action you can take right now: Adopting a planetary health diet. In 2019, 37 leading scientists from 16 different countries joined together to form the EAT-Lancet Commission, which would define exactly what a healthy diet and a sustainable food production system looks like, as well as the actions that need to be taken to create both on a global scale. After pouring over scientific literature, the commission developed strategies that would help create a future optimal for the health of the people *and* the planet, including shifts in agricultural production, food waste reduction, and — most importantly for the average citizen — the planetary health diet.
This dietary template, so to speak, emphasizes minimally processed foods and filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, then loading the other half primarily with whole grains, plant-based proteins, unsaturated plant oils, and modest amounts (if any at all) of meat, fish, and dairy foods. IRL, the average person in the world would have to double their intake of fruits, veggies, legumes, and nuts, and cut their intake of red meat in half, according to the Commission's report.
The reason behind this largely plant-based plate: "Beef is a significant contributor to methane, one of the greenhouse gasses," explains Fanzo. "It's a significant contributor to water use, land-use change [think: clearing a forest to raise livestock], and a lot of grains that we grow are feeding cattle as opposed to humans. They're very resource-intensive animals." Indeed, a 2019 study published in the journal Agriculture Systems showed that beef production in the U.S. releases more than 535 billion pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents (a unit of measurement that includes the atmospheric impact of all greenhouse gasses, not just CO2) each year. Do a little math wizardry, and that means every pound of beef produced creates a whopping 21.3 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. On the flip side, a pound of beans emits just 0.8 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents.
While cows create the lion's share of the food system's environmental footprint, other animal-based food products have a substantial impact as well, says Fanzo. The cheese you add to your charcuterie board uses 606 gallons of water per pound to make, for example, and each pound of lamb you stuff into your gyro released up to 31 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent while it was being raised.
Planetary impacts aside, red meat can have serious impacts on your health. The protein is packed with saturated fat, amounting to 4.5 grams in a four-ounce serving of ground beef (the standard burger patty), according to the USDA. In high amounts, saturated fat can cause cholesterol to build up in the arteries, increasing the risk of developing hypertension and cardiovascular disease (think: heart attack and stroke), explains KC Wright M.S., R.D.N., a nutritionist and sustainability advocate. Plus, a study of more than 81,000 people found those who increased red meat consumption to at least 1.5 ounces a day over the course of eight years raised their risk of death by 10 percent.
Amping up plant food consumption — a key component of the planetary health diet — has the complete opposite effect on cardiovascular health. A review of 31 meta-analyses published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine found that consuming high amounts of fiber — a macronutrient found only found in plant foods, such as legumes, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts — can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Soluble fiber — which makes you feel full and slows digestion — in particular reduces the amount of LDL cholesterol in blood, which in turn reduces the risk of plaque building up in the arteries, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (And that's just one of many benefits of a vegetarian diet.)
This fiber also plays a role in preventing type 2 diabetes, a disease in which blood sugar levels are too high for a prolonged period of time. Increasing intake of soluble fiber (found in foods such as oats, beans, and apples) can help lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity, which allows cells to use blood glucose more effectively and, in turn, further reduces blood sugar, according to an article published in the journal Nutrition Reviews.
In addition to the essential macronutrients plant foods provide, they also contain a plethora of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals — compounds that can potentially protect cells from damage, says Wright. "And we see more and more in the research that it's not just the isolated vitamin and mineral in each one — it's really the package itself," she explains. "The whole fruit and vegetable is important because there's a synergistic effect of all of the nutrition in those foods that makes a difference. When you isolate, it's very hard to see as much of a health benefit."
Growing these plant foods comes with a reduced environmental impact, as well. Producing one kilogram of grain protein requires 100 times less water than creating one kilogram of animal protein, and grains, beans, and vegetables require less land per capita to grow than meat and dairy, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. But the process isn't inherently harmless, says Fanzo. "If they're grown with a lot of chemicals and pesticides, that's not exactly good for the planet, either," she explains. In agricultural areas, for example, groundwater pollution from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a major problem, but swapping conventional techniques for organic farming methods can reduce this risk, according to the FAO. "It really depends on how food is grown, where food is grown, and the types of intensive resources that go into those foods that really matters," she adds. (Related: What Are Biodynamic Foods and Why Should You Be Eating Them?)
And that's just one of the limitations of the EAT-Lancet Commission's recommendations. The planetary health diet was developed under a global scope and recommended almost as a "blanket diet," says Fanzo. But in reality, diets themselves are highly individualized and are influenced by cultural traditions (think: jamón, or ham, is a centerpiece of Spanish culture and cuisine), she explains. (FWIW, the EAT-Lancet Comission's report recognized that many populations experience undernutrition, may not be able to get enough micronutrients from plant foods, or rely on agro-pastoral livelihoods (meaning they both grow crops and raise livestock). The report also encouraged the "universally applicable planetary health diet" to be adapted to reflect culture, geography, and demography — though it doesn't contain specific recommendations on how to account for that and still hit the environmental and health goals.)
