Eating patterns to combat climate change

Eating patterns to combat climate change

Monday, March 18, 2019
/ By:
Megan Whelan

Did you know food production is the leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and soil and water pollution,1 and accounts for 70% of all human water use?2

Every stage of our food production system impacts the environment, from growing and harvesting, processing and packing, distribution, retail, cooking and eating, waste and recycling, and landfill. These processes have implications for land use, water use, energy use, as well as the production of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere contributing to a global temperature rise), with food waste and agriculture being the biggest GHG contributors. In order to ensure global temperatures do not rise above a safe level to avoid extreme weather events (heat, drought and flooding), as well as protect our finite resources (water, land and energy),3-5 there is an urgency to adopt more sustainable eating habits.

What is a sustainable diet?

Foods considered to be more sustainable are those which generate minimal carbon footprint, as well as minimal land, water and energy utilisation in the production system and, importantly, are nutritionally adequate. Therefore, an environmentally sustainable diet and a healthy diet are usually synonymous. This is supported by studies demonstrating that dietary patterns of higher nutrition quality - diets with a higher intake of plant foods and lower intake of meat products - are associated with reduced GHG emissions and improved overall sustainability scores.6-14 These eating patterns have been shown to meet micronutrient recommendations (vitamins and minerals), are lower in energy dense foods and saturated fat, provide higher fruit and vegetable intake (and increased fibre intake) and are associated with improved health outcomes such as a reduced rate of diabetes and heart disease.9,15 Several national dietary guidelines including those of the UK,16 Canada,17 Belgium18 and the Netherlands,19 have sought to address sustainability by placing it at the core of their recommendations.  

What can we do to eat more sustainably?

Eating sustainably does not have to be a complete overhaul of your diet; a few small changes can have a big impact for the planet.

The British Dietetic Association, the largest professional body of dietitians in the UK, has recently launched the campaign ‘One Blue Dot’ to support this movement and promote healthy eating habits centred on environmental sustainability. The One Blue Dot campaign outlines several strategies we can easily focus on to achieve a healthy and sustainable eating pattern.

Avoid overconsumption – Aim to achieve a balance between energy intake and energy output to avoid the environmental burden of consuming excess calories. Reducing the overconsumption of food is recognised as a way to significantly improve the sustainability of our eating habits.20

Increase consumption of plant protein – Livestock has the single biggest impact of any food type in terms of environmental burden.6,21-23 On the other hand, plant-based diets have an overall lower environmental impact than diets defined by high meat consumption.7,9-11,14,15,24 Shifting dietary patterns to prioritise more plant sources of protein such as beans, legumes, pulses, nuts and seeds (unsalted) and soya  can help reduce the environmental burden as well as improve the nutritional quality of the diet6. Not keen on the idea of ‘going cold turkey’ on meat? No problem – even just reducing the quantities you eat can have a large positive impact on your health and the environment.

Moderate dairy consumption – Dairy products are a major contributor to food-related GHG emissions. Try to opt for plant-based alternatives that are fortified with calcium as well as vitamins B2, B12 and D to meet nutritional requirements.

Buy local and seasonal produce – Consuming locally sourced fruit and vegetables that are in season can reduce the need for resources associated with heating, refrigeration and transit. Additionally, eating a wide variety of foods can diversify our eating habits and nutrients so be adventurous and set a goal to try a new fruit, vegetable or wholegrain each week.

Seek out ethically sourced and sustainable seafood – If you eat fish, aim for two portions of fish per week - one of which should be oily (i.e., salmon, herring, tuna, sardines) - and  choose a variety of fish species from sustainable sources. The Marine Conservation Society maintains a ‘Good Fish Guide’ to help consumers identify the most sustainable fish species. Also look out for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) logo indicating sustainable sources of fish. As an alternative to fish, plant-based sources of healthy omega-3 fats include nuts and seeds (particularly walnuts), vegetable oils (particularly linseed), as well as soya and soya products.25

Waste less food and drink – Did you know that one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted?26 Discarded food and drink contributes to environmental burden through use of land, water and energy during production as well as GHG (methane) emissions caused by decomposition of landfill.3,27 Fresh produce makes up the majority of household food waste so attempt to only buy what you need and always try to be creative with leftovers.

Drink sustainably – Tap water remains the most sustainable and healthiest source of hydration, especially when consumed out of a refillable bottle or cup! Tea and coffee are also sustainable hydration sources. Soft drinks (soda) and fruit juice are significant contributors to dietary GHG emissions as they require more energy to produce and have significantly higher transport costs due to a range of ingredients, not to mention the impact of plastic waste from packaging.6,28

What can we do to promote sustainable eating patterns in the workplace?

The workplace provides an important opportunity to integrate sustainable policies that will:

  1. Improve education about and knowledge of sustainable practices for employees

    • Use clear and simple language, ensuring that messages are relevant to the context and population group.

    • Help employees make informed sustainable food choices through provision of information on food miles, water and land use, and/or GHG emissions when possible.

  2. Improve physical surroundings to increase accessibility of sustainable food and beverage options in the workplace

    • Promote the consumption of local and seasonal fruits and vegetables (without packaging) and sustainable seafood sources by making them easily accessible and visible.

    • Encourage the selection and consumption of sustainable food choices through strategic placement and advertising.

    • Promote healthy and sustainable portion sizes to reduce unintended overconsumption and food waste.

To learn more about sustainable eating patterns visit the British Dietetic Association One Blue Dot.

Explore the Nourishment Concept in WELL v2™️ pilot to learn more about interventions in buildings and communities than can support healthy and sustainable eating patterns or the WELL AP program to discover how you can get involved in the movement to create healthier spaces for people everywhere.

Dr Megan Whelan is a Registered Dietitian with a PhD in the area of public health from the Faculty of Medicine at The University of Queensland, Australia. Megan has a broad range of nutrition experience having worked as a clinical dietitian specialising in weight management, among various other areas. Megan’s current role comprises leading the development, implementation, and evaluation of an intervention to facilitate improved health behaviours of employees of a global company through a multi-component workplace intervention focusing on healthy eating, physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and emotional wellbeing. Megan is also a British Dietetics Association accredited Work Ready Dietitian and member of the Work Ready steering committee. One of Megan’s greatest passions as a dietitian is finding creative and engaging ways to educate people and motivate them to enjoy healthy living with a strong belief that food should never be a cause of confusion, guilt, or added stress.

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