Seven tips for a more sustainable diet

 

For many years, health advocates chose to eat a food based on its nutrient profile. High protein was good, too much fat was bad, and calories were always counted. Fast forward to present day, where defining food as “healthy” includes not only how much salt, fat or sugar it contains, but also how the food was grown and how that affects our planet.

The shift is largely generational. Statistics show that older cohorts are still looking at Nutrition Facts panels and choosing foods based on nutrient profile, while younger cohorts are savvier about food sustainability and how every choice they make affects our planet. The movement, referred to alternatively as eco-nutrition or sustainable eating, is driven by passionate millennials (age 18-35), who are interested in personal health and are concerned about the welfare of the whole planet. And they are on to something.

Focusing on eco-nutrition

The relationship between food, health, environment, agriculture and economics is at a crossroads in the term “eco-nutrition.” A balance is sought, where all of these food attributes come into play when making food choices. And it makes good sense. We cannot harm the planet with poor farming practices and expect the food supply to remain rich and fruitful for future generations.

Food production harms our natural resources, and agriculture is responsible for 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (half of that is caused by livestock production). Our food system also accounts for most of the deforestation, freshwater withdrawals, and loss of species in marine systems.

If you want to eat well and set the stage for future generations to also have access to nutritious and sustainable food, now’s the time to focus on eco-nutrition. Here are some ideas for finding the balance of healthy + sustainable eating:

  1. Eat locally and support area farmers. Shop for products grown close by and sold at local grocery stores and farmer’s markets. For example, if you live in New York City, it’s more sensible to choose apples grown in New York or Pennsylvania than to bite into an apple imported from South Africa or New Zealand. The environmental and economic costs of shipping those apples from half-way around the world is not good for the planet.
  2. Eat in-season: No local apples? There’s bound to be a seasonal fruit or vegetable that will replace it until apples are back. Choose what’s in season, or what can successfully be kept in storage (apples store well in a cool, dry place for up to a year!). Frozen foods are a good choice too. Sure, raspberries don’t grow in London in January, but they are available to you from a freezer. Buying frozen produce (or freezing it yourself when it’s in season) is a better option than buying berries imported from 1000 miles away.
  3. Grow your own food: That little patch of land in your backyard can be used to grow your own tomatoes, peppers and carrots. Even your small windowsill or balcony can support your dinner plate – grow your own herbs! You do not need to be a large-production farmer to appreciate the time and effort that go into growing food. Being mindful of this process may heighten your awareness of how you buy, use and throw away food.
  4. Have more meatless meals. Not a vegetarian? You can still enjoy the wonderful flavours, health benefits and environmental perks from eating falafel, bean chilli or lentil soup. Farming cows and chickens to produce meat, milk and eggs uses one-third of the world’s fresh water. And cows raised for beef and milk account for the majority of livestock emissions (almost 60 percent). When you choose vegetarian dinner options, you cut back on water use and harmful emissions. Try lentil tacos, black bean & sweet potato chili and crispy tofu.
  5. Eat more vegetables and fewer ultra-processed foods. Vegetables, fruits, and nuts currently account for only 2 percent of U.S. crop acreage. By contrast, nearly 60 percent is devoted to cereal grains and seeds grown primarily for the production of edible oils, which are used in abundance to make ultra-processed foods and to feed livestock.
  6. Look for sustainable farming methods. Source products that were raised, grown or purchased with sustainable methods in mind. Check foods for labels such as Fairtrade (protecting farmers and workers in developing countries), RSPCA Assured (previously Freedom Food, for animal welfare), and MSC or ASC (on fish and seafood). You can visit Eat Wild to find a list of sustainable animal-based foods.
  7. Carry a reusable water bottle. Liquids are heavy to ship around the world and require lots of fossil fuel to transport them. Stop buying plastic water bottles and use a refillable bottle instead.

Eco-nutrition is just plain smart. The world’s population is expected to grow to over nine billion people in the next 25 years, and sustainability is a crucial topic for everyone to think about to ensure there’s enough food to feed everyone on the planet.

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Cara Rosenbloom is a Registered Dietician, celebrated author and international columnist, active as a food blogger, recipe developer and nutrition educator.

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