Spring is in full swing and Mother Earth is producing a bounty of local fruits and vegetables that we should enjoy. Just a few weeks ago we celebrated Earth Day, which is a day to recognize and appreciate the importance of a healthy environment in maintaining our own health and quality of life. It is important for all consumers to understand their choices and that the production of food (including the production of feed for animals that become our food) is known to cause many serious environmental problems including:
- Water pollution: when the rain washes fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides from farmland into rivers;
- Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of coal, diesel, and natural gas, in the production of agricultural chemicals and operation of equipment and transportation modes;
- Disruption of ecosystems and overfishing
That being said, if you do follow the “green” mentality when choosing which of Mother Earth’s natural foods you’d like to indulge in, there is little need to worry about eating an unhealthy diet. The foods that have the lowest environmental footprint appropriately also tend to help maintain your slimmest waist-size. Here are some tips to make your diet as nutritious as possible while respecting the earth to keep our environment clean and beautiful for future generations:
1. EAT LOCAL
By eating local, you not only support the local economy, but you will also receive more nutritious foods and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The average food on your plate travels up to 1,500 miles, which results in lots of greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, supporting local farms keep green open land instead of new housing developments, parking lots, commercial developments, etc. and the food will be more nutritious. Each day a fruit or vegetable is in transit, it loses nutrients. By getting produce fresh off the farm, you are ensuring that most of the nutrients have not been lost, and local fruits and vegetables often taste better than their distant (literally) cousins. Additionally, the United States has more stringent safety and environmental guidelines for producing foods than many other countries. Choose local fruits, vegetables, grains, seafood, and meats. You can use the Epicurious Seasonal Ingredient map to determine what produce is in season in your state:
2. CHOOSE HEALTHY AND SUSTAINABLE FISH
Water consumes >70% of the earth’s surface, and what lives in the water? FISH! Almost everyone should include more fish in their diet. Fish is a lean protein and many contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which have shown to be anti-inflammatory and may reduce the risk of developing heart disease, depression, Alzheimer’s, and a slew of other diseases and conditions. A recent study published suggested that fish oil supplements do not help reduce risk of heart attacks in people with pre-existing heart disease, but eating actual fish does. However, before you just choose any fish on the menu, make sure you choose low-mercury and sustainable fish. The best choices are canned and Wild Alaskan Salmon, Anchovies, Farmed Rainbow Trout, Albacore Tuna (from US or Canada) and US Atlantic Yellowfin Tuna. Squid is also considered among the healthiest and most sustainable types of seafood, though not as high in Omega 3 as these fish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes a handy pocket guide for selecting healthy and environmentally responsible seafood:
3. BUY ORGANIC
Even though buying certain organic products may not change how healthy you feel tomorrow, buying organic products helps to decrease your exposure to fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and radiated food. Although statistically safer than many decisions we make each day (e.g., driving to work), the health concerns with these (legal) practices are typically long-term in nature (e.g. cancer risk). If you don’t have a budget to buy everything organic, I would at least recommend buying the following (local of course!) produce in organic varieties: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce, kale & collard greens. Buying organic foods that have peels (e.g.: oranges, bananas, grapefruit, etc.) seem to be less worthwhile health-wise, but are still important in terms of preserving the environment, so if you have the budget, buy organic meat, milk, and produce!
4. EAT LESS RED MEAT AND CHEESE!
All animal farms require lots of natural resources to keep the farm working. Cattle farms are particularly bad because the cows themselves eat many times more protein than they “produce,” the production of their feed is very resource intensive, their excrement leads to water pollution, and their digestive gases contain methane which is more than 20-times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Although most cows in the United States are fed corn, cows evolved to eat and digest grass (without requiring medicine as is needed for corn-fed cows), so choose grass-fed beef (which tends to be leaner and higher in Omega-3’s) if you’re really hankering for red meat.
Since most cheese comes from cows, cheese is also food that is not good for the environment. Although it’s difficult and unnecessary to turn down the occasional opportunity to eat fancy cheeses on a fresh cracker or baguette, don’t let cheese become a staple in your diet. Lamb, cattle, pork and cheese all tend to be high-fat (mammal) animal products (high in saturated fat too!) that are linked to an increased risk of many diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. It’s best to stick to the leaner proteins such as poultry, nuts, seeds, lentils, and beans which are much healthier for both you and the environment!
5. EAT LESS PROCESSED!!!
Whole grains are so “in” right now, and will be for a very long time. Whole grains are the natural fuel source that Mother Nature produces for us and the other animals on the planet to survive and thrive on. Whole grains include the entire grain kernel, and therefore, contain all the vitamins and minerals that are used to keep the grain-growing and full of life. It makes sense that the whole grain is healthier than a refined grain, which has been stripped of all the major nutrient components like Vitamin E, fiber, and B vitamins (except for carbohydrate). It also make sense that processing grains will take energy, and therefore, cause more environmental damage than just eating a grain in its more natural state. So, stick to whole grains that have minimal processing like barley, brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, wheat berries, and oats.
By choosing a local, organic, mostly plant-based and minimally processed diet, you will not only be ensuring that you are receiving the highest quality nutrition, but you will be doing your part to reduce damage to the environment. Choose oatmeal with fruit for breakfast, a dark green salad with chicken and a whole grain for lunch, nuts, seeds, and fruit for an afternoon snack, and a dinner heavy with vegetables, some sustainable fish, beans, or soy, and a whole grain for dinner. Sounds simple, and it is! Learn to eat clean and the planet will be cleaner in return!
Sang Mi Kwak; Seung-Kwon Myung; Young Jae Lee; Hong Gwan Seo; for the Korean Meta-analysis Study Group
Efficacy of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements (Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid) in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Meta-analysis of Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-Controlled Trials. Arch Intern Med. 2012;0(2012):archinternmed.2012.262.
Environmental Working Group Greenhouse Gas Emissions Chart
Bret Strogen, PhD Candidate, Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley
About the Author (Author Profile)
I am the Registered Dietitian at Club La Maison Health and Fitness Complex where I do individual and group counseling on various topics related to nutrition. My primary clients are seeking weight loss, but I also counsel about food allergies, sports nutrition, weight gain, and general healthy eating. I obtained my BS in Nutritional Sciences from Penn State University and my MS in Human Nutrition from the University of Delaware (UD). My dietetic internship was also with UD and I served as a Teaching Assistant for Nutrition courses.
My passion for nutrition comes from the fact that what you eat affects everything you do- from disease risk to energy levels, sports performance to appearance. I believe in eating healthy for life, and do not advocate dieting by any means.
I am eager to educate the public about sound nutrition recommendations and give examples of how you can follow a healthy eating plan for life.