Maintaining an environmentally sustainable diet is a worthwhile goal

The planetary health diet emphasizes whole grains, vegetables and fruit, nuts, beans and lentils and soy. It’s low in sugar and includes small but optional amounts of dairy, poultry, eggs, fish and red meat.

If you’re like many people, you’ve made a commitment to improve your diet this year, perhaps by trimming oversized portions, eating more vegetables and/or cutting back on sugary treats.

Consider another worthwhile dietary goal: shifting to a diet with a lower environmental impact.

Environmental issues, especially climate change, are gaining enormous attention. While many factors affect climate change, diet is one that’s under our control.

Environmental effects of diet

It’s estimated that food production accounts for approximately one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Livestock production accounts for nearly one-half of these emissions.

Food production is also a significant contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, water use and land use.

Climate experts are urging governments, food producers and individuals to take action to improve the sustainability of our food systems, which encompasses everything from food production, processing, packaging and distribution to food consumption.

What is a sustainable diet?

According to the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a sustainable diet is one that promotes health, has a low environmental impact, is accessible, affordable, safe and equitable and is culturally acceptable.

In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of 37 scientists from 16 countries, put forward a “planetary health diet,” global dietary targets that would feed a growing population by 2050 from sustainable food systems and prevent 11 million premature deaths each year caused by an unhealthy diet.

The planetary health diet emphasizes whole grains, vegetables and fruit, nuts, beans and lentils and soy. It’s low in sugar and includes small but optional amounts of dairy, poultry, eggs, fish and red meat.

In a study published last year, researchers from Sweden found that, among 22,421 participants, close adherence to the EAT-Lancet diet was tied to a 25 per cent lower risk of premature death, mainly deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The traditional Mediterranean and Nordic eating patterns are examples of sustainable diets.

Four steps to an eco-friendlier diet

Improving the sustainability of our food systems is complex. On an individual level, though, there are steps you can take to reduce the carbon footprint of your diet.

And you don’t have to go vegan to do so. The goal is to make achievable at-home dietary changes that you can implement consistently.

Cut back animal protein, red meat

It takes a lot of energy and resources to produce animal foods, especially for red meat. As a result, animal foods release far more GHG emissions than grains, fruits and vegetables.

If meat makes of the balance of your meals, downsize its importance. Fill one-half of your plate with vegetables, one-quarter with whole grains and only one-quarter with meat.

Substitute one-half of the meat in meals such as tacos, burritos, chili and stir-fries with plant protein.

Eat more plant-based meals

Establish a weekly target for the number of plant-based meals you’ll eat, then go from there. Consider setting a goal for one or more meat-free days each week.

Make bean or lentil soup, chickpea or edamame salad, tempeh- and farro-stuffed bell peppers, tofu scramble, edamame and veggie stir-fry or a lentil marinara sauce. Try pasta made from beans, lentils or edamame served with a meatless pasta sauce.

Include plant-based breakfasts and snacks in your diet, too.

Limit ultraprocessed foods

Research has shown that diets higher in ultraprocessed foods are large contributors to GHG emissions, as well as land and water use. The more a food is processed, the more emissions are generated in its production.

The worst culprits: processed meats and dairy-based desserts such as ice cream and frozen yogurt.

Data from a 2021 study of American food purchases suggest that cutting out high-calorie foods with little nutritional value (for example, potato chips, candy, sugary drinks) would result in a 29-per-cent reduction of total potential GHG emissions.

Reduce food waste

Food waste that ends up in landfill produces methane gas, a powerful GHG.

Plan meals in advance so you’ll buy only what you need. If you’re shopping for one or two, avoid buying food in bulk quantities, which is often more than will be eaten.

If you don’t eat everything you cook, freeze it for later use instead of throwing it away. Use vegetable peels and scraps to make stocks and broths.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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