Nor does the Commission address the fact that unprocessed, plant-based food can be expensive and tough to come by in food deserts (neighborhoods that lack access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods), making it even more difficult for some people to adopt a planetary health diet in the first place. "For some, it's easy to go more toward a plant-based diet, but I think for other people, it might still be quite challenging," explains Fazno. "Right now, a lot of those healthy foods are unaffordable for many people — there's real limitations on the supply side that make those foods incredibly expensive."
The good news: Growing more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other typically pricey plant foods will increase supply, which will likely slash prices, says Fanzo (though this influx won't solve issues of physical accessibility). What's more, following some version of the planetary health diet — if you're able to — can have a significant, positive impact on both you and Mother Earth. The Commission's research showed that a global adoption of the planetary health diet can prevent approximately 11 million adult deaths each year — about 19 to 24 percent of the total annual adult deaths. Likewise, this worldwide embrace — starting right now — could reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions projected to be in the atmosphere in 2050 by 49 percent, according to the report.
Simply put, every single person's eating habits can and will shape the long-term health of the planet, which is why any amount of effort is crucial, says Fanzo. "Like COVID, climate change is one of those 'we're all in this together' problems," she says. "We all have to take action or it won't work, whether it's through diet, driving an electric car, flying less, or having one less child. These are the things that matter, and everyone has to play their part if we really want to mitigate climate change for our future."
How to Adopt the Planetary Health Diet
Ready to cut your environmental impact and improve your health along the way? Follow these steps, courtesy of Fanzo and Wright, to put a planetary health diet into action.
1. You don’t need to go vegan to make an impact.
Remember, the planetary health diet emphasizes consuming mostly plant foods and limited amounts of animal proteins, so if you can't fathom giving up your Sunday morning bacon, don't sweat it. "We're not saying you can never eat a cheeseburger again, but the goal is to try to reduce your consumption of red meat to maybe once a week," says Wright. And on that note...
2. Shift your plate slowly.
Before you try to overhaul your diet, understand that you're not going to have the healthiest, most eco-friendly diet right from the get-go, and slowly making changes is the key to preventing yourself from feeling overwhelmed, says Wright. If you make a chili, swap your meat for a variety of beans, or use mushrooms and lentils in place of ground beef in tacos, suggests Wright. "If, right now, you're consuming meat 12 times a week, then can you get it under 10, then five, then maybe down to three times a week?" she adds. "Know that it's not perfection, but it's practice, and anything is better than nothing.
4. Opt for poultry and certain seafoods instead of red meat.
ICYMI, cattle production is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and noshing on red meat every day can also have serious health impacts for your personally. Poultry, however, doesn't require as much water, feed, or land to raise, so it's a slightly more eco-friendly choice if you really can't give up meat a couple times a week, says Fanzo. "Poultry is also much lower in saturated fat than red meat," adds Wright. "The quality of fat in the skin of poultry is not as saturated as the fat in a hamburger or trimming off a piece of steak. It's high in calories but not necessarily going to clog your arteries."
The planetary health diet also advises eaters to keep seafood consumption minimal, so if you're going to add a helping to your plate, Fanzo suggests checking out online sustainable seafood guides, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. These guidebooks will tell you the specific seafoods that are caught or farmed responsibly, the amount of waste and chemicals the farms release into the environment, the impact the farms have on natural habitat, and more. "You can also eat lower on the food chain, such as shelled seafoods like mussels and clams," she adds. "These are a more sustainable source of seafood as opposed to large fish."
For the most part, though, you'll want to stick to plant-based sources of protein, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and soy foods, says Wright. "As much as possible, I encourage people to consume the whole form, not super-highly processed, smoked barbecue-flavored tempeh, for example," she explains. Those products may contain added sodium, which can increase the risk of developing blood pressure when consumed in high amounts, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Plus, choosing foods that don't have the plastic packaging can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut down on the amount of plastic entering landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
5. Consider your food’s water footprints.
Since carbon footprint doesn't always give the full picture of a food's environmental impact, Fanzo recommends thinking about its water footprint (how much water it requires to produce) as well. A single avocado, for example, uses 60 gallons of water to produce, so if you care about water resources, consider cutting back on your avocado toast intake, she suggests. The same goes for water-intensive California almonds, which require 3.2 gallons of H2O per nut.
6. Look to other cuisines for inspiration.
If you grew up in a "meat and potatoes'' kind of family, figuring out how to concoct delicious plant-focused meals can be a challenge. That's why Fanzo recommends looking to cuisines that are predominantly vegetarian — such as Thai, Ethiopian, and Indian — for recipes that will help you fuel up without requiring you to soul-search for your inner Amanda Cohen right from the get-go. You can also sign up for a plant-based meal delivery service to take out the work while your taste buds get acquainted with the tastes and textures.