Healthy Eating

Why Making Tiny Diet Tweaks Is One of the Best Things You Can Do for the Planet

One more excuse to get on the healthy eating train once and for all.

By Alexa Erickson

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You’ve no doubt noticed the messaging, growing louder every year, that a healthy diet is the key to longevity, from controlling weight to promoting organ function and boosting mental health. But here’s another perk of clean eating that you may not have considered: It can reduce your carbon footprint and slow the rate of climate change as well. And you don’t even have to completely overhaul your diet to make a difference.

That’s the news from a new study published in the journal Climatic Change, in which a team led by University of California Santa Barbara researchers examined the possible environmental effects of healthier diets for people in the United States.

For their research, the scientists used data from previous analyses that looked at the effects of foods and diseases. They then compared data for healthier foods vs. less healthy foods to examine the effects of those changes on greenhouse gas emissions. Their model of a healthier diet altered about half the foods in a typical American 2,000-calorie-a-day U.S. diet, decreasing the amount of red and processed meats, doubling fruit and vegetable consumption, and adding peas and beans as protein replacements for the reduced meat. Whole grains replaced some refined grains as well. Sugar, dairy, eggs, fish, and non-red meat were not reduced for the healthier diet models.

The results were striking: For the health care system, the researchers found that healthier diets could reduce the risk of diabetes, colorectal cancer, and coronary heart disease by 20 to 40 percent, lower health care costs by a $77 billion annually, coming down to $93 billion, and also drop greenhouse gas emissions by 222 kilograms to 826 kilograms per person per year.

“People have looked at what effect diets have both on climate and on health, but they’ve never examined the potential to mitigate climate change through the food system and the health care system together,” study author David Cleveland, a research professor in UCSB’s environmental studies program and geography department, told Science Daily. “This means our estimates are probably very conservative, both in terms of health and climate change implications. Just changing half of the diet and including only some of the diseases associated with diets, we found a huge effect.”

It’s no secret that food has an incredible impact on the environment. In fact, it’s known to contribute about 30 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with animal-based foods among the highest culprits, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Cleveland, healthier diets could help us meet up to 23 percent of the U.S. Climate Action Plan goal to decrease net greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Overall, the findings supports other recent studies that suggest healthier diets have a critical role to play in successful climate change mitigation policies.

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The good news: Lowering your meat intake while upping your fruits and veggies doesn’t have to turn your diet upside down. Try small tweaks, like Meatless Monday, which not only minimizes your cancer risk but reduces your carbon footprint.

Not a huge fan of fruits and veggies? There are plenty of ways to mask the flavor of spinach or bananas if they’re not your thing. Revert back to childhood and trick yourself with these nutrient-rich smoothies that sneak in fruits and veggies to double your intake, but taste deliciously sweet.

Buying local and fresh over packaged, processed, and shipped-in foods is another easy tweak that doesn’t uproot your overall diet, but promotes healthier eating habits and implements better environmental practices.

